Only when the moans grew louder did I realize how quiet the airshaft had been, how little emotion the space itself—which was really an absence of space, a hollow between two buildings—had held until then. Now it is the source of my fury and disdain, this negative space that somehow holds such power.
I live on the fourth, and top, floor of an eight-unit limestone apartment building in Brooklyn, NY. It was built in 1905, five years after the passage of the 1901 Tenement House Act, requiring windows, natural light, and fresh air in every room. It’s classified by the Department of Buildings as C1: more than six units, a walk-up, no stores, although there is a doctor’s office in the basement. The building itself is close to stately but unremarkable, one of what seems like an endless line of similar buildings to the north of it, each displaying a woman’s name above the small portico: The Beatrice, The Ramona, The Lorraine. Ours is home to several rent-stabilized apartments and owned by a bordering-on-neglectful landlord, who is indifferent to chunks of plaster falling from the hallway ceilings or the crooked, sepia spines of water damage along the walls.
What’s different about this building is that the apartments inside have never been chopped into smaller units, and still technically contain four bedrooms, though one is the size of a walk-in closet; were they built today, these rooms must be at least eight feet wide or long. Each floor has two apartments, designated L and R, for left and right, and each runs the entire length of the building.
On our side of the airshaft, my family occupies all the rooms. On the other side, in a building that has been cut up into at least twice as many apartments, several different households reside behind the windows. We never know who is on the other side of the invisible wall.
For months, maybe more than a year, there has been someone across the way with an emphysemic cough, the hacking like a call across the plains, a vocal smoke signal. “It’s time to go to the doctor!” I once called, after a 20-minute hacking session.
Maybe it’s the same person who smokes, his hand draped out the narrow window of what must be the bathroom. In my children’s window is a fan, one side intake and other exhaust. At night, it beckons the second-hand smoke inside and suddenly my children’s room is an ashtray until I got to another window and yell, “Your smoke is going directly into my children’s room.” And the hand withdraws.
When the anonymity is threatened, people in the airshaft retreat. But regenerates, kind of like the romance of New York City: Beaten down by the end of the day, it renews once the sun rises.
I hadn’t thought much about the lives along the airshaft until the early 2000s, when I started working at home, parked at a desk by window along the airshaft to write all day. Then, I encountered the daytime sounds, the identifying marks of my otherwise anonymous neighbors.
A couple must have worked at home, too, because sometime around 2005, their verbal ecstasies began floating up through my window midday. I would be typing about historic preservation and Wal-Mart, and the moans would eclipse the tap-tap of my typing. I was younger then, not glued to the news or NPR, so I’d turn up the radio—WFUV, the folky station—and try to ignore them. Invariably, though, I would yell out the window, “Enough already!” A friend told that once her neighbors across the airshaft were having such loud sex that she yelled, “Can’t you tell she’s faking it?” I wish I’d thought of that line.
“So much goes on in a Harlem airshaft,” Duke Ellington once said, explaining the inspiration for the song he named after it. “You get the full essence of Harlem in an airshaft. You hear fights, you smell dinner, you hear people making love. An airshaft is one great big loudspeaker. You see your neighbor’s laundry. You hear the janitor’s dogs. The man upstairs’ aerial falls down and breaks your window. You smell coffee. A wonderful thing is that smell. An airshaft has got every contrast. One guy is cooking dried fish with rice and another guy’s got a great big turkey. Guy-with-fish’s wife is a terrific cooker but the guy’s wife with the turkey is doing a sad job.”
My experience of the airshaft is sanitized compared to Ellington’s. Fully gentrified brownstone Brooklyn airshaft is so much less colorful—literally, when one considers the overwhelming whiteness of this zip code, and how many people dress fully in black.
Even so, everyone has airshaft stories. One of my friends lived across from someone who watched porn with his shades wide open, his back to the window. That didn’t offend her, but she considered it an affront that he watched all these videos in fast-forward.
My friends have heard fighting, broken glass, ear-piercing night terrors, someone singing “Ring of Fire” at the top of his lungs every day, his version of morning prayer. One friend lived in a basement room with a window to the airshaft; the people across the way let their dogs out to shit just a few feet from his head.
My brother and our friend Doug used to see a man, or perhaps a trans woman, transforming him- or herself after the work day was done, slipping into a dress and applying a full coat of makeup before heading out into the night. Someone in Doug’s building committed suicide by throwing herself out her fourth-floor window into the airshaft. The thud shook the floor of his living room.
Nothing like that has happened to me. Someone in my airshaft has a radio tuned to the same NPR station as I, so I hear the sweet trumpet of the talk show theme in stereo. That has got to be the most boring airshaft story in the world, but then again, that is why people move to this neighborhood: to be around people just like them.
Though maybe the anonymous, childless smoker is diversity, a relic from the pre-wellness-crazed days. A relic from a totally different America, even—where you could just smoke, and smoke anywhere, with impunity. Maybe that’s why I hate him: He is not like me, and thus he is sullying the silky smooth veneer of my world. He’s intruding into the space between us, and into my life, and my children’s lives. Maybe he’s always been out there, but now that he has befouled my air, I’m aware of him.
My mother and brother are both tortured by their neighbors. They live in low-density, mostly-rural places, places that offer the luxury of silence, unbroken by sirens, the roar of buses, the serenade of drunk people wobbling toward the subway. The disruptive rumble of mowing fuels their fury, shredding the expectation of privacy afforded by their zoning codes and zip codes, their American expectation. Whereas for me, almost all my neighborhood’s sounds are rolled into urban white noise. I don’t even hear it.
I have almost never been bothered by the people in my own building, save for occasionally when the millennials next door have a party and their friends ring our buzzer instead. For some reason our downstairs neighbors have never once complained about my children, who sometimes ride their scooters up and down our long, narrow hall.
But the airshaft and invisible, cigaretted hand have become imposing. The coughing, the smoke, the coughing, the smoke. Have you ever noticed the impact one lit cigarette has on the air, even the filthy New York City air? Worse in the evening, worse when I’m trying to get the children to sleep.
I’ve been in this apartment for 22 years, and now, I think constantly of moving, not just to an apartment that allows a cross-breeze, something to carry the dust and “fresh” air from one end to the other one, or one which is not in a fourth-floor walkup, but to a different city, one which is not so self-consciously desirable that I have lost all desire for it. I think of the limits of my apartment so much more often than I think of its substantial and plentiful merits, to the consternation of most people I know, who think complaining about a large, rent-stabilized apartment near the park is unforgivably ungrateful.
Even as Syrian refugee children drown in the Aegean Sea in search of even a modicum of safety, I scour real estate websites, looking for an escape, an actual house to inhabit, in a town I want to live in, from which my husband can commute, and which will not bankrupt us. If I stand at the right spot by one window along the airshaft, I can spy the carefully tended postage stamp yards on the side streets, which my children and I stare at hungrily—sometimes literally, when we see the people grilling out, avoiding their ovens in soupy 95-degree heat.
We look from our place of privilege down to the places of even more privilege. No doubt they too can look upon more privilege—these people are more like 15 or 20 percenters than one percenters. But it has always amazed me how little people can have and still be satisfied, and how much others—I—can have and still feel deprived.
If I moved anywhere else, likely I would be just as tortured. The mowers would get to me, too—the quiet, and the noises that pierced it. Would it be better to know the source of my scorn?
My mother and brother know who their problem neighbors are, their names and faces, their schedules, the makes of their cars. Mine are both anonymous and intimate. Theirs are only the latter, making it harder to confront them, but more likely they could find a solution. It’s a basic tenet of psychology: you can’t solve a problem unless you know its origins. Who is the smoker? Will he stop?
A couple years ago, the people living across the airshaft from our kitchen woke up as early as we did. They were both white (a theme), the man tall and sandy-haired and unremarkable-looking, the woman smaller, with a blond ponytail that made us assume she had the impossibly perky personality of a former cheerleader. One day my husband saw her washing the dishes, her button-down shirt tucked into her pants and a gun in the holster around her waist. “I think she’s an FBI agent,” he said. It made us feel both safer and more exposed. Like Rear Window, but with more annoyance and no intrigue.
For a while, there was a classically-trained folk singer, and later a guitarist who played Steve Miller songs so many times a day it made me think he played in a crappy bar cover band. There must be an apartment somewhere along the airshaft with a rotating cast of musicians. Yesterday someone obsessively played the tambourine, the same rhythm over and over. After a half-hour I yelled, “Please play the tambourine away from the window.” It stopped for about five minutes, then resumed.
In the airshaft, I don’t get the benefit of the musicians’ final product; I’m forced to listen only to their incessant practicing. I’m with them for the less flattering parts of their journey to musical fame. I have begun to play the banjo close to the window, as a kind of response. I am not very good at the banjo.
Last week a construction worker conducted a business call between our airshaft and the building he was working on, on a perpendicular street. Was he hoping that everyone in the airshaft would eavesdrop? I played banjo, loudly, but that did nothing to quiet him. Then I opened the window and called down, “I can hear every word you’re saying.” He was kind, apologetic, and quieted down.
One night, when the smoke was particularly bad and I didn’t see the hand sticking out the window, I thought maybe it was the new people, directly across the way. I called out to them. “Please, I beg you, please stop smoking.”
They looked like millennials to me, though I am 46 so anybody younger looks like a millennial to me. I only saw them briefly—a man and a woman, both white, her round-faced with a bob of pale hair, maybe glasses, and him taller, darker haired, perhaps bearded—before they turned off their lights and crouched next to the window. I could hear them mumbling to each other. I’m pretty sure they though there was a crazy woman yelling at them from the building across the airshaft (not entirely inaccurate), and the only way to be safe was to pretend they weren’t home.
I know that when it’s dark and the lights are on in my apartment, the strangers across the airshaft can see us in our various states of undress, post-shower or just out of bed in the morning. Yet we continue to walk around this way, preferring to believe the lie of privacy. There’s some kind of reverse peekaboo effect in the airshaft: We feel invisible ourselves when in fact the neighbor’s darkness only makes our light brighter.
It turns out the noisy lovers were in my own building. I realized this one day a few years ago when they came out of their apartment, flushed and happy, about a half-hour after the airshaft moaning had stopped.
They are married now, and have long been trying to have a baby. Though I speak with her infrequently, she recently confided to me that she was eight weeks pregnant after several rounds of IVF, and I congratulated her but promised not to keep asking how she felt, because that was code for “Are you still pregnant?” It was too early to be excited. I need to pretend that I don’t know this information, just as I have pretended for a decade that I didn’t know that they were having loud midday sex.
Maybe I’ll only know when the wails of a newborn suddenly occupy the airshaft, and then I can break the invisible wall, bring them food and a swaddling blanket. Maybe the smoker will hear the newborn’s cry and stop breathing his noxious smoke into this public private space that nobody owns.
Lisa Selin Davis is the author of two novels, Lost Stars (HMH Books, 2017) and Belly (Little, Brown, 2005). Her nonfiction has appeared in The New York Times, TIME, The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, and Salon. Reprinted from Alaska Quarterly Review (Summer/Fall 2018), a quarterly literary journal published by the University of Alaska Anchorage.