The Airshaft

Tales from the public private space that nobody owns.

| Winter 2018

  • 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.
    Photo courtesy of Adobestock / Katy_89
  • 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.
    Photo courtesy of Adobestock / Gunnerl

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.

3/4/2019 4:29:08 PM

Outrageous. What a good story. I guess I now realize I've never lived that close to anyone before, at least not for very long at a time. It is quite similar in the suburbs though, different, but the same. Here we have faces, for the most part, to put with the different traits, although some never really known. Thank you for the journey.

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