New Years is one of the few holidays I genuinely like—it’s all about washing the slate clean, second chances, new beginnings. I’m superstitious about it too, believing that whatever happens on January 1st telegraphs the mood of the coming year. In preparation for a good New Years Day I dust and vacuum, change the sheets, clean the kitchen. After midnight—or the next morning if I’m not up after midnight—I pay attention to the first song I hear, the first person I talk to, the first food I eat.
There’s something poignant about this day to me. One New Years Day morning I was in the supermarket when I ran into a man—a cookbook writer–for whom I’d once worked as personal assistant. My tenure had ended badly, with shrieks and accusations, and we hadn’t spoken in several years. When we saw each other on New Years Day, though, a vibe of forgiveness passed between us, and we said hello at the same moment, nodded understanding, then went our separate ways.
Yesterday on KPFA’s Morning Show I heard an interview with writer Nathan McCall, whose latest novel, Them, deals with the gentrification of black neighborhoods. Apparently white folks are swarming into what were once black enclaves—we’re talking Harlem here—and, without regard for those who’ve lived there for decades, they set about to alter things to suit their own convenience and values. McCall told anecdotes from real life and from his book—like new residents petitioning the city to ban a 30-year-old Sunday custom of African drumming in Marcus Garvey Park. This is bad neighboring on a grand scale. Didn’t these people know where they were going when they moved in?
I’ve had my share of bad neighbors, people who complained about my noise or habits, or whose own noise was beyond tolerable. The most severe situation was on Geary Street in San Francisco 15 years ago; the woman two flights up complained to management about my singing. Now, I admit I have a habit of belting out show tunes—but I only sing maybe two or three songs once or twice a week. Okay, so one time I sang the entire soundtrack of West Side Story. BFD. She almost got me thrown out, with her persistent whining–and she was a young woman. I later found out that she’d been responsible for the eviction of the piano teacher across the hall. Jeez! Having lived in close quarters in New York I’ve learned to tolerate all kinds of noise. I like to hear music or dance lessons, or children reciting Hebrew or French vocabulary—it’s creative, it’s life affirming, it eases urban isolation. I’ve lived in the woods, and believe me, silence can be just as oppressive, even scary. Who wants to live in a mausoleum?
Now I live in a building where people are fairly tolerant of each other. Of course, I don’t know what goes on in the 30 or so other apartments; for all I know they’re fighting like cats and dogs upstairs. But here on the second floor, my next door neighbors, a couple and toddler who aren’t home all week, sometimes blast their music on weekends. I don’t mind—they only do it for an hour at most. And sometimes the kid cries. Other neighbors talk overly loud on the phone or yell down the hall to one another. Their behavior gives me the freedom, when baseball season comes around, to scream my head off–in fact, the man next door told me he likes it. With all the stress and gloom in this world, it’s nice to hear people having a good time.
At the other extreme, a friend of mine lives in a building where they don’t let you breathe. She owns her condo and belongs to the building association, which as far as I can see exists to create new rules and regs at each monthly meeting. We used to watch ball games together on her giant plasma screen, but when she raised the volume loud enough for my old ears, the lady next door began pounding on the wall. With my friend’s permission I lit up a cigarette on the balcony, and by the second drag another neighbor was at her door holding a copy of the Association Rules open to the clause prohibiting smoking in “common areas.” Her own balcony, it turns out, is a common area. I don’t go over there anymore.
Sure, some neighbors go beyond tolerable limits, blasting music or holding late-night parties. A family across the street leaves their dog home alone all day, and in summertime the poor thing sits at the window barking at every car or passerby, desperate for company. Because it’s the sound of a living creature in need, a barking dog makes it impossible for me to concentrate. When I spoke to the dog’s owners they were defensive, and had the chutzpah to claim that the dog protected all of us. Where, I asked, was this wonderful watchdog when someone broke into my place and stole my computer? They finally agreed to close the damn window, which muffled the volume a bit. I would have preferred they hire a professional who’d teach them to give the dog more quality time and train her to stay in a crate when alone—but, alas, we don’t have that much control over other people.
I’ve come to believe that city living obligates us to tolerate as much neighborly noise as we can possibly bear. Taking into consideration the reality of our times–that most of us are very far, in 2008, from Love Thy Neighbor–my resolution and message for the New Year is a minor variation on the theme: Tolerate Thy Neighbor.