Our Apartment of the Damned
By Ari (last name withheld by request)
I should have known that our family’s stay in New York was destined to be cursed the second I drove our moving truck into the driveway and knocked over our brand-new next door neighbor’s fence. I just didn’t imagine that it would feature such an interesting cast of characters that was to be our house mates.
We live on the second floor of a house. The entrance of our apartment is around the back of the house and up some creaky wooden stairs. The downstairs neighbors live in the apartment that enters from the front. Somehow, that apartment causes the ordinary people who move into it to turn psycho. Here’s my account of life in our apartment of the damned.
Our first downstairs neighbors
The Lim family (this and all subsequent names have been changed) was the first family to live downstairs from us. We only shared a house with them for about a month or so, so there’s not much to say about them other then the fact that Mr. Lim had a half the standard issue of teeth. Each of these few teeth pointed in a different direction Perhaps I would have gotten to know them better, but they only spoke Korean. Mr. and Mrs. Lim had a teenage daughter. I don’t know if she spoke English because I never tried to talk to her. Fortunately, she wasn’t anywhere near as scary looking as her dad.
When we moved in, my daughter Leah was eighteen months old. And she was scared of everybody. When my friendly Uncle Arnold would visit, my daughter would run screaming. Nobody is friendlier than my Uncle Arnold is. And he has the full complement of teeth. And all of those teeth are of the usual white color, and they all point in the standard direction. But my daughter would run and scream. There was one stranger that my daughter just loved. Mr. Lim. He was a huge man, and it looked like the prop department in a horror movie designed his mouth, but every time he came around, my daughter would run to him and wave, and say, “Hi!”
Why were they neighbors from hell? Technically, “From Hell” is a pretty strong term for the Lims, but Mr. Lim did “borrow” our moving dolly without our permission, and then he failed to return it when we asked him to do so. Where I come from this is called “Petit Larceny” but that’s just a technical point of law.
We were pretty glad to be rid of them because they rented the driveway and the garage from our landlord (from hell). We were pretty eager to get that garage and driveway for ourselves. All in all, they were a pretty good starter set of neighbors from hell.
Jerry Springer moves to Little Neck: Our Second Neighbors
About a month later we got a knock on the door from a friendly bodybuilder with a crew cut and tattoos. He introduced himself as Gary Levy (not his real name) our future downstairs neighbor. He had his Hebrew name tattooed in large Hebrew block letters on his left forearm. Various other tattoos covered that arm and his right leg. He was a friendly person with an easy laugh. A few minutes after Gary left, a young, skinny taciturn kid introduced himself as Mike London, Gary’s soon-to-be-roommate. And so began a four-month tale of drugs, women, automatic weapons fire and SWAT teams.
When Levy and London moved in, the thing that changed the most in the house was that the front porch of the house was soon populated by an ever-changing line of attractive young women who just couldn’t resist the two bad boys living downstairs. And they weren’t just floozies. One such specimen was a doctor. The stuff they moved into the house consisted of little but high priced electronics—TVs, stereos, computers. The guys worked at Bose, and they got all of their stuff there cheaply.
But strange things were afoot. They sat out on their front porch at all hours. Mike often sat there with some of his cretinous friends often without a shirt in 35 degree weather of the late fall. One afternoon, I dropped in on Gary, only to find him covered with scratches and picked scabs. I suspected crystal meth. Things were getting pretty strange pretty fast.
Upon moving in, the new neighbors began making all sorts of repairs. Loud repairs. Done at 4AM. Hammers and drills would wake Sam and me up at all hours of the night. This was the work of Mike. I was able to get Gary to yell at Mike for waking us with his late night repairs, but they continued. Eventually, Gary brought a walkie-talkie to our home so that we could alert him if there were any further 4AM episodes of “This Old House.” There were. He never answered the walkie-talkie.
If the only late night sounds were those of power tools, the story would not be weird enough for me to even bother writing this.
As strange as the neighbors were, Gary provided a brake for Mike’s excesses. So it was unfortunate when Gary went off to visit one of his floozies at her college dorm. Mike, naturally, had a loud party, featuring drinking, screaming and M-16 shooting.
After finally falling asleep during this loud bacchanal, my wife was awakened by a sound, which I cannot describe because I slept through it. I was awakened by a panicked wife.
“Did you hear that?”
“Honey, it’s four in the morning. I didn’t hear anything.”
“It sounded like a gunshot.”
“It was probably someone slamming a door. Don’t worry about it.”
That pretty much ended the conversation. We went back to sleep. With one eye open.
I didn’t put two and two together. I knew their house was full of guns. I did soon notice that Mike was suddenly limping. The truth didn’t come out until after they left the apartment. During the party, Mike, likely both drunk and stoned, went off to his room in a huff, upset about something. He did the only logical thing. He fired his M-16 through his foot.
I was shown all the evidence I needed to see to believe this. A hole went straight through Mikes’ bed frame and into the wall. The remains of a blood stain spattered the carpet. It is chilling to think that this M-16 was fired in the room right below the room where my two children were sleeping. If he had pointed the weapon upward, one of my children could have died.
One afternoon in December, I dropped in on the neighbors. When I rang the bell, an unfamiliar man answered the door. Nobody else was home. I asked the guy who he was. He introduced himself as Brian. He was the new roommate of the downstairs neighbors. He picked the wrong day to move into the apartment.
I only found out about how our new neighbor came to the apartment in retrospect. Here’s the story.
Mike placed an ad on Craigslist for a new roommate. The guys downstairs were having trouble affording both their rent and their drugs, so they figured a new tenant could help defray the costs. Brian was the first person to answer the Craigslist ad. With Gary already at work, and with Mike on his way out of the apartment to go to work, Brian showed up at the door. Mike, without asking any questions, gave Brian the key and told him to make himself at home.
When news of this inadequate tenant screening reached Gary, he was a bit upset. In fact, a shouting match started that was so severe that both of them lost their jobs at Bose. What happened next was Mike’s attempt to get revenge on Gary for shouting.
The next afternoon, I went on an ordinary trip to the supermarket. While unloading my groceries in my driveway, I was accosted by two large aggressive men.
“Where do you live?”
“Stay away from me!” I barked, “Give me five feet!” They backed off a bit. The last thing I needed was for two aggressive strangers to get within easy grabbing distance of me.
“Where do you live?”
“What do you mean?” I replied, getting nervous.
The driveway was narrow. I was between my car and the side of the house. I had about two feet of space. If they attacked me, at least they would have to line up to get to me. I would be able to take them on one at a time. I could try to escape down the driveway and make a run for it, but my kids were at home with my mother in law. If I ran, they would be at the mercy of these two men. I would have to stand and fight if they attacked. I prepared for the worst.
“We’re police officers.”
“I live in this house,” I answered, not believing they were with the police. But what was the harm in telling them where I live. It was pretty obvious anyway. They showed me ID, but I wasn’t convinced.
“Your neighbor is holed up in his room with a gun. We need you to come with us.”
“I’m not coming with you,” I said.
“We’re going to send the SWAT team over here to get him out. We need you to come with us.”
“If you’re really the police, can you tell me which of my neighbors is holed up with the gun.”
They could not tell me that. They did not know either Mike’s or Gary’s names. They did not know if the big guy or the little guy was holed up with the gun. They knew nothing. But they wouldn’t relent. I saw no choice but to follow them.
“I’ll tell you what. I’ll come with you, but I’ll follow ten feet behind you.” I didn’t want to be grabbed.
I finally relaxed when I got to the corner and saw their squad car. They finally explained that one neighbor was accusing the other neighbor of sitting in the apartment on drugs holding his shotgun. They told me that I would have to get everybody out of the house so the SWAT team could do their job.
“Can I go to the house across the street?” I asked.
“Sure, just go to any house other than yours.”
“Can I go into my house to get my kids out of there?”
“Can I leave my mother-in-law behind?”
I went back to the house. I got my daughter and my newborn son and took them out of the house. In my stunning generosity, I even got my mother in law. Because that’s the kind of son-in-law I am. It was tough to explain why we needed to leave the house and to explain that, yes, there might be actual shooting.
We went across the street and knocked on my neighbor’s door. It took me a couple of minutes to explain what was going on. They let us stay with them for a couple of hours. Their picture windows provided a perfect place to watch the events to follow unfold. All we needed was popcorn.
About an hour later, an old man came to the front door of the house. He keyed into the house, and came out two minutes later carrying several rifles. Disappointed, I nudged my neighbor. “That can’t have been it! I was expecting sirens, and beatings, and other fun stuff. That was just some old dude coming in and going out.”
Turns out I was right. There was more to come. I spoke to the police officer in charge, and he told me that the SWAT team was still due. I would get my show after all.
An hour later, two large vans pulled up to our block. Police cars blocked traffic in every direction. Out of the two vans marched dozens of men in helmets, vests and shields. They keyed into the house. They threw down new neighbor who was sleeping on the couch and cuffed him. They removed Gary from the house. What was he actually doing when the SWAT team arrived? He was sleeping. He was nowhere near his guns. Everything would have been fine if Mike didn’t go to the cops. He merely did it for revenge against Gary who yelled at him at work. Gary was carted off to Rikers Island in his pajama bottoms and no shirt. He was charged with illegal possession of firearms. He later told me he got along pretty good with the other inmates. He was always charming like that.
Oh, and the old man that went in and out. That was Mike’s dad. He was also arrested on weapons possession charges.
As a sad postscript to this whole affair, several months after the SWAT team came, Mike died in Baltimore of a drug overdose. He was attending a Japanese Animation convention, and got too hopped up on cocaine. To even out the ride, he also took a big dose of heroin. The dose was big enough to kill him. The gun possession charges against Gary were later dropped.
We’re in Business: The Third Neighbors
Our next neighbors, the Dims (name changed) didn’t bother to introduce themselves. They just showed up in the backyard and started planting tomatoes. Our landlord (from hell) didn’t bother to tell us to expect them, so the upraised hind parts of an old Korean lady planting tomatoes in our yard was quite a surprise to us. An introduction would not have helped, as she only spoke Korean. I tried to introduce my family in whatever sign language and slow, loud speech I figured would work, because that’s just how neighborly I am. It gradually emerged from the conversation that they were due to move into the house in the beginning of the next month. I don’t remember how I was able deduce this rather complex fact from our broken conversation, but you must remember that I’m a total genius.
So, we weren’t expecting the new neighbors for at least a month. Which is why the next part of the story came as a complete surprise to us.
Around one AM we heard a siren. At first, I disregarded the siren, as it was probably the typical rude motorist who didn’t want to bother turning off his car alarm. After ten minutes of this, I figured, I myself might be the rude motorist, and my car was waking up the neighborhood. When I went downstairs to check my cars, I noticed the earsplitting sound was coming from a box on the side of our house. I also noticed a crowd of angry neighbors demanding to know what was going on. I had no clue.
Noticing the lights on in the downstairs apartment, I knocked. I don’t usually like knocking on a stranger’s door in the middle of the night, but I figured there was little chance they were sleeping. I have no idea how they heard the knocking over an alarm that was louder than a jet engine at takeoff, but they answered. Apparently, something they did while moving in set off the burglar alarm. They had no idea how to turn it off, and it didn’t look as if they were even trying.
I called the landlord (from Hell). The landlord was in China on business, so his wife answered. I explained that the burglar alarm was going off, and requested instructions to turn it off. Her answer was the worst possible answer for me (and for the angry crowd of neighbors).
“What burglar alarm?”
“You know, the burglar alarm, on the side of the house that makes this sound.” I held the phone in the general direction of the shrieking.
“That’s not our house.”
“That’s TOTALLY your house. I was down there. I saw and heard where the sound is from. Why don’t you get over here to turn it off.”
“I can’t. My husband’s in China. I don’t know what to do.”
“Then call him in China.”
“Fine, let me figure out what to do, but you know, the whole neighborhood is pissed off. I’m going to tell them where you live.”
I hung up the phone. When I finally regained my composure I went downstairs to explain to the crowd (some of whom had apparently gone home to their sheds to pick up their pitchforks) that I was unable to get instructions to turn off the alarm. One neighbor called the police (naturally). I did my best to be conciliatory to the cop who requested to speak to me. The officer threatened to cite me for a noise violation. My protests that it was completely not my fault fell on deaf ears. Nothing like a little pressure from the law and rapidly growing unpopularity with the neighbors to get you thinking about a solution.
I had to find a way to shut off the alarm at midnight without instructions from the landlord or any knowledge of burglar alarms. Luckily, Mrs. Dim took the initiative. Taking in hand a serrated knife, she cut the cord that connected the alarm to the sensor. Blessed silence reigned. For exactly ten seconds. The alarm went to battery backup. The earsplitting shriek returned.
Now I was really stuck. I made the one phone call to the one person I figured could help us—Gary Levy, our old neighbor. Gary, was, of course, awake. From four months of nighttime tinkering in the apartment, he knew exactly what to do. He told me which room contained the master control of the alarm. It was the room with the damage from the automatic weapons fire. I proceeded to the room and found the control box for the alarm. Upon opening it, I found a jumble of wires. I didn’t know what a single one of them did. Resisting the impulse to start tearing wires out indiscriminately, I did notice that one of them hooked up to a big ass battery. I disconnected that wire, and the earsplitting noise ended. Now the ringing in my ears was the only thing that disturbed the eerie quiet. Members of the crowd put out their torches and lowered their pitchforks. Pats on the back soon followed.
At first glance, the main difference between the Lims and the Dims (aside from the midnight shrieking) was that the Dims did not have a teenage daughter that could be described as “total jailbait.” Instead they had a teenage son who was described (in my wife’s medical opinion) as “Seriously, Ari, there’s something wrong with that kid.” Clearly, he could only be described as jailbait by a female middle school teacher with some rather odd tastes. (See: Mary Kay Letourneau on crack) And that wasn’t the only strange thing about them.
As they moved in, battalions of dressmaker’s forms were marched into the house. Along with large rolls of cloth, sewing machines, sewing tables, and one or two items that normal people have in their house (beds, a couch). Oh, and they also had a special fridge for the Korean cabbage dish kimchi. I had no objection to them making kimchi or any other dish, but I was pretty surprised that they actually make special refrigerators to hold the stuff. A Google search later revealed that my eyes were not deceiving me. There is actually enough demand for special refrigerators for kimchi that they manufacture them. With all of the sewing equipment, it became pretty clear that the downstairs was being turned into a business in which people slept. And ate kimchi.
I never met the husband of the house. I did find out that his first name was Suk when the mail lady commented on what an awful name he had. I would never make such a comment because that’s just how multicultural and diverse I am.
As a husband, Suk indeed seemed to do just that—suck. His wife never left the sewing room. My wife would go jogging very early in the morning, and she would find the wife awake and sewing away in that closet sized room. We never passed that window without hearing her sewing away. Essentially, we lived upstairs to a good old-fashioned sweatshop. We blamed it on “the Sukker” because we never saw him doing anything that resembled work.
All of this business activity was costing us money. We share a gas connection, and the downstairs neighbors ran the gas powered clothes drier just as much as Suk ran his wife—continually. And our gas bill skyrocketed to winter levels in the middle of the summer. We tried to yell at the neighbors, but it was no use without a common language between us. So we called our landlord (from hell) to do the same. Although our landlord was Chinese and our neighbors Korean, I assumed they had a language in common. Not because they came from neighboring countries, but because they managed to negotiate a lease together. After all, if they didn’t have a language in common, what language did they use to negotiate the lease? The “international language”? That must have been interesting.
Suffice it to say, that we fought with them over the outrageous gas bill for the rest of their stay. If I seem to be resentful of the Dims, it’s because I resented having to partially finance their business. When they finally moved out, we were deliriously happy to see them go. But then again, the delirium may have had other causes—gas inhalation.
On the day the Dims moved out, we were spending a quiet Sabbath afternoon in our apartment above the now vacant business. We thought noticed the smell of gas. We debated whether we actually smelled gas or not for about an hour, until my mother-in-law, who was staying with us that week, came out to the living room. Sniffing a few times, she looked quizzically at us and asked, “Do you smell gas?” That was all I needed. In spite of the Sabbath, I went downstairs to investigate. I was happy to find the front door open, so my first foray into breaking and entering would involve no breaking. Just entering. I went to the stove and found the gas turned on but no flame.
The fire brigade was called. Soon, the neighborhood was filled with the now familiar sounds of vehicles with of sirens and spinning lights converging on our home. Why they needed two fire trucks, and four police cars, I’ll never know (I’m guessing union rules). The investigation found no further hazards in the house. A criminal investigation was started and quickly concluded, as everybody thought it was a final “up yours” from the Dims. At least they didn’t steal our moving dolly.
Our Current Neigbors
For now, our current neighbors are (shockingly) good and decent people. He’s a Marine, she’s a mom. Only one slightly strange thing happened during their stay. I’d tell you about it, but the really Jerry Springeresque parts of our story are over. I have no doubt in my ability to pull off a comedic “Rumplestilskin” and spin a boring story into comedy gold, but they are good people, and I can’t work up any appetite to say anything else about them.