In a dense city that’s filled with humans, neighbors become spectators to one another’s personal lives.
At 11:15 p.m. on a recent weeknight, I was turning off the lights in my apartment to start winding down for sleep when I heard yelling from upstairs. It was different from the sound of the children who live directly overhead playing, being rambunctious, stomping around, being annoying. These were angry voices. I was in pajamas, but I opened my front door so I could hear more clearly, and I was greeted with a flurry of f-bombs. There I was in my hallway, doing a cost/benefit analysis of intervention—a familiar position.
I’ve lived in a wide variety of apartments in New York City over the past 20 years, but a sad through line, from the jam-packed railroad apartment I shared with three roommates in Hell’s Kitchen to my current home where I live with my husband and dog in Boerum Hill, has been overhearing neighbors fighting. A vicious fact about living in New York City is that, except for the Russian oligarchs who rent huge apartments but never seem to occupy them, we are all crammed in here. We mass commute. We have few personal spaces and little privacy. We live with a built-in audience. I have cried on subways and streets and in Duane Reades and Best Buys, and I have sat on a stranger’s stoop at 2 a.m., broken down by a mixture of whiskey and existential despair.
Home is different. If I practice karaoke songs in the shower or sing to my dog in my living room, yes, I run the risk of people overhearing me. But I would be mortified if anyone asked me to tone it down, because my neighbors and I have an unspoken agreement: I will tolerate your moderately loud music, your late-night gatherings, your TV laughs and your sex noises and your errant farts, and you will tolerate my own.
Anyone who chooses to live in such close proximity to others knows how important it is to create boundaries and respect one another’s privacy. But sometimes the outside encroaches and our neighbors’ business becomes our own, whether we like it or not. Yes, voyeurism can be titillating, but what about unintentional voyeurism, when you’re happily minding your own business and a situation presents itself that you can’t ignore? Your neighbors’ yelling could be just a regular fight, or it could be something more dangerous; that distinction is hard to make when you’re hearing it through a wall.
You have a few choices, all of which have their own ambiguities and consequences. You can intervene directly, by knocking on the door and “just making sure everything is okay,” or even knocking and asking to borrow some sugar—anything to alert your neighbors that you’re there and witnessing their fight. If someone is in immediate danger, well, then you’d of course want to help. But what if no one is, and you’re just being a busybody? What if you make the situation worse? There’s also the natural fear almost anyone would feel walking into a potentially violent situation, perhaps not to save the day but to wind up hurt yourself.
You can call the police. But you run the risk of wasting their time and mortifying your neighbors. Even worse, you might possibly put your neighbors in danger if the police were to overreact and hurt them. You can also simply ignore the noise and hope it stops. But then there you are, just you in your home, not knowing when a fight is just a fight—another messy part of the social contract that neighbors learn to ignore as a part of life—and when it’s worse. Google neighbors fighting and you’ll find Reddit threads and advice columns full of people trying to decipher the line between ordinary disputes and domestic violence. When does it become my business?, we want to know.
Of course, the trouble is that there’s no way to know. In the early aughts, I lived on the Upper East Side in a one-bedroom apartment with a cardboard wall erected in the living room to create a tiny second bedroom for me. If my roommate was watching TV in the living room while I wanted to read, I’d close the little door to my room and get into bed, putting on headphones to avoid the ambient sound. Anything to drown out the proximity of this other person whom I had chosen to live with. Both of us would do anything to avoid a direct confrontation. But not the newly married couple down the hall who were clearly having a rough time. Every few nights or so we heard them yelling at each other, and one evening it sounded particularly bad. I could hear two distinct voices screaming at each other, and then a crash. More screaming. My roommate and I peeked out down the hall, wondering what to do.
“Should we knock on the door?” she said.
“If this is still going on in 10 minutes we should just call the police,” I decided.
As we listened and I felt my fight-or-flight adrenaline kicking in, I thought, Is this what adulthood is? Was I to accept that this kind of confrontation was actually common among married people after a long day at work and a few too many drinks? I was disgusted and fascinated, and disgusted by my fascination. I wanted to hear more, to figure out exactly what they were yelling to each other, even for the fight to escalate so I could understand it more clearly. The couple met our deadline. I don’t know whether they went to bed angry, but they stopped yelling. I went into my makeshift bedroom and turned on my white-noise machine and hoped that everything turned out okay. We went through a number of similar nights before the couple moved out, I hope to get a divorce. I was too scared to intervene, but I was never too scared to be judgmental.
Years later I moved into my first solo apartment, a studio in Chelsea that was tight yet cozy. I used a screen to separate my “bedroom” from my living room, but the close quarters didn’t bother me because those 350 square feet were all mine. I was surrounded by stacks of books piled on the floor and tons of DVDs, and the desire to soak up my solitude and revel in it. A young family of four lived in the one-bedroom apartment next door. The mother had lived there for years, and had a deal on rent that was apparently worth staying for, putting bunks in the bedroom so that her children could have some space while she and her husband slept on a pullout couch in the living area. I could hear every move the family made: the tantrums, the horseplay, the highs and lows of being together constantly. It drove me crazy. I got a better white-noise machine and soldiered on.
On Saturday, May 31, 2008, I came home from a business trip at close to midnight, groggy and jet-lagged, to find crime-scene tape surrounding my building. Before I could enter, a police officer checked my ID and asked me whether I’d noticed any disturbances in the building, anything off. Something was wrong, I understood, but other than letting me know it was safe to go in, he wouldn’t tell me any more.
The next morning a crowd of reporters had gathered in front of my building, and I learned from them what had happened. My neighbor Margaux Powers, age 26, a woman I didn’t even recognize in the photos that later appeared in the Daily News and Newsday, had been stabbed to death when she had tried to break up with her live-in boyfriend, a chef. He used a kitchen knife to slit her throat and “her body was ‘chopped’ into pieces.’” Our doorman let her sister into the apartment, where she discovered Margaux’s body covered in a green towel in the bathtub. Margaux’s murderer went missing for a matter of hours, and then it was reported that he had been found dead after throwing himself off a Financial District building.
I don’t remember ever having talked to Margaux or even having seen her around. She’d lived two floors above me on the opposite side of our building and it’s possible we’d never met; the doorman told reporters he’d seen the couple fighting quite often. There was little I could have done to help her, much less to have prevented her death, yet I felt implicated. What if I’d been more observant, more generous with my time and energy and attention? What if I’d made more of an effort to build a sense of community in my apartment building? How could my neighbors and I have failed this young woman so terribly? Where were they all on the night she had been killed? Had they heard her scream?
A few weeks later I ran into the cop who’d stopped me in front of my building on the night Margaux’s body was discovered. I was at my local bar, a place where I usually felt safe and the bartenders knew my drink order. He aggressively hit on me, and I was disturbed by how quickly the police officer was able to go from protector to pursuer. I craved a feeling of security, of knowing someone out there was looking out for me, and it was nowhere to be found.
I drank too many whiskey sodas that night and then walked the few blocks back to my apartment alone, the intensity of my loneliness causing me to stumble as much as the alcohol. This, perhaps more than anything else, is what listening to my neighbors fight has taught me: that even in a city as dense and filled with humans as New York, you can be totally invisible. Sometimes that invisibility is privacy, the only way it’s possible to live on top of one another, as we do. But at other times it is dangerous, even mortally so. Seeing one other, paying attention to one another, might be our only grace.
What is our responsibility to the people who share our space, even if we’ve never exchanged words? I like to believe that if I saw violence in the street I would reach for my phone and call 911 immediately. But when you’re home alone, trying to decide on your own whether intervention is necessary, it’s easy to assume someone else is intervening or getting help. The same crowdedness of the city that forces you into one another’s private lives also enables you to imagine that someone else out there is helping. Surely you’re not the only one who can hear this.
I wish I could say that I became a better neighbor following the murder-suicide, but only a few months later I had become the opposite. For the first and only time in my life, I was in the kind of relationship I’d previously only observed from afar, one that featured giggles and drinks in the evening and then late-night yelling and crying, more often than not. I never feared for my physical safety, but my mental health was at an all-time low. Even when I was alone I was loud—blasting music and pacing and slamming my door, exhibiting the blatant disregard for other people’s welfare that comes when you’re overly consumed with your own problems. In all that time, not one member of the family next door ever scolded me or even said a word to me, either in a concerned way or a concern-troll-y way. I’m still grateful.
Even after I’d moved on, first to a small apartment in Brooklyn Heights and then to a slightly larger one in Williamsburg with my now-husband, my Chelsea era would haunt me. I’m ashamed I didn’t care more for the people around me, many of whom I saw more often than my own family and friends. The fighting in my current building has stopped for now, but I still wish to show more compassion for the people who live near me, even if our location is the only thing we have in common. Sometimes the people around you are the only ones that matter.
This article originally appeared on The Atlantic.