Tip #152: Love thy neighbor.
Come June, when the sun sets late and long days spent outside result in no nap for Faye and an early bedtime instead (thank goodness for small blessings), James and I are likely to be found closing out the day with a few quiet minutes on the roof of our building. It’s not a finished roof. We don’t “have roof access” in the technical sense. There’s no deck (or rails) or anything that makes it particularly pleasant to be on except of course a breeze and a view of Manhattan and an ability to watch the sunlight glint off the windows of neighboring buildings as pink and purple clouds put on a show and remind us that we live on a planet. What I’m trying to say is it’s one my very favorite things to do.
It’s a fascinating opportunity, too, this chance to see your neighborhood from a different vantage point. You remember the density, for one thing—the sheer number of people busy making their lives all around you. Seen from above, a building that requires a walk around the block to reach, is right there across the way, and someone’s inside cooking dinner. In another nearby building you can take in a dozen or more floors of lives stacked at once: there are bookshelves against one wall, a painting on the same wall one floor up, a gentleman who sits in the window and does his own watching one floor up from that. If you could take a bisection of a New York City building what would you find? Lots of identical apartments with entirely different innards is what. Different values or preferences or means reflected in a million different choices about décor and belongings and spots to sit, to say nothing of whether the lights are on, or the air conditioners buzzing, or music streaming out of opened windows.
We’ve been reading The House From Morning to Night with Faye before bed lately. It’s a picture book with few words but lots of pictures of an old house in Paris sliced open to reveal the day-to-night happenings in its various apartments. My mom brought my childhood copy to our place a few weeks ago and it holds up, except for the fact that the women involved are doing a disproportionate share of the cleaning. (“That’s silly,” says Faye.) Every night we flip the pages to see what the baker is up to, and the old woman who lives in the attic. The whereabouts of the cats are of great interest, ditto the baby. (“Why it’s all alone?” “Where’s the papa?” Faye wants to know.) The book is a friendly voyeur’s dream come true.
This weekend we visited with our next door neighbors, the ones who share a kitchen wall and a bathroom vent with us and who lovingly pretend not to notice bath time shrieks or 6:00 am tears over popsicles. Their apartment’s the size of ours, more or less, but with a slightly different layout (and minus two children). I can’t help but catalog the differences between our places when I’m in there. I nod my head and try to seem disinterested in my surroundings, but in spite of myself, my eyes scan the apartment to find that their bedroom has different dimensions, and their closet’s in a different spot, and oh, funny, they have the a different bathroom tile but the same sink, and look, how a couch and a coffee table! Thing is, try as you might to talk about the weather, a conversation with New York neighbors turns to talk of real estate and rental markets and whether the landlord replied to your call for a plumber yet.
From our perch on the top of our building we’re privy to a dozen partial moments in our neighbors’ nights. There’s one woman’s squeaky window as she leans out to hang washed bras to dry on the fire escape. Next door, a grown man with a view of the sunset opts instead for the view of a video game. Below him, another man, who slides open the window, snaps a shot of the sunset and retreats back inside. And us, a couple of parents with dark circles under our eyes who clink glasses of red wine and eat from a bowl of olives and cornichons and call it a date.
We’re all figuring out how to make our lives in these apartments we call home, lots of them tiny by design, more of them tiny by happenstance. All of us here learning to live with tiny kitchens and cramped bathrooms and neighbor children who sometimes cry for popsicles at daybreak.
Tiny apartment survival tips #1 – 151, right this way.