Turning Off a Neighbor’s Radio | Part 1

Philip Kalantzis Cope

It had been going on for months. At 6 a.m., every morning without fail, the Day of Rest included, we would be awoken by the morning’s news as presented by WABC at a volume that would stun a rock star. News, weather, traffic, sports, commercials. News, weather, traffic, sports, commercials. News, weather, traffic, sports, commercials…. And then, after about an hour, a silence so deep it was like being parachuted into a desert. The radio had been turned off. After that, it would return (at the same blistering volume) sporadically throughout the day.

Our bedroom, which is small, gives out onto an air shaft. My wife and I usually sleep with the window open, even if just a crack, to let in some air. It’s the original tenement window, and the glass is about as noise-resistant as a few sheets of newspaper. But even if we had one of those titanically thick, gas-filled windows they use in airport hotels so conveniently located they’re practically on the runway, nothing would have been enough to keep out the din of that radio.

But where was it coming from? It took a long time to discover. Our apartment overlooks a dank courtyard, and noise bounces around maddeningly. Once, in the middle of the night, I heard a woman’s voice — one of those brassy New York voices you hear less and less frequently — call out, I know you’re looking at me, you pervert! But there was no clue to what building she was in, let alone the location of her hapless peeping tom.

RedTim Schreier

After much neck-craning investigation, which included examining the surrounding buildings from the fire escape, the roof, and all parts of the courtyard, I concluded that the radio was in a fifth-floor apartment in the building next to ours, one of whose windows was angled in a way ideally suited to penetrate the depths of the airshaft that separated us. But who was inside it? There was never a light on, no sign of life. “Son of Sam, Son of Sam, Son of Sam,” a nephew had chanted when he’d stayed at our apartment and familiarized himself with our “radio problem.” And I had seen a menacing guy with “Loner” written all over him accompanied by an even more menacing dog walking out of that building recently. Something told me it had to be him. Someone too crazy and scary for the neighbors to deal with.

Perhaps that’s why, even after I’d located the source of the problem, it took me a long time to do something about it. Then one Saturday afternoon, when I was stretched out trying to relax, the radio suddenly came on — as loud as ever. For about five minutes I tried to shut it out and then finally I flew into a rage. Grabbing a jacket, I rushed downstairs and onto the street.

It was sunny outside. I ran up the steps of the next-door building and tried the door: Locked. The buzzer system consisted of a steel plate with steel buttons on it with an apartment number engraved next to each one, but no names. There were four fifth floor apartments and I pressed the buzzer for each one. Nothing. I pressed them again and then pressed about 10 other buttons and waited. Still nothing. Could everybody be out? It was a nice day. I pressed on the top buttons again. Still nothing. I peered through the door into the hallway: empty.

window frame, rotMichelle Rick

Then, just as I’d turned my attention to the street (it really was a nice day: what the hell had I been doing inside?) a man came out. Short, in his 60’s, with gray hair and dressed in blue jeans and sneakers. He looked a bit like Richard Dreyfuss and had the same manic energy. “Excuse me, do you live in this building?” I blurted out. “There’s somebody who plays WABC News on the radio all day long. It’s driving me crazy. Do you know who it is?”

“I don’t live here,” he replied, already rushing down the steps as if he couldn’t get away fast enough. “I haven’t lived in New York since the 70’s. It was music back then.” And then he was off, like a minor actor who had successfully delivered his one scene in a movie.

Now someone else was in the hallway of the building, just inside the door, collecting her mail. It was an austerely tall, Eastern European woman in her mid-70’s I’d seen on the street for years but had never spoken to, and for whom I’d always felt an instinctive sympathy. I knew nothing of her life except that she almost certainly was widowed. Years ago she had been accompanied everywhere by a cheerful man, shorter than her, who always wore a jacket, a tie, horn-rimmed glasses, and a cloth cap — an unchanging uniform. He used to stand exactly where I was now, looking out onto the street from the top of the stoop with great satisfaction, like a man who not only was happy to be alive, but knew himself to be so. A decade earlier he’d disappeared. Dead, surely. He didn’t seem the type to run off. But then I’d never spoken to him either.

windows, Sixth AvenueMichelle Rick

Now the woman I presumed to be his widow blinked at me suspiciously through the glass on the other side of the door. I knocked and motioned to be let in. Surely she recognized me? If so, she made no sign. Over the last few years I had sensed a growing isolation in her. She scrutinized the world with increasing intensity, yet seemed to comprehend less and less of it. I continued knocking, but she turned her back on me with one last, squinting look, and then walked down the hallway toward the staircase. Could she be the person playing the radio?

Eventually someone buzzed me in. I’d pressed every buzzer in the building several times over. I walked down the hallway and started to climb the stairs. There was no elevator. By the time I reached the third-floor landing I could already hear the radio booming through the entire upper half of the building. On the fourth floor it was unbelievably loud. News, weather, traffic, sports, commercials… News, weather, traffic, sports commercials. This was nuts. I paused for a moment, starting to feel a bit like Martin Sheen closing in on Brando’s jungle lair in “Apocalypse Now.” On the fifth and final floor, it was deafening. There were four apartments on this floor. How could this be? How could the people inside them not go mad?

To be continued tomorrow.