October 4, 2009

The Building on South Twenty-First Street


I’ve always been lucky when it came to neighbors.

            Not that they’ve been in any way kind, generous or helpful. Far from it—for the most part my neighbors have been insane, incompetent, and in several cases, potentially dangerous. In short, they’ve been interesting. And to me, interesting beats generous and helpful any day of the week. Generous and helpful people want to talk to you, stop by for visits, and expect your help and generosity in return. Interesting people don’t want to be bothered any more than you do.

            There was Ruth, the nutty old lady next door in Minneapolis, who wrapped wads of cash in letters to Dan Rather and shoved them under her door out into the hallway. There was the suspected serial killer (or werewolf) next door to me in Madison, who for some reason had an apartment full of bloody cow femurs. And now? Well, I should keep my mouth shut for the time being.

            None of them, however, could touch any one of my neighbors in Philly—or the building itself.

            The building’s limestone façade was cracked and crumbling, and the steps out front were nothing short of treacherous (I’m not sure what kept the cheap metal handrail upright, but I think it was prayer).

            The light bulbs in the hallways were burned out and the fake wood paneling on the walls was scarred and jagged. The carpeting on the floor was stained and stomped an indistinct gray-brown and had a vaguely nauseating reek to it.

            The building’s owner didn’t put a lot of money into upkeep for a simple reason. To him, it was a building for transients. If people moved to town and needed a place to stay for a month while looking for a permanent apartment, that was where they were stashed.

            That’s what the landlord told me anyway. Weird thing was, none of the people I knew while I was there seemed to be going anywhere. They were staying, just like I was.

            (Thinking back on it now, I wonder if it wasn’t a transient building at all, but rather the place where they stuck people they didn’t want in one of their, you know, nice buildings.)

            I think the first sign that I was living among the insane came the first week I was there.

            The guy who lived in the basement apartment directly below mine seemed nice enough. Big, burly guy who reminded me of Penn Jillette. He was an usher at the little art house movie theater around the corner, and told me he could get me in free whenever I wanted.

            Then one night about ten o’clock, I heard something strange.

            Now, this guy’s apartment had access to a filthy little walled cement courtyard out back, right below my window. It might’ve been a nice little courtyard if someone put some effort into it, but no one seemed interested. As it stood, the courtyard was barren and grim.

            As I was saying, one night around ten I was reading when I heard a weird sound rising up from the cement courtyard.

            “Oooff! . . . Aggg! . . . Hwa! . . . Oooff!”

            Every few seconds, there was a meaty thump and a guttural wheeze. It sounded like someone was getting punched in the gut or kicked in the ribs.

            I ignored this, figuring it was his business what he did down there. The grunts went on for about an hour, and then stopped and I forgot about it.

            A few nights later, I heard the same noise. I didn’t know if he was having rough sex back there or what the deal was. Again, whatever it was, it wasn’t my concern. He should be able to do whatever he wanted in his own filthy grim courtyard.

            This happened two or three nights a week for a month. Always around the same time, always lasting about an hour. There were never any recognizable words spoken. Finally one night while this was happening my curiosity got the best of me.

            I shut off the lights so he couldn't see me, then crept over to the window and peered down.

            My neighbor was down there with another burly guy. They weren’t fighting, and they weren’t fucking. Not in any traditional sense, anyway.

            No, instead they were taking turns throwing each other as hard as possible against the cement wall. That’s all. They didn’t speak, they weren’t laughing or obviously drunk. They were just throwing each other against the wall for some reason.

            Somehow I think this guy knew I saw all this, but however many times we passed each other in the front hall after that, we never said a word about it.

            Then there was the gay black actor in the front apartment. Very friendly fellow, but absent-minded. He was in the habit of going out to clubs and losing his keys, so when I left for work in the morning I’d find him curled up on the floor in the middle of the hall.

            Worse than that, though, was when he’d start frying up bacon and eggs for breakfast, then realize he was out of juice. So with the bacon and eggs still frying on the stove, he’d head out to get some juice at the store a block and a half away. That happened twice, and both times I had to run down the smoke-filled hallway with smoke alarms blaring around me, let myself into his apartment, and turn off the stove.

            When he returned with his juice twenty minutes later, he’d always be very confused by the smoke and the hubbub.

            (What bothered me more than the potential disaster was the fact that his apartment was full of mannequins. I never asked him why, again figuring it was none of my business.)

            When it wasn’t the gay actor sleeping in the front hall, it was a bum or a junkie who'd discovered that the building’s front door couldn’t be locked.

            On three occasions some thugs hit the buzzer to the eighty-six year-old caretaker’s apartment and told him they were there to read the meters. All three times he let them in and they proceeded to beat him nearly to death before fleeing without taking anything or bothering anyone else.

            The woman who lived above me and wore lots of leopard print clothing regularly had loud sex with her German Shepherd, I suspect on camera. I never actually saw this, but there was just no other way to explain those sounds.

            A crack dealer lived directly across the hall from me for about a year. I just thought he was popular. I had no idea he was a crack dealer until he set his apartment on fire, too.

            Then there was the cleaning lady. The owner didn’t put a lot of money into upkeep, no, but he did shell out for the World’s Angriest Cleaning Lady. My neighbors, insane as they were, were still okay in my eyes. We chatted in the hallway and there was never any personal animosity. But that cleaning lady scared the shit out of me.

            She’d show up once every month to vacuum the hallways. That was about it. I never saw her do anything else of a cleaning variety. She’d just vacuum and mutter, and if you were unlucky enough to let her spot you in the hall, look out. I can’t tell you how many times she cornered me for half an hour as I was trying to leave, just to yell. She wasn’t yelling at me, specifically, but at all the tenants. We were all an awful batch of inconsiderate pigs, I guess. I tried agreeing with her, tried to calm her down, but it did no good. Next time she caught me it started all over again. When someone’s pet (I suspect that lusty German Shepherd) took a dump on the second floor landing? Hoo-boy. She refused to clean it up simply on principle (can’t say as I blame her), and there it sat, ossifying for months, until I finally picked it up myself just to shut her up.

            It wasn’t long before I began rearranging my schedule so I would either be locked safely in my apartment or long gone whenever she was around.

            Ah, yes, they were good and interesting days. Regular fires, three savage beatings, a little bestiality and a lot of lord knows what. I got to meet a lot of cops and firemen while living there.

            Sometimes when I think about that place and those people, I have to wonder if any of them are telling their own stories about me—because to be honest, my memory of my own behavior back then is a little, um, fuzzy.


You can contact Jim Knipfel at this address:

With occasional exceptions Slackjaw generally appears weekly. For email notification of other Jim Knipfel publications (books, etc.) and events please join the Slackjaw email list here.