Petty Gripes and Halloween Horrors

by James McGirk

Pic_990146001180991434A large pile of garbage has accumulated outside my front door. One of my neighbors is fighting with our landlord. She leaves bags of refuse just outside of the receptacle, untied and upside down so as to better disgorge their payload of soiled panty-liners onto the pavement in front of our house. The cans are in a wire enclosure a few yards away, very easy to access; convenience and squeamishness are not the issue here.

This mischief is intentional. I know it is. Each arrangement is more shocking than the last, the woman has a serial killer’s flair for the grotesque. There is motive too. She was once employed by our landlord as the garbage-minder but was suddenly replaced. I can only assume she is baiting the city into fining him for violating New York's sanitary code. So far it hasn’t worked. She remains a tenant in good standing and the area is horrific. Armies of cockroaches scurry over discarded pizza boxes and piss-soaked kitty litter. And anybody on the block who feels their garbage is too nasty to keep in their own bin will happily dump it on ours. They don’t even bother doing it under cover of darkness any more.

I tell you all this because the other day I opened my door and found a jack-o-lantern sitting on my doorstep: A shitty one. A disgusting withered one collapsing in on itself with rot. At the time I was wearing heavy boots and my first impulse was destroy the thing. I swung my foot back, and was about to punt the thing into the road when I stopped myself. It was almost Halloween, and this unhygienic squash seemed as a fitting a tribute to the horrors I had experienced in New York City as any I could possibly hope for. And believe me there are horrors-a-plenty in this supposedly spic-and-span city.

I remembered years ago hoisting a box of books and watching a lentil drop out. I nudged it with my toe and watched it sprout legs and wobble toward a crack in the floor. This ruddy dot was no lentil, it was a bedbug, a descendent of the hordes who snuck into our next door neighbor’s house concealed inside of a charming old world couch they had fished from the trash.

The minute squatters feasted on her for a few days, but she left in horror soon after, leaving them hungry for more blood. They wriggled through the hundred-year old grout into the building’s plumbing system. In the moist darkness they nuzzled by the warmth of the boiler pipes and multiplied and colonized their new quarters and crept up flues and radiator tubes to emerge in our bedroom, anesthetize our skin and drink our blood. My fair-skinned, redheaded companion awoke one morning to find golf-ball sized welts crawling up her veins in unmistakable bedbug “triads” – also known as breakfast, lunch and dinner.

I forget whether I smashed the fucker, I hope I did, but frankly I doubt it. I was in shock. For over a year since the infestation began we had taken every precaution, disposed of every scrap of furniture a bedbug nymph might have conceivably crawled into and concealed itself inside of, and anything I had wanted to save was decontaminated in a freezer for 24 hours at a time. Everything else was destroyed. I had lined the walls with anti-bedbug poisons and slept in an army cot with its feet resting in tubs of isopropyl alcohol yet still one of them had managed to eek out a living in our apartment, no doubt drinking its blood meal from our twenty-two year old cat who was in the room recovering from a bowel resection.

To live on the margins in New York City is to live life filled with torment. Most of these are minor aches that on their own are bearable but en masse begin to cauterize your very soul. I spend two hours a day on the subway commuting, essentially steeped in the smells and personal spaces of strangers. There are mariachi bands elbowing their way through crowded cars. Aggressive panhandlers and preachers, bands of fools pummeling buckets and bins for pocket change, and subway acrobats who twirl around the bars, their boots passing inches from your face plus all the usual sensory insults: the hungry commuter eating her fried fish after a hard day’s work, those horrible moments around 4pm when the doors slide open and an entire middle school classroom pours into the car and you are forced to atone for every preadolescent hijink by witnessing them performed one after another in front of you in a confined space.

The subways themselves are deteriorating. Inclement weather will paralyze the system, leaving you stranded deep underground in the dark with no air-conditioning, pressed against a dozen malodorous strangers (not that I can talk, no matter how much anti-perspirant I smear under my pits, after an hour chasing the train in a collared shirt and tie I too am drenched and pungent). Most obnoxious of all are the people who clip their nails on the train. And yet you get used to all of this. Select fuses are blown and with the help of sunglasses, music and reading material you can often drown out about a third of it.

(And of course you can’t leave the city even if you wanted to. To afford to live in New York at some point you’ll have to get rid of your car and when you do you’re committed because there is nowhere else in the country you can live without a car. Or so we tell ourselves in order to remain here…)

Inclement weather turns petty gripes into horrors. When I returned to New York after a two-year stay in New Haven (I discovered the bedbug while moving out of my old apartment) I chose an old boiler factory on the outskirts of Bushwick as a home (literally on the border with Ridgewood, Queens). As fall turned to winter I began to regret this choice. Our utility lines came to an address in the Borough of Brooklyn, while our mail was addressed to a house number in Ridgewood, Queens. As the flakes began to fall, we tried in vain to ignite our heater. It eventually took a month-long odyssey through the bowels of New York’s intermingled utility conglomerates to figure out who was supposed to deliver gas and why it wasn’t being delivered. Then one bitterly cold morning the thing failed and I spent hours turning it on and off.

For months I had been bothered by what I thought was an inconsiderate neighbor’s alarm going off while he was on holiday. There didn’t seem to be a pattern to the rings, though I never thought about that I just assumed it was an alarm clock. What else would have such a piercing siren? I pictured a young professional hitting his snooze button over and over again in the coldest, earliest hours of the morning. Then one morning he returned and called the fire department. The shrieking alarm was really a carbon monoxide detector. Our flue was set too close to the wall and soot had accumulated, choking the flame and causing it to emit concentrations of carbon monoxide gas that would kill us in a few hours, according to the strangely gleeful gas man, who was happy to tear open our wall and turn off the gas but not so happy to turn back on once repairs had been made. Once more it took almost a month of enduring the sort of indoor cold that puckers your knuckles before the heat came on again.

This year the snow came early. But as I looked at the weather forecast and saw the warnings for a “wintery mix” on the way I assumed this year we would be as snug and cozy as one might expect for paying nearly $2000 a month in rent and utilities. The night before the great big storm I returned home early and found a half dozen fire-trucks parked around the house and smoke pouring from a neighbor’s window. They must have had the same problem we had firing up the gas heater and resorted to an old fashioned radiator. This radiator had ignited a pile of kitchen waste and it set off the sprinkler system. The damage to their unit was pretty minor, mostly smoke damage, and everyone else got off all right except for the rock band next door who lived in the basement and had sealed up their drain pipe. (And they seem to be doing fine – I had hoped the sprinkler would damage their drum set but they were practicing the very next day, so the damage wasn’t fatal). The only real damage was to our unit. Over zealous firemen had mistaken our door for the front door, and pried it off its hinges and stormed in.

A kindly neighbor noticed the torn-open door leaning from its hinges, and found our cats cowering beneath the bed. He padlocked what was left of our door and escorted out the firemen, who according to the policeman who showed up later that night to remind us that the unit was legally uninhabitable without functioning door, “really get off on kicking down doors.” One of the perks of the job, I suppose. As the flakes began to fall and cover our garbage mound I got up from my spot beside the heater, beneath the brand new carbon monoxide monitor and realized that I couldn’t see the pumpkin. And then I did see the pumpkin. What was left of it: one of the firemen had stomped it flat.