Gotham Diary:
A Shock
10 April 2014

In the lobby yesterday afternoon, the doorman who has always addressed me as “Mr Moriarty” approached me with shocking news. A neighbor down the hall, already here when we moved into our apartment more than thirty years ago, had killed herself in the morning, at about 8:20. She had let herself drop from her balcony, onto the courtyard at the back of the building.

I wasn’t entirely surprised. I hadn’t seen her in some time. It seems that she had been hospitalized (presumably with depression), and that she came home, in all probability, prematurely, and in a state that the mail deliverer described as “confused.” Her copy of the Times had had, for a week or so, a way of lingering at her doorstop until well into the afternoon, but the newspapers never piled up. Even before that, during the holidays or thereabouts, I noticed a change in her behavior toward me. It was as though she had finally accepted the fact that I found her to be an unpleasant nuisance (something that I never expressed in words but that must, over all those years, have leaked out), and that she would simply disregard my token greetings. It was as if she didn’t see me.

None of this foretold suicide, of course, but it put change in the air.

Our neighbor was a persistently discontented person who seemed to open her mouth only to bemoan the weather and to whine about the building — about declining services, minuscule rent hikes, that sort of thing — and several times she rang my doorbell to say, “You’re a lawyer aren’t you…?” I finally did give her the card of a lawyer who might know how to help her, but I’ve never heard that she contacted him. The very fact that she complained about the MCIs indicated to me that she was not likely to run up bills with an attorney.

I remember that, for three or four years, some time ago, she seemed happy. The complaints dried up, and were replaced with smiles. She would talk about now nice the weather was. The alteration in her commentary was too stark not to be attributable to medication, and it ended just as abruptly. Once again, the weather was mentioned only if it was terrible, or about to be terrible.

She did not permit casual conversations to end gracefully. She would talk for as long as she had my attention, repeating herself like a circling airplane. Sooner, or sooner than sooner, I would have to cut her off with some formulaic excuse. On one of her doorbell-ringing visitations, I interrupted her lawyer question by saying that this was not a good time, and closing the door with apologetic urgency. If I could not hide my unwillingness to hear her out, she could not hide her unvarnished desire for attention.

She had been, I believe, a librarian in the public school system. Occasionally, she would ask me what I was reading (because she would see me reading; I always carry a book when running local errands, partly as a defense), but my answers never seemed to mean anything to her. I never saw her read anything. She would always go through the books that I began leaving in the window embrasure by the elevator, a custom that other neighbors have since followed. She rarely took one, and, when she did, it reappeared in a day or so. The idea that she had been a gatekeeper to books and literature with whom children must deal made me grit my teeth.

I hated being rude to her, even though I was never rude rude. I don’t have to be on good terms with everyone, but I like my enemies to show some self-respect, and our neighbor was lost in a maze of low-grade self-pity. I knew that her life must be very unsatisfactory to her — I knew it as well as we can know anything about someone else. I should be very surprised indeed to learn that she led a secret life of fun, and I shouldn’t be happy to hear it, either, because she must have in that case been working very hard to keep it a secret from me. Whenever I wasn’t in the actual train of avoiding her, I felt sorry for her, very sorry.

And when I told Kathleen about our neighbor’s death, on the phone, and Kathleen said that she felt very sorry for our neighbor, I said that I had felt sorry for her for years — “I know,” said Kathleen — and that now I could stop feeling sorry for her.

If I had cared for her, and really known the cause of her suffering, I might, perhaps, stop feeling sorry for her. I might be happy for her, knowing that she was out of her misery. But I didn’t know her well enough to care for her, and the assumption that she has found relief in death feels heartless. So, nothing has changed. I still feel sorry for her.

The awful truth is that our neighbor is remembered by almost everyone in this building (and, by “almost,” I am marking just one exception) as “the lady who was always complaining.” Had she died quietly in bed, the legacy would have been the same, although certainly more lighthearted. Most people would have said nothing, and soon forgotten her. But dying as she died — how does one really describe a 76 year-old woman traversing a balcony railing and then letting go (an awkward business, but — perhaps not!)? — she insured, intentionally or not, that everyone would remember her as the lady who was always complaining. Who was always complaining and who jumped off her balcony.

And her complaints, I hasten to to note, were the opposite of the kind of warnings that prompt people to sit up and take notice of a problem. Our neighbor’s complaints were embalmed in a scent that made them her complaints alone — even when, as sometimes happened, we actually shared them.

There is nothing simple to say or to think about our late neighbor. Sorry, of course: God rest her soul. I don’t believe in God,but I believe in that hope. Call me human.

It’s too early to say whether I’ll miss ducking our neighbor. I don’t expect to, but you never know, with shocks like this.