Gotham Diary:
11 April 2014

This evening, we’re having a small dinner party, six à table, including the lovely lady who, like our neighbor the suicide, has lived in her apartment for longer than we’ve been in ours. I am hoping that she arrives early, or that I run into her in the hall beforehand, so that we can get the tsk-tsking out of the way.

Owing to another recent death — that the very opposite of suicide: prolonged, with multiple illnesses and ever more alarming signs of failing health, in an agony lasting several years — there are now only three people living on the floor who were already here when we arrived. Owing to shifts that occurred not long after we moved in, and that led to a pattern of shifting, we became old-timers on the early side. Four apartments have turned over so often that we’ve never gotten to know the tenants, and it seems that they’re being joined by a fifth. One apartment has been vacant since the holidays; another, next door to us, has not been regularly inhabited for decades, but sublet, on who knows what terms, from time to time, with no one staying for more than a year. (One of the subletters, inspired by a spell of fine weather to make cell phone calls from his balcony, had to be told that I could hear everything that he said everywhere in my apartment.) Another apartment houses a nice woman who moved in when her son was a baby; he’s got to be nine or ten by now, so I suppose that his mother is entitled to think of herself as an old-timer, too. These are the people whom I have in mind when I speak of “our neighbor,” although of course she was known to people living on other floors, and, you bet, to all the doormen.

The manager of the package room told me that he couldn’t remember what our neighbor the suicide looked like. This was so hard for me to imagine — not knowing what she looked like — that I blurted out, rather inconsequently, that he’d remember her if he heard her, because she was always complaining. He looked at me keenly and replied, “That’s what everybody says.”

That’s what everybody says. What an epitaph: She Was Always Complaining.


Here I ought to mention something so obvious to those of us who knew our neighbor that it might well go unremarked, creating unnecessary mystification in others. Our neighbor was not at all a “hateful” person — her manner, until she opened her mouth, was quite pleasant. Her characteristic expression might be compared to the archaic smile of old Greek statues, pleasant but not non-committal. She walked through this mortal bourne of ours with a sweet complacency that was undoubtedly the quality that protected her from real rudeness on the part of others. She spoke in a tone of resignation that only over the long term proved to be misleading — for the only thing that our neighbor was resigned to was the fact that she would spend it whining. It took years for me to stop being surprised when whatever it was that she had to say established itself as a grievance (just as it took forever to note the impatience behind that smile), for her bearing promised something so much closer to intelligent conversation. She was not stupid, our neighbor; she shared all the prejudices of the good Yorkville progressives who teem in our ark. But it was hard for her to escape the gravitational pull of her own disappointments, which often concerned matters that the rest of us regarded as things that “big children” overlook. We all agreed that the elevators were slow and not entirely reliable — but our agreement was (and is) implicit; having it pointed out to us by our tirelessly dissatisfied neighbor did not make life any easier.

Indeed, the more I remembered what our neighbor looked like — how, for example, she passed our booth in the diner across the street on weekend mornings and said “hi” (with a querulousness that was not immediately apparent) — because, after all, dying the way she did brought to mind the horror of her falling through the air to her death, which it seems a young tenant caught sight of — the less I remembered the sound of her voice, to the point that, about two hours after I first heard the news, I was overtaken by the creepy conviction that I had made it all up, or perhaps had a dream. I knew that this was a delusion, but, just to be sure (and to loiter about, eavesdropping, in the lobby), I went downstairs and asked the doorman who had just come on duty if it was true. I cannot say that he smirked when he assured me that it was, but his eyes crinkled with glee. They really did.

Had our neighbor died what is called a natural death, no one would have said much about her, because nobody wants to speak ill of the dead. People aren’t saying very much as it is, but the atmosphere is positively constipated. Normally — well, who am I to say what’s normal about such cases, happily rare as they are. But I imagine that the normal suicide elicits not only shock (somebody jumped!) but surprise (who knew?). The surprise is what’s missing here, not because anybody was expecting the suicide, but because speculations about our neighbor’s state of mind are drowned out by the the intense recollection that she was always complaining. We knew plenty about her state of mind.

Given this notorious disposition, it is not surprising that our neighbor had few visitors; in addition, there never seemed to be any close family. Her mother used to live in Lincoln Towers, across town, and that was a source of complaint — getting there, getting home, &c — that we all shared, because crossing town is the Trail of Tears in Manhattan. Then her mother died, and that sympathetic topic dried up. I seem to recall her mentioning relatives in Toronto. Now there is talk of a niece. (There always seems to be a niece, doubtless because I read too many novels.) No notice has appeared in the lobby, as is usual when a long-term tenant passes away, announcing the fact of the death and the date of a memorial service. Perhaps it’s too soon, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.

This makes me uncomfortable. It occurred to me this afternoon that our neighbor, perhaps improperly medicated, alone and without a sounding board, and probably not in full possession of her faculties, intended her fall from the eighteenth floor to send a message to the rest of us, a mixed bag of people who were however of one mind about her: you are always complaining. I don’t really believe that our neighbor intended any such thing, but the hypothesis underlines the fact that what she left behind was confusion. Her lurid act makes it strangely urgent to find out why she was always complaining. Is there anybody who knew her well enough to be able to tell us?

For our neighbor’s legacy (at the moment) has a double senselessness. Suicide usually seems selfless, certainly when there is no note or “explanation.” But the way our neighbor lived in the world was also senseless, at least to the extent that such habitual discontent needs an explanation, too.

How bizarre and almost inhuman this blend of familiarity and ignorance, this everyday contact devoid of involuntary intimacy, must seem to those who don’t make Manhattan their home!