My New York Obsession

Thy Neighbor’s Life

People-watching from my apartment.

Photo by Dylan Nolte/Unsplash

Living in Manhattan comes with a unique set of challenges: It’s expensive and cramped, and on humid nights you often have to walk down the middle of the street because rats control the sidewalks. These are the kinds of things that make your friend who moved to Charlotte constantly say, “Guys, it’s so much better in Charlotte!” To that I say, “I think you and I both know that’s not true.

Another challenge of Manhattan living is that the view out of your tiny, overpriced apartment is typically filled with another building. Luckily, the people in those buildings sometimes act weird and you get to talk about it with friends and family. New Yorkers essentially live in a vertical zoo. And just like at the zoo, if you walk by enough enclosures, you’re going to see some mating.

Photo by Andy Mai/Unsplash

The following is an incomplete collection of the questionable things I’ve seen in the city when I happened to look into other people’s apartments—or when people have looked into mine.

There was no furniture or rugs, but there was a man in his early 40s, lying on the bare parquet floor going to town on himself.

One night in Battery Park, as I was closing my blinds before bed, I glanced over at the rental building across the street and noticed a vacant apartment. My first thought, having been a New Yorker for 15 years, was: Nice two-bedroom; I wonder how much that’s going for? Then I saw it wasn’t entirely vacant. There was no furniture or rugs, but there was a man in his early 40s, dressed conservatively, lying on the bare parquet floor going to town on himself. What was the story here? Was he a sneaky real estate agent? A doorman on a break?

Place your bets now, because I have the answer…

The following night, that same apartment was filled with boxes, a woman, two young kids, and the same man, who was now upright, moving boxes and somehow making a much less intense face. Obviously, this guy was just an exhausted dad taking advantage of his one opportunity to be alone. I’m guessing his house is chaotic; he probably works in an open-plan office; and he doesn’t have the guts to be a subway masturbator. Odds are, his family’s lease started a day before they were set to move, and he thought, I’ll generously offer to stop by and make sure the place is all ready for tomorrow, but really, I’m gonna treat myself to a night just for old Phillip. I named him Phillip in this scenario. He looked like a Phillip. Also, Phillip strikes me as the kind of man who will one day be caught masturbating in a storage locker, shouting, “I had nowhere to go! The kids just barge into the bathroom!”

At my old studio apartment on Horatio Street, the neighbors I saw across Washington Street made a habit of gardening naked on their roof. Every now and then, I would wave to them. They’d wave back. They were perfect: friendly, nonthreatening, weird. Exactly how I like neighbors.  

When my partner, Andrew, and I lived on 23rd Street and Tenth Avenue, our place faced an identical building across a courtyard. We saw zero sky, zero street life, just a high-rise dollhouse filled with young professionals eating dinner, folding laundry, and watching more CBS prime time than you’d imagine for New York.

Andrew and I would look out the window, holding out hope that someone would do something, anything, worth noting, but they never did. One night, out of sheer boredom, we agreed that we should test if anyone was watching us. So we did the logical thing and staged a murder. A murder like one you might see on CBS.

Andrew sat on the couch and I pretended to smother him with a pillow. After a bit of “struggle,” he stopped moving, and I ran to get a trash bag for “murder disposal.”

Andrew sat on the couch and I pretended to smother him with a pillow. After a bit of “struggle,” he stopped moving, and I ran to get a trash bag for “murder disposal.” I ran into a hitch when all we had were Glad Tall Kitchen Bags; not a great fit for my 180-pound boyfriend/victim. I put one over his head and one around his feet and shins. A good four feet of man torso and legs were still visible between the bags. It was amateur at best. After I tried unsuccessfully to drag him out of view, we ran to the windows to see if anyone was looking on in horror. Nothing. I guess everyone was watching NCIS: Los Angeles. We moved within a year.  

Photo by Ryan Pouncy/Unsplash

I have always been fascinated by what other people are up to. I grew up outside of Philadelphia, and I remember being 10 years old, sitting on my front lawn, and seeing my neighbor Lizzie, also 10, strumming a gorgeous wood harp in her bedroom amid a wall of hardbound novels. I recall thinking: Wow, we are very different. Because what was I doing at that moment? Gently sticking a blade of grass up my nose to make myself sneeze. Lizzie ended up going to Princeton. I went to Cornell. That’s the difference between those two schools in a nutshell.

But the most dramatic, terrifying, Rear Window–style event happened about a year ago when I was at a dinner party in far west SoHo. My friends Gillian and Tahl’s apartment looks directly into the Philip Johnson Urban Glass House, a high-end condominium with floor-to-ceiling windows. It’s kind of like that transparent visible man model from biology class, but instead of displaying vital organs, it mostly shows you hedge fund managers asleep on Eames chairs.

Our dinner party came screeching to a halt when someone noticed a tense situation unfolding between a man and a woman across the street.

But not that night. That night, our dinner party came screeching to a halt when someone noticed a tense situation unfolding between a man and a woman across the street. We all rushed to the windows and watched nervously as the two appeared to be in a screaming match. First, they shouted at each other in the bedroom. Then the man followed the woman as she marched into the kitchen. That’s when he grabbed her by the wrists, pinned her onto the kitchen island, and appeared to hit her. We all reacted in horror and said, “We have to do something!”

At that point, the couple looked in our general direction. One of my friends shouted, “Hit the lights! They see us!” Now in a darkened apartment, we strategized our next steps. We counted the floors of the condo in an attempt to pinpoint the apartment, which looked like it was on the fifth floor. As we were calling the cops, we saw the man and woman walk back to the bedroom and resume shouting at each other. She then rushed into the kitchen, where he grabbed her by the wrists, pinned her onto the kitchen island, and appeared to hit her. What the hell?! Wasn’t that the same way he hit her a minute ago?! What was going on here? It was then that I noticed a figure in their living room. And another in the corner. Everyone at our dinner party started losing their minds. There are other people in the apartment and they’re doing nothing? Why aren’t they intervening? This is insane! Was this some kind of domestic fight club?

And then we saw it. A boom mic.  

We looked at the street below and could see idling Haddad’s trucks and a crafty tent. Everyone collapsed in relief. But we also felt manipulated. It shattered some kind of demented hero fantasy where the cops arrest that asshole, and then the following Friday, his soon-to-be ex-wife would be eating with us and saying, “Rick was holding me back. But now I finally have the courage to start my own gallery.” We’d toast her and help paint the gallery the next day, everyone in matching overalls.

Once we made it down to the street, a teamster in a lawn chair told us it was a show starring Giovanni Ribisi.

Once we left dinner and made it down to the street, a teamster in a lawn chair told us it was a show starring Giovanni Ribisi. That had to mean Sneaky Pete, although I scrubbed through two seasons of the show and never found that scene. The whole incident reminded me of a time when I was waiting for the subway and saw a distraught man teetering on the edge of the platform. He was crying and muttering to himself and staring at the tracks. I decided to intervene, gently pulling him back from the edge, asking if he was OK and needed anything. That’s when he turned to me, sunny and laughing, and said, “Oh, no, I’m just an actor prepping for a part!”  

Sometimes I hate you, New York. But I deserve it. Because I’m sure both the Ribisi Incident (trademark me) and this subway actor were just payback for the time Andrew and I staged a fake murder.

Meredith Scardino is a writer and producer living in New York City. She has written for Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, The Colbert Report, Saturday Night Live, and At Home With Amy Sedaris. She tweets at @test-email-scardinoandsons.