March 26, 2023

Eavesdropping Through a Pandemic

When quarantine began, I remained in the East Village, experimenting with fire-escape home-office action and taking daily walks around Tompkins Square Park. Outside, it was hard to hear people: masks muffled conversation and we kept far apart. But, at home, via windows, air shafts, and prewar construction, eavesdropping was unavoidable. I heard noisy arguments between couples, snippets of dialogue, phone calls conducted in hallways. During the seven-o’clock-shout era, one of my favorite neighbors, a four-year-old who lives downstairs, took the conceit further, hollering out the window when he saw an opportunity to chat. One afternoon, a muscled young guy across the way burst into his building’s empty courtyard to do some aggressive shadowboxing. “HI! WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” my young neighbor called out. “UH . . . EXERCISING,” the guy shouted back. The next day, the man emerged with a trash bag, and my neighbor greeted him again. “HI! ARE YOU TAKING OUT THE GARBAGE?” he yelled. The guy looked up. “YEAH!” he said. Then, sensing that he owed more to a friendly four-year-old, he added, “IT SMELLS PRETTY BAD.”

In late May, after the murder of George Floyd, a new era of outdoor community emerged; suddenly, people were in the streets, masked but making noise. At a protest in Union Square, I found myself kneeling and chanting alongside others doing the same, with our fists in the air. But I also found myself eavesdropping: I spotted some wary-looking police officers talking to each other on the periphery, and, curious, wandered within earshot. First cop, white, female, agitated: “They want our heads on, like, sticks! . . . They are defunding us!” Second cop, Black, female, pausing, then smiling a little: “Change is coming.”

Eventually, I could overhear the pandemic changing, too. After COVID rates in New York improved, people started to move into apartments that had emptied out. Above me was a subletter: a man, living alone, who sang prayers in Hebrew. It startled me at first—loud, intense singing, several times a day—but I grew to like it. One day, hearing noise in the hallway, I snooped at my door’s peephole. A smiling young man in a yarmulke stood on the stairs above, chatting with two young women who had just moved in, as grunting workmen coaxed a new couch into their apartment. The subletter bid them welcome, gestured grandly at the couch, and said, “Enjoy it in good health!” This struck me as so bizarrely wholesome that I could only be delighted. Later, he invited one of the women up for a drink. I heard the awkward invitation, the awkward assent, the feet going upstairs, the feet above my head. There was nothing objectionable about any of it, except for the secondhand social anxiety it gave me; for this reason, and many more—including a former neighbor who could be heard not just having sex but yelling “Daddy!”—I have noise-cancelling headphones.

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