The bigot across the hall
The racist neighbor in my building, and the landlord who appeased him
I should’ve never stomped on the floor. I wish I’d have never stomped on the floor. But I just couldn’t take it anymore.
In the dead of night, my Second-Floor Neighbor always blasted his television, stomped all over his hardwood floors and talked on the phone at the loudest possible volume. He only seemed to want guests over after midnight. While I was a night owl like him, I was a respectful night owl.
My landlord’s friend (a white guy in his 70s or 80s, who was hard of hearing) on the first floor had already complained about him. My First-Floor Neighbor was then met with a vicious combination of curse words and demands that he never come to the second floor to complain about the noise again. The older gentleman then complained to my landlord — an older, Thai woman — and a long-time friend of his.
I thought I’d imagined what he said, but then he said it a second time: “nigger bitch.”
I kept my complaints to myself initially. I’d already left one apartment I’d lived in for eight years because I was fed up with a girl running on her treadmill at 9 a.m. and arguing with her husband at 4 a.m. I did not want to lose this condo rental, too, especially for the rate I was paying. But when my landlord first asked me was Second-Floor Neighbor loud, I admitted he was. She told me to “always let me know if you have a problem in the building.” I explained to her that after eight years of living at my last apartment, and bickering with a loud neighbor, I had no desire to have Round 2. My landlord assured me that she always treated the people in her building “like family.”
Second-Floor Neighbor (white male in his 40s) continued to walk like an elephant — without the help of a treadmill. And one night, I had had enough. Although this felt like deja vu from my last place, I stomped on the floor. Our walls and floors were already thin, but the commotion downstairs in his unit was just unbearable. And then I heard the flood of insults from his place, one of which hit me like ice pouring through my veins. I thought I’d imagined what he said, but then he said it a second time: “nigger bitch.”
Lack of medication doesn’t make you racist. Neither he nor Roseanne Barr will ever convince me of this.
And I reached for my phone. It was time to call my brother. I only call my brother when situations are completely out of control. But if Second-Floor Neighbor referred to me as “nigger bitch,” I already knew he would never get the “n” out in front of my brother. It’s no accident that my brother’s high school nickname was Psycho. As a little girl, I couldn’t have been happier to have a free security guard in my childhood home. But as little sisters get older and their brothers have children of their own, both of you realize how much he has to lose by responding in the same reckless way he would’ve as a teenager or in his early 20s. So I put the phone down. I typed a long email to my landlord instead and pressed “Send.”
Meanwhile Second-Floor Neighbor muttered “bitch” a third time. And I put on my Timbs. Because this time, I was going to take the place of my brother. I’d wrestled with enough boys growing up. You can’t be the younger sister to a brother like mine, who had a crew of friends, and not know how to fight. And I was ready for all of the smoke. I definitely was not going to call my peacemaking parents; they would’ve tried to calm me down. I was anything but calm. Even during my worst experiences in college, I had never been called any slurs. The Second-Floor Neighbor didn’t know I could hear him in his condo unit (or maybe he did). Still though, I took off my pajamas and put on streetwear. Fuggit. If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.
I touched my doorknob, all set to go downstairs. But I didn’t expect the Gmail alert to go off. And then my Second-Floor Neighbor’s phone rang. I glanced back at my open laptop and saw a reply from my landlord. I walked back across the room and sat down to read it. I could hear Second-Floor Neighbor talking downstairs, but his words were in a hushed tone.
My landlord said she would call him and that he would have to leave if he was being hostile to other people in the building. And I pondered on her wording. “Hostile” to me is more like how he reacted to my landlord’s friend on the first floor. You know you’re loud when someone who is hard of hearing thinks you’re loud. His comments toward me were more than hostile. The way he let those slurs fly out of his mouth made it very obvious that this wasn’t the first time he’d used them.
But I sat there and pondered. If I went downstairs and caused all kinds of hell, when the police came, would they believe me? Would they look at this angry black woman who was in “say less/fight more” mode and understand my frustration? Would they understand the sting of the words “nigger bitch”? I just wasn’t convinced they would. I did not sleep that night. I sat up open-eyed in bed and seething, but my Second-Floor Neighbor was quiet after that.
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The next day when my landlord called me, I found out it was her on the phone with him when my hand was on the doorknob. He lied. He claimed he would never use such words, and he didn’t understand what “my problem” with him was. My landlord said she believed me anyway, but what could she do? She didn’t live in our building. It was my word against his. She asked me if I was willing to aggravate him again so I could record him saying it this time. I stared at my phone and realized she genuinely did not have a clue how hard that phrase was on my ears. Not only did I not want to get him to say that a second time, I didn’t want to hear it the first time.
But I’d be damned if I was going to move out because there was a bigot in the building. I called my brother to vent. He paused for a very long time and asked me if I wanted him to book a flight. I told him not to, but I would let him know if I started to be fearful. Anger and fear are close cousins, but I wasn’t scared. I was furious that my neighbor put me in this position. And when I’m angry, the smartass in me comes out in large doses.
I returned to my computer and printed out an African flag. I taped the flag to Second-Floor Neighbor’s door, with a large sign about the statistics of Chicago. In my sign, I mentioned that if he didn’t like living in a city with one of the largest populations of black folks, he needed to move. And then I went to work. I found that sign and flag crumpled up on the second floor hallway. I unfolded it and taped it back to his door. The next day, I found that sign torn into pieces in my third-floor hallway. I took a photograph of it. That still wasn’t enough for my landlord to make him move.
My landlord asked him to apologize. I told her I had absolutely no desire to speak to him at all — ever in life. Because if we saw each other face-to-face, I could not be certain of my own reaction. He worked evenings, and I worked days. But as with all neighbors, eventually you two can’t help but see each other.
It was weeks later. I’d heard from my landlord that his mother wouldn’t let him live with her, and his sister said he had mental health issues. My landlord begged me to just “leave it alone, it’s only words.” She told me “I’m yellow” and that she didn’t get “this mad at words.” I shook my head. I genuinely thought she would understand where I was coming from as a woman of color. It was a cold, hard truth to realize she needed to be my color to understand.
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In her mind, an apology would wipe the slate clean. Her senior friend on the first floor was still pissed that Second-Floor Neighbor was still too hard on the floor. She felt bad for him — his family didn’t want him. She couldn’t legally kick him out. She begged him to apologize again. And that’s when he finally knocked on my door. I was caught offguard. I opened the door without looking through the peephole (that always annoyed me because it was a foot taller than my short frame) and hissed at him to go downstairs. I needed room on his floor to be ready for anything.
I put on my Timbs again and readied myself to square up. I pressed Record on my phone and shoved it in my pocket; he was not going to lie a second time. I was prepared this time. What I was not prepared for was this 40-something, crew-cut wearing, athletic man to immediately start crying. In the middle of his apology, snot ran down his nose and his breath caught in his throat. He told me all about his time spent at an MLK Elementary School in his hometown, how he wasn’t taking his medication properly and how he didn’t know what came over him to say “those words.” He claimed he’d never used them a day in his life. I call bulls — t. Lack of medication doesn’t make you racist. Neither he nor Roseanne Barr will ever convince me of this.
When another neighbor on the second floor (black male, about my age, who usually wore a top hat like Ne-Yo) opened his door to observe the two of us talking, I gave him a nod. He had his coat on. I could tell he had somewhere to be, but he wasn’t quite sure whether he should leave. It was like looking at a stylishly dressed, shorter version of my brother had he pledged as a Kappa. I nodded again. He looked at the two of us and walked to the end of the hallway. He looked back a third time. I appreciated his support, but I nodded again. He finally did leave. Meanwhile, Second-Floor Neighbor was wiping away his own tears. I felt no sympathy for him. I thanked him for his apology and told him that he blew all the chances in the world of us being cordial. And I turned and walked away.
My landlord was ecstatic that he apologized. I shook my head and decided we could coexist in the same building. But she had the bright idea to move him upstairs, into the empty unit directly across from me so he couldn’t make noise for her first-floor friend. I could not have felt more disrespected. I didn’t tell my brother this detail. I did tell my parents. And I started searching for a new place. Second-Floor Neighbor did eventually move back to his hometown in California before I could find a new place.
But I never did feel like that condo was “home” after that. I ended up buying a condo in a far more diverse neighborhood afterward. I still send Christmas cards to my First-Floor Neighbor; he was just an older man trying to have the same peace that I was. But I never did forgive the man who’d disrespected me in a way that I thought would never happen in the 21st century— and the landlord who shrugged it off as “just words.” So much for treating neighbors “like family.”
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