On Living Alone in an East Village Studio

Three stories: a yell for help, an edible nightmare, and the storm

For my first two years in New York, I called a small studio in the East Village home. It was the first and last time I lived alone, and I loved it, fiercely.

Here are three stories from my time in the studio, accompanied by photos taken from its fire escape. Which is, to this day, my favorite perch in the city.

The Man in 3A

A year and a half into my lease in apartment 4A, I began hearing faint yelling coming through the wall. It was enraged, frantic—the kind you couldn’t stop if you tried. Initially ignored as someone’s too loud TNT drama, I started paying closer attention to the reoccurring ruckus.

My second instinct was that I lived next to a verbally abusive boyfriend whose nightly ritual was berating his partner. Only his victim stayed eerily silent, never responding, no matter how intense the yelling. I then briefly believed that my neighbor was an actor preparing for a role, his apartment the only space where he could truly let go.

That was before I actually listened to what he was bellowing.

Standing on my kitchen counter, craning my head towards the vent above my refrigerator gave me the clearest way to hear him. I started recording his nightly rants, both disruptive and increasingly unsettling.

Warning: The following recording contains graphic, disturbing language. It’s also hard to hear unless you turn up your volume.

I had to psych myself up before listening to the recording, which I found a couple weeks ago attached to an old email to Ryan. Years later, it’s still unbelievable to think it was my ambient norm for a period of time. He always circled the same themes, at best a bother, at worst a hazard. And even then, I could hear the psychological torment in his terrible tornado of words.

The day after I recorded that soundbite, I took it to the manager of the building, who told me two things: 1) My neighbors on the fourth floor were all women, meaning the yelling man actually lived below me, and 2) They couldn’t do anything about it. Later that afternoon, I offered my earbuds to the local police precinct who echoed that until I was directly threatened, there was little they could do.

I took matters into my own hands. I wrote, “WE CAN ALL HEAR YOU. PLEASE BE QUIET.” in big block letters, and descended on socked tiptoes to tape the note to his door. I left the message exposed to passively encourage solidarity among other neighbors.

The note remained on his door for a whole week before it disappeared.

I’m not sure if the yelling actually stopped, or if I simply acclimated to the noise. The note was written in self-preservation and safety, but I wonder whether confrontation and compassion would have served us better.

I never actually saw the man in 3A, but I hope he was finally able to find the peace and help he was howling for.

Firecrackers

One summer, one of my closest friends from college tried on NY for size. The perfect combination of encouragement and trust, he’s the person who’s been there for every single one of my first attempts with drugs.

See that Siamese twinkle in our eyes? Trouble.

For his last night in the city, we thought it’d be a good idea to use the last of his stash to make Firecrackers. For those unfamiliar, a Firecracker is the edible of choice for those too impatient to actually bake. The dried herb is sprinkled directly onto two graham crackers slathered with peanut butter (chocolate, optional), which are then pressed together, wrapped in foil and heated in the oven.

We ate one toasty square sandwich each, then Skyped with another friend from college, giggling in anticipation. But an hour passed with no effect. At 11PM on a Wednesday, we had to make the call: resign ourselves to the safety of a too-weak edible, or eat our second serving with the risk of overdoing it.

Of course, we ate the second serving.

And of course, not 30 seconds after we dusted the crumbs from our fingers, the first one hit us like the slam of the sea. I was glued to my friend’s arm for fear of floating away, as the room spun on three axises. I kept insisting he turn off the already cold stove, worried that the apartment would burn down. Laughter became panic at the thought of having to go to work barely able to form sentences. My friend put me to bed, knowing that nothing would end the nightmare faster than sleep.

When my alarm went off, the world was still askew. I must have had a client presentation, because for some reason staying home wasn’t an option. Somehow I crawled the three avenues to the office, where everyone commented on how pale I looked.

I attributed it to bad food poisoning, which wasn’t entirely untrue, and swore off edibles, as you do, until next time.

The City and the Storm

Sandy started with the tap-tap-tap of steady drizzle in the grey of early evening.

The apartment was prepped with bottled water, canned food, candles. Even before the storm picked up, I’d built a nest of blankets and books. It was the best excuse to be in bed by 8PM on a Monday.

At 9PM, the lights dimmed and went out, taking the soft hum of appliances with it. I went into survival mode, lighting the candles and clicking on the camping headlamp I’d found in the closet. I rescued a lone mochi ice cream from the freezer, and warmed a small pot of rice and red bean chili on the gas stove, despite eating a full meal a couple hours earlier. I emailed my parents so they wouldn’t worry and turned off my phone. But not before posting a photo for posterity.

At 10PM, the cell tower in lower Manhattan went down, and all connection was lost. The wind yowled in victory and drove the rain harder against the window.

Cut off, I grew restless, then drowsy. Sandy pummeled the coastline, salted the tunnels and flooded the streets of New York City while I slept.

The next morning, the power and reception remained down, so I left to bear witness. The usually fluorescent hallway was pitch black, and my imagination drew scenes from [REC] as I made my way down the stairs with the headlamp.

Here are some things I saw outside:

  • A corner pizza place handing out free slices.
  • A bodega that allowed only three customers inside at once to shop by candle light (cash only).
  • People using payphones. I used one to reach my parents and Ryan, barely able to hear their responses through the handset.
  • Parked cars that had been physically moved by the rising water, sitting at odd angles on the street.
  • My cousin’s apartment building, also in the East Village. Without a working buzzer or cell, I couldn’t tell her I was downstairs. I found out later that she’d come by my apartment and had the same issue.

I spent one more night in self-imposed isolation without power before packing a small bag and walking 30 blocks north, back to civilization and working outlets. I stayed with another cousin in Midtown, something I suppose I could have done earlier.

But it felt important to participate in the storm. To be at home for the worst of it, come what may, and see the neighborhood mend itself in the aftermath.

The New York Magazine cover for “The City and the Storm,” is one of the few framed pieces in my office. When I look at it, I remember what it felt like to be alone that night, watching the storm unfold outside the window. The photo reminds me—us—that we are never truly alone in New York City. We all face the storms, then rise to nurse the place we call home.

Natalie is a New Yorker who is leaving New York. Follow her farewell series, On New York, here on Medium and on Instagram.