My Neighbor, the Builder, and Me
I live on the top floor of a five-story building in Brooklyn. The kitchen gets the best light for most of the morning, so I start my days by writing at the table. My neighbor too takes advantage of the best light on his little patch of yard that lies directly beneath my kitchen window. He is a wood-worker, a builder, a home improver. I am a writer, a scribbler, a crumbler of paper. Our jobs are at once very similar, yet completely incompatible.
Some days the sawing, drilling, hammering, pinging, pounding, and whining of his tools is so loud, I’m forced to leave my apartment in search of a quiet place to work. I’ve tried the local library where during the day, strange men wait for their computer time to look at internet porn and strange women hand me leaflets entitled “God Loves All Sinners” and “Why You Are Going to Burn in Hell.”
I’ve tried the local coffee shops where the local mommies baby-talk loudly to their children, to other mommies, or into their cell-phones. Though their audience may vary, their babbling high-pitched coo-cooing does not.
I’ve gone lower-rent to a nearby McDonald’s where the crowd is much quieter and the molded wood veneer booths conform nicely to my slouching spine. But here I’ve learned I have the attention span of a flea. Too much foot traffic, the calling out of orders at the Drive-Thru, the lines five deep at the counter, the crinkling of hamburger wrapping paper, the intoxicating aroma of their french fries.
And then there are the benches on the median strip in front of my building. From here, I’ve learned the routes of the homeless men who pace up and down my block, of the nannies and their charges, the lunch routines of the crack dealers in the park across the street, the dog-walkers, the Fed-Ex guys, which mailmen I can trust to bring me news of my submissions and which I can assume have thrown my SASE’s away.
Sure, this is all well and good, the gathering of material for my writing, these many hours of observation, but it doesn’t get many words on the page, so I make myself go back upstairs to my little apartment and I tell myself I’m not leaving again until I write something.
Invariably, these are the days, it seems, when my neighbor has also told himself that he’s not leaving either until he builds something. And preferably something involving several types of power tools and many stacks of boards and sometimes the noxious odors of wood stains and epoxies and other times large slate pavers that, when cut, create the loudest fingernail on chalkboard sound you can imagine; right back to the fillings in your molars, you feel this sound and it’s on these days I imagine killing my neighbor.
Maybe killing is too harsh.
We have had our moments, my neighbor and I. Like the time I yelled down at him one afternoon last spring. I leaned as far as I could out my kitchen window, the dizzying sensation of the ground rising up from below as I looked down. Excuse me, I called out repeatly until he stopped sawing and looked up at me. Hey, how much longer are you going to be working? I yelled down.
Sorry, he said. Just a couple more minutes.
I have learned that minutes in builder-time mean hours. And that minutes in writer-time feel like hours, but at the end of my day, I’m lucky if I’ve produced 1,000 words. At the end of his day, my neighbor has produced a set of planters and two wooden benches.
There are other times when my neighbor tells me it’s not his fault, the noise he’s making. These buildings are like an echo chamber, he yells up at me, gesturing his hands out in all four directions at the tall apartment buildings that surround his squat three-story home, which is squeezed onto a lot where an old oak tree grew and in the mornings, birds gathered to sing. Bucolic, you might say, this old tree that once grew in Brooklyn. Before my neighbor cut it down.
I imagine dropping my iron on his head as he kneels to saw another board. I picture tossing dozens of eggs. I fantasize about water balloons and BB guns and bags of flaming dog shit.
Instead, I shut my windows and turn on my radio and follow the blinking cursor across the page until I’ve forgotten completely about my neighbor the builder, his wife and their two boys, the sound of his sawing and their screaming. This is what happens on good days.
But, of course, there are those other days. Those days when I can’t seem to nail two sentences together and I’d like to take a hammer to my computer keyboard instead.
Of course, these set-backs have nothing to do with my neighbor, the days after a bad review or a string of rejections or worse, when the only thing I seem best able to build is self-doubt. Or total paralysis, as happened last week, when a writer I respect asked to read my latest stories, then told me that I should put these pages away and never look at them again. You need to start over, he tells me. Rebuild.
My neighbor doesn’t seem to mind the building and re-building. He has pulled up pavers and cut new ones to size. He has torn down one wall and put up another in its place. He has attached and reattached the wrought-iron stairs that spiral out from his back door down into the patio. He has built his own house from the ground up while I’ve built and rebuilt my house of cards. One acceptance, three stairs in place. Three rejections, back to the bottom floor. Revise, edit, polish. Trim, sand, paint. In the time it takes me to finish two stories and send them out in the world, my neighbor has built a set of cabinets, a flight of stairs, and an entire patio of hand-cut stone pavers surrounded by a ten-foot high wood fence. In the evenings, his family eats dinner outside by lantern-light at a picnic table he has built by hand.
Some days it feels like failure while other days it feels like kinship as my neighbor continues his work and I continue mine. And I suspect that when again I yell down at him, he will continue to reference echo chambers or that he’ll be done in just a minute. Until the next project. And I will do the same, though in a much quieter way, the fruits of my labor most often seen only by me – the sentences that build into paragraphs, into pages, like walls into worlds into dreams. Except when they don’t.
Outside, the weather grows colder and inside, the radiators kick on, filling my apartment with the soft sounds of hissing steam. It is October and the ailanthus tree that grows at the corner of my neighbor’s patio has turned yellow and soon its leaves will fall and I’m sure there will be the sounds of raking and piling and jumping and laughter. These are not sounds that will bother me as they are the sounds I remember well from my own childhood, my brother and I angling our rakes across our backyard, the giant piles of crisp leaves, the crooked paths we cut through them. They are the sounds that sometimes weave themselves into stories, if I’m lucky, if I listen closely enough. Winter rain and snow will soon force my neighbor and his family indoors, and my apartment will again be quiet for those cold dark months, except for the tapping of my fingers on the keyboard, the hissing of the radiators, and the sharp sound of sleet against the panes.
Julie Innis's work appears or is forthcoming in Gargoyle, Blip (formerly Rick) Magazine, and Pindeldyboz, among others. In May 2009, she was a finalist in the Glimmer Train Short Story Award for New Writers Contest and in May 2010, she won the Seventh Glass Woman Prize for Fiction. She has high hopes for May 2011.
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