in city apartments for the last ten years, my husband, Andrew, and I have
had our fair share of colorful neighbors. In our first apartment in Chicago,
there was the nice young couple of drug dealers, who after the
police confiscated all their stuff, borrowed our phone one night and forgot
to return it. Down the hall from them was the witty kitty lady,
who loved telling us stories about the fascinating antics of her 19 cats.
Later on, we moved next to a kind Greek lady who even at three
o'clock in the morning would get up to knock lurking evil spirits from
our adjoining wall with her trusty broomstick.
In California, there was the thoughtful religious couple who always
apologized when the bi-monthly Christian karaoke hoe-downs they hosted
in their downstairs apartment ran past 9 p.m. Across from them was the
friendly Hispanic woman who took a personal interest in my health:
You're getting fat, Cada. You should go to the gym. And who can
forget the reclusive Asian man who for hours every Sunday would
monopolize all three of the apartment building's washing machines
despite the fact that he only seemed to have one change of clothes and
never actually appeared to leave his house except to do laundry.
And though every one of these people retains a special place in my heart,
none can hold a candle to Simon and Sonia, the most memorable neighbors
Simon and Sonia were our first official neighbors in Los Angeles, living
in a tiny one-bedroom apartment directly across from our tiny one-bedroom
apartment on Hayworth Avenue. It's hard to describe Simon and Sonia without
sounding rude, because they were creepy people. Really creepy.
Sonia looked like a cartoon drawing of a witch, with her exaggerated crooked
nose, yellow fetid teeth and wispy white hair that always stuck straight
up off her head, making her appear eternally shocked. She also had a disturbing
habit of staring at me creepily, long after we finished exchanging words.
She'd often end our conversations with: Yeah
Aren't you a doll!
-- and then eye me up and down in a manner that can only be described
as lascivious. Sonia's husband Simon, though less frightening, had a sickly
pallor that was equally off-putting -- his yellow skin and big blue lips
always made me think of rotting bananas. Not an appetizing look, I can
On top of being creepy, old and sickly, they wore dingy, dirty clothes
that you'd swear they'd just taken out of the trash. In fact, their entire
apartment was done in the style of "dumpster." Their couches
were gray and tattered, their rugs stained and worn, and every level surface
was covered in a film of sticky gray-brown dust. Flies seemed to flock
to them and there were always a couple cheerfully buzzing around their
heads at any given moment.
Simon and Sonia had no real family to speak of, having married much too
late in life for children. And in the six years we lived across from them,
we never once saw a friend stop by for a visit. Just the flies. Yet, despite
the fact that we were secretly disgusted by them, Andrew and I tried our
best to be helpful neighbors. But it was hard, because on top of everything
else -- they were annoying.
The balcony of their place overlooked the street and in the afternoons
Simon and Sonia liked to adjourn to their high box seats and comment on
the theatre of life. My earliest memory is of them sitting up there, loudly
"whispering" to each other, on the day we moved in. As we struggled
sweatily to unload our belongings off the truck, their raspy, grating
voices could be heard from above. They sure got alotta of stuff! They
shoulda moved it all in the morning when it was cool
then they wouldn't
be so hot! Though we found it amusing at the time, their balcony lookout
became the bane of our existence -- as it gave them a constant window
to our comings and goings.
It was about a month after we moved in that we began to notice a pattern
of them stalking us. One evening my husband and I came home just as Simon
and Sonia were getting back from Trader Joe's, or "Smokey Joe's"
as they consistently mis-called it, and being neighborly we of course
offered to help them carry up their groceries. The next day, we just happened
to catch them carrying down their laundry, and again offered our assistance.
Pretty soon we noticed that the majority of our arrivals and departures
conveniently coincided with one of their many chores. I wondered at first
how they always managed to catch us, and soon realized the balcony
was our Achilles' heel.
Often when I was running late for work or just getting home after a long
day, I'd hear the tell-tale sound of chair against cement above me as
Sonia scrambled up to get my attention: Cora, darling. Before you go
anywhere, take out our trash! That was the other thing, the minor
issue of being called by the wrong name aside, Sonia never said please
or thank you, as if my willingness to help somehow entitled her to order
me around. I know real do-gooders go about their kind deeds without expectation
of remuneration or gratification, but it's hard being nice when the only
reward you reap is a lascivious look from an old lady.
So, my husband and I did what any warm-blooded Americans with annoying
neighbors would do. We avoided them. We plotted our methods of evasion
like we were planning a covert military operation, carefully mapping out
alternate routes of entry and exit. To decrease risk of detection, we
began parking down the street so they wouldn't hear our car pull up. We
snuck up and down our shared stairwell like a couple of thieves -- refusing
to turn on the light, even on the darkest of nights for fear we'd alert
them to our proximity. If we had to go out during the day, we'd listen
at the door to make sure they weren't lurking, then streak down the stairs
like lightening, going around the apartment building and out the back
gate so we wouldn't have to pass under their all-seeing balcony. If we
heard so much as a distant rattle coming from their apartment, we wouldn't
even stop to lock our door. When we were at home, we took to playing our
TV and stereo at extremely low decibels and creeping around our apartment
in socks so we could pretend to be "out" if the need should
It was a
terrible thing to do, I admit. Often Andrew and I would eye each other
guiltily as we sat completely frozen, waiting for Simon and Sonia to stop
ringing our doorbell. Though after ten minutes of DING-DONG, DING-DONG,
DING-DONG -- I thought you said you heard them come in! I DID! Then
why aren't they answering the door? MAYBE THEY CAN'T HEAR US. Ring the
bell again! DING-DONG, DING-DONG, DING-DONG -- we felt a little less
guilty. And, to be fair, we didn't completely stop helping them -- it's
just, we were busy people and we resented being at their beck and call.
Thus, it was with utter annoyance that I awoke one morning to the incessant
intonations of our doorbell. I got up angrily and yelled through our thin
plywood door: Who is it? To which a plaintive, raspy voice replied:
It's Sonia, Cora! I checked the clock and saw that it was 7:08AM and
responded in the sing-song manner of thinly veiled annoyance: Sonia,
I have to take a shower. Can I help you later? Sonia's voice sounded
urgent: My husband's on the floor and he's not moving! And that's
when I rushed next door and found Simon dead on the sticky, dusty floor,
his eyes wide as if caught off-guard, a putrid mucusy pool around his
open mouth. His formerly yellow and blue face, now looked gray and ashen
-- his body twisted and his limbs in unnatural disarray. Anyone could
tell he'd been dead for hours. Anyone but Sonia. She turned to his vacantly
staring corpse and yelled -- Simon! Simon! Get off the floor! Then
she turned to me -- His eyes are still open, but he won't answer me.
The night of Simon's death, I stopped by the grocery store after work
to pick up food for Sonia. She went through the bags with her characteristic
brusqueness, telling me I bought all the wrong stuff and never once thanking
me for my trouble. But the moment I made motions to leave, she started
crying. Her grief was oddly farcical, like that of a vaudeville performer.
She cried without tears, literally saying the words "boo-hoo-hoo!"
and I could've sworn I caught her raising her eyes to check my reaction.
So, I sat on the edge of the couch that had the least amount of stains
and comforted her as best I could, tapping the small clean spot on her
right shoulder: I'm sorry, Sonia. I'm so sorry. The second she
realized I was staying, she cheered up instantly and smiled: Let me
show you a painting of me!
And there she was, stepping gingerly over the place where her husband's
dead body lay only hours before. I noticed with alarm that she hadn't
even cleaned up Simon's mucusy mouth pool. With great pride she pointed
to a portrait of herself looking slightly less old, much cleaner, but
still pretty creepy. Then she touched her greasy hair, thoughtfully: I
should get my hair done like that again. Simon liked it.
In the course of that long surreal night, Sonia revealed a lot of things
to me that I wish she hadn't. She told me Simon had been mean and senile
toward the end, waking her at night with a flashlight and peeing in the
bed. Then she revealed that at a recent doctor's appointment she learned
she had cancer of the "bagina." After that, things got really
Sonia told me she was a virgin, having lived with her mother until she
married Simon at the age of 64 and only then learning he was "impudent!"
Before I could recover from this revelation, she was leaning in confidentially
to ask about Andrew's and my sexual habits: How often do you have sex?
What do you use for protection, those condiments? She moved on to
other, equally disturbing questions, rattling them off like she was reading
from a card: What about the Ellen DeeGen-knees, the les-bean-in? How
does she have sex with that other woman? Do they rub their two baginas
I can't remember how I responded to this comically disturbing barrage,
I just remember that while she was talking the light was hitting her crooked,
gnarled face in such a way that she really looked like the devil to me.
Many years later, however, I was able to see our conversation for what
it really was. Sonia's one chance to have life's mysteries answered before
Six months later, Sonia did pass away from her "bagina" cancer.
Since there was no family or friends to sort through Simon and Sonia's
stuff, the landlord hired people to come over and empty out their apartment.
Watching the workers chuck their things over the side of their beloved
balcony into an awaiting dumpster, I got sad. There it was. The end of
Simon and Sonia. Ashes to ashes. Dumpster to dumpster. And no one to witness
their obliteration but me. I wanted to have a keepsake from them, something
to remember them by, so when my husband came home I made him retrieve
the portrait of Sonia from the trash. We have it hanging in our house
to this day and it never fails to elicit a response from anyone who sees
it. I actually consider the portrait among one of my most prized possessions.
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