Since 1982, Tom Soter has been an editor at Habitat magazine, the definitive publication for boards of cooperatives and condominiums in New York City.
From HABITAT, from July/August 2009
From the Editor 11: Neighbors
PAGING JACK BAUER
By Tom Soter
“What are you doing?” I called out in the night.
My girlfriend was standing by the window of our darkened bedroom, peering out into the alleyway.
“There are two guys on the roof of that building,” she said, indicating the small, two-story structure that abutted our six-story co-op and the building next door. “They’re doing some kind of work.”
I got out of bed, looked out the window, and saw two shadowy figures, one bending over an air duct, the other holding some kind of torch.
“Hey!” I called out to them. “What are you doing out there?”
They both looked startled, as they wheeled around and stared into space, their heads turning every which way as they attempted to locate from where my voice was coming.
“We’re working,” said one of them, with the trace of an accent.
“At 2:30 in the morning?” I yelled back at them.
“Two minutes, boss, two minutes, and we’ll be finished,” pleaded one.
I wasn’t feeling particularly merciful. If this were the TV show 24, these would be terrorists, planning to destroy my liberal Upper West Side neighborhood. As I put on my clothes to go downstairs and investigate, I dialed 911. I was no fool. I wasn’t going to be the guy who goes to investigate a noise and becomes the why-didn’t-he-summon-backup-guy-who-disappears? “It seems fishy to me,” I said, feeling very much like 24‘s take-no-prisoners hero Jack Bauer, as I went down to the lobby to meet the police. “Who does work at 2:30 in the morning?”
It turns out some people do: the officers found a man sitting in a truck out by the street corner, who claimed he and two colleagues were doing regular duct work required by law. Who knew whether he was telling the truth? When I repeated my new found mantra to him, “You do work at 2:30 in the morning?” one of the two police officers said, “Thank you, sir, we’ll handle it from here.”
Coincidentally, the whole incident came on top of a curious afternoon: the board treasurer and I, along with the superintendent and his assistant, had entered a shareholder’s apartment without his permission. We had gotten complaints about noise, odors, and vermin and felt we had to take some kind of action.
We had been back and forth with our lawyer about this guy – did we have a legal right to enter or not – but our proprietary lease and house rules seemed to give us clear permission to enter. We had given the shareholder fair warning, too: calls and letters, most of which had gone unanswered.
When we entered, we found an apartment that looked like my bedroom when I was a kid, just before my father came home and threatened to disown me unless I cleaned it up. Bags, boxes, and papers in nooks and crannies, clothes, books, and other items strewn around, like a dorm room in disarray. There’s nothing wrong with a colossal mess, of course – you can’t evict someone for being an average slob – but there were serious health and safety issues here: the cabinet under the kitchen sink was covered with mouse droppings. (The neighbors had also reported roaches.) Then there was a built-in heat lamp in the bathroom, too,which our super said had been improperly installed and was a serious fire hazard. Finally, we discovered a loft bed in the kitchen/living room, which our super said did not comply with code and should be disassembled.
The board decided that a letter should be sent telling the owner to clear up the first two items immediately, giving very clear deadlines (the vermin within a week, the electrical problem within 48 hours) and warning that, if he didn’t comply, we’d take action and bill it back to him. “If he blows us off,” I said, back in my Jack Bauer mode, “we should probably get our lawyer to send him a letter, which he might take more seriously.”
Then again, maybe he wouldn’t. After all, in some circles, it’s apparently fine to live like Oscar Madison on a bender or do shadowy “duct work” with a flaming torch at 2:30 in the morning. Still, from where I sit it’s all a little twisted. I mean, I’m a life-long New Yorker, but….2:30 in the morning? Even Jack Bauer has to sleep.
from July/August 2009