Monday, December 25, 2006

Deck the Apartment

This week I moved to a new neighborhood in Brooklyn, much less trendy and crowded than Williamsburg had become during the nine years I’d lived there. I finished my move on the last day of Chanukah, and my old landlady asked about the new place. She had never heard of Kensington, on the opposite side of Prospect Park. “Sounds like it’s in London or something,” she observed. “What kind of a neighborhood is it?”

“Pretty nice; working class. Mostly families.”

She eyed me meaningfully. “But I mean…what kind – ”

“Mostly Muslim, I guess…my landlord is Pakistani, with five kids.” I lugged an air conditioner out to the curb.

She raised an eyebrow. “Terrorists?” she asked with a smile, half-joking.

“Probably,” I grimaced, carrying out two African xylophones.

Later that evening I made my way home from Manhattan. It was one of those grotesque Christmas shopping days, and I unfortunately had been compelled to run an errand near Herald Square; the blare of holiday commercialism was frenzied and unrelenting, and the crowds moved with a manic urgency that bordered on mass hysteria. I ducked hastily into the subway.

Half an hour later, Brooklyn was an island of calm, like a distant universe. On the way home from the Q train, the soft, mysterious strains of the muezzin’s song floated towards me through the unseasonably warm air. My new landlord, Abdul, was in the vestibule, preparing to leave for the night; he drove for a car service from evening until early morning.

“Everything O.K. upstairs?” he inquired. It was still my first week; boxes and suitcases stood in disarray around my apartment, contents spilling haphazardly out onto the floor.

“Yeah, fine, thanks. I’m still getting organized.”

“I heard you playing music up there yesterday.”

My heart leapt unceremoniously into my gullet. “Too loud?” I shot back, automatically and defensively. Musicians in urban areas, myself included, can possess terrible – and often accurate – paranoia that our neighbors are conspiring to impair necessary noisemaking by imposing horrifyingly strict limitations on our creative outbursts. And the urban composer may adopt a bizarrely hypocritical mindset; we must be free to make as much sound as we want, yet those around us should exist in virtual silence, as their noise will bother us. What a conundrum of a profession!

And now the inevitable moment of reckoning had arrived; I felt the clear danger. But I had been through it before, and this time I felt prepared to fight back. I had taken pains to make Abdul aware that I was a professional musician; I had even specified which instruments I played, to ensure that there would be no ‘unpleasant surprises’. But of course, the best laid plans have little to do with reality. I steeled myself for the unpleasant and awkward conversation that I knew was forthcoming. It would begin with Abdul’s gentle ‘suggestion’ that I alter my practice schedule, and end in a full-scale assault on my music-making routine. I dug in my heels and took in a deep breath, waiting for his reply.

“Too loud? No, no, not too loud at all,” he smiled. “I like music. It’s nice to hear someone playing music around here.”

I blinked. “Oh.” I stared at him incredulously, especially since I had been memorizing John Adams’ clarinet concerto, practicing the same lick over and over, laboriously adding short musical segments.

“It must be a difficult life, making money from your music,” he ventured.

Still flummoxed from the virtual conflict I had constructed, I racked my brain to figure out what he was hinting at. “Well,” I began, choosing my words carefully, “it’s not so easy, but I love doing it. It’s nice when you love what you do for a living. Do you like driving?” I asked, abruptly changing the subject.

“It’s not bad,” he surmised. One of his kids ran up the staircase and hovered coyly nearby. Abdul muttered something kindly to him in Urdu, and the boy drifted a bit closer.

“I suppose finances are tough with five kids,” I offered.

He turned to me and smiled again. “Not so bad. And I like having these young ones around. There’s always a child somewhere nearby, do you notice? Never a dull moment!” He mussed the boy’s hair fondly, and the child ran downstairs to where his siblings were playing. “But really, I’ve never known someone who made music for their living. I admire that,” he said.

“Well, I’m glad you enjoy listening to it.”

“Yes.” Abdul hesitated, a bit nervously. “You know, my wife and I were talking, yesterday. About the rent. We were thinking…”

Oh, now here it comes, I thought.

“You know, I told that realtor guy – the guy who showed you the apartment – that I was willing to reduce the rent by two hundred dollars. But he wouldn’t go.”

“You did?” I exclaimed. “I asked him…” I trailed off. I had specifically asked the realtor whether the rent was negotiable, but he said that the landlord was insisting on the advertised price – no exceptions. Of course, I had known that the realtor was a shyster; it’s New York. Everybody’s out to make a buck. But why was Abdul telling me that he had been willing to lower my rent?

“I think he was just being a little greedy,” said Abdul. Really, we were willing to go down, but he wanted it higher. So I agreed. But now I think we did the wrong thing.”

I felt utterly unsure of what to say. “I see. Hm.” I looked at the floor.

“It’s not right, you see? So let’s change it. Let’s take off two hundred from the rent. What do you say?” He looked at me earnestly.

What do I say? To lower rent? In New York? Was he serious?

“Uh, no problem…” I stuttered. “I mean…sure, that’s great! That’s…that’s very kind of you…”

“No, not kind. It’s just fair. My wife and I talked about it already. So from now on, you pay two hundred dollars less, OK? And we’ll deduct the two hundred you already paid from next month’s rent.”

“Sure, thank you. Thanks very much,” I said, walking up the stairs, a little dazed, and feeling an unusual emotion. It wasn’t the feeling of getting a “good deal,” nor the feeling of being given a gift, nor even that of making a friend. It was a reminder that there is a rare kind of goodness in the world, a humanity that transcends the bounds of friendship or personal obligation. And as the song of the muezzin caressed the air on the last night of Chanukah, I sensed that this gentle Muslim man had brought a little Christmas spirit into the life of his new Jewish neighbor.


Charles said...

Derek, what a great post! Made me feel great reading it, especially after hearing David Sedaris' depressing new Christmas story on This American Life this afternoon. Belated Happy Chanukah to you!

Derek Bermel said...

Hi Charles. Yeah, I guess it's the opposite of a typical New York story... Merry Xmas!

Kari said...

Derek, by far, my favorite sound living in this amazing city of sounds is that of my neighbors practicing music in their apartments--even scales. Layered with all the other city sounds, it's an accidental symphony. For a long time I've thought I should record some to send to NPR for that sound project they play every once in a while (the last one I heard was of a dentist's drill!). Of course, that would take too much organization. But your post made me wish I were your neighbor. Congrats on escaping Williamsburg, Derek.

Anonymous said...

I disagree. I think you should have returned the jesture by insisting on paying him - either the full amount, or a negotiated less. It would have been an honourable return of favour. You were willing to take the apartment at full cost to begin with.

Moreover, if you want to think like a NYer, he now has a few cards over you. He can always use that reduction to manipulate your relationship - either legally, or informally. He can raise the rent at some future time saying he gave you a good deal - for example when your lease is up for renewal. He can ask you for personal favours, and so on...

Anonymous said...

I disagree, you took the apartment at a certain price. You should have returned the jesture and negotiated. It would have been respectful and shown good character to your landlord.

Moreover, if you think like a NYer. he now has something over you. He can ask you for favours. He can raise the rent when you lease is up. And so on...

Anonymous said...

hi! I'm doing a project on you and when I went onto "Google" and typed in your name, all I could read about was all of your great achievements in the musical industry! Well, do you know what I want to know? Tell me about your life... you know... the life before the music. A.K.A. your childhood. I'm sure that many other people would be interested to learn about what you were really like!

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