Welcome to House Rules, Curbed’s advice column; today, our columnist answers questions about our relationships with our neighbors. (The last column explored solo living and isolation.) Other house-related dilemmas? Fill out the question form.
My neighbors have really loud sex at 1:30 a.m., and it makes me feel weird when my partner and I are awake at 1:30 a.m. and feeling randy, because we can’t (or maybe just won’t) put in earplugs. Is it weird to have sex when somebodies next door are doing it at the same time AND YOU KNOW IT?
—Sexually Synced in Brooklyn
One of the unavoidable aspects of apartment living is knowing a lot about your neighbors’ sex lives, and probably having them know a lot about yours. For example, I know that my neighbors enjoy Saturday morning sex with a soundtrack of Pink Floyd. I am happy for them. (I will let them be the ones to share what they know about my sex life.)
Neighbor sex, like sex in general, can be arousing, depressing, ambiguous, aspirational. Luckily, it seems like this particular 1:30 a.m. sex is at least pleasant enough not to kill the mood. My advice is to go ahead and have synchronized sex if you feel like it. If it turns you on to embrace the virtual-orgy feeling of sexual surround sound, feel free to let yourself listen to your neighbors—your eavesdropping is not hurting anyone. If you prefer a more private experience, try to tune them out, whether through ear plugs, music, or the sheer power of your own erotic focus. Either way, remember that though overhearing others’ sex lives may be weird, it is also an extremely common human experience. And in a time of social distancing, it might even be comforting to remember that we are united not just by the fact that many of us have sex, but that we can overhear each other doing it. We are all in this together.
A neighbor in the building next door sometimes just decides to be the neighborhood DJ, puts a large speaker on the windowsill, and blasts music for hours. There’s no set schedule or anything. Sometimes it’s a few afternoons in a row. Should I file a complaint or learn to embrace it?
—Can’t Stop the Music
I hear you! I often love the mix of music I hear in the spring and summer: Songs in Spanish float through my living room windows, Rihanna warbles through my bedroom windows, and my upstairs neighbor plays jazz saxophone. A lot of the time, I enjoy the feeling of living in an urban jukebox that I don’t control. But there can definitely be too much of a good thing, even music, and it sounds like your neighbor’s DJing might be starting to feel that way.
First, and most importantly, don’t call the cops. Filing an official complaint should be an absolute last resort, given that noise complaints can be damaging for neighborhoods and that getting police involved can escalate rather than solve a problem. If you think there might be a way for you to embrace the music, whether by singing along with it, doing some housework to the rhythm of the beat, or indulging in an impromptu solo dance party, you should give it a try! If it turns out there’s no way to learn to enjoy it, you can experiment with various options on your end to give yourself a break from it—whether by shutting the window, wearing noise-canceling headphones, or playing music of your own. If you do decide to say something about the sound, I would suggest giving the other person the benefit of the doubt. Write them a note that starts with appreciation for their music and lets them know why you’re asking for a noise reduction. Maybe you’re working from home. Maybe you’re homeschooling your kids. Ask if they can turn down the volume or try shorter music sessions.
Staying home during the pandemic is stressful for everyone, and it’s essential to look for solutions that allow people to maintain their self-care practices without interfering with their neighbors’ productivity and peace of mind.
I’m lucky enough to live in a suburban neighborhood where it is possible to get outside and get exercise while maintaining social distance. I enjoy taking a long walk every day, and luckily most people in the neighborhood are respectful of each other’s space. But one of my neighbors has taken it upon herself to be the social-distancing enforcer, shouting at passersby from windows if she feels like they are walking too close together. Is this helpful or is it a problem?
—Socially Distant in Massachusetts
Between all the messaging constantly telling us how important social distancing is, and all the examples of people ignoring and even protesting social-distancing protocol, a lot of people are feeling especially vigilant these days. Maybe enforcing social distancing from her window is your neighbor’s way of coping.
That said, this does not give your neighbor the right to project her hypervigilance onto strangers who for all she knows are from the same household and doing their best to live together safely. Even if the passersby are in fact taking risks, yelling at them will probably only make them more likely to rebel against social distancing.
How late is too late to introduce yourself to new neighbors? How late is too late to bring a “welcome to the neighborhood” gift? What if these new neighbors moved in shortly before the whole stay-home-wear-masks thing? Is it too late to get to know them now?
—Belated in Connecticut
It’s never too late to welcome new neighbors! And in times like these, neighborliness is especially appreciated. I’m currently in my seventh week of self-isolation, and I find myself depending more and more on neighborliness to get me through. I love waving enthusiastically at my neighbors through the windows, or chatting with them through my mask from 10 feet away when I run into them while taking out the trash. I’ve even started a meal exchange with a couple of neighbors on the next block: They make a main course and I make dessert, and we meet in the middle to swap bags of shakshuka and strawberry cake or veggie burgers and flan. It’s amazing how much this simple exchange can lift my spirits.
The good news is that there is no documented instance of someone catching COVID-19 from food anywhere in the world, so a traditional welcome gift of baked goods is both doable and safe. If you want to be topical, you can even throw in some masks if you have extra, or give them a gift certificate to a local restaurant that is offering delivery or takeout.
Obviously, you’ll have to take social distancing into account when delivering your gift. Don’t make your neighbor worry they will have to get close and chat with you. Now is the perfect time for contact-free delivery, or for waving and talking from the sidewalk or across the street. But physically distant doesn’t have to mean socially distant. It’s likely that your neighbors will feel more grateful for your gift and more open to connecting than they would have if you’d reached out to them in a pre-pandemic world.
Briallen Hopper is the author of Hard to Love: Essays and Confessions and the co-editor of the online magazine Killing the Buddha. Her writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, New York magazine/the Cut, the Paris Review Daily, the Seattle Star, the Washington Post, and elsewhere. She teaches creative nonfiction at Queens College, CUNY, and lives in Elmhurst, Queens.