Friendly Fire

Fayes T Kantawala is exploring the myriad uses of neighbours

I used to live in an apartment above a Fried Chicken store for two years. (It was run by some Pakistanis actually.) My place was on the first floor, and my bedroom was directly above the store. On warm summer evenings when my windows were open I would drift off to sleep with the pleasant smell of frying fat to keep me company in my dreams of complex carbs. One morning I woke up to an altogether different smell: acrid, sharp, wrong. It was so unpleasant that my body jolted me out of my slumber and as my eyes opened, I saw waves of thick white mist seeping under my bedroom door. Our bodies are oftentimes smarter than we are. In this case, my body was telling me something loud and clear: fire! And so I ran. I ran through my apartment, pounded on my roommate’s door and together we ran out of the apartment. There was smoke everywhere. The staircase smelled like burning rubber and heat, but you couldn’t see any flames; you couldn’t see anything at all, so dense was the white, plastic smoke. Again my body took over and with the sense-memory of having climbed those stairs countless times, it rushed me out into the clear, fresh air.
No one is friendly in an apartment building in New York until death is literally on the cards

The fried chicken store was ablaze. I expected to see some kind of commotion, a crowd of concerned citizens standing behind a fire truck or similar. But the street was absolutely quiet. No one was awake – we were the only ones out of the building, which meant the other residents were probably still sleeping. I called 911 for the first time in my life and told them in a voice I was surprised to find was calm: “Fire, there has been a fire.” I then went back to the building is entrance and buzzed every button I could until several seconds later there was a trickle of neighbours coming out the door, coughing and wheezing, shocked and decaffeinated.

I don’t tell you this as a testament to my heroism. I didn’t save anyone’s life that day. Indeed, once the firemen had cleared the flames and traipsed all over our apartments, leaving footprints and soot in their wake, I felt an unbearable desire to choke the little bigots from Mianwali who ran the chicken store and set them ablaze all over again. No, I am telling you this to illustrate the fact that for years I was completely oblivious to the fact that I had neighbours and that it wasn’t until my building literally caught fire that I even met them to begin with. That’s how remote and uninvolved New York neighbours can be. But something’s changed in my life now. Last week I told you about my geriatric neighbor who died and with whom I had a short (and, as it turned out, purely transactional) relationship. Well, his apartment has been painted and swept anew, and now two young girls have moved into it. They told me all about themselves as I was leaving the building the other day, even as I stared at them with the dour expression that I reserve for conversations before 10 a.m.

Yesterday one of them actually knocked on my door and asked me if I had any tea bags.

“What?” I replied, genuinely shocked.

“Tea bags,” she repeated, “Courtney said you might have some.”

Firstly, Who TF is Courtney and secondly, why would you come to a neighbour’s flat to ask for anything in a city where you’d really rather hop over to the corner shop? Something was off. I felt violated and watched. They are being friendly, you’ll say. Give them a chance, you’ll say.

But that’s why I told you about the fire. No one is friendly in an apartment building in New York until death is literally on the cards, and even then it has to put you both in imminent danger or there are no guarantees. In any case, I handed her some tea bags through furrowed brows and closed the door slowly and with a deliberate cadence of suspicion I’d hoped would keep them both at bay.

'Love Thy Neighbour' by Adam Crosland

I was talking to a friend about this while shopping last week, about how neighbours seem to have taken over my life in recent years. We were browsing an obnoxiously highbrow “curated” shop. It looked like a spaceship, and was the kind of shop that makes you forget it’s a shop at all: giant backlit shelves displaying only two T-shirts and a pair of shoes, while the rest of the ‘space’ throbs with curated air. Pants are called ‘pieces’ here – they never have more than one size, in any item – from mugs to cocoon husks to feather dusters – and everything comes with a little tag explaining its aesthetic origin in such detail that you’d think you were adopting a child rather than buying some sweats and tees.

That said, the T-shirts are rather nice; and we were just browsing after all. I took some into the changing room and on my way past the bamboo shoots I saw her, Courtney, standing there in an all-black ensemble and all-white smile.

“Oh my Gawd,” she bubbled, “Hay naybourrrrrrr!”

My friend looked from me to her and back again and we exchanged the kind of telepathic message only old friends can pick up (“Run, fire” it said). Shocked but polite, I made social introductions. Turns out Courtney from apartment 2L works at the spaceship store. Not only that, she gets a 70% employee discount. I left the shop with four T-shirts, a pair of transcendent sunglasses and an Arctic papoose that has been rehabilitated to house my coffee beans.

What did I learn from this?? When in doubt, keep your neighbors about. Because you never know when they can get you a discount that will save your life.

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