By Matthew Wallenstein
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
I once lived in illegal housing above a factory. Noises, fumes, slumlord. We didn’t like our neighbors. That is, we were very close to the people in apartments 201 and 206. We did not like our other neighbors. Particularly the people in apartment 202 that sat right between us and our friends in 201.
Apt. 202 was always causing problems. The apartments all had a tacit agreement about letting people do what they wanted within reason, but there were also some important ground rules that they disregarded. There were a lot of conflicts because things they did often caused the fire fighters and the cops to show up.
Every time the police or the fire department was called we were in real risk of everyone getting kicked out. Illegal housing all over the city was getting shut down and replaced by overpriced condos.
Their band played music day and night. K from 201 and I would sit in her kitchen sometimes and sing along to each part we had heard so many times through the walls. They would have unruly parties, the drunk people would kick holes in the walls in the hallway, come into our apartments uninvited, harass the girls that lived there. There were fights sometimes as a result of these things.
We knew the camera down the hall worked because one night a drunk guy, a straggler from a 202 party, started kicking in the door of apartment 206. C came out swinging and the drunk and his friends ended up in a pile at the bottom of the concrete stairs. Even M, a girl who lived in the apartment, who couldn’t have weighed even 100 pounds, pushed one of the drunk guys down the steps. W, who lived in 206, asked the landlord for a copy of the tape so everyone could watch it.
So when the people from 202 had been gone a full week we knew we couldn’t use the hallway door to go in their place without the camera documenting it.
Our landlord didn’t like us going on the second-floor roof so they had installed a metal cage over our window. If there actually had been a fire in the building and the hallway was burning that window would have been our only way out, meaning we would have died. So, G had sawed the cage off with an angle grinder and one of the saws we stole from the hardware store. The cage being gone meant that we could break into the neighbors’ place by climbing out of our window onto the roof and then into theirs through their window.
Once we crawled in the window we went around feeling the walls until we found a switch and turned the lights on. There was a trunk full of old porno VHS tapes next to the downstairs door. B announced this find. I was on the second floor. There were a lot of instruments around the place. I picked up an acoustic guitar. It had broken strings, cracks in the neck.
“Batter up,” B said.
He pitched a tape at me like a baseball and I swung the guitar.
Another came. I made contact. It flew back at him. Then I smashed the guitar against the steps. It felt good to do that.
There were a lot of us. People from two apartments. We walked through, smelled things, loaded what we wanted out the window, explored some more.
Someone threw a plate like a frisbee and it smashed against the wall. Soon a lot of the plates decided they were frisbees too. I found a package of flour and shook it out, threw it behind me. White like chalk fell over us as we kicked holes in things, as we knocked things over.
It took a couple of tries but I managed to put the keg I’d found through the wall between two bedrooms. More things were tipped over, rolled down the stairs, a bowling ball went through a wall, a door was kicked off its hinges, things were peed on.
We found some items of use to us and did take them but it felt more like that Graham Greene story. The one with the kids who hung out in the parking lot. They ransacked an old man’s house, picked the meat of it off; the frame naked as chicken bones.
We climbed out of the window and walked back across the roof to our apartment. We sat in the kitchen. The mice ran across the support beams and scratched behind the oven. It was warmer there with the new space heaters. A rubbed his hands together over one like a hobo over a barrel fire. C was leaning against a pole. F was laughing loudly. Everyone was feeling pretty good.
When the Super came knocking on our door the next morning he was furious.
“Did you hear a lot of shit going down last night next door to you?”
“No,” I said.
“No? All that mess. You are right next door here and you didn’t hear anything?”
“Anything what? What happened?”
He went down the hall and pounded on 201’s door. Turns out they hadn’t heard anything either.