In the summer of 2005 I stood in the shambles of a failed relationship and looked around the apartment we lived in at the time. Deciding that my newly rendered ex-fiance could have the damn thing I started taking books off the shelf and began scouring the city for a new hearth. No luck. At least until an old dorm mate of mine from university, Chloe, returned my plea for affordable housing. A one bedroom in my preferred neighborhood of Nob Hill that was renting at a price that was not like being held upside down by the schoolyard bully and having milk money shaken out of your Oshkosh.
I fetched up my things, picked up another boyfriend while I was at it and fled for a new start at a slate blue three story building called The Stanford Arms by the building manager, Jim, a hirsute blond man in his forties obsessed with the nautical life and carpentry .
“I call it the Stanford Arms because I think it might have been owned by Sally Stanford.” Said Jim as I filled out the lease agreement in his first floor apartment.
“Who’s that?” I asked.
“Sally Stanford was a madam that owned property all through Nob Hill. I know this used to be a gentleman’s hotel.” He took the papers out of my hand and slid them back into the manilla envelope. “There were spittoons outside of all of the doors when I fist got here and all of the carpeting was bordello red.”
“That is fucking awesome.”
And thus my new life began. In the next few months I met the other residents. There was Teri, who arrived right after me. She was a hard drinking hard loving woman who worked in security, could kill a man with her pinky and loved Hello Kitty and glitter nail polish. There was of course Sailor Jim the building manager and my savior Chloe the cartoonist. Soon after we were joined by Ali who moved into a studio on the first floor. Jim, Teri and I met her one night while blind drunk as we sat on the stoop smoking cigarettes. Jim was wearing a pair of dalmatian ears, holding a lit ship lantern and drinking Merlot from a soup bowl as Ali came to get in the front door.
“Come!” Jim crowed and offered her the bowl. “Drink deeply from my chalice of life!”
Ali did. So our trio became a quartet.
Many of the other residents were more retiring and my interactions were limited to a smile and a nod in the halls. Really everyone was quite nice save the bastard in six. A fat man with a bowl cut and New York accent who must have had the precision hearing of a fucking bat for all of the noise complains he called in.
But there was another tenant who at first I only heard of in anecdotes from Jim and Teri.
“So me and Jim were fixing up the vacant apartment across the hall…” Started Teri as we sat in our backyard oasis we had dubbed the Grotto drinking beer.
“Oh my god, you have to hear this!” Jim sat forward and plunked his Tecate down.
“Me and Jim were just fixing up the apartment and who should stick her head in the door but Sybil…”
“Wait.” I interrupted “Who’s Sybil? I don’t think I’ve met her.”
“Shorter woman? In her forties maybe, bobbed brownish gray hair? Big glasses?” Teri described.
“Oh!” A flicker of recognition registered. “Is she the one that shuffles and doesn’t make eye contact? Didn’t she complain about the Halloween decorations…”
“Because not everyone celebrated Halloween? Yes, that’s her.”
“Anyway.” Said Jim. “She sticks her head in the door and says she has this big arm chair that she needs to get rid of. And I say ‘Sybil, bulk pick up is on Wednesdays. If you take it down to the street someone can come by and get it.'”
“I’ve seen that chair sitting outside of her door for like, the past the three days.” I mentioned.
“I know. Which I told her she couldn’t just leave there. So she asks me if I might want the chair and I say ‘No’ She asks Teri if she wants the chair…”
“And I say no.” finished Teri.
“So then…” Jim began to laugh. “She says ‘well could you lend me and ax so that I can break it down into smaller pieces?’ And I just couldn’t stop myself. The first words out of my mouth were ‘Sybil, you are the last person I would give and ax to.”
This wasn’t entirely cruel. Something was off with the woman. Heaps of self help books would arrive from Amazon.com addressed to her only to appear on the bookshelf in the laundry room a week later. She would approach in the halls and reintroduce herself for the third time and stammer intensely creepy shit. One time she came in as Jim, Ali, Teri and I drank beer on the stoop during a mid movie cigarette break. We had moved aside to let her in and were treated to a vague lecture on the demon alcohol. Then a week later she caught me in the elevator and reintroduced her self. She didn’t seem to remember the incident or the fact that I had introduced my self twice by that point. Then there was the time Teri ran into her and mentioned going to a get together in my apartment and said that she would try to make it. Now I’m not Miss Manners but I think it’s generally bad form to just invite yourself to a party in someones home. Especially if you can’t remember the hostesses fucking name.
We were never entirely sure whether or not she wanted to be friends or stab us in the neck. Yet being a group of folks who weren’t keen on stabbings in general we erred on the side of caution and steered clear as often as possible.
This worked until 7 AM on a May Sunday when a loud knock resounded at my door.
I was in bed with my boyfriend at the time, buck ass nekkid as one tends to be after going to bed with ones boyfriend and it took me a groggy few minutes to throw some clothes on and get to the door.
No one was there. Down the hall Sybil’s apartment door gaped open. Now even though it’s not like she and I hung out on a regular basis I took a step outside but then decided against it. It’s not unusual for me to have auditory hallucinations while nestled in the cusp between sleep and wakefulness. Still I was awake now. I sat down at my computer located in a large closet near my door to check email.
Then a series of bangs from my door and- what confused the shit out of me- the unmistakable sound of packaging tape being ripped from it’s roll. Since I clearly don’t believe in the possibility of violent criminals trying to get into my home for a “Bind, Torture, Kill” session I jumped to my feet and threw the door wide open.
No violent psychopath. Just little, nervous Sybil. Her hair in disarray, clad in an oversized floral nightshirt and baggy plaid flannel trousers, Clutching a roll of clear tape and looking guilty and deeply, deeply surprised. I took her in in one silent glance and then turned to my door. On a thick piece of display board as wide as the door and about a third of it’s length was taped a sign. On this sign were emblazoned in red letters were the words:
“A WHORE LIVES HERE.“
Well, okay then!
So I did what anyone would in that situation. I enquired, politely as possible, as to what the fuck she thought she was doing.
“Hi, Sybil.” I said evenly and slowly. “Sooo…what’s this about?”
Sybil stammered and fiddled with the tape. She shifted from foot to foot, unsure whether to run or face the woman she thought wasn’t home. It was fairly obvious that her ingenious plan was just not panning out. The poor thing. It was supposed to be over and done with in a flash! She was supposed to be able to watch from her peephole as I wailed and gnashed my teeth and wondered who had found out my terrible slutty secret and impugned my dignity as an honest woman!
“Sybil.” I continued in my slow soothing voice, as if I was speaking to a child. “Can I ask why you would do something like this? Did I do something to upset you? Because I can’t really think of anything to warrant this.”
“I just…I just…you know. I wish people would respect my boundaries…” She shifted and stuttered “I Wish people would stop rubbing things in my face all of the time. I mean…” She trailed off.
“Ok. Did something upset you? I’m still not clear.”
“There was this man and he said he was going to stay over with his girlfriend and he was talking about spending the night and how he was excited to get to see her and I just didn’t want to hear it and no one thinks about how I feel…” Her words rushed by.
I stopped her. “Ok, So this man, was he a tall guy with close cropped blond hair? Pale? Do you think you ran into my boyfriend and he somehow upset you? Because he’s not a big oversharer with strangers. Was it someone else? Can you tell me what he looked like? Did he get overly sexual when he talked to you?” I asked questions like you would ask a lost child what her mommy and daddy looked like.
“Oh, I don’t know…I don’t…” She frantically reached for the sign and began ripping it down, balling up pieces of it in her knobbly hands. “I don’t know what he looked like I don’t really remember…I may not even have the right door…”
Now that actually threw me.
“Ok. Sybil? It’s first of all considered extremely rude to slut shame your neighbors but secondly, should you choose to follow through on doing so, don’t you want to make sure you have the right slut?”
“Because that’s kind of an important factor.”
Sybil hung her head and twisted the remains of the sign into a rope. She fidgeted desperately.
“I know…I know. I shouldn’t have done that.” She said in her high reedy voice. “I just get so tired of people flaunting their happiness in my face. Like just because I don’t have what they have doesn’t mean I want to hear about it…”
I just stood there for a moment and watched her twist and twist and twist the paper in her hands, tape roll dangling on her wrist. How many years does someone have to be lonely before it drives them insane? How long do you have to feel out of place before acting out like that seems like a good idea because, fuck em’ they never understand the way you feel anyway. How long do you live alone in your own head before putting a sign on the door of a woman you barely know calling her a whore seems like a good idea?
“Do you…Do you want to come inside for a coffee?” I asked for some fucking reason. “Or tea? We can talk about it…”
“Oh, No! No it’s alright I have errands to run anyway…I, um, just…anyway I’m sorry about the, ah, thing.” Sybil gestured back to her own door.
“Okay then.” I had almost said ‘It’s okay.’ but you know, it’s kind of not.
She shuffled quickly back down the hall and I waited until the door whooshed shut before I pulled my head back into my own apartment. I leaned against my door and blinked. I went to get my cell phone.
Jim was out of town camping and the call went to voice mail.
“Hey, Jim. It’s Leia. Listen I know you are on vacation and this isn’t really a big deal but, uhhh, you should call me when you get this. A…thing happened.”
An hour later Jim called me back and I related the the great whore caper. There was a minute of silence on the other line.
“You there?” I asked.
“This actually happened?” Jim said. “In real life. In the world we live in this actually happened?”
“Ok. Well. I’ll…I’ll call the landlord and see what I can do because that is…so…fucking not ok.” Jim’s voice seemed distant as if his brain was having a hard time understanding. “All right let me call them and I’ll, I guess, call you back.”
He hung up the phone. I turned to get he coffee from the pantry and immediately the phone rang again. It was Jim. I answered and his voice came though clear and incredulous.
“I cannot believe that fucking happened.”
In the end the office that owns our property sent Sybil a cursory letter of reprimand that made the suggestion that perhaps her behavior was inappropriate. That was about it though. I avoided Sybil for successfully for a couple of weeks but as will in inevitably happen in a smallish building I wound up in the elevator with her.
She turned to look at me after closing the gate and in that high pitched voice asked, “I’m sorry but…I don’t think I’ve met you yet.”
My eyes bulged. I mean what the fuck? How was she gonna do me like that. Whore I may have been but I thought at the very least I was her whore. Who in their right mind forgets a bonding experience of that magnitude?
“I’m the whore that lives in #33.” I Said flatly as my eyeballs extended even further from my sockets.
Now that jogged her memory.
Now I wasn’t the one doing the avoiding. Sybil now fled before me in the halls and was not heard from again until last week. I was digging my mail out of the box and found a bill for a subscription for Bitch magazine. Addressed to Sybil.
Hey, what now? Bitch magazine is focuses on feminist readings into pop culture and is frequently read by women who find doggy style sex somewhat “problematic”. I couldn’t decide if that made sense or not. Was Sybil secretly a crusader for feminist justice back in the day? Was it some odd mix up? I wanted to know.
I went upstairs and knocked on her door.
A nervous, tremulous voice called from inside. “Who is it?”
“It’s Leia. Your neighbor down the hall?”
“Oh…” The door cracked open and Sybil peered out. “Um, yes?”
“Hi, I just found this in my mailbox” I held up the letter so that the logo was clearly visible hoping she would say something like, ‘Oh! My magazine subscription! Do you know I used to do tea with Catherine MacKinnon back in the day?” or something equally revealing.
Instead all she said was, “Oh, my magazine subscription…I wonder why it ended up in your mailbox? That’s odd.”
And that was it I went home and called my friend Mary to come and visit. And Lo! what should I find when I come back from letting her into the lobby?
Yet another fucking thing taped to my door! This time a card, addressed to “Leah” but still we are getting closer each time this crazy shit happens. The card was close to illegible but I managed to glean the basics. There was a synagogue potluck being held for passover and would I perhaps like to accompany her?
I handed the card to Mary.
“Is this the same lady that put that sign on your door?” Mary looked up from reading.
“Oh my god! You have to go!”
I thought about it. I really did. Maybe she wasn’t that bad. Maybe she did just need a friend. We could go to this potluck and come away from it as besties. She would share a wealth of experience with me and perhaps give some insight into the reason for the batshit loco behavior.
I thought about it. Then I declined the invitation. No matter how sympathetic I feel toward the lost and lonely there is only so much room for mental illness in my life and I’m filling in the lions share of that quota.
Sybil has gone under the radar again. It’s been a while since I’ve even so much as glimpsed her. I do hope she’s found some sort of contentment, some sort of happiness. That it was a passing mania that is now successfully medicated.
But on the off chance that it’s not and I’m found with an ax buried in my skull she lives in #38.