How I Made Friends With the Old Woman Who Lives Below Me

by Daniel Roberts

First, I taped this typed letter to her door:

Hi there! Welcome home from your vacation, and thanks for reading this note. Depending on whether you’ve already stepped inside or are still standing at your door, you may have now heard, or are about to hear, a loud chirping sound. Yes, it’s your smoke detector! And yes, it’s been going off for the entire time that you’ve been gone, which, by my count, has now been nearly three months. The smoke detector chirp — I assume the battery needs changing — may sound like the slightest inconvenience and even, perhaps the first few times, like something pleasant. But the chirp chirps every three minutes, and because my apartment is directly above yours, I hear the chirp inside my apartment. Including at night, when I’m falling asleep. And there are a lot of three-minute intervals in one night’s sleep. Other tenants in this wing of the building have also noticed the chirping, and one mentioned to me that he called the super, and learned that the super is unable to help us because he doesn’t have a key to your apartment, because in the past tenants weren’t required to give the super a spare key, and you chose to decline. So there is apparently no way to make it stop until you return. So, I’m writing to ask if you could give the super a key for next time. And turn the alarm off now. Thank you!

— A neighbor

What can I say, I was angry. Then, after nearly a week of passing her door and seeing my letter there, most likely now read by everyone in our wing except its intended recipient, I noticed the letter was gone. I figured some other tenant had read it and felt it was too cruel to leave for an old woman who lives alone and is in her eighties. But that same night, I heard the woman’s television blaring below me.

The note was gone because she was home, clearly. But get this — over the next few days, the smoke detector continued to go off. She was now home, living in the apartment, and it was still going off. I couldn’t believe it. I wondered what the deal was — there seemed to be two possible explanations: a) she was so old that she couldn’t hear it, or b) she was fully aware of it and didn’t care. I gathered up the courage to knock on her door a couple times, and one of those times, I actually heard her TV click off, but she didn’t come to the door. (I concluded she must have known that the person knocking was knocking to complain about the alarm, and she was enjoying the chirping, thank you very much.)

Then, on a Sunday afternoon, I walked downstairs and got lucky: she was exiting her apartment. I stopped at the landing and looked at her. She looked at me, and said something that sounded like, “Balk in stir there cold now, haaaaaah?” I didn’t understand what she meant, but I said, “Hey, so, do you need help with that smoke detector in there?” She said, “haaaah?” I said, “The alarm going off. In there. In your apartment. Do you need help with it?”’

I did not expect what was coming next. “Yes!” she said. “I not tall…” OMG, ladies, she had merely needed some height. The next thing I knew, I was inside her apartment, which was huge. There, in her living room, was the smoke detector bird, chirping away, red light flashing. It was maybe 10 times louder inside her apartment, and I wondered how she had been sleeping with this. “I have learn sleep with it!” she suddenly said. She got me a stepladder and I unscrewed the thing from the wall and took out the batteries. I texted my girlfriend: “In belly of the beast. Silenced alarm. Boom I’m a hero.” The woman even had replacement batteries waiting, and as I installed them, she pinched my butt. When I turned around she said, “You are doll.” She made no indication that she had seen the letter or that, if she had, knew that I was the one behind it. Her phone rang. She answered it and began speaking in very fast Italian. She hung up. “It’s my birthday,” she said. Holy shit. “I keep try to go out but the phone, people keep on the phone to tell me.” Wow. “Happy birthday,” I said. We walked downstairs together and went our separate ways for the day.

Somehow, I ran into her again hours later, when she was walking out and I was walking in. “You dag to ridge?” she said. “What?” I said. “You dag to ridge?” I realized she was saying “like.” “You like to ridge?” I realized I had a paperback in my hands. “Oh, yes! To read, yes,” I said. She said, “I have old books, I’ll put out for free.”

Free old books and a new (also old) friend? Worth a chirp or two [hundred thousand].

Previously: How to Get Over Your James Franco Complex.

Daniel Roberts is a magazine reporter in New York.