I had no idea Philip Roth was my landlord, much less my next-door neighbor, until the night I moved in. When you share a wall with someone, you get to know him in unusual ways: You hear parts of a person’s private life that he may not want you to and he learns similar things about you. The details we gather are intimate, but you often don’t know the actual person at all.
On the south side of my apartment, the sounds I hear are Mr. Roth’s. To the east, I don’t even know her name. She has dark hair; I met her in the hallway once. When I moved in, she had a boyfriend and I assumed my building had thick walls because I never heard them have sex. Then there was a week where she cried a lot followed by a month of silence. Finally new sounds said, yes, we had thin walls after all and she had a new boyfriend.
She’s a person, like I am. But I don’t know her. That one time in the hall she seemed nice. I don’t remember her name, don’t know where she’s from – I just know what she does at home, when we’re at our most private, and I live with the reality that she knows similar things about me.
The problem with Mr. Roth is that I do know who he is. He’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, a National Book Award winner, the greatest voice of his generation. Heck, the man won a PEN / Faulkner and I’ve even been to the PEN Awards. I’m that much of a book geek that I once bought a VIP ticket, chipping in extra to eat afterward with the authors. At five, I wrote my first short story, so Mr. Roth is the embodiment of everything I wanted to be growing up – except, since I grew up in Kentucky, the Southern, Christian version.
I have not read him. I simply never got around to it.
After moving in, I asked my friends if I needed to fix this. “Just wash your hands after you shake his,” my friend Jason said, explaining there’s a lot of masturbation in Mr. Roth’s work. “He should have stopped after Everyman,” said another Jason. (My male friends, apparently, are all named Jason.)
“Trick is,” I told them, “if I don’t like his writing, I won’t be able to look at the man. And if I do like it, I’ll want to talk about it.”
A similar concern circled around whether I should tell Mr. Roth I write. “He asked what I did in the hall the other day,” I told the Jasons, “and I didn’t tell him I’m a writer.” So the next time he asked (in the elevator a month later, having forgotten he asked before), I said, “I’m a writer.”
“A writer, you say?” He awkwardly looked away, then up to see how many more floors I’d have him trapped. See, the unwritten rule of the building is you never ask Mr. Roth about the work. Never slide your, your brother’s, or your dog’s manuscript under his door. Never act like you know he won the Pulitzer Prize and never say, “I sat with BJ Novak at the PEN dinner and he ate ham.” Just treat him like a person – because he is one – and you and Mr. Roth will get along fine.
In that moment, my to read or not to read question was over. My next-door neighbor and landlord is just a man and if I opened one of his books – if I sat in a studio one wall away, burying myself in his words – that man would become monolith and I’d never sign my rent check with the same ink pen again.
Philip Roth’s noises through the wall are pretty normal for the most part. He watches a lot of TV. He may hate Trump, emailing The New Yorker that Trump’s “a con artist,” “ignorant of government, of history, of science, of philosophy, of art,” but Inauguration Day, news coverage blared from his apartment nonstop. He watches a lot of news period, so it wasn’t surprising, but for afternoon it was a change. Mr. Roth usually watches more TV at night.
Sometimes I think he is writing in there, as it always takes forever for him to answer the door. He’s quiet and intentionally stays to himself. I never knock unless I need something – New York’s not a town where you invite your neighbor to tea – and when I do, he always yells “Who is it?” before starting the walk from living room to door.
Mr. Roth’s apartment is huge and absolutely gorgeous. It’s a two bed – two one-beds, actually, with the wall knocked out between. I lust for it. The outside wall is all glass and the one time I was in there, the view was gorgeous enough that you could care less whose apartment it was, that the English major in me didn’t even look to see what was on the bookshelves because Manhattan from Mr. Roth’s place took my breath away.
There weren’t books everywhere, though, which surprised me. You come in my apartment and it’s like stepping on the set of Finding Forrester: Two tall bookshelves double-rowed, a smaller one stuffed, books on the floor assorted by piles: Reading, Almost-Done-Reading, Just-Started-Reading, Need-to-Start-Reading, Probably-Never-Will-But-Know-I-Should-Read.
Mr. Roth’s books are piled too, but in neat, orderly stacks. He reads a lot of non-fiction – or at least that’s what he had out when I came in: Four piles – one of biographies – sitting on the coffee table and a single book open on the couch.
I was there because I’d just moved in and didn’t know where to send the rent, but he didn’t know either and wouldn’t take it. “Send it to my agent,” he finally said, to which I replied, “The real estate agent?” and he said, “No, the business agent” and the part of me brand new to New York wondered what a business agent was and what it was like to be so wealthy that someone could hand you thousands of dollars and you wouldn’t take it.
When my bathroom flooded a year later, I had that same kind of culturally-jarring experience. The bathroom sink pipe leaked and the super ran a Wet-Vac. “He didn’t come out to see what was going on,” I told a third Jason. “I just can’t believe it.”
“This isn’t the South,” Jason responded.
“But he owns this apartment,” I said. “If I owned it, I’d have come over to see what was going on.”
“It’s New York,” Jason said, meaning there’s a certain level of net worth here that means when the bathroom floods in your rental property, you don’t worry about it.
I wondered how many books you had to write to get to that point, then thought maybe I was wrong about Mr. Roth’s apparent no-fucks given. He’s old, I thought, and probably just didn’t hear the Wet-Vac. Then the longer I lived here, the more I realized he was just giving me my privacy because he wanted his.
Lord knows, the year I after moved in, Mr. Roth had ample occasion to learn more about my life than he likely wanted, as I cried after work from the pressures of the city. But from Mr. Roth’s place, there were no tears. Instead, I heard friends gathering for Shabbat dinner and the surprise birthday party they held that I wasn’t invited to.
Even more than a place where people have money, New York is one where – if you want – you’re allowed to stick to yourself. It’s a city where a Kentucky girl can take out the trash and find a Pulitzer Prize winner in the hall, asking his handyman when he’ll fix his own plumbing issues – which I didn’t want to know about either.
One day, though, I will read Roth. One day when I no longer live here, when he no longer lives here, when the words on a page, the words between us, words anywhere are all that’s living. But right now, he’s just a man. He’s a man who attempts small talk when it’s obvious he hates it. He’s a man who once caught his walker in the entryway then slammed the door against it. He’s the man I share a wall with. And in that intimacy/non-intimacy that is the closeness of New York, that’s all he wants to be.
Terena Elizabeth Bell, a journalist, often reports for Playboy, The Atlantic, The Guardian, and the Washington Post, among other outlets. Creative work has appeared in Coal City Review, Limestone, Palo Alto Review, The Distillery, and other literary journals.
image: Upper West Side