Sunday, September 16, 2012

In Which Courtesy Gives Way to Clarity

I live in a nice quiet apartment complex.  We do not yell.  We do not throw loud parties.  We occasionally drink wine on our balconies and call "Howdy!" to our neighbors as they pass, but we're not Loud People.  When one of us *is* loud, it stands out very clearly.

Today, as I arrived home from the CostCo, I noticed that my neighbor's car alarm was going off.  The woman who lives in the apartment behind me was walking past, and we stopped for a moment, heads cocked like RCA dogs, while we talked about whether or not we thought it likely that the person sticking out of the car was stealing it, or merely unable to silence it.  We decided on the latter.

A few minutes went by.  I could see that the gentleman in question appeared to be taking his door apart, so I figured that he was having some troubles with the electrical system.  I went inside, and the alarm stopped.

Two minutes later, it started again.  The downstairs neighbors' dogs began to bark, which causes the Simple Cat a certain amount of directionless panic.

It went on for a couple of minutes, and stopped.  Then it started again, just as the cats and dogs and badgers had all calmed down.  Three more times, five minutes apiece, then on and on for almost ten minutes.

I sighed, and went out into the light rain.  I walked over to the car and said, "Is everything OK?"

The man half-into the car stood up and looked at me irritably.  The door panel was in pieces.  "Yes."

I said, "Your car was making that noise, so the other neighbor and I were thinking that we'd feel awfully silly if you were stealing it and we just watched you, so I thought I would come over and see."

"If I'm stealing it?"

"Yes.  You don't appear to be."

"Don't people who steal cars usually...TAKE them?"

I nodded.  "Yes, that's the usual way.  But this is Austin.  You could be turning it into an art car.  It doesn't look like that's the case.  You do, however, appear to be taking bits of it apart."

"Yes.  And?"

"Just observing that, and that it keeps making that noise when you do.  Do you need any help fixing your car?"

"No, it's not broken."  I refrained from pointing out that most of the door was hanging off at an unsustainable angle.  The alarm stopped.  I nodded, wished him a nice day, and turned around.  Eight steps later, the alarm went off again.  I turned around and walked back.

"Excuse me?"


"Are you sure your car's OK?"

"Yes, it's perfectly fine.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with it.  Are you sure YOU'RE OK?"

"I'm fine..."

"Great!" he said somewhat sarcastically.

"...which is best evidenced by the fact that I haven't been honking in the parking lot for the last half hour."  I unleashed the +4 Gaze of Asperity over the rims of my glasses at him.


"So, because the 'friendly chat' part of our conversation appears to have failed, allow me to clarify:  please either acknowledge that your car is broken but you are fixing it, or stop making it make that noise.  Because if your car is OK, and this is its normal state, honking and slightly disassembled, then I am going to request that it live elsewhere."

"Oh.  I'm sorry.  Yes, it's broken and I'm fixing it.  I didn't think anyone would notice the noise."

"If I may be blunt, is it likely to keep making that noise for much longer?"

"Uh, no?  I mean, I hope not."

I smiled cheerily at him.  "OK!  Thanks so much!  Enjoy the rest of your evening!"

I skipped back across the parking lot and bopped up the stairs to my apartment, leaving him standing there looking slightly confused, door panel in hand.  It went off twice more, and has been silent for the last hour and a half or so.  I remain boggled as to how you can stand next to your flashing, honking, partially disassembled car and insist that it's perfectly fine and there's not a thing wrong...


  1. Some folk are just entirely hopeless...

  2. Not to be rude here, but you might have stated the issue first. If you had come to me saying the same thing, I'd have thought you were being a pretentious pain in the arse/nosy neighbor. Yes the car was being noisy, yes he was trying to fix it...but this seems almost to be egging him on instead of coming out and saying politely "You're care is disturbing the quite, please turn it off or get help."

  3. "Is everything OK?" is a deliberately neutral approach statement for an unknown and potentially hostile situation. When you're walking into a situation that you know has consequences for you and the other person, you start off neutrally so you have plenty of room to escalate as needed. I can go into how it establishes a relationship footing on which I'm interested in how he is doing but have the right to break the social wall between us by approaching, as well (conflict mediation and intervention training for the win!).

    The joking "I thought I'd come see if you were stealing the car" was an actual question, even though I joked it off. When I see half a man sticking out of a car with the alarm going off, I really do first wonder, "Is he breaking into that car?" But the only nice way to tell someone you think he might be a car thief is to make a joke out of it.

    If I started with "your car is quite disturbing," and he's already frustrated and angry and tells me, "Fuck off and get over it," then I have no way to de-escalate that and it has to go to the apartment complex as a formal noise complaint. Then he gets a nasty note from the management and I get labeled That Bitchy Neighbor, and there's a possibility that because he was doing 'car repair' in the parking lot (forbidden by the lease terms) and garnered a noise complaint in the process, his lease doesn't get renewed and everyone loses.

    He turned out not to be hostile and antagonistic, just annoyed. But I've had neighbors (in other complexes, not this one) do such lovely things as kick over a lit barbecue grill at me because I asked them to turn down window-rattling music at 2am, so I tend to start from neutral and work with jokes, because there's a lot more control there to keep it from becoming aggressive. I've almost never been swung on by a laughing person.

  4. I had an experience similar to the latter one you describe, Badger. About 2.5 years ago, my wife and I were exposed to loud music from about 9 PM to after midnight, at which point I had had it and (after dressing in shorts and t-shirt) walked up the street toward the offending house. A very drunk young man came down the driveway to greet me as I approached and in a very polite voice and manner I asked if it would be at all possible for the sound to be "turned down just slightly".

    He apologized profusely (with a decided slur) and went back into the house. A few seconds later the sound turned OFF. I went home and to sleep.

    The next day the mailbox had been knocked off its' wooden stand. Our other neighbors' (on the other side) mailbox was also damaged. I later (after purchasing a new mailbox) found the old one inside the truck bed of our neighbors truck (the one with the other damaged mailbox).

    We did not call the police, for much the same reason Badger did not want to turn the offender in to Management.

    The point is that people cannot always be predicted. The only thing we can ultimately control is ourselves and these are both good examples of this.