Over the last few years, I've inadvertently adopted a strategy for dealing with troublesome neighbours based on the theme of the reality TV show Survivor: Outwit, Outplay, Outlast. Well, maybe not so much outwit and outplay, but outlast seems to be working for me with these people:
Cranky Old Men
First up was nasty neighbour Charles. I first met Charles while exploring the common property soon after buying my apartment. He a relatively short man around his mid 70s, with dark black hair, and a slight arch in his back which suggested that he was past his peak and was now growing shorter rather than taller. At first, Charles oozed charm and smarm: he was very friendly and welcoming in a rather disarming kind of way.
But things turned nasty only a couple of weeks later at the first body corporate meeting. The hot item on the agenda was wrestling control of the gardens on the common property from Charles, and employing a professional gardener to do the job instead. It was obvious as a newcomer that there was considerable conflict over the way the gardens should be managed, and agreeing to get a proper gardener in to do it was a no-brainer. Charles had been doing the gardens forever as though they were his personal property, and there was some suggestion that he'd been billing the body corporate for materials that didn't exist and that he wanted to be paid for his efforts. The problem was that his efforts weren't what the rest of the owners seemed to want, and this was generating conflict.
Now you might think "What's the big deal, it's just a garden, right?" Well, yes and no; yes, it was just a garden, but it was also a symptom of a deeper problem in the way Charles got on with the other owners and residents in the building. As the meeting degenerated into a slanging match over past grievances, I decided that being super-assertive might be a nice way to introduce myself:
"Look, as a new owner, I have no interest whatsoever in what has happened in the past. It's really very boring, and frankly I'm not interested in listening to you guys argue. What I am interested in the current situation, and how we're going to fix it. If you want to discuss the past, do it after the meeting when I'm not here. Clearly there are problems with the garden, and it's obviously causing conflict on the body corporate. I can't even open my garage door properly because there's a tree planted too close to it. Getting a professional gardener in to fix these problems sounds like a great solution to me."
The chairman of the meeting and most of the other owners appeared relieved, but Charles was incensed. I didn't even know exactly which parts of the garden we were arguing about, so I suggested we go outside and inspect it. As I led the group around the grounds, I pointed out the tree blocking my garage, and the noxious plants growing up over my balcony. "We're going to fix this", I said encouragingly with the unbridled optimism of the new kid on the block, not yet jaded by body-corporate shenanigans.
This made me Charles's mortal enemy. From that day on, he sent me vitriolic letters full of hatred, interspersed with newsletters from his church which he popped under my door. For a while he had me hooked, sending him courteous replies attempting to correct his misconceptions about me. I was determined to set him straight.
Silly me. Charles was never going to be set straight. Really I was just playing out a pattern of wanting people to like me. Plus the aggression that he used in his attempts to control other people really made me anxious. He lived in his own world of paranoia, and was so easily triggered to anger and spite it was just ridiculous. As an ex-journalist, you would have thought Charles would have the communication skills to get his needs met without so much hostility; but he either didn't have them, or chose not to use them. He was lonely because he had no friends, and he managed to alienate everyone in his life. Especially his neighbours.
Eventually I gave up trying to make amend with Charles, and just stopped replying to his letters. I felt rude at first, but it was clear that the more energy I put into engaging with him, the more vitriol I got in return. It was a completely lost cause. Charles clearly hated me, and there was nothing I could do about it.
Finally Charles fell down the stairs one day, breaking his collarbone, and his spirit. He moved into a nursing home about a year later. Then he died. People usually imply that I'm a bad person when I point out that Charles's death led to a net increase in the sum of human happiness, but I'm afraid it's true. There's a lesson in that for all of us, and it's not just to be careful on the stairs.
The new owners of Charles's old unit are really friendly; they even lent me some carpet cleaner the other day when mine ran out, saving me a trip to the shops. Swapping Charles for them has raised the friendliness of the whole building.
Neighbours From Hell
But then there were the neighbours from hell who moved into the apartment directly above me. I swear, these people came straight out of a boiling pit of low self esteem hell, and inflicted it on everyone around them. They were a young couple, with a 2 year old daughter. Let's call them Rod and Natalie, and their daughter Minnie; I tried to wipe them and their real names from my memory. I'm only revisiting the trauma here as a lesson for you, so I hope you're grateful.
Rod and Natalie combined the worst aspects of passive aggression with active rage, anger and abuse; making as much noise in the process as they possibly could. Their conversations and arguments were laden with more expletives than a gangsta rap song, fired out thick and fast without even thinking. In fact, there wasn't a lot of thinking going on from what I could hear; it was just pure nastiness.
Rod's temper was completely out of control, and he unleashed it on his wife at a moments notice. She'd work herself up into a frenzy and respond in kind, and then they'd slam their doors real hard just to make sure they got the point across how pissed off they were. The two of them kept me up late at night with their arguments, woke me early in the morning slamming doors, and distracted me from my work during the day with their, and their daughter's, screaming. Their arguments were demeaning, insulting, and laden with words starting with F and C. It took me straight back to childhood and my anxiety about my own parents' vicious verbal stoushes. And on the odd occasion that Rod and Natalie weren't hurling abuse at each other, they'd keep me up late at night with loud sex in the bedroom immediately above mine; which was particularly annoying when I wasn't getting any myself.
I knocked on their door, and rang the police regularly. It would shut them up for a brief while, but they'd start up again the next day. They just didn't give a damn. And their daughter was living in sheer hell; I'd think "She's gonna be really damaged. As if having their genes isn't bad enough, she's growing up in a minefield." One day when she was angry, I overheard her say to her mother Natalie "Shut up you fu_k_ng c_nt." Obviously she'd learned that's how you deal with anger from her father Rod's example. She was less that two years old at the time. I started ringing the Department of Community Services Child Protection every time they started yelling, in the hope that enough reports would stack up for someone to take some action to help this poor kid.
One day as I was going out, I bumped into Rod storming down the stairs in a rage hurling expletives of abuse at his wife as he left the building. "Rod, you're an adult now mate. It's time you started acting like one", I said to him as he passed my door. "F_ck you, you c_nt! Mind your own fucking business", he replied gracefully. Well, I would have minded my business if they didn't keep screaming theirs into my home all the time. When I returned home that evening, in the split-second before I grabbed my door handle to put my key in it I noticed a huge gob of spit coating the entire door handle and hanging down below. Oh, gross. I managed to unlock and open the door without contacting the offending ectoplasm, reached for the rubber gloves and disinfected my door handle.
The next day, Natalie knocked on my door, looking even more sullen and submissive than usual. She always came across as the classic abused wife with low self-esteem. Barely made eye contact with me. "Can you help me please?", she asked, "I've locked myself out of my apartment. I need to call a locksmith, or get up to the real estate agent or something. Can I borrow your phone please?"
“Well this was bizarre”, I thought, “The wife of the guy who covered my door handle in spit yesterday is asking me for a favour today.” Still, I like to help people, and she's not responsible for his stupidity. Although by staying with him, she's coming pretty close in my books. "Sure.", I said, "I hate it when I lock myself out too".
I lent her the phone. She called someone. Got it sorted out. "Thanks", she said as she left.
Later that day at the clothes line, I bumped into Natalie again. No eye contact. Head down. Battered wife syndrome. "Natalie, do you know what Rod did yesterday after he stormed out?", I said.
"Umm... no?...", she replied sheepishly.
"He spat on my doorknob. As he left yesterday I told him he was an adult now, and it was time to start acting like one. He told me to F_uck off. When I came home, my doorknob was covered in spit. Huge gobs of spit."
"Oh, he wouldn't do that."
"Well, I don't think it's just coincidence that we had a brief encounter and I came home to find spit on my door. That's never happened before."
"But he's a good guy really."
"No Natalie, he's not. I've heard your arguments. He abuses you all the time. You don't deserve that. And what do you think it's doing to Minnie? You guys disturb me all the time with the door slamming and your arguments. When I knock on your door in the midst of it, you act like nothing's going on. I'd move to get away from you both if I could, but I own my place. Moving out just to get away from you and Rod would cost me a lot of money."
"I'm sorry, really."
Well, what was she to do, really? Her husband's a moron. The police told me not to knock on their door because he was considered dangerous. They wouldn't tell me whether he had a firearm or not; but they said to stay away from the guy and just call them instead. Eventually I got tired of calling the police and Child Protection, and decided to take my case to the man upstairs. Or rather, the woman... the owner of their unit.
So I started calling Martina regularly to let her know what was going on. She was a little old lady in her 90's who didn't want to cause anyone any trouble. She had heard that Rod and Natalie were causing problems, but was terrified of Rod. She was too afraid to even visit the apartment she owned to inspect it: she thought Rod would kill her. It didn't help that she was too tight to employ a managing agent who would normally deal with evicting troublesome tenants. Martina mentioned that Rod & Natalies's lease was up for renewal soon and although she knew they were causing problems, she was going to let them renew because she thought that if she didn't, they'd just stay anyway.
Oh no. That would be bad. I realised that if I could get Martina to terminate the lease when it came up for renewal, I might get some peace and quiet back. She lived in a house on the other side of the suburb, so I dropped around to visit. I may have taken chocolate; I can't remember. My aim was to sweet-talk Martina into standing up for herself and kicking Rod & Natalie out. She was very worried about how they would react, and that they might just stay without paying any rent. It turned out their rent was being paid by some government agency; my hard-earned taxes keeping a roof over an idiot like Rod's head because he was too stupid and violent to get and keep a real job. When I told her that the police would help her evict them if they overstayed, it occurred to me that Martina had grown up in communist Romania and her notion of police was quite different to mine. It reminded her of the secret police, and they just weren't on her side.
Nevertheless, the sweet-talk worked. After many phone calls and friendly visits, Martina decided to get her daughter to help her with the legal side of terminating the lease and evicting the troublesome tenants. Rod and Natalie were finally out of my hair. I can only hope they've set up a trust fund for Minnie's future therapy and legal bills, and that Child Protection take action to rescue her at some point.
And after all that time I put in developing a good relationship with her, Martina died of old age a few months later.
Couples Who Argue A Lot
The building I live in was built in the late 1960's, when the idea of talking with your neighbours wasn't quite so ludicrous. Each pair of units share a laundry, so if nothing else you've got a reason to co-operate on who uses the washing machine and when. Before I bought my place I'd knocked on the door opposite to ask what it was like living in the building, and met Michael & Lesley's. They seemed a little reserved but otherwise appeared as though they'd make decent neighbours.
However, Michael & Lesley had a stormy relationship. She had a quick temper and it didn't take much for bursts of expletives to come from her mouth. But she also seemed to calm down pretty quickly too. Fortunately I could block the noise out just by keeping my door closed, and occasionally upping the volume on the remote. Since I shared a laundry with them, I made a special effort to get on with them. It's pretty simple really: if you want a happy life, try to get on with your neighbours. Give them the benefit of the doubt. Offload your excess steam elsewhere. Try to make peace with the people you live near, not war.
Fortunately Lesley's aggression was never directed at me. Well, there may have been one incident, but I've forgotten about in now, and so did she. I was happy to do my laundry during the week, leaving the washing machine free on weekends. I'd stop to chat whenever I could. Michael was very reserved, but Lesley was quite friendly really. I stayed well out of their arguments. They were happy to collect my mail for me whenever I was off gallivanting around the country, and I was very grateful.
Eventually the global financial crisis hit, and they both lost their jobs. With no income, they decided to move back to New Zealand, where Lesley owned a house; so they wouldn't have to rent any more. On the morning of the day they left, I managed to drown out their latest argument by meditating with a few extra-loud "aum"s.
Goodbye Lesley and Michael, I will miss you; though possibly not as much as I miss Charles.
It's worth the effort to try to get on with your neighbours. But if that fails, while I don't recommend doing a Richard Hatch, if you can't outwit or outplay them, see if you can simply outlast them.