The World is My Dumpster*

Last Saturday night I witnessed a random act of "terracism."

It started off as a perfect evening at the home of friends. It was a balmy 72 degrees, with a gentle Hudson River breeze—ideal conditions for eating outside. My fellow dinner guests seemed in particularly good spirits—and why not? Our hostess was a professional chef, so we all knew we were in for a gastronomical treat. Moreover, the hosts’ second-floor terrace was exceptionally large (by New York standards) and was furnished for maximum guest comfort. Seated at the long wooden dining table, we were just beginning to enjoy the first few bites of a delectable leg of lamb when suddenly—whzzzt!—a lit cigarette came plummeting down, passing six inches from the host’s ear and landing next to him on the deck.

We all shrieked, then laughed. (It happened to be the night that wacky group of Christians thought the world was going to end, which may have made us a little more jumpy than usual at the sight of fiery objects flying by.) Our host, looking miserable, informed us that this kind of thing happened to them on a regular basis, and that sailing cigarette butts were not by any means the worst occurrences. Other kinds of trash, including (horrors!) used condoms, had been flung down during dinners. After that we found ourselves glancing upwards every so often at the balconies stretching some 40 floors above us, like Chicken Little waiting for the sky to fall. The sweetness of the evening now seemed tainted with unknown menace. When it began to drizzle, we happily moved inside. The drizzle did not last long, however, and we began to think about moving back out on the terrace for dessert. That’s when it started really pouring—or so we thought. In actuality someone was watering plants on a balcony a couple stories up!

The hosts, who had moved into the building recently, confessed that they had chosen this particular apartment because of the spacious terrace; they had anticipated a whole glorious summer of entertaining al fresco. Now, after three months of dealing with the nasty neighborly debris, they were thinking of moving. They had never imagined a building with such high rents would have such low-life tenants. They told us neighbors walking their dogs below them occasionally tossed poop up over the railing onto their terrace as well.  Complaints to the landlord had been fruitless.

There are, of course, many people (mostly bored teens) who see balcony vandalism as a sport—throwing water balloons or furniture off to see how things will smash, or how people below will scatter. There is even a website where people brag-post about the various items—bottles, cans, books, mice (to name a few of the tamer ones)—they enjoy hurling off balconies. In fact, the sheer number of YouTube videos there are of people tossing objects off rooftops and balconies suggests an innate impulse of some sort—a compulsion to engage with the laws of gravity. Perhaps the desire to let things fall is a deep-rooted instinct that kicks in when mammals are up high in open air. Like a chimp throwing down coconuts from the top of a tree.

However, notwithstanding the possibility of some sort of terrace envy, or actual hostility regarding noise that may be wafting up from the terrace parties below them, the people who are tossing cigarette butts in this case are not doing it for fun. Presumably they are just thoughtless individuals, with no idea of the potential consequence of a lit cigarette catapulted into the air. Perhaps in their version of reality, the cigarette ceases to be as soon as it leaves their hands. This kind of social blindness, the lack of consciousness about the existence of other people, is sadly a part of our modern urban life.

By the end of the night, as we were enjoying our chocolate cream puffs from the safety of the smaller dining area indoors, we had come to the consensus that our hosts were going to have to invest in a protective awning—flame resistant, if not bulletproof. After all, as one man put it, “They do say that good fences make good neighbors.”

“Hmm,” I said, gazing out at the dripping sofa cushions on the terrace. “If fences make good neighbors, I guess balconies make bad ones.”

*Published June 1, 2011, in The West Side Spirit
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