At my first apartment in Toronto, I had a neighbour I will never forget. His room was impossible to miss. It looked like the containment cell where they kept The Incredible Hulk. The door hung off a single hinge, the wood along the edges smashed into splinters, and had enough filled-in foot-shaped holes that it was now made as much of putty as it was of wood. There was a handle, as well, but it didn’t seem to get much use.
His was the room directly across from the elevator, and so the first thing a new resident would see when moving in. It didn’t make a great first impression.
We met him when my roommate moved in. His mother had come along to help and was already in a panic. This was her eldest son, leaving her protection for the first time. She made the mistake of checking the news to see what kind of neighbourhood we were moving into, and was now convinced that, the next time she saw her son, he would riddled with bullets and heroin needles.
The shattered door didn’t make her feel any better. “That’s a crack den,” she said, pointing at it knowingly. She had learned about them on W5. “They’re all over Toronto. People come over for a crack party, and then they never leave.”
She made us promise never to invite anyone over for crack. It was a bad sign. In the morning she had been worried that we might not stay focused on our studies. Within two hours, she had deteriorated to the point that she accepted it as inevitable that we would become addicted to crack, and just wanted to make sure we were clear on the appropriate etiquette.
When the man down the hall made his appearance, it was more than she could stand.
He came out of his room while we were moving furniture out of the service elevator. He was a scraggly mess in a stained white t-shirt with a wide-eyed stare. He looked, to me, like John the Baptist crawling out of the desert, his head freshly re-attached, still trying to figure out how to get the whole combination working again. He stared at us for a moment, not saying anything. Then he very slowly got out three words. The first was a query, the second an article, and the third an expletive.
To me, the image of two men carrying a table out of a service elevator was fairly easy to interpret, but I didn’t say that out loud. My roommate and I had an unspoken agreement that, when confronted with other people, he would do the talking. At nineteen, I had a vocabulary that mostly consisted of places people can stick things. After a few unexpectedly prompt departures from social events, it was agreed it would be best if I just smiled and nodded.
My roommate decided to clear up the confusion and the discomfort with a little small-town neighbourly friendliness. “Hiya!” he squeaked, extending an open palm for an eager shake. “We’re your neighbours! I’m awfully happy to meet you!”
The man down the hall just looked at his hand, trying to determine if it was a threat. He looked at the furniture, then at middle-aged mother fretting to the side, and then stared my roommate directly in the eye.
“I hope you came here to die,” he said, “because that’s all anybody here does.”
Then he closed the door without another word.
It took about an hour for my roommate to convince his mother not to pull him out of school, drive him home, hold him tight and never let him go again.
* * *
We would see a lot of him over the next year. It wasn’t that we made any special effort to seek him out, but he knew how to make his presence known. He seemed to have a voice that only worked by shouting and a vocabulary that only contained curse words. We would hear him through the walls, trying to forge a sentence out of shitpisses and cockingfucks, and would marvel at the ingenuity of his combinations.
When he wasn’t cursing, he was blaring the Green Day album American Idiot. He must have felt that the album was important and that it needed to be shared with the world, because shortly after we had settled in he set his speakers to their highest volume, put it in, hit “repeat” and never turned it off.
From time to time, we would bump into him outside as well. We would find him in the landlord’s office, explaining why he couldn’t pay his rent. “My dad’s trying to kill me,” he explained once, with an uncommon calm for a man under threat of assassination.
The landlord was equally unsurprised, and even seemed a little bored by the prospect. We could tell that she had heard this before. “Why don’t we sort the rent out now,” she said, “and we’ll deal with survival strategies later.”
We walked past them and didn’t get involved.
On another occasion, I met him in the elevator. I had just hit the button for my floor when he rushed in, his arms full of prescription painkillers. There was a pole with an IV dragging behind him, still connected to his arm. He seemed excited and proud. “Jacked all this shit from a hospital supply room,” he told me. “No guards or nothin’.” He huffed out a disgusted breath of air. “Doctors are fuckin’ idiots, man.”
I asked him why he had been in the hospital and he gave snorted out another disgusted gust. Then he laughed in that I’m-rather-fond-of-LSD way and said, “I don’t even fucking know, man.”
There were two messages I could read here. The first, explicitly stated before and implied through tone now, was that doctors are fucking idiots. The second, explicitly stated but perhaps not fully understood was that yes, he had been in a hospital for a reason and, no, he could not recall what it was.
I bid him adieu when the elevator stopped, and I noticed a slight limp in his gait as he went to his room. Then I went to my own and did not get involved.
Other times we would see him outside, perched on the corner, preaching the lyrics to Jesus of Suburbia to anyone who would listen, as though this was the most important gospel they could hear. Or perhaps just stampeding through the halls, muttering a list of his favourite curse words for anyone who might be interested. Or we’d just hear the album, blaring through the walls for hours on end.
Then one day it stopped.
We didn’t realize it right away. It just seemed as though he had calmed down, or at least grown tired of Green Day. After a few weeks of silence, though, it started to seem troubling.
I stood outside his door one day, trying to listen in. It was still the same wreck it had always been, and I couldn’t hear the voices of a new family inside, so it didn’t seem that he had moved out. There was no smell of rot or disaster, either, so I assumed he wasn’t dead. I moved on and did not get involved.
We didn’t hear from him again and we soon stopped worrying. The door was never fixed and no one moved in, but we didn’t give it any mind.
* * *
It would be a year before I would hear about him again. My roommate and I were at a bar near the apartment, and I noticed a woman that the alcohol soaking my brain told me definitely probably wanted to sleep with me. My roommate expressed concern that she was clearly there with her boyfriend and had done nothing to suggest any interest in me. The alcohol, however, reminded me that I was a sex god no woman could resist, and so I approached, dragging my roommate along as a wingman.
At some point it came up that we all lived on the same floor of the same apartment, and my roommate made a quick joke about crazy guy who wouldn’t stop playing Green Day.
“Oh my God, I love him!” the woman in the couple exclaimed. It didn’t seem like she was being ironic. There was a genuine tenderness toward him in the way she said it. It wasn’t exactly the response we had expected.
She explained that they knew him personally. They had felt sorry for him when they moved in and they made the effort to talk to him. He was a kinder man, they told us, than we would believe. They described themselves as his best friends. I had little reason to doubt it. It didn’t seem like a hotly contested title.
His name, they told us, was Richard. He was schizophrenic, and he lived under the constant fear that his father was conspiring to kill him. He thought most of the people in the building were agents his father had hired to poison his food. It wasn’t just a baseless paranoia – he had been heavily abused as a child. His father was dead and he couldn’t hurt him now, but if you told him that he wouldn’t listen for a second.
It was a blow to hear. Nothing about it was particularly surprising, but it was difficult to have to acknowledge these things out loud. I had planned to impress her with a series of clever quips at his expense, and suddenly it just felt like I was planning ways to be cruel.
“What’s the deal with all the Green Day?” my roommate asked. “Why was he so obsessed with that album?”
“He wasn’t,” she said. “He hated it.” He thought it was the worst album ever made, she explained, but he hated everyone else more. Whenever he left his house he would put it on full blast so that we would all have to suffer through it. American Idiot was the worst punishment he could conceive.
I told them about the time he had stolen morphine and painkillers, but it turned out that there was no ironic twist to that one. Drugs, at least, were one thing he genuinely loved.
We asked if they’d seen him since, but they hadn’t. Like us, they had no idea what had become of him. He just disappeared on day without explanation. No one knew if he was sick or if he was well or if he was even still alive. He had no contact with family.
We made our way out after last call. By then I had forgotten about my plans to sleep with her. The conversation had a sobering effect, and it was only the drunk part of my mind that really believed there was a life-or-death need to jab my penis into anything that might agree to it.
My roommate and I said little on the walk home. For the most part, we just expressed shock at what we had learned. The most articulate thing I got out was, “Wow.”
“Yeah,” my roommate contributed.
“That’s crazy,” I said.
We tried making a couple of jokes about the man down the hall, but they didn’t work the way they had before. We would get a second of laughter, and then it would drift into quite guilt.
When we got home, I walked to his doorway. It was the same as always; ruined, still and silent. I thought about knocking. I wanted to imagine myself taking some heroic action that would fix everything for him. It was two in the morning, though, and even if someone had answered I wouldn’t have known what to say.
I went back to my apartment instead. I went to bed, and in the morning I didn’t give it another thought.