The Local Lens
• Wed, Dec 17, 2014
By Thom Nickels
My friend Lena lives in a big, lush Center City condo building with a 30-story high view of the city. The view from her living room window is anything but dull. She’s lived there peacefully for almost two decades—until she met the woman in the hat.
The woman in the hat, a building newcomer, is a woman of smallish stature and maybe 50 years old. She’s the type of woman who would blend anonymously into any crowd. At any local supermarket you wouldn’t look twice if you saw her picking over the broccoli and red peppers. If you spotted her at Dollar General or Family Dollar you’d think she was just an ordinary neighborhood lady out shopping for cheap rolls of toilet paper and paper towels.
Unstable people don’t always look crazy. Jeffrey Dahmer looked like a movie star. Ted Bundy, another serial killer, could have been a movie double for Anthony Perkins, the man who played the lead in Hitchcock’s Psycho.
As the Scriptures say, Lucifer can also appear as an angel of light.
The lady in the hat, to the contrary, has a huggable appearance, so much so that there’d be a battle among strong contractor types to open the door for her at any Wawa convenience store.
Lena recalls the night she was sticking a fork in her microwave cooked Idaho baked potato (her dinner at the end of a long day) when she heard someone pounding on her door. The pounding had the ring of an enraged parole officer or advance SWAT team member staking out a suspect.
"Who’s there?" Lena asked, her sing-song voice showing some signs of stress. "May I help you?"
The Idaho potato, safe in its skin, went cold as Lena peered through her condo’s security peep hole. She saw the smallish woman but could only see a portion of her face because the rest of her was hidden. Obviously, she had moved out of the perimeter of the peep hole. Not a healthy sign by any means. To an overactive imagination it might suggest a dangerous scenario straight out of the movie, Gone Girl.
The voice in the hallway might have been Linda Blair’s in The Exorcist:
"You’re smoking in there… smoke is coming into my apartment. You are speed walking all night… I can’t sleep. I’m calling the police. I am going to register a complaint!"
People—neighbors—have a right to complain about noises that keeps them up at night. On my own street, for instance, one sometimes hears neighbors raising their voices when there are problems with rambunctious pit bulls. Several years ago it was an all-girl riot, which I reported on in these pages. That was when ten or more high school girls were engaged in a massive street fight of hair pulling, screams, face slaps and ‘cheerleader’ style kicks to the shins. Although the rumble ended anticlimactically when the Alpha girls who started it all sped away in Daddy’s convertible, it left neighbors here wondering if heretofore quiet Mercer Street had become ground zero for a Philly version of West Side Story.
Center City high-rise "neighborhood" fights usually don’t begin with hallway rumbles but with zealous door poundings.
The woman at Lena’s door shouted her complaint several times so that all the neighbors would hear.
Lena remained nonplussed. "I… don’t… smoke….You have the wrong… apartment," she said.
"I’m calling the police," the woman screamed.
Had I been in Lena’s place, I would have been tempted to say, "The police won’t come anyway. They’re hanging out at Wawa in a group huddle." Honestly, when do the police do anything about domestic disputes?
I asked Lena why she didn’t open her door and engage the woman full blast. After all, wasn’t she afraid that a refusal to open the door would enrage the woman even more?
"How dare you talk to me through a hole!" I can easily envision someone saying.
Why not speak to the woman face-to-face? I suggested to Lena that perhaps she should have ‘humored’ the woman by inviting her inside for a bit of cold potato or a tall glass of Port. There must be some truth in that old cliché about winning an enemy over with honey.
"I knew she was crazy from the start and didn’t want to engage her," Lena said, "I didn’t want to start any kind of relationship with her."
She had a point.
The woman’s accusation of speed walking seemed peculiar to me because speed walking used to be a popular women’s sport in Center City. It was often practiced in the 1990s as a substitute for jogging. The idea behind speed walking was to make your body look like it was running when in actual fact it was just walking faster than a stroll. The quick motion of the arms in contrast to the slow motion of the legs also gave it a comedic look. When I lived at 21st and Pine there were speed walkers all over the street.
"It’s positively Chaplinesque on this street!" visiting friends would comment.
Lena is more of a sleep walker than a speed walker; she’s slow and methodical in her movements.
"I do not speed walk," she said. "I’m not a road runner of any kind. The woman is nuts. Nuts!"
The big question, of course, was when the woman would return.
That question was answered two days later when another series of door pounds woke Lena up around midnight. The screams in the hallway referred to the same complaints: smoke and speed walking, in addition to "other noises that keep me awake." This time Lena did not bother spying at her through the peephole but stayed in bed until she went away.
"Tell management now," I suggested.
A few days later, Lena entered the condo elevator and pushed the 30th floor button before noticing that the smallish woman huddled in the corner of the elevator heretofore hidden by shopping bags was the woman in the hat.
Enter stage right: A film by Dario Argento or Brian De Palma.
Staring neurotic eyes framed by shopping bags kept their focus on Lena.
"I get off at the 29th floor," the woman said in a flat monotone.
"That’s nice," Lisa said, in Disney mode but secretly sweating bullets.
When the elevator opened at 29 the woman remained in the car, and at 30 she followed Lena out but walked down the opposite hallway. Lena went to her place and bolted the door but stood by the peephole to see if anything would happen. In a second or two she could see the woman pacing back and forth in front of her door. She was pacing and looking worried as if she was trying to decide what to do.
Lena, who rarely cries, felt a swell of emotion. She says she wondered how something like this could happen to someone who minds their business, is nice to neighbors and who has few if any enemies.
The next night, she was startled to hear the sound of someone trying to unlock her door with a key. Through the peephole, she could see the woman, still in her crumbled up Katherine Hepburn hat, fiddling with the lock in hopes of getting inside.
This story has an anticlimactic end.
The next day Lena registered an official complaint with management, only to find out that the woman in the hat had also lodged numerous complaints against her, among them making smoke, speed walking, and making strange nocturnal sounds.
Rationality finally prevailed, however, and the woman was given notice that she would soon be evicted. This process, however, could take some time.
What Lena’s story illustrates is that perhaps landlords should check the mental health of a prospective renters with the same tenacity and enthusiasm with which they tackle their credit history. A bad credit report never put anyone’s life in danger, but an unstable person with money can be more dangerous than full fledged bankruptcy.