Love thy neighbor even when you hear too much through the walls

I live on the top floor of a building constructed in 1914. To put that in context, Russia still had a Tsar when my building went up. Because it’s old and wooden, it shakes and sways. When a big truck goes by I can often feel the rumble. When they were drilling for some new construction across the way, I could feel that too. And when one of my roommates is having sex, I can most definitely feel it.

Over the past six and a half years living in my apartment there have been dozens of times where I’ve been like “it’s an earthquake!” only to then realize it was just one of my roommates.

Overhearing the most intimate moments in the lives of your neighbors and housemates is as much a part of being a San Franciscan as having the ability to discern between human and dog feces just by walking by.

We’re so used to it that we just take it for granted. When we talk to people who don’t live in cities it’s like “What do you mean you don’t hear people talking dirty in Cantonese a couple times a week? The suburbs are so weird!”

It’s also one of those things you can’t get too mad about because you’ve (hopefully) been on the other side of it, like when I first moved into my apartment. I had just ended a 5-plus year relationship and was indulging in my newfound freedom quite often. One of my roommates had the misfortune of our rooms sharing pocket doors instead of a wall. When he eventually moved out (for unrelated reasons) the next roommate wisely added some soundproofing.

I recently heard a story I have no idea is true, but it’s too funny not to retell. It might be the most perfect San Francisco story ever. The person had been hearing lots of loud, painful screaming and banging noises for weeks. They were concerned that their neighbor was in a horribly abusive relationship and didn’t know what to do. When they ran into the neighbor in the hallway they checked with them to see if they needed help. The neighbor laughed and said, “Oh yes, those screams aren’t from me. They’re from my clients. I’m a dominatrix and I work from home.

The first piece I ever wrote that went viral was called “Living in San Francisco Means…” It was for the Bold Italic in 2011 and starts off, “Living in San Francisco means hearing your neighbors f*ck. The noise comes through the walls, through the ceiling, through the floor. The sound of muffled moans and love murmurs in Spanish, in Cantonese, in Tagalog, in English, in Arabic, in French, in…”

If that doesn’t resonate with you, we live in very different San Franciscos. Part of being here is that our lives are intertwined with people we may not have even had a conversation with. You may not know what your neighbor looks like, yet still know what time they wake up every day, how many times they go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, and how often they argue with their partner. My favorite thing about visiting friends who live in big buildings is when they’re like “Did you see that guy we just passed in the hallway? I’m pretty sure he’s either the neighbor who coughs all night long or the one who howls during sex.”

San Francisco may be getting more normal, or less weird, or whatever we want to call it, but at least our sex lives will never get boring. So whether your apartment shakes when your roommate bangs, or you can hear your neighbor yodeling out an orgasm, it’s good to know that some things never change.

Stuart Schuffman, aka Broke-Ass Stuart, is a travel writer, TV host and poet. Follow him at BrokeAssStuart.com and join his mailing list to stay up on the work he’s doing: http://bit.ly/BrokeAssList. His guest column, Broke-Ass City, runs Thursdays in the Examiner.

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