There are thousands of prostitutes operating out of neglected office buildings around New York City, but I never imagined I’d be mistaken for one of them at work.
After recently graduating from college, I moved to New York to work for a small non-profit, which ran out of the last dilapidated three-floor walk up in a sea of glinting East Midtown high-rises. As a nice Jewish girl from suburban Chicago, I did not wax romantic over the gritty New York of the 1980s. Rather than be nostalgic for some lost edginess, I was content to spend 9 to 5 in an upscale neighborhood—even if our cramped office smelled like a subway platform. Before long, however, I started to notice unusual things about our neighbors.
It started with a periodic leak of murky water streaming into our bathroom through the air conditioning vent. We had not yet met the upstairs tenants, so I took this incident as an opportunity to introduce myself. My repeated knocks on their door went unanswered. A few weeks later, my coworker found a gold stiletto, lying sideways and forgotten in the hallway leading up to their floor.
“I’d keep my eye on them,” Harvey said, casting a wary glance up the stairwell. Harvey sold discount suits one flight down and had endured his share of crack-smoking fellow tenants. “I think there is some funny stuff going on up there.”
Soon after Harvey’s warning, still with no sight of the neighbors, the manager at the restaurant next door came thundering up to our office, demanding to know why his plumbing system was backed up by used condoms. I blushed and assured him we were not responsible for the prophylactic pileup. My staff mate suggested he try knocking upstairs. No answer.
At first I adamantly rejected the possibility that there might be a brothel on the next floor. Despite the unmistakable sounds that regularly floated through the ceiling tiles, I could not admit that my budding professional life was infested—not just with the occasional mouse, but with what my Midwestern friends would deem “unsavory activity.” What would I tell my earnest, bungalow-dwelling parents when they asked about my professional life?
“Well, the job’s great, and today I met the nicest woman, Muffin, upstairs!”
When I finally stumbled into one of our neighbors—a buxom woman spilling out of a tube top and carrying a plastic bag of takeout—I couldn’t say a thing. She glanced at me dismissively, clicking her high-heeled sandals up the stairs. I averted my eyes, as my bubble of denial deflated around me with an audible hiss.
For months, my coworkers and I held water cooler debates over whether or not we should expose our neighbors to the police. I felt surprisingly torn. As a recent graduate living on a non-profit salary, who was I to question how anyone paid their exorbitant New York rent? I hated working under a brothel, but it had never personally impacted me. Until the day that it did.
Hearing a knock at the office door in the late afternoon, I slipped off my headphones and answered the door.
“Can I help you?”
“Hey, it’s Mike,” said the slim, balding man standing on the landing.
“You, uh… You know why I’m here,” he said, staring hungrily down at my legs.
“No, I’m sorry,” I said. My ears started to ring. I knew immediately that he had the wrong floor, but couldn’t bring myself
to tell him to try upstairs.
“Umm,” he faltered, looking past me into the office where a few of my co-workers had gathered.
He started to laugh nervously. “Oh, you know, I have the wrong place,” he said.
”I guess you do,” I said, quietly closing the door.
I had bumped into clients before on my way to a meeting or lunch in the waterfall-adorned plaza nearby. Most were businessmen, walking up the stairs yelling into their cell phones. Some were remarkably normal looking—guys I might even find attractive if I met them at a party instead of nervously rounding the corner to the third floor. It never occurred to me that any of the men I passed might regard me as one of their “dates.” This guy Mike had made a simple mistake, I supposed, a confusion of floors. Still, I felt violated in a way I would not expect in this Starbucks-filled neighborhood.
The next afternoon while answering emails, I once again heard telltale squeaking from above. I shut my eyes but could not drive away the image of the man at the door and the look on his face as he briefly considered my skirt and knee-length boots. I walked out into the street towards the police station one block away.
“You’d be surprised how often we get this sort of complaint,” the officer I spoke to said.
I most certainly was.
“This is New York,” he said. “Even if we bust them, they’ll just set up shop somewhere down the block.”
Gee, I’m glad I could help.
Several weeks later, after I had almost lost hope, I heard a commotion outside the office. I opened the door to find a team of undercover cops rumbling up the stairs. I leapt around the office in victorious glee. Career: 1, Future humiliation: 0!
Not long after, my boss revealed that we were moving to nicer digs across town in a few months. The new building had an elevator and a discerning doorman—both things I would happily report to my parents back home. I was so elated by our office upgrade that I barely noticed when the new neighbors—a mysterious massage parlor—moved in upstairs.
Leah Koenig is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn and editor of the award-winning blog The Jew & The Carrot: Hazon’s blog on Jews, food & contemporary life. (www.jcarrot.org). You can read more at www.leahkoenig.com.