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On Kindness

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It's 11:30PM ,and water is dripping through my ceiling. This must be what they mean when they (the amorphous "someone else" these things always happen to) say there is a leak in the apartment upstairs. What do I do? Tape cardboard over it? Put a bucket underneath it? Call my parents in Saint Louis? A wet spot is congealing and warping on my plastered ceiling in a little circle.

Horrifically enough, the ottoman below the leak is playing host to the fur vest I bought this fall and love with every sinew of my heart, and the outrageously overpriced but wonderful gold lizard embossed diary that holds a record of my entire senior year of college and move to New York. My fur looks like the visual from a "do not allow to come into contact with water" warning label, and what I'm sure were once pages of wonderful memories are now a mess of ink.

Meanwhile the hole is expanding. What's leaking, anyway?

"Ew," I say softly as I move the fur and the diary. "Diana!" I call my roommate. "There's a waterfall coming through the ceiling!"

"Are you kidding?" She comes in with her Iphone, bugs out her eyes, and starts to take a movie of it.

"There is," I narrate for the movie, "water dripping through the ceiling." We film the slow, steady drip for a little while, because it seems right to have some sort of record, and then as quickly as the water had begun, it stopped.

The next morning on my way to work, I left our superintendent a very polite voicemail, letting him know that there seemed to be a leak in the room above, that it had caused a significant amount of property damage, and if he could please call me back and get the leak fixed, I would very much appreciate it.

I should pause and preface the rest of this story by saying that while I understand I do not live in a super luxe doorman building intended to have impeccable round-the-clock service, my relationship with my super, Marc, has been thus far fraught with peril because of what I see as his extreme lasitude and disregard for his tenants. I can get with a lot of things- moments of weakness, jealousy, mistakes, etc, but one thing that I find utterly intolerable is laziness, especially when it involves primary job functions and other people.

Our mailbox key languished in our super's apartment for two weeks after we moved in because he couldn't be bothered to walk down the two flights of stairs and slip it under our door, despite our many entreties. He swears up and down to show up to fix things like jammed windows and broken hinges, and then acts incensed when we call to ask where he is three hours later, as a television set blares somewhere in the background. Our heat and hot water was out for a full four days during the coldest weekend of the year, and when my neighbor and I corroborated stories, it turned out that he was not only ignoring everyone's phone calls, but had also taken down the sign on the front door informing tenants of their right to report no heat and hot water to the city's 311 hotline. I made a makeshift replacement sign and taped it on the door. He took it down. I made another sign. Finally, four days later, the heat was back on.

This may sound normal, at least for New York. This may in fact be normal for New York. But when it is fifteen degrees out, your place of shelter is seemingly colder than your walk home, and you can't so much as wash a dish, much less take a shower, you want the person whose job it is to give you a reasonable place to live to deliver. There have been plenty of jobs I've had where I've been asked to do undoable things- get tickets that are completely sold out, do four hours worth of work in one, edit 500 pages in three days, dress a girl for $50 but make her look like $5000. You just do it, and Marc just doesn't.

But back to the water. When I return home at the end of the day, with not a word from Marc in response to my voicemail, I open my bedroom door and am met with the most devastating sight I can imagine. Years of my favorite books, highlighted and underlined and circled and starred, marginalia running rampant, inscriptions and signatures scrawled on front pages, are soaked in their arty stacks on the floor. Mockingly dry to the above left, a substantial hole where the leak once was.

I call Marc four times. The first time, his voicemail picks up after two and a half rings- I'm not sure if he knows this obviously means he's looking at my call and choosing to ignore it. On the fourth attempt, I leave a message. "Hi Marc, this is Elizabeth. I left you a message this morning about a leak. Water has now ruined substantially more property, and I'm worried the leak will grow bigger. Please call me back." "This is your job," I want to say, but I restrain myself. I send him a text message relaying the same information.

As I fall asleep that night, water starts to drip again, and all I can think is that this just isn't right. No qualifiers, no theoretical dithering, it's just not right to abrogate responsibility. I have to keep getting up throughout the night and pouring out water that collects in the bowl below the leak. The hole is larger in the morning. "Hi Marc," I leave another voicemail on my way to work in the morning. "Please call me back right away. This is your job," I say simply, and hang up. My roommate calls from her number, and he ignores her as well.

When I return from work the next night, the bowl that had been empty in the morning is on the verge of overflowing, and the hole is about to spread to where it will hit the desk I bought, finished, sanded, glossed and added knobs to, potentially ruining it. It's been almost forty-eight hours. It's the work week. Theoretically, this hole will eventually expand over my bed and soak me in my sleep. I call, and Marc sends my call to voicemail on the first ring. You've got to be kidding. I call, and call, and call, and call.

He picks up on my 12th attempt.

"Hello?" He sounds incredibly irritated. "What do you want, girl?"

Oh no. Girl? I get up at seven in the morning to run five days a week, get to work on time, stay late, pay my bills on schedule and would call you back within a few hours if you called me for so much as a favor. Well, small infant man, this is what I want--

"I've been calling you for the past forty-eight hours. Water is coming through my ceiling. There is a hole now. It has caused several thousand dollars of property damage," my voice is biting, and I'm glad for it.

"Eh," he is unconcerned, and still irritated. "I called the management company this morning. They tried to call the tenant in the apartment above, and he's not there. We'll get it fixed sometime, um, um, let's see, within the next two weeks."

I look at the bowl in my room, and all of a sudden am stamping my foot.

"Absolutely not!" I snap back at a him, "It's completely impossible to sleep in this room, the hole is expanding and is going to ruin even more of my things, and moreover, it's your job to figure this out! You gave us our keys, so you must have copies of them!"

"The tenant's gone!" He yells back, surprisingly easily, and this riles me even more. "There's no more I can do, no more! Jesus, lady!"

"Are you joking?" I yell back. "This is outrageously irresponsible! If I treated my job this irresponsibly, I would be fired, and frankly, you should be too!"

There is silence on the other end.

"What if he's in Europe?" I hear the sharp tones in my voice, and I keep them there, can see they're working, can see, unfortunately, that they are the only thing working. "What if the tenant has his phone turned off and is taking a vacation in Europe right now? Are you just going to keep letting the hole get bigger and the water ruin more and more of my things until he happens to come back?"

"I'll be over soon." He mutters, and prepares to hang up.

"No!" I say, "When do you mean by soon. When can I expect you by?" Is this what they mean by becoming a hardened New Yorker, or is this just becoming saavy and not waiting for someone who won't show up while water ruins every vestige of your life you love?

There is a long pause. "In an hour," he finally says, with all the meanness I imagine can be conveyed in three words.

We both hang up without goodbyes. He's at my door in less than twenty minutes. I know the minute that I open my door he knows he's wrong. His head is down and bowed, and he shuffles over the threshold.

"As you can see," I sweep my hand through the bedroom door. "My ceiling has a hole."

"There's nothing I can do," all of a sudden he's yelling at me again. I jump back, and then make myself step forward.

"There is!" I yell back. "You can first of all find something to patch up my ceiling while you wait for it to get fixed, and secondly, you can call the tenant upstairs as many times as I've called you in the past forty-eight hours. Maybe then, he'd get the sense that it was important. But then again," I raise my eyebrows at him, "maybe not." Oh my God. What am I saying? He seems taken aback.

"Fine," he says more quietly. "I'll have it fixed by tomorrow at noon."

By noon today, the problem has been fixed. I don't know how, or why, and I don't really care. All I know is that I got ready for bed last night to the sound of water dripping into a bucket, I read back on some of the waterstained pages of my old diary, and found in them something illuminating. For all the specifics I'd written, all I'd ever asked in the months and the pages that documented them, was what kind of person I wanted to be. If I had to choose a set of values that would withstand all circumstance, what would I choose?

I've often said, to myself and other people, that the most impressive quality in a person is kindness. Loyalty and sincerity and ambition are all close seconds, but kindness has been, time and again, the quiet quality I've vaunted in people I admire and in myself when I've expressed it. And so as the drip subsided, as it was wont to after about fifteen minutes, I wondered if I wanted to be the kind of person who yelled at someone else to save her prized possessions and her sanity.

I still don't know the answer, but have been thinking about it since. On one hand, what I did was perhaps the only effective thing to do. If I'd left patient, kind voicemails on Marc's voicemail, I would probably be doing so from now until the time I moved out, and had to begin politely shopping for aquatic gear to wear in my room. On the other hand, what about that value that transcends circumstance? Or am I simply not savvy enough to fix my problem kindly?

Today I will begin to file for property damages. You cannot imagine the paperwork and convolution, unless you've had to do the same. But I know this is perhaps just a substantial, and substantially annoying, part of growing up. A new notebook is coming, and maybe the harder answer will work itself out in there. What will I say when I next run in to Marc in the hallway of my building, or when the front door again locks people inside the building like it did last week, leaving them trapped as they try and go to work? It's easy to be kind when water isn't coming through your ceiling, when your back is nowhere near up against a wall. But who are you when it is? Maybe there is somewhere in between, some word that isn't "effective," and isn't "kind," but is only a word that I'll know when I unexpectedly, beautifully find it.