Andrew Tobia

Contributing Editor

New York is a city of constants. Subway snarls are a constant. Traffic is a constant. Noise is a constant. (There are good constants, of course, but why brighten the mood unnecessarily?)

One of New York’s many constants are neighbors. Truly a city of cohabitation, no New Yorker is exempt from having or being a neighbor. Even the richest people in the biggest penthouses of the ugliest high rises in Manhattan have neighbors.

I live on a block of classic Ridgewood two-family rowhouses, in the second-floor unit, so I’ve also got neighbors. Some of them are good, some of them are great, but one set of them …

Creeping cigarette smoke in your home office, welcome

Starting last January, I started to smell something in my “home office,” basically a large closet converted to a room. I couldn’t quite place it at first, as it was faint, but it was definitely familiar and it was definitely unpleasant.

By the end of that month I had figured out what it was — cigarette smoke. And it was growing in strength. By mid-February, my wife and I could smell it in our kitchen as well. By the end of that month, it was in our bathroom and in our hallway closets.

All of these rooms are on the same side of the apartment. Our second-floor neighbors in the building adjoining ours on that side had been there for about a year at that point, and we’d never had a problem with them. I came to the only logical conclusion: there are new neighbors on the first floor of that building, and they’re smoking inside.

At this point it’s important to note the effects this smoke was having on me. If it was simply a bad smell, my wife and I could deal with that. Crack a window. Light a candle. Embrace our inner hippie and burn some incense or sage.

This smell, though, literally makes me sick. First comes the nausea, a low-key queasiness. Then, the headaches. They start at the temples and spread, first to behind the eyes, until my entire brain feels like it’s sitting in fluid electrified by a car battery or two. And once they get a foothold they don’t go away, no matter how many painkillers I take. The cherry on top are stinging, burning eyes when it’s really bad.

Broken Promises

One morning in very early March, following a night of very strong cigarette smell, I went next door and rang the first-floor bell. A man answered the door, and he brought with him a visible cloud of cigarette smoke. I could smell it standing three feet away from him.

This man asked if I spoke Spanish, which I really don’t. I tried to ask him, in my juvenile broken Spanish, if he’s been smoking indoors.

“Tu fuermo en la casa?” I asked, embarrassing 450 million Spanish speakers in the process. Eventually he motioned for me to wait, went back inside, and a woman came out.

“Hi, my name is Andrew, I live next door. I came to ask, do you guys smoke inside?” I inquired.

“No, no,” she said, shaking her head.

“Miss, when your husband answered the door, a cloud of smoke came out with him. I can still smell it.”

Her face fell, caught in the act. “Okay, yes, we do.”

“Okay, great,” I said, having made progress. “So the smell of your smoke is coming into my apartment. I can smell it in my kitchen, bathroom, and office, every day.”

She nods.

“The smell of it makes me sick.” I tell her my symptoms. She nods some more. I’m starting to feel hopeful. “Do you think that you’d be able to smoke outside?” She tells me that they will. I thank her profusely and head home, victorious.

And victorious I was! For about 2 weeks.

By the third week the smell had started to return, and a month after my visit it was as strong and nauseating and headache-inducing as ever.

I went back over for another visit. The woman answered this time, and she seemed to have zero memory of our first talk, so I did the whole thing over again. While she seemed a touch impatient, she again promised me that they’d bring the smoking outdoors. And they did … but again, for only about two weeks. By the fourth week after this visit, the smell was worse than ever, and I was getting sicker than ever.

I went back for a third visit. The woman remembered me this time — “You, again?!” she greeted me.

“Yes, me again.”

And then things got tense. She brought me inside and started knocking on the wall, apparently in an effort to prove its impenetrability. I saw the wall, but I also saw a man sitting on a couch against that same wall smoking a cigarette. There was an ashtray full of butts in front of him, and a cloud of smoke pooling on the ceiling at exactly the place where their apartment touches mine.

The woman shouted “Look at this wall! Smoke can’t go through walls!”

“I don’t care what you think is possible,” I countered, “I can smell your smoke in my apartment right now!”

We came dangerously close to a full-blown argument at this point but, with some deep breathing, we all managed to calm down. I reiterated for a third time just how sick their smoke makes me and when I left, I did so with a third promise that they would bring their smoking outdoors.

A third promise that was promptly broken.

Seeking Solutions

This last visit was in early May, shortly before my wife and I left for our honeymoon. Today, I’m writing this in my home office in November, I’m developing a pounding headache. The smoking has not stopped.

During the summer it had been more tolerable — they left their windows open all season, and we did the same with ours when we weren’t running the AC. Now that temperatures are finally taking a turn for the cold, though, windows are going down and somebody else’s cigarette smoking is returning to my own home.

Over these 10 months or so, I’ve pursued alternative solutions, since speaking to these neighbors in person clearly wasn’t going to work. I’ve spoken about the issue to all of my own landladies—three sisters who co-own the building, which has been in the family since it was new. I’m convinced that the landlord next door is not aware that their new tenants smoke inside, and that they would not be happy about it.

One of my landlords told me that it’s the neighbor’s right to smoke inside. I pointed out the fact that its highly unlikely their landlord knowingly allows them to. I also asked her, “Is it not my right to have clean air in my own home?” to which she had no real response.

When I asked her if she could talk to the neighbors’ landlady, she told me “We’re not really on speaking terms anymore.” My other two landladies, while not as dismissive as my first, claimed to not have any contact information.

For a time, I had another hope of a solution. Bringing out the garbage one night I was approached by a woman who lives in the home on the other side of the smoking neighbors. She’d been having different issues with the same neighbors, she told me, and asked if I had been. I told her about the smoking, and we traded numbers.

This woman texted me in mid-May, while I was on my honeymoon. She told me that she ran into the smokers’ landlady, had spoken to her, and that the landlady was planning on taking steps to evict them. This was not the solution I had in mind—simply smoking on the stoop or in their backyard with regularity would have made me very happy—but if that’s what it takes, I guess.

This turned out to be another dead end. This woman promised to send me the smokers’ landlady’s number, but never did. Follow up texts in late May, mid-June, and mid-September have all gone unanswered. I never got the number, the smokers were not evicted, and they’re still smoking.

My Last Hope?

So here I am, bombarded daily in my own home by the noxious odors of smoking neighbors. And I’m not the only one.

According to the 2015 Community Health Profile for Ridgewood and neighboring Maspeth, 16 percent of neighborhood residents smoke, which is on par with citywide averages.

That’s about 27,000 people in Ridgewood. Who knows how many of them smoke indoors, and how many of their neighbors can smell it.

With those numbers in mind, emboldened by the fact that I’m not alone in my nasal struggles, I got to googling. After trying random combinations of words like “smoking,” “inside,” “indoors,” and so on, I stumbled across what’s probably my last hope— NYC Smoke-Free.

NYC Smoke-Free is a city initiative that aims to help building owners and managers make their buildings smoke-free. To me, it seems like a shining beacon of hope.

While there are disappointingly few laws for me, or others struggling with smoking neighbors, there are other options and resources. For example, each borough has a Community Engagement Coordinator, whom tenants and landlords alike can contact.

I’ve contacted the Queens Community Engagement Coordinator and, very sympathetic to my situation, he’s helping me in every way he can. He pointed me to my own lease, which has a clause that I was unaware of that might force my landladies to act, should I get so desperate. He’s also helping me to do some research to see if we can find contact information for the landlady next door, so that I can open up communications and, ideally, work together to come up with a solution that works for everybody.

Here’s hoping.

Cover image courtesy of Jakob Owens on Unsplash