Act One – The Noise
I was visiting New York for a week and my friend Jenny told me I could stay with her at her new apartment, but I had to be prepared because all she wanted to talk about was how her bathroom renovation had cost three times the estimate. I assured her I would be honored and delighted to hear her complain about anything. When I arrived at 1:30 a.m. on a Monday for a weeklong stay, she had been asleep for an hour or so. But as promised she roused herself to deliver a rollicking account of broken sinks, contractors who lied and flirted in equal measure, tiles gifted by a wealthy upstate friend smashed to bits in the trunk of a car as it bottomed out on the BQE, and how, even when she thought it was all over, she’d watched the drywall separating said bathroom and living room turn to powder before her eyes.
She’d been talking for ten minutes or so when it dawned on me that I was extremely tense.
I knew it wasn’t Jenny’s story causing the problem—what could be more soothing than a tale of minor misfortune, told by an old friend? Nor was I preoccupied with personal issues—aside, of course, from my constant struggle to maintain a small sliver of dignity in my life considering I was a writer, now middle-aged, and not at all rich or famous.
I held up a finger and Jenny stopped talking. In the silence, the source of my anxiety—a persistent whirring sound—revealed itself.
I thought there was a fan on in the kitchen. There wasn’t. Now, I am not such a tedious narcissist that I don’t know that lots of people find the sound of fans annoying, but my reaction to them goes beyond this. I wish it were otherwise, and I hate to be a pest, but the sad fact is that fan sounds kill me. In their presence, I can’t think, I can’t relax, I can’t read, eat, or talk. Fan sounds make me feel both hemmed in and pursued. My mother will testify to the fact that I was an affable infant, toddler and preschooler, content at first to stare gurgling into space, and then to read Corgiville Fair over and over in a corner, who became abruptly fussy and inconsolable when confronted by noises from anything — leaf blowers, hair dryers, fans themselves — in the fan family.
The hallway, lined with Jenny’s still-unpacked boxes, was also fan-free. I went into the bathroom. It was a typical New York apartment bathroom, eliciting no intense New York apartment bathroom feelings like “so sadly tiny,” or, its opposite, “so enviably grand.” Anyway, there it was, built into the wall above the bright white, newly caulked tub, a rectangular fan, maybe seven by 10 inches. It was about as loud as five large box fans, or ten times as loud as an old laptop, or as loud as the loudest fan in human history.
“Oh!” Jenny appeared in the doorway and said, breezily, “That’s just the bathroom fan.”
There were two switches on the wall. After trying each of them 70 times, separately and together, I was forced to conclude that neither had any relationship to the fan. The fan itself had no handle or lever, nor indeed any regulating instrument. It was just a grate on the wall, with no human interface, and behind it, the deep, dreadful sound of air being sucked endlessly into the center of the universe.
“It never goes off,” Jenny said.
I stood there trying the switches, again, like an asshole.
Act Two – The Hero Embarks on Its Journey
Seeing I was distraught, Jenny offered me her bedroom, at the other end of the apartment, and offered to sleep on the couch. I should have declined, but politeness was so far from me at this point. If I had been a collie, I would have chewed through several sofas and started working through the pads on my feet. Even with a closed bathroom door, the hum lingered. Jenny fell asleep immediately and for a few minutes I just watched her, amazed. Her attitude toward the fan was so casual: “Sure, I’d rather the apartment I just bought and can barely afford did not come with a constant sound but oh well.”
I found one dusty orange earplug in my bag, and, lying on my right side, stuffed it into my left ear, added a pillow, and kind of slept. Also, ear plugs are a joke.
When I emerged the next morning from the bedroom the apartment was quieter. I could hear the fan but only if I tried really hard.
Jenny was sitting on the couch dressed for work, reading Sex at Dawn.
“You should read this,” she said.
“Pass,” I said. “I already know monogamy is probably stupid, but I just don’t care very much.”
“Well, I think it’s interesting,” she said. Then she returned to the more pressing subject of the day. “I put a piece of cardboard over the fan.”
“You put a piece of cardboard over it?”
“It’s what they told me to do.”
“Who is they?”
“The maintenance guy. I saw him in the hall.”
“Let me see if I understand,” I said. “You just spent over half a million dollars, plus $18,000 on the bathroom, $12,000 of which were a horrifying surprise, on a one-bedroom apartment so far away from a train station that you have to ride a bicycle there and you have a really, really loud fan that won’t turn off and the maintenance guy told you to put a piece of cardboard over it?”
“It’s quieter,” she said. “Go look.”
I looked. The cardboard wasn’t adhered to anything. It was kept in place with the (record-breaking) suction power of the fan. But as I stood there looking at it, the cardboard buckled. An ugly suture formed about an inch from the lower right corner and ended about two inches from the upper left. Within a few seconds, it had just folded in on itself, like a shot deer falling to its knees.
Jenny was putting on her coat and scarf. “I didn’t even notice the noise when I came to the open house. I was just worried about getting the apartment.” She shrugged. “Anyway. Maybe you can find a thicker piece of cardboard. But I guess if it’s too heavy, it won’t stay.”
I said I was pretty sure that thing generated enough pressure to adhere a set of luggage to the wall and then I said I hoped she had a nice day.
I had coffee and paced around in front of the open bathroom door. It felt better to just be close to the sound. It gave me some illusion of control, like I was just about to come up with a solution. I felt sorry for Jenny, in her resigned apathy. Like most New Yorkers who aren’t rich— most of them—Jenny had purchased an apartment beyond her means. When the additionally expensive renovations necessary to make it habitable were finished and she had two seconds to notice the sound, she had already been long drained of any fight. Every morning, she had the gravitational force of all of Saturn’s moons pulling behind an open hole in her bathroom, and a train to catch. She chose to catch the train, because she could.
I resolved right then and there to do the fighting for her. Then, when I was done fighting, I would take my rightful place on the couch.
I decided my first order of business would be to talk to the guy manning the kiosk in the middle of the grass courtyard of the complex. I’d call him a doorman, but that would give you the wrong idea about this place. Jenny’s apartment complex is well-built, plain, solid housing constructed after the Depression to house Brooklyn’s working class. It now houses its managerial class, but has never become fancy anyway. So understand the doorman is not signing for packages from Saks and minding your Standard Poodle while you double-check with the mail guy to see if perhaps the Earl of Longford mistakenly received your copy of Granta. He’s really just a Kiosk Guy sitting in front of a bank of video monitors with his bottle of Poland Spring. Once in a while a visitor comes in and he calls up to the apartment, but mostly, people come and go with their own keys, and he nods at them.
As I approached the kiosk, he smiled.
“Hi,” I said, “I have a problem, but before I tell you, I’d like to make sure you know this problem isn’t your responsibility.”
His smile grew bigger.
I told him that my friend had just moved into her apartment and that she thought it was a delightful apartment and that so did I and that the only thing that separated it from perfection was a fan in the bathroom that wouldn’t go off. Ever.
“That is terrible!” he exclaimed. “That is terrible for your friend.”
This was exactly the kind of reaction I wanted. He told me that when I got back he would send a maintenance person to help me.
When I texted Jenny that help was on the way, she wrote back No, no no. You don’t understand. I already asked maintenance. My guy called the main guy.
I wrote back: So this cardboard solution comes straight from the top?
Don’t bother them or they will hate me. Fuck I have
Jenny’s unwillingness to be rescued by my selfless dogged assistance was very annoying. I fumed about this. Then I went to have coffee with someone who has basically never worked an honest day in her life and almost definitely never has to listen to noises unless she wants to. When she asked how my trip was going I told her about the fan. She asked if I talked to the doorman. I said I had. She said my friend should move. I said I would pass on that advice.
When I got back from having coffee the same guy was working the desk. He smiled in recognition as I approached.
“My friend said she asked maintenance but they told her there was nothing they could do,” I said. “She said she went all the way to the top.”
The man winced sympathetically. I wondered if he actually went home at the end of the day and told his wife, “You cannot believe the idiots I deal with all day.” If he did he was an amazing actor and should have been putting his skills to better use questioning serial killers and negotiating with kidnappers.
“If she already talked to the same people you’re talking to I don’t want to go behind her back, talking to them again,” I said.
“Oh, yes,” he said gravely. “Going behind her back would be bad.” I think we both knew that what I meant was that you weren’t supposed to ask too many questions in a place like this.
Act Three – The Hero Investigates
The truth is, with the bathroom door closed, the fan wasn’t that bad. It sounded like when you put your ear up to a shell—that is, if you could get your hands on the biggest shell in the world. The sound bothered me, but I was mostly bothered by the fact that all the people who lived here were forced to endure it. Who would speak for them, if not me?
I got busy and a little day or two passed. Jenny, home from work at 10 or so every night, passed out on the couch, Sex at Dawn by her side. I continued to guiltily inhabit the bedroom while doing some amateur sleuthing. I was not proud of displacing her, but I was determined to earn my keep.
The elevator was where I did most of my Work. “Let me ask you a question,” I asked anyone who looked remotely friendly. “Do you have a fan in your bathroom that won’t turn off?” Many people were like WTF and just looked at their phones. Others, though, were responsive. Some were mothers with infants and strollers, thrilled that an adult was talking to them.
“Oh yeah,” said a woman in her early forties with a toddler, “It bothers us when we’re home.” Yes, I thought, home is probably the place you’d be mostly likely to hear the fan. Though at that point, I was hearing it everywhere.
Two dudes with a tiny dog just laughed. “Yeah, it sucks,” one said. “Big time,” added the other.
Another guy with a big dog said, in accusing tones, “Do you live here?” I said I was just visiting. “What about earplugs?” he asked. I told him my one earplug story, and, failing to find it charming, he said, “Maybe try two?” The dog looked at me frantically. It had probably suffered with the fan for years. I tried to communicate with it through eye contact. I know. So loud.
Only one woman, mid-thirties, nose ring, infant, admitted that the fan was a huge issue. “It’s extremely annoying. Lately I just try to pretend it’s not there, because I don’t know what else to do.” I asked her if she owned her apartment. She said yes, they’d just bought it. I said, “I don’t mean to be rude here but you have spent like nine years of your and your husband’s salary combined on an apartment that has a fan in it you can’t turn off that you try to pretend isn’t there and that’s okay with you?” She smiled. “You’re funny,” she said.
A friend of mine knew someone who lived in the building, and I texted her. She said that her fan didn’t work at all. Very interesting! She told me that the fan was not a hot topic on the building’s listserv, but that when people did talk about it, they tended to complain that the fans weren’t strong enough.
Was it possible that a fan powered to serve 5000 apartments only worked in say, a third of them, at triple power?
I ran into the nose ring woman again on the elevator and I told her about all my fascinating research. An old woman was on the elevator with us. As she disembarked she looked at me with a combination of weariness, pity, and a sort of broad, unspecified dislike that seemed to not be about me so much as my relative youth, and the fact that I was talking, about anything at all. “Put a cover over it,” she said.
“Oh yeah,” the younger woman said. “You don’t have a cover? We all put magnetic covers over them.”
“Who is we all?” I asked.
They looked at each other like, was this person born yesterday?
“Everyone who lives here,” said the old woman and shuffled off, swinging her key ring from her index finger.
Act Four – The Hero Goes to Two Hardware Stores
I went to the hardware store a block away. The clerk wore big red headphone-like things on his ears, presumably to keep out noise when grinding keys, and I eyed them with much envy. He pulled one side off to listen to me. “I’m looking for that magnet thing that goes over a vent you can’t turn off,” I said confidently.
He did that thing that people do in New York where his jaw went slack and he just looked out over my head, hoping if he pretended he’d never heard me I would just walk away, or drop dead.
“You know,” I said. “Like a vent magnet.”
Now he looked at me. He snorted. “A vent magnet?”
“I’m not crazy,” I said.
I was hoping this would make him smile. It didn’t.
“It’s like, for a fan, or a vent, that you can’t turn off.”
He snorted. “Why would you have a fan that you can’t turn off?”
“Yes! That is my feeling exactly!” I said. “You really don’t know what I’m talking about? I mean, I’m staying in a huge apartment complex, like a block from here. I mean, maybe 5,000 people live there, and apparently they all have these vent covers and, my friend just moved there and…”
“Wait, wait, wait,” he said. “Why are you trying to fix something that’s not even in your apartment?”
I went into the street. It began to rain. It began to pour. I walked several miles to the Home Depot, in a thin raincoat and no umbrella, powered by indignation.
The clerk at Home Depot was named Alex. He was 35ish, had a mustache, and seemed to really understand the depth of my issue. Not just personally, but the larger, world-historical implications.
“All those people in those buildings have to spend so all their money to even live there and can’t turn off their fans?” he said. “That would drive me crazy. Like I mean that is just—your poor friend.”
I wondered what it would be like if Alex and I just ran away together.
“Yes,” I said. “Well, I mean you can shut the door…”
“I mean just knowing it’s there!” Alex said.
“Exactly,” I said. “Also, when you’re in the bathroom, you want to relax.”
“I know,” Alex said. “I know.”
Alex knew, but even though he worked at a hardware superstore within five miles of an apartment complex containing approximately 5000 bathrooms in need of them he had never heard of anything like a magnetic shield for a vent. He stood by while another clerk, a woman, looked it up on the store computer. We had a couple of false starts with things like draftshields and web vent filters but we eventually found something called Frost King™ Magnetic Vent Covers, magnetic sheets that could be cut to size.
“What are these?” the woman asked.
Alex told her.
“So every single one of them people living those buildings have a fan in their bathroom that won’t turn off?”
Alex and I nodded.
She shook her head. “That is nuts,” she said. “This is a crazy world.”
The store inventory reported five packages in stock. Each package held three shields, and as we all strode purposefully to the aisle where they were kept, I shuddered, imagining a situation calling for more than one of them.
We reached our destination. The magnetic shields were on the top shelf. Alex got a ladder. He was on it for for a very long time, rummaging around, but he didn’t find anything.
“We can order them for you,” he said. “But it will take 10 days.”
I bought some red ribbon and when I got back to the apartment handed Jenny the order slip from Home Depot with a bow around it. “Oh, I just got one of those,” she said, in exactly the same tone she had used to tell me about the bathroom fan. “Look.”
I went into the bathroom. Sure enough, there was a cover over the fan, a white sheet of magnet that covered the whole thing. Small amounts of air snuck around the magnet into the vent. Now the sound was like putting your ear just to a plain old normal shell.
“I called maintenance again to ask a question about where to store my bike, and this other maintenance guy told me about the magnets.”
“But…where did you get the cover?” I asked.
“At the hardware store around the corner,” she said. “I got it this morning before work.”
“You got it around the corner? I went there. The guy told me I was crazy. He said he’d never heard of them.”
Jenny, once again absorbed in Sex at Dawn, didn’t look up. “Why didn’t you call me and tell me you got it?” I asked.
“Because I was working,” she said.
When I was little my parents told me if I worked hard I could have whatever I wanted. They told me that if you were polite and persistent you would get the things you needed to live. They also told me that if you paid for a quality thing then you could expect that thing to work.
They never once said, “Sometimes there is truly nothing you can do other than to put a giant magnet over a giant sucking fan right in the middle of a $500,000 apartment that you were probably an idiot to buy anyway.”
Act Five – The Hero Reflects
So in the end I spent most of my trip trying to be a hero to my friend, to wake her up to the possibilities of continuing to fight for self-respect and silence in a world that just wanted to steal your soul and force you to listen to low-grade noises during the time when you might possibly rejuvenate yourself, and she didn’t even care anyway because all she wanted to do was read a book about how mankind should liberate themselves though the powerful revolutionary practice of non-monogamy.
But I just had to know one thing. I called the main number of the apartment complex. A woman answered. I told her that I was a writer, but qualified that I was an essayist, not a reporter, which was honestly such a stupid thing to say I can’t believe i wasn’t struck dead by lightning the minute the words left my mouth.
She was appropriately skeptical and said only, “What can I do for you?”
“So what I want to know is, did they just BUILD this building like this and it can’t be fixed?”
“It’s an exhaust vent,” she snapped. “You can’t have a bathroom without an exhaust vent.”
“I realize that,” I said, not pointing out that indeed many bathrooms in this buildings lacked one. “But it doesn’t turn off… I mean, I’ve never seen…what I’m saying is, this system, when they built this building, was there no other way? I mean, I have turned on and turned off many, many bathroom fans in my life, but as important as the turning on part is, it seems that the turning off part is also, perhaps equally – ”
“Is this going to be printed?”
“Well, yes,” I said, “Theoretically.”
“You’re going to have to send me an email because I don’t know if I am going to authorize you to print anything.”
“I don’t think I need to be authorized,” I said. “I’m not mentioning the building, and I’m not…I am just kind of fascinated by the way that this system doesn’t allow you to turn off…”
“Listen to me,” she shouted. “It is not a system? Okay? You keep saying system, but it’s an exhaust vent. It’s not a system.”
I wrote the woman a very nice response as a follow-up. I said I just wanted to understand, at a very basic level, the mechanics of the building. As she seemed to have a strong aversion to the word system, I did not use it. I told her I did not care in the least about somehow exposing the building as bad or negligent, and that my curiosity about this air sucking thing on the wall that could not be controlled was wholly personal, but that yes, I did plan to share my experience with other people, not because I thought the vent itself was so crucial, but because I thought people might identify with the ways it frustrated, angered, and fascinated me.
She did not write me back.
This story was originally published in