The Cigar Ashes Story: She Put 6 Dents In My Damn Front Door

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My father is a musician. In the late 80s, dad had a group he’d play clubs and bars with. They would rehearse in our house on random Friday and Saturday nights. It was 5 or 6 of them in the band. They did covers. The (female) singers would change, but the men were always the same. One was Rick, another was Al.

I don’t remember the other names but I remember those nights. They’d order pizza and hoagies or cheesesteaks and drink beer in between sessions. They all were young (my parents had us at 20-21 years old) and from what I remember of those times, they were all happy to be together and doing music.

The other thing I remember: The music was damn LOUD. I’m not a music person, as far as creating or performing, so I didn’t understand why they had to play the music so loud in practicing. You could hear the shit several doors down on our block. I guess they didn’t care.

Mom would be upstairs with the bedroom door closed; by the end of the rehearsals mom would be asleep. I don’t know how, with that decibel level. I guess you get used to it, like if you lived near train tracks.

We had a neighbor named Ms. Burrell. She was an older woman, probably my grandmother’s age. I rarely saw her outside more than taking her trash out. She seemed lonely and hard — Ms Burrell had been through some stuff. But I wasn’t even ten years old; I don’t know what and it wasn’t my place to ask anyone (see my previous post).

One other person lived there. Ms. Burrell had a son named Glenn, who conversely was very active. Not in a sports, going-to-the-gym way though. Glenn was maybe 4-5 years younger than my parents (so around 23-24 years old at this time), always in and out of the house and always had men coming by the house for him. One day two men came to see Glenn while Latoya and I played outside. Mom called us inside when those two guys pulled a gun on Glenn over some money he owed.

I didn’t quite understand much back then, but Glenn was in the streets. Once one of Glenn’s “friends” came and knocked on their door. Ms. Burrell replied from an upstairs window to let the guy know that Glenn was in jail.

When a free man, Glenn and his friends drank 40oz malt liquors and Colt 45 out of paper bags. I know this because they would finish them and toss their trash in mom’s garden, on the front lawn, on top of her flowers, wherever. Every morning when mom walked Latoya and me to school, she would stop to pick up the discarded 40 bottle or potato chip bag and calmly place it in the trash. She never said anything; she just did it.

I distinctly remember one time though, mom picked up the trash from the lawn, turned and threw it in Ms. Burrell’s lawn. But most of the time she would just clean it up and move on.

One summer night, police crashed Ms. Burrell’s home and snatched up Glenn. I never saw Glenn again after that. I don’t think his mom made any effort to bail him out. The car Glenn had been driving had been torn up in the police swarm; hundreds of empty crack vials were strewn in the driveway in the process. Mom called the city and had them tow the car away.

Back to dad’s band and the music. They would rehearse past midnight sometimes. This is smack in the middle of a residential neighborhood. There were no restaurants or nightclubs around us. So I’m sure some people didn’t always like the noise. I remember the police coming by one time and shutting the rehearsal down, citing the noise. One Friday night shortly thereafter, though, Ms. Burrell literally took matters into her own hands.

I was upstairs playing video games when I heard a bang on the door, then another. Then another. And another and another. We had one of those metal knocker handles on our door, and I knew exactly what the knocker sounded like. This was NOT the knocker. The house vibrated a little with each BOOM.

The banging was loud and strong enough to get dad’s attention over the loud music. Mom woke up. The rehearsal would end early on this night.

It wasn’t until the next day that I learned what had happened: Ms. Burrell has used a blackjack — think a billy club or police baton — to bang on our door. She didn’t stick around for anyone to answer the door; she wasn’t doing it to ask any questions . The next morning, and for years after, those dents stayed right there in our front door. When I moved out for good at age 24, they were still there. I’m trying to picture the front door now and those dents might still be there.

As far as I know, my parents didn’t retaliate. I have to ask them why.

Flash forward to present day, Miami. One day last week, I came out to the balcony at my place and noticed some thick ash on the balcony railing and on the floor. Hmm. Maybe there’s some construction happening up there. I didn’t know nor did I have any idea where it came from. It happened a few days in a row. Neither Anna nor I mentioned it until Saturday morning.

I’d just come back from traveling and she beckoned me to the balcony to show me something. I knew what it was — this mysterious ash — but now there was more to it: now there was a cigar label with it. San Cristobal. Anna apparently had already known what this mystery substance was, cigar ash — which is much thicker than cigarette ash. Anything to do with drinking and smoking, she knows better than Iever will. The label gave us definite proof.

I leaned over the balcony, almost 500 feet above ground, and peered upward. There aren’t too many residences above us. I deduced that the consistency of the dropped ashes, along with the paper-thin label, landing right on our balcony meant there was a prime suspect: whomever lives directly above us.

Here’s where I differ from what my parents did back then. I don’t avoid conversations or situations that need to happen, especially when the other party is (at least partly) in the wrong.

When I lived in South Beach, my middle aged white guy neighbor called the police on me when I thumped on his door one night over his loud shared-wall-mounted TV. He avoided eye contact with me the rest of the time I lived there. At Anna’s old place one time, I told the woman next door to stop playing her loud music on Sunday mornings. She explained that she was getting ready for work. I told her that what she was getting ready for didn’t matter if it was disturbing us.

When I live in buildings that have 24-hour staff, like I do now, I sometimes call the front desk for those stuff. Some front desk staffs are good. I had some strippers living above me in 2010. They would come home from work at 4am and turn on music. Security handled that. The security staff I have currently isn’t very effective. So I either call the actual police, or handle things myself. This, Cigargate, would be my job.

I primed myself for possible confrontation. I had had a neighbor living below me once who was old and in a wheelchair. The geezer would fall asleep with his damn TV on. You could hear and feel the sounds of the TV vibrating through the floor. I knocked on his door about it and he tried flipping the script on me, claiming he heard noise from me too. Whatever.

Back to Sunday. I took the stairs up one floor and knocked on the door. No one answered. It was Saturday, and Anna was planning to take the issue to management on Monday. She cleaned up the ash and we continued living.

There was more ash on Sunday morning.

While finishing my morning yoga I decided, fuck management.

I went upstairs again. It was 9 AM Sunday. I’d heard people moving around at 2 AM the orbits night so I knew this/these mofos were home now. I knocked like the police — hard with my knuckles, the kind of knock that people in the other apartments on the floor hear it.

No answer.

I knocked again, harder and louder and more times. This was one of those ten-knock, wake-yo-ass-up knocks.

It was dead quiet in the hallway, so when someone from inside approached the door and opened the peephole slider, I knew there was someone home. I could hear the slippers walking. But they didn’t didn’t open immediately. I made a snap decision that if this damn door didn’t open in ten seconds I was gonna knock again and again, until they called security on me.

A petite woman in a cream bathrobe answered.

I told her who I was and where I lived.

“Do you smoke cigars?”

“Yeah — he does.” “He” must have been asleep and sent her.

I told her about the ashes and trash and asked-told her (you know, when someone asks you to do something in a tone of voice that communicates that it’s not really a question) to tell him to stop ashing his cigars over the balcony railing. She said she would. That was that.

In the grand scheme of things, this wasn’t a big deal. Some cigar ashes, a conversation and it’s done. What is a big deal: people’s fear of confrontation.

If Ms. Burrell had put 6 dents in the front door of the house I pay bills in, I might have had to strangle an old lady and beat up her junky son. My parents just accepted those dents, and locked and unlocked that same door for years afterward.

Remember the guy in South Beach who called the cops on me? His wife was there too. When I knocked he’d opened his inside door, keeping the metal screen door locked, yelled that he was calling the police and slammed the door shut. They both only came outside once the cops were there. Every time I saw him after that, I wondered how a woman, the wife, could open her legs for a man who was afraid to face another man over a loud TV. I was just asking for some courtesy, not a fistfight. What a pussy.

One of my biggest strengths is my propensity to go directly towards stuff that a lot of people would avoid. That’s where all the opportunity — for growth, sales, attention — is.

Here’s what you can do.

  1. Directly confront the next annoying situation on your hands.
  2. Follow up with a person incessantly until they reply. So what if they get mad.
  3. Stop dancing around what you want, and say exactly what you mean.
What will those do? More than anything, they’re liberating. You’ll feel free and wonder why you waited so long. They’re also empowering when you start using them a lot.

The hardest part? Doing it again.

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