New York's Cooperative and Condominium Community

Habitat Magazine Insider Guide



Warmth and Peace

In 1979, when shareholders first took possession of my Lower Manhattan co-op, the 92-year-old warehouse wasn’t completely empty. Original machinery and equipment remained, none of which has improved with age or become less expensive to replace. The electrical box, lined with fuses the size of bratwursts, continues to provide our ever-increasing power needs. The elevator, though often repaired and sporadically stuck between floors, still has some original parts. The old radiators are the most reliable of our pre-conversion antiquities, and yet they are the most difficult to ignore – without practice.

The first night in my apartment, I was astonished by hullabaloo coming from the radiator in my bedroom. When my super arrived at 5 a.m. the next morning, the co-op’s newest and most zealous shareholder was waiting outside his office to report the problem. “That’s just the sound of heat,” he told me. When I objected, he doubled down with what I’ve since learned is a well-rehearsed explanation. “The heat comes up from the furnace in the basement. Air gets trapped in the radiator and causes the noise you hear.” How do we fix it? “We don’t,” he said, “You get used to it.”

Oh no, I won’t, I thought. But I was wrong. Not only did I get used to it, but I look forward to it, a sign that at least inside my apartment relief from winter’s cold is on the way. This journey to acceptance of our imperfect heating system is common among new shareholders.

But last winter, a longtime neighbor acted like a newcomer and lodged a complaint about the clatter. When the super’s get-used-to-it speech didn’t work, he flushed the offending radiators and replaced their valves. Still, my neighbor insisted the clamor woke him every two hours – like a newborn. I tried to be empathetic, but in our imperfectly warmed building, adjusting to the seasonal cacophony is not only a rite of passage but also part of our culture. 

I like to think that our “Can we just live with it?” attitude is less apathy than it is our natural inclination toward the ancient Japanese concept of wabi-sabi: the ability to be at peace with the imperfections of the world. Unless, of course, we can’t.

My neighbor showed a video he made in his apartment in the middle of the night. Then I understood. This wasn’t the usual sound of radiator clanging. The noise was far louder and more rhythmic, like the percussive beats of Queen’s “We Will Rock You,” except the iconic stomp/stomp/clap, stomp/stomp/clap was performed not with feet and hands, but with a metal wrench banging against a metal pipe — a wrench wielded by a Marvel superhero.

Since then, we’ve had plumbers, plumbing consultants, engineers and radiator specialists try to find the source and stop the pounding, to no avail. Each has a different theory and an outsize budget for the fix. 

In my apartment, I’ve reached my own state of wabi-sabi. Eight years ago, a light bulb went out in my bathroom ceiling. A few days later, before I dragged in a ladder to change it, I flipped the switch and the bulb came back on. Since then, for no apparent reason, the bulb goes off. And then comes back on. Sometimes it happens for months and sometimes only for a day. Lately, it’s been winking in the evenings when I’m washing my face. A quick flash on and off — or off then on. Long past wanting to change the bulb, I’ve decided it’s wishing me good night. I say good night back and head off to bed.

A friend who lives in a turn-of-the-20th-century condo in Queens said she can relate. Even though she doesn’t cook, my friend turned on her oven’s self-cleaning feature soon after she moved in. Several hours later, the “cleaning” light still glowed red and the oven door remained locked. With no change days later, she pulled out the plug and turned off the circuit breaker. Once reconnected, the oven hadn’t budged. She asked her super to take a look, but he came up empty. 

Finally, she decided to accept the red light and the locked door as fickle features of her new apartment. Occasionally, when passing by, she’d offer a few words to the appliance. Not much, just a quick hello or a request to play nice. And then a year later, without reason or warning, the light went off and the door unlocked. Today my friend uses the oven to store kitchenware and takeout containers, accepting that her oven doesn’t like to cook any more than she does.

Unlike a stubborn oven or a frisky light fixture, there’s no making peace with a headbanging radiator. And while neither our super nor our coterie of consultants plan to surrender, I wouldn’t be surprised if one day next winter the pounding in my neighbor’s apartment simply stops and the regular annoying clanking resumes. Or even if my neighbor somehow gets used to it. What would be unthinkably perfect is to have the heat come up with no sound at all.

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