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Fresh Hell

How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Flickering Light Outside My Window That Tormented Me for 27 Days

I named it Blinky.

(Video courtesy of Rachel Sherman)

In a city filled with all manner of daily cruelties, there are many types of affronts to the mind, body, and spirit—a distant alarm that won't stop beeping, a sidewalk that routinely devolves into black ice in the winter. Who's responsible for fixing these problems, and how do you make them stop? No one really knows. 

I recently became well acquainted with this dilemma. For 27 days, beginning on September 20, I was tormented by the flickering security light of the building next door. The light had always been on, but it didn’t veer toward harrowing until it began blinking on and off—now it was pulsating every minute of every day straight into my bedroom and into my psyche.

The first night the light began flickering, I took a video and captioned it, "Will I die by insanity after a slow descent into madness? Only time will tell."

(Video courtesy of Rachel Sherman)

I assumed the light would soon be turned off by a landlord responding to a grumpy tenant. So I waited and I watched. I eventually named him (the light—he's obviously a boy) Blinky. I went out of town, hoping he would be switched off while I was gone. When I came back, Blinky was still blinking, welcoming me home. I grinned wildly and screeched "Ahhhhhhhhh!" then considered banging my head against the window. But it seemed futile. He was unyielding. 

I started to document Blinky's light show on Instagram, where he acquired something of a fan base among my followers. They began offering advice on how to take him out.

My mom suggested that I "wear black and throw a brick at it." People asked why I couldn't just hop the fence and unscrew the lightbulb. I explained that Blinky was mounted a full floor above my building's yard, and that to do so, I would have to develop Spiderman-level wall-scaling abilities. It didn't seem likely that I would have enough time to train before the issue resolved itself. 

A friend texted me and asked, "Do they not have Amazon in New York?" He suggested I buy blackout curtains. Everyone recommended blackout curtains. There is a perfectly simple explanation why I did not follow this advice, which is that I am stubborn and I am lazy. Buying blackout curtains seemed to suggest that the situation with Blinky was edging toward permanence. Plus, I had moved into my apartment in May, two months after my father died, and, besieged by a complicated grief and the destabilization of moving in a brutal housing market, I could hardly make basic decisions like ordering curtains, curtain rods, and a drill.

Instead, I pinned up blankets with thumbtacks—thick blankets that blocked sunlight and a regular, non-flashing security light, but not a little demon like Blinky. 

My boyfriend David and I began thinking of permanent solutions. One afternoon, David snuck into Blinky's building through the front door and found phone numbers for management hanging on the wall. We called, and we left messages, the tone of our voicemails alternating between affable and irate. None of them were returned. 

We considered buying a slingshot (less illegal than a bow and arrow) but pleaded first to our super, who offered to tape black garbage bags to our windows. (We opted for Xanax and eye masks instead.) In a building of 55 units, where at least 12 faced the floodlight extravaganza, only one other unit had grumbled, our super told us. (They went with the garbage bag method.)

One night, I called 311 in desperation. None of the automated voice prompts—trash, heat, rats, parking—were quite right, so I chose "neighbor disputes."

"What's your noise complaint?" the operator asked.

"Well, actually…it's a light complaint," I said.

"That's a new one!" he replied.

We both laughed, I, in a sleep-deprived delirium, knowing this would be the case; he, in genuine amusement.

As it turns out, 311 is unable to handle residential light complaints. There is, in fact, no such category in the 90-plus categories for reported problems. The kind civil servants of 311 can help mitigate issues involving lights owned by the City—such as stoplights and traffic posts—and construction-related issues, but other matters, like a flashing floodlight that is always on and shines right into your bedroom and subconscious, are the responsibility of individual building managers.

"Have you tried reaching out to the building's management?" the call operator asked.

(Rachel Sherman)

A few days later, David called to tell me he had returned to the building and had some news. My heart stopped working. At first I thought it was out of excitement, and that I was frozen with hope, but it quickly turned into something else. What if Blinky was gone, I wondered. I suddenly felt a need to protect him. I'm not ready, I thought. I had wished for his obliteration each night, but I had also come to rely on the reliable spark of light, whose flashes now seemed like a bashful cry for help. 

The news was that there was no news. David had tried to remove the bulb himself, teetering on stacked chairs, but couldn't reach it. The news was that we would need to find a ladder.

I continued to post updates to my Instagram stories. "GN from me n Blinky 😚" I posted before bed, wearing an eye mask like a headband.

One day, my friend was so fed up on my behalf that she asked me for the building’s address. Within 20 minutes, she had managed to pull up the owner and his home address, and the property manager and his phone number. 

I called the property management's office and was momentarily stunned to hear a voice on the other end, who offered to pass along my request to the manager. I asked for an email address and sent a message with the subject line "Bright Flashing Flood Light."

Five days later, Blinky was still at it. I emailed again. "We feel helpless and don't know what else to do," I wrote.

The next day, Blinky was miraculously gone. I leapt around, peering over and over again through the blanket curtain to gaze at the sweet, sweet darkness. Every night for a week, I returned home giddy, like a subletter whose roommate is away on a long trip, anticipating total freedom. 

My head felt lighter, but with that lightness soon came a kind of emptiness. The relief faded. For 27 days, he had been a reprieve from bigger ills, an excuse for my insomnia, an object onto which I could redirect despair. Now, there's just life, New York, grief, war. 

On a recent phone call with my sister, I told her that a coworker who follows me on Instagram came to my desk the other day and asked me, "How’s Blinky?"

"I miss Blinky," my sister said. (She had never met him.)

"I know," I said. "Me too."

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