By Hazen Cuyler
It takes 60 steps to reach my fifth-floor walkup and during that minute-long exercise routine, I pass by every apartment in my building. Typically, while traveling up or down, the squeaky linoleum stairwell makes the only sound. But on occasion the squeaks give way to music, coursing through the empty hallways. An unknown violinist riffs behind a fourth-floor door, and on the third, a pianist I’ve never seen plays Chopin.
This building has been my home for two years and I’ve yet to meet these musicians. Instead, like a shadow, I pause upon hearing their songs and hover outside, indulging in a private concert unknowingly performed on the other side of the door.
I love meeting artists. In the past, I created a YouTube show to meet filmmakers, another to meet theater makers, and a podcast to meet everyone else. But during the pandemic, zoom replaced my in-person interactions and has since diminished my drive to form new connections. I wanted that to change. For months, I’ve hoped to meet these musicians. Finally, I decided to knock on a couple of doors.
On a crisp fall day, I head toward my stoop nestled under scaffolding in the West 90’s near Riverside Park. Within the aging honeycomb hallways of my building, where closed doors inhibit neighborly chit-chat and residential names are rarely considered beyond the inspection of Amazon package labels, music rings out and I intend to meet its makers. However, an unexpected team blocks my way.
As I twist my entryway key, a young woman and her film crew, carrying equipment, hurry past me. She is Katherine Burns, a neighbor studying filmmaking at Columbia University, associated with an acclaimed production company. Katherine eventually found her way behind the camera after performing throughout the country as an actor. My wife had previously met her and the two exchanged phone numbers. Later, when I called Katherine to tell her about my journey to meet the neighbors, she was in Buffalo producing a classmate’s project, but told me that a film written and directed by her is just around the corner. “It’s about an influencer who does historical cosplay [dressing up]. She’s gotten really sucked into her own world and, when her mom shows up, you realize she’s lost touch with everyone outside her apartment.” Her film’s social-isolationist themes strike a familiar chord as I type away. “I guess New York City does feel like a hive,” she said. “I don’t really think about it until I go elsewhere and realize how cool it is to have someone across the hall making music. And I do feel like having those communities is a huge part of living in New York.”
I continue my journey toward the top floor when faint compositions fill the air and elegant keys mingle with soprano notes, reaching inspired highs. I pause at the third-floor landing, loitering outside the apartment door, listening in the stairwell to a private concert given by the unknowing artists within. “I’m very impressed that you know your neighbors at all in New York,” Jake Landau, the pianist, told me, when I spoke with him over Zoom. I had googled him and gotten in touch. Jake was at Oxford University where he had become the first musician to receive the prestigious Clarendon Scholarship. “So, basically, Oxford is funding some research of mine,” he said, “which is, in a composer’s case, just my music.” Jake was educated at Juilliard and Oxford; his work has been performed by the New York Philharmonic and at Carnegie Hall; he’s been compared to Stephen Sondheim and he’s under 30 years old. His next project is a mythological opera loosely based on Cupid and Psyche.
But I still have two floors left to go, and I must return home, so I trek up the next set of steps. Suddenly I’m ambushed by elegant violin musings blocking my path forward. “I’ve lived [in this building] for twelve years,” Kenny Kosek told me, as we stood in his doorway. Kenny is originally from the Bronx and went to City College of New York to study Middle English and Elizabethan drama. But a passion for music led him to play fiddle alongside Jerry Garcia, James Taylor, John Denver, Willie Nelson, David Byrne, Leonard Cohen, and others. He’s played on Broadway, in films, in the band for Late Night with David Letterman; he’s written books and humorous articles and is known as one of America’s finest fiddlers. I called him after our brief hallway meeting. “There are not a lot of venues for what I do on the Upper West Side, at least not that I know of. But there were things like Cleopatra’s Needle — it used to be a fairly vibrant amateur jazz scene, which was great. You know, I’d come back from a gig at two in the morning and there would be these very New York people drinking their fifth cocktail and listening to jazz. I was very sorry to see it closed.” Kenny has an upcoming album of fiddle and banjo duets and can be found at Sid Gold’s Request Room on the last Wednesday of each month, performing in show called “States Of Country” where music culture from different states is thoroughly researched and performed.
I’m home after just one more flight. There’s no film crew here and no music, only quiet. I turn another key and shove my way through the snug-fitting door into the home of two more artists. The left wall is filled with my paintings and the art from friends whose work we admire. My wife, an actress and the managing director of our theater, film, and art company, The Greenhouse Ensemble, sits cross legged on the couch with our cat and a script; she’s read over 130 plays so far this year. She would have read more but we produced a large event last month — our wedding.
There are six more doors on which I have yet to knock, gateways to more stories of more lives. Perhaps there are other artists in this prewar hive, though interesting people do all kinds of things and live in every building in the city, together creating its culture. Since the pandemic, we have become more digitized, too often alone, and transfixed by the screen at hand. Developing an “in-person” social network with those nearest to us — our neighbors — can enhance our lives. At least it did mine. It just took a quick knock.