That afternoon, we had our cab driver let us out at the driveway to our apartment building’s underground garage.
“Why is the garage door opening?” Alison said, as she got out. Her voice was muffled by her mask, a murkiness I’d never grown used to even after a year of the pandemic.
When I turned to look, I saw the wide, windowless door to the garage rise, even though our cab was blocking the driveway and no car was waiting to enter.
She said, “Now it’s closing.”
I shut the passenger door and, projecting through my own mask, thanked the driver for a safe ride.
“Now it’s opening again,” Alison said. “Could one of our iPhones be doing it?”
But we didn’t own a car and had no need for a parking space. I said, “They’d have to be programmed.”
As we watched the garage door close again, she said, “We should tell the super.”
“Later. Right now, I just want to settle in for the evening.”
In my younger days, ever advocating for this or that cause, I would have gone straight to the building’s superintendent. But I was exhausted following the wait before and after our COVID-19 vaccinations. Besides, surely others had told him. Alison was tired, too, and needed little persuading.
In the days that followed, the garage door never opened when I walked by. I assumed the problem had been fixed. But then a neighbor stopped me in the hall.
“Something weird is going on,” she said. “I was getting out of a cab at the driveway entrance, where there’s always a gap between parked cars, you know, and suddenly the door opened and closed, then opened and closed again.”
I told her Alison and I had experienced the same thing. “Has it ever happened when you’re walking by?” I asked.
“No. Come to think of it, that’s also strange, isn’t it?”
When the performance repeated the next time we exited a cab at the driveway, I resolved to say something. The following day, I came across the president of our co-op building’s board of directors. On that fragrant spring morning, he was walking his dog, and I fell into step at his side.
“Matt,” I said, “a word about our building’s garage door?”
“About how it opens and closes as people are getting out of cabs? Rex, not over there.” He pulled on the leash, and the dog resumed trotting in front of him.
I envied Rex for being spared a mask. Then again, I didn’t envy his leash.
“Is there an explanation?” I asked. “Some electrical short or programming error?”
“An error that occurs only when cabs are blocking the driveway?” Behind his mask, Matt was undoubtedly putting on that ironic smile of his that could sometimes charm, sometimes inflame.
We crossed a street in silence.
“It’s Rob,” he said, as he followed Rex onto the curb.
He gave me a moment to take it in. One of our neighbors named Rob owns an apartment four floors almost directly above the garage.
I said, “You’re saying Rob is somehow manipulating the garage door?”
“I didn’t think the garage remotes had that much range. Now we know.”
“Does he do it only when people are getting out of cabs?”
“It seems he objects to them blocking the driveway.”
“Even when no one’s trying to get into the garage? This is fun for him?” I thought of the line that a sane person must appear insane to an insane society.
Matt apparently felt no need to answer. We walked on at Rex’s brisk pace.
Then he said, “Ben, please keep this conversation between ourselves. Rob is having a hard time. He retired last year in March, just when we were headed into lockdown. He’d planned museum visits, lunches with friends, maybe taking on a volunteer position at an animal shelter—something like that. Instead, he found himself stuck at home. We all are—most of us anyway. But Rob has taken it especially hard.”
I respected Matt for not going in with guns blazing, but I wondered if such restraint was wise.
I said, “Is there a risk that people will find that crazy door just a little too disturbing?”
“Not enough to call the police or search for an online psychotherapist.”
“Same here. If we get reports that people are really upset, I’ll speak to him. I’m hoping it’s a phase and he’ll soon move on to some new distraction.”
Alison and I have the good fortune to own a high-floor apartment with a terrace that overlooks the backyards of the buildings around us. I sat down at the terrace table and joined her in birdwatching.
A robin has taken up residence at the roof just above us to the left, and in a tall redwood several yards down, a red cardinal repeatedly proclaims preeminence over the territory. But the highlight of this spring has been the return to our city of the crows, after a years-long absence due to the West Nile virus that hit their population hard. I love having these assertive black birds among us again, yakking at each other while appraising us with their piercing, dark brown eyes.
A week or so earlier, a crow had perched on the terrace fence. It was big, which Wikipedia tells me means it was most likely male. I remain convinced he’d intended to make our terrace his home until I emerged from the apartment and inadvertently scared him off. Moments later, he flew back to “cra cra” at me.
“We can share,” I told him.
But he clearly thought me insincere. Subjecting me to one last baleful glare, he flew off to explore better options.
Alison said now, “Remember Janice’s African gray.”
I certainly did. We’d be walking past the last apartment before the garage when we’d hear the gasp and creak the garage door made when it opened. Only it wasn’t opening. That mystery didn’t take long to solve because the parrot was visibly calling from Janice’s window. Later it took to making wolf whistles at people passing by.
“That was funny,” I replied, something she and I had said many times.
“I guess,” Alison said, “that’s all Mr. Garage Door Opener is—funny and entertaining.”
“I’m not sure he’d like the comparison.”
“Why not? You claim a connection to crows. Maybe he does to parrots.”
“Connecting and being the same—well, I expect crows and parrots would take exception.”
I told her about my talk with Matt. It put her mind at ease, as it had mine: problem solved, someone taking responsibility.
It was when we were walking home one evening several weeks later that entertainment turned into crisis. We saw a cab draw up at our building’s driveway and a neighbor named Travis emerge. I smiled as the garage door rose and fell. Travis stood there transfixed, the cab’s passenger door wide open. The garage door rose and fell again. The cab driver poked his head out his window and said something, probably asking him to shut the passenger door. Travis just stared at the garage.
“Whoa, this doesn’t look good,” I said softly to Alison as we walked closer.
Before, I’d only witnessed the garage door do its thing twice. Now, it opened a third time. Travis’s fists clenched at his side. The garage door closed again. At that, he rushed down the incline and beat his fists on the harsh steel surface. “Stop, stop,” he screamed.
“Travis,” Alison called to him, “it’s okay. It’s just a game.”
“You call this a game?” he yelled back. “It’s insulting.”
An odd word to assign to an inanimate object, but afterwards I thought it made sense. Here we all are, trying to maintain some standard of normality in an age of mask-wearing, social distancing and suppressed activities, and yet that stupid, blank-faced garage door was insisting that no matter how hard we tried to pretend otherwise, something is very wrong.
As we reached the driveway, Travis, the exposed part of his face deep red, turned toward us. I decided against explaining that another resident, Rob, was controlling the door. In his current state, the usually gracious Travis might race up to Rob’s apartment in a rage.
I said, “Let’s go talk to Matt and tell him what’s going on. I’m sure he’ll get it fixed right away.”
Travis’s hands returned to his side. The fists unclenched. His brow now looked crestfallen, though no less red. With a nod but without another word, he set off at a brisk pace down the street.
As soon as we walked inside our apartment, Alison and I called Matt. He agreed it was time to talk to Rob.
The garage door games promptly stopped. I don’t know how the reclusive Rob has occupied his time since. As for Travis, neither Alison nor I saw him for several weeks. When we did, he acted as if nothing unusual had occurred. So did we.