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The first time I met Lenny was the night I moved in to my first studio apartment.
I was putting together a bookcase when someone started violently banging on my front door. I peeped out the peephole and there was Creepy Lenny's own spidery yellow eyeball peeping directly back at me.
He was maybe 70 years old and looked like a jaundiced vampire: dyed black hair in a long stringy pageboy, sunken cheeks and a perpetual grimace. When I opened the door he seemed surprised to see me, maybe he'd expected to scream at the old tenant, but here I was all bright shiny and new.
Peering into my apartment, he was not happy.
"LOTTA NOISE", he snarled at me and my construction zone. It took a good minute or two for me to decide whether to apologize or try to defend myself and by that time Creepy Lenny had slammed my door and shuffled back down the staircase muttering threats all the way.
After that, I pretty much lived in fear of summoning Creepy Lenny with his supersonic hearing and his really short fuse. I'm not a wild and crazy person by any means. I don't throw parties, I don't even have a TV. But it didn't matter. Lenny could hear me walk across the floor in my one-room apartment.
He would come banging on the door if I rocked back and forth in one spot for too long. When I did actually have friends over, I was a total tyrant: "WHAT ARE YOU DOING!? YOU CAN'T JUST WALK! ACROSS! THE ROOM!"
Moving out wasn't an option either because I'd signed a year lease, and aside from Creepy Lenny, I really liked my little apartment. The rent was cheap, it was close to the freeways, and I had friends nearby. Living in fear of a crotchety old goblin was a price I was willing to pay.
Cut to a year later -- I'm coming home from work when my phone rings. It's my upstairs neighbor, an artist named Rodriel who was well aware of my trials with Creepy Lenny.
"Oh. My. God." says Rodriel. "Do I have news for you. It's about Creepy Lenny. He died. Like 3 weeks ago. They found him yesterday."
Rodriel tells me how he was riding the elevator when a woman got on. She said "Ohmygod. It smells SO much better on the Fourth Floor."
"What do you mean?" asked Rodriel.
"Well they finally got that dead body outta there!!" crowed the lady.
When Rodriel got to the lobby, he ran into the mail carrier talking to the building manager: "What is going on with Unit 408? That mailbox has been overflowing for WEEKS."
Weeks. He has been dead for weeks. Beneath me.
How did I not smell anything? I mean the building is almost a hundred years old and the walls are really thick, but how could I not know? And how had he died? Was it a murder? Suicide? Had I been sitting there painting my fingernails while he was taking his last breaths?
I'm shocked, and creeped out, and wondering if I should be sad, when I'm mostly thrilled. I hang up with Rodriel and immediately call my best friend, Louise. She's even sicker than I am: "Joy. Get down there. Right now. You have to tell me what it smells like." She's right. I do.
I creep downstairs and sure enough, there is this WAVE of the stench of death. It smells like a mixture of syrup and poo.
And there, on the door is a bright neon seal affixed to Lenny's doorjamb. It's from the LA County Coroner. It says it's a felony to enter the premises and has a bunch of official looking numbers that I Google as soon as I get home. I don't find anything out about Lenny, but I do fall down a rabbit hole of suicides, homicides, and unusual deaths.
Did you know you can try to identify unclaimed bodies in Los Angeles? You can, here.
The next evening, Louise comes over on a mission.
"Joy. We have to go down there. We have to investigate."
At first I put up a fight: "We can't! There's a seal on the door! It's a felony if you break the seal! It says so right on the seal! The SEAL!"
But soon my deviance gets the better of me and I let her know what I've been thinking ever since I saw that little sticker: "Well... our bathroom windows are connected by the fire escape..."
With a gleam in her eye, Louise and I finish our bottle of wine and soon we're standing on the toilet, and then climbing out of the window like two 30-year-old Nancy Drews. Except one is fat and one is Chinese. It's midnight or so, and I go first. It's my fire escape, after all. It's my dead guy.
Climbing down the wrought iron ladder, I notice that Lenny's bathroom window is wide open. It's never been like that before. As soon as I step foot on the 4th floor landing, I'm hit with that death stench again, but this time it's mixed with...bleach? Yes. Unmistakably bleach.
I have a tiny flashlight on my key-chain and I point it inside the window. His bathroom looks exactly like mine. Same tiled floor, same old medicine cabinet, same sparkling clean toilet, except on the floor....
He totally fucking died right there. Directly in front of the toilet, is this black, fibrous mass of filth with a brown towel shoved up into it.
"The hair mat!" Louise whispers, holding her nose.
Louise reads (and then lends to me) books about the Body Farm in Tennessee where decomposition and forensic sciences arestudied. She says that over 3 weeks, the body will bloat, expanding until the gases find a point to escape, and then start rotting -- the soft tissues go first, and eventually your hair slides off your skull in one big mat. The coroner probably picked up what he could of Lenny, and then the poor maintenance guy had to mop everything up as best he could before dousing the entire bathroom with bleach and leaving what was left to just soak.
I'm fascinated. What did he die from? Rodriel thinks he overdosed. But maybe he just slipped and fell. I've almost killed myself getting out of that shower, our bathrooms are identical after all. He could have hit his head on the sink and then just laid there on the floor until his hair mat slid off.
I think the reason I can't let this go is because hardly anyone gets to see this side of death. Most of the dead people I know have died in hospitals -- as soon as you're gone, they shuttle you off to the morgue, pump you full of chemicals and put you in the freezer until it's time to paint you for your viewing. Even the people I've seen die at home were wheeled into a white van within 3 hours.
Nobody just lies there. Nobody just rots.
Louise wants to dangle a tape recorder out the window and ask questions to Lenny's ghost, but I've put my foot down. I never wanted to have a conversation with him while he was alive, and I'm certainly not going to have one with him now that he's not.