All I want in life is a strand of Justin Timberlake’s hair so I can make his babies.
Will you take a selfie of my side boob for my Instagram?
I knew Kevin was in love with me when he said it was okay to pop his back zits.
The mortifying snippets of dialogue trickle in through the thin walls of comedy writer Charlie McDowell’s Los Angeles condo. Little do his upstairs neighbours “Cathy” and “Claire” realize, McDowell can make out every conversation they’ve had over three years of living on top of each other.
For a time, the chronic blathering of Cathy and Claire – two Patron-guzzling sorority sisters – infuriates him: “It was like someone talking in the room with you,” McDowell, 30, said by phone from New York. After failing to lodge a noise complaint in person or with his condo board, McDowell tries a different tack: Twitter. Finding a particularly porous spot in his kitchen, McDowell begins capturing all of his neighbours’ “idiotic gems,” followed by his own snarky rejoinders.
Not surprisingly, McDowell’s voyeuristic Twitter postings go viral, landing him a book deal. Published earlier this month, Dear Girls Above Me charts an unconventional neighbourly relationship: “I don’t get to see anything cool, like a pillow fight or a boob. I’m just forced to listen,” writes McDowell, who also scored a shoutout from Lena Dunham – she knighted him an “anthropologist of the Kardashian era.”
In the vein of other voyeuristic domestic opuses – from Tumblr accounts like “Dear Neighbour” and anthologies such as Oonagh O’Hagan’s I Lick My Cheese: And Other Real Notes from the Roommate Frontlines – McDowell’s book offers up uncensored evidence of mundane daily life.
Cathy and Claire’s everyday dialogue is strikingly reminiscent of the Shit Girls Say franchise: Howls when some guy named “Chad” fails to text back. Deep discussions of fad diets – Tic Tacs and edamame? Lyrically inaccurate shower singing. Vulgar postmortems of one-night stands past.
“The initial response to the project was that everyone had the overhearing-your-neighbour story,” says McDowell. “I would Tweet and someone would say, ‘My upstairs neighbour, I swear to god he has a mechanical bull up there.’ It felt familiar to people.”
Eventually, the girls became minor (if unwitting) celebrities to McDowell, who trembles every time he sees them in the laundry room. Today, the women still have no clue what the awkward man downstairs has been up to.
Perhaps it’s a fittingly modern relationship: In the realm of social media, Facebook friends gripe about neighbours on their digital walls, though few would actually approach these people over the fence. A Facefriend of mine recently used Vine to upload a shaky mobile video of his floorboards: The sound of male weeping and plaintive cries of “baby, baby, baby” rose up through the floor – his downstairs neighbours were breaking up, slowly, arduously. We can now passive- aggressively deal with the relationships that are beyond our control, rallying our own social circle to shame offenders who often remain unaware of their transgressions.
“Twitter is a place where you can be social by being anti-social,” McDowell says. He took the leering even further when he decided to host a “listening party.” His friends came over to listen in on Cathy and Claire’s boozy truisms: “We just sat and listened. It’s the most pathetic party you could ever hold.”
McDowell violates his neighbours’ privacy but insists that their squawks did the same to his own. “I’d just gone through a breakup and was trying to be alone and deal with my stuff. Suddenly all I was hearing were female voices and their perspectives on the world. It was driving me crazy. Then at a certain point I became more interested in the things they were talking about, their views on dating protocols and things like that. As a male, I’ve never had that insight into what girls are thinking and talking about.” (His landlord is also incredulous about the noise complaint, saying, “A couple of attractive young gals talking locker room? Isn’t that every guy’s dream?”)
In the end, Cathy and Claire are bad neighbours but they’re also good neighbours. When McDowell finally musters up the courage to knock on their door with a formal, in-person noise complaint, they invite him in for a retro-feeling meet-and-greet where his resolve melts away. “They’re narcissistic in the most lovable way,” he gushes over the phone. For better or for worse, McDowell’s neighbours and his protracted roomie, Pat, form an improvised modern family. “It is very of today to have a gay roommate and these two Kardashian-wannabe girls living above me.”
And when he finally decides to push this makeshift family away, if only so he can sleep – “Look at this picture. Suri Cruise is wearing the cutest top ever!” is the kind of thing Cathy and Claire will squeal at 2:30 a.m. – the writer invests in two white-noise machines. These he places on both of his bedside tables where they whir like an air conditioner at night.
“That drowned them out.”