The art of living alone without being alone

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(Window blinds image courtesy of

Each month, NewsWorks presents a story from a First Person Arts story slam. In this edition, Sean Carney, who was recently named “Best Storyteller in Philadelphia” in the 2013 First Person Arts Festival, has a story about the dilemma of living alone.

As part of a monthly series of stories, NewsWorks presents this one by Sean Carney from the 2013 First Person Arts Festival. For every story slam, competitors are instructed to tell a true story within a time limit, based on a theme, with no notes.

In the festival’s story slam grand slam, Carney was named “Best Storyteller in Philadelphia.” The theme was “dilemma.”

Click the audio button above to hear his story. A transcription follows. [Audio production by Kimberly Haas.]

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Last month I almost choked to death on a peanut butter cracker alone in my apartment.

That’ll make you make you stop and think about things, one of which is: Maybe I shouldn’t be living by myself anymore — if only so there’ll be somebody there to scream when they find my corpse. And that’s all anybody can hope for in life, isn’t it?

There aren’t wedding vows that mention corpse discovery as a motivating factor behind their betrothal, but I have to think it is one of those unspoken perks of marriage — like split utility bills or the option of throwing your spouse in front of a burglar.

Here is my dilemma: I don’t want to die alone. But I also don’t want to live with anyone else, which I have been told is kind of part of marriage. For a while, I started thinking about subscribing to Life Alert. Their slogan used to be “Help, I’ve fallen, and I can’t get up!” and now it’s changed to “Thanks to Life Alert, now you can live alone without ever really being alone.”

“You didn’t call them, did you?”

“Sure did, Mom! I called them. I got drunk one night and ordered a pamphlet.”

And now the Life Alert sales department calls me every 10 minutes, which kind of negates the need for the actual device.

Here is the ironic thing: I don’t want to live with somebody else, because I am afraid somebody will see what I do when I’m alone. Case in point: I walked into my apartment the other day, and the blinds were open in my living room, and I distinctly remember closing them before I left for work, which means that somebody has been coming into my apartment and enjoying natural light. And rather than call the police, I actually found myself tidying up before I left in the morning — you know, concerned that the intruder would be offended by dirty dishes and uncoifed throw pillows.

And what’s worse, he hasn’t even stolen anything yet. So now I’m walking around and kind of like picking up things and being like, “Do I need better stuff?” Like, “This is nice. Why wouldn’t he take this?” So I wrote him a note. I said, “Are you in my apartment right now? Check ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ P.S. Sorry for the clutter.”

Now the reason why I consider people breaking into my apartment so much is that it happened constantly when I was living in New York. I was 23, living in some s—hole apartment in the Upper East Side with three roommates and 700 square feet. Coffins had more head room than this place.

The first time the intruder broke in, I swear to God, I was alone. I was in my bedroom. It was during a thunderstorm, and I heard a back window open by the fire escape and footsteps come down the hall. So I closed the bedroom door and kind of leaned into it and I heard the footsteps stop right outside. And I didn’t know what to do, so I whisper and I’m like, “Please go away. I’m pregnant.”

And, amazingly, he did. He walked down the hall, and he closed what I thought was the front door. So I ran out, and I locked the front door, and then to my side I saw the bathroom door open, and this old man walked out. He was withered, he had white hair and this pock-marked face. And, after I was done urinating my pants, I realized it was my super. And he is drying his hair with my bath towel. And he looks at me, and he’s like, “It started raining outside. What the hell else was I supposed to do? You don’t look pregnant.”

And the super didn’t let out all of his crazy until we gave our notice that we were leaving. And in that building you needed a six weeks’ notice, so we gave seven months’. And he took that as a sign of surrender and a sign that he could also show the apartment whenever he wanted to.

So, one time I was in the shower and I heard something outside. And I opened the bathroom door, and there were four Asian girls standing there giggling and my super standing next to them.

He’s like, “Put some f—ing clothes on.” And he waves his hand, and he’s like, “We will see the rest of the place later once that pervert gets dressed.”

You think that hiding in your bedroom would work. It didn’t. It enraged him so much he would bang on the door because you interrupted the tour. And I would open and introduce myself to the Eastern European man and his girlfriend and smile and say, “This is my room. Sorry it’s so dirty.” And the flashbulbs would go off.

A few days before I left, I found a Post-it Note in my mailbox.

We actually didn’t have mailboxes, we had these baskets nailed to the wall with our apartment number over them. And we knew the super read our mail. Like, we always would find letters either opened or missing. A few other people got Post-its in their mail baskets that said, like, “Pay your bills, a–hole” or “You don’t live here no more!”

A few years after that, I could afford my own place. And it was around that time that I got an email from a buddy of mine who I stayed friendly with in the building, and he let me know that the super had passed away. He had apparently lived by himself in the basement. He didn’t answer his phone regularly. And it took them a few days before they found him.

My friend said, he asked, if I wanted to go to a memorial service for the super. It was being held outside of the building. I said of course I would. A lot of us went.

See, we had gotten some Post-its that were harsh, but we all remembered that, when the recession started, the Post-its changed. They started saying things like “Hang in there,” “It’ll get better,” “Don’t give up.” My Post-it, all it said was “Good luck.” I still have it.

And at the memorial outside of the building, the building manager had his own basket, and he started calling out names of residents. They had found a pile of mail in the super’s basement. It turned out he actually had lived in the building with his wife for 30 years, and when she died he couldn’t bring himself to leave her, to leave their home. So he took a job as a super and he took an apartment in the basement.

They found the pile next to a chair in the corner, opened. I guess he just got lonely.

Whenever I think of my dilemma, I think of him: someone who lived alone, but who, every so often, whether invited or not, would delve into the lives of others — living alone without ever really being alone. Thanks.

So, what dilemmas are haunting Sean Carney these days? A story like his opens up a few questions — se we followed up with him to find out the important, personal, and profound answers.

1. How does it feel to be the “Best Storyteller in Philadelphia”?

After I turned 30 last year, I began to re-evaluate what I considered to be an accomplishment. With social media, you’re confronted with self-manufactured, manicured grandeur on a daily basis — I did this, I went here, I created this weird looking child. If you become obsessed with that culture, it becomes depressing when you can’t keep pace. So I reconsidered what an accomplishment was — did I put on pants today? did I not eat an entire bag of Doritos during a “Breaking Bad” marathon? — and I became much less concerned about the major pieces of writing I hadn’t published, or the blind children I hadn’t read to.

My point is – when I won “Best Storyteller in Philadelphia,” considering my previous accomplishment this year was trying cauliflower for the first time, it was a huge moment for me. And I couldn’t wait to brag about it on social media.

More meaningful than the award though is the community of storytellers I’ve become a part of in the process. There are so many talented artists in this city and it’s with a tremendous sense of pride that I can count myself among their ranks. Over the past year, I’ve become exposed to numerous writers, poets and performers from Philadelphia (and Washington, D.C.), and it’s their talent that motivates me and makes the title of “Best Storyteller” that much more humbling. The future of my writing and storytelling is dependent upon their influence, both through their inspiration and through a competition to always do better and create more.

2. What do you like most and least about where you live at present?

I live in Old City, right above a parking lot off 2nd Street. And while it’s a gorgeous place during the day, after dark it kind of turns into a scene from the movie “I Am Legend.” There are no rules. Mindless zombies own the streets. There are 80 bars in a one-mile radius and no one fathoms anyone could possibly reside there — so when they get into that part of town, they just lose their minds — screaming, peeing everywhere. It’s like recess at a kindergarten for the insane … where they also serve alcohol.

So I don’t like that part — the noise of it all. I’m getting older and much prefer reading quietly in a chair. I will say though that Old City provides a fantastic source of material for a writer. From my rear window I’m a voyeuristic sociologist, taking notes on conversations, ethnic arguments, drunken brawls, sexual encounters. It’s remarkable.

My downstairs neighbor for instance (someone who lives on ground level) has gone so completely insane that the other day he yelled at a parade. “Keep it down!” he screamed. “People live around here!”

Someone yelled back, “It’s a parade!”

To which he replied, obviously unaware of the transient nature of parades, “Well…take it somewhere else!”

I often think about leaving Old City to relocate somewhere quieter, but how can you leave that type of material?

3. Where is the “good luck” Post-it Note right now?

In a tiny tin box on my desk, where I keep things I will grab when my apartment burns down. I say “when” because I’m an optimistic pessimist — so I know that my apartment will burn down, but I’m confident I’ll get out in time.

The issue is that my apartment doesn’t have a fire escape. I noticed this one year after moving in when I heard a siren outside my window that seemed close. (I always assume sirens are meant for me.) I began scrambling to think about what possessions meant the most to me and realized I’ll be the one on the curb squatting on a microwave, consoling my television set over the loss of our couch.

But that Post-It Note is one that will stay with me for life. Also in the box? My passport and chewing gum. Others have family photo albums, but apparently my concern is bad breath in a foreign country.

4. How do you, personally, live alone without being alone?

When you live alone without animals, you sometimes realize that you’ve gone almost an entire day without speaking. Often the first words I use are over the phone to the Chinese food restaurant, ordering dinner. This is sad.

Even sadder is that I recently passed my Chinese food delivery guy riding by on his bike. He waved at me. What are we — friends? On those days I go home, sit on the couch and think, “I need to make changes in my life.” Then I get hungry and order Chinese food.

Otherwise I genuinely don’t mind being by myself. I think a lot of writers feel this way. I was on a long international plane ride once and observed a woman around my age, maybe a bit younger in her late twenties, obsessively turn her iPhone on and off — punching in the password, flipping it around, and repeating the process. It was maniacal! The phone didn’t even have service, yet she was incapable of sitting by herself for even the briefest of moments. I’m sure there’s value in other people being around, but outside of the benefit of corpse discovery that I mentioned in my story, I don’t see the point.

Overall, I find solace in routine, and that gets me through the days. Routine puts you on a course where you don’t have to think that much on your own, which is ideal –—it’s an assembly-line process, and I’m a drone, my mind free to contemplate things like where wind comes from, the life span of squirrels, and if ice cubes expire. The important things.

5. Did you ever figure out who was visiting your apartment recently, enjoying natural light, while you were away?

The running theory among friends is that it was my current super coming in to fix something. He’s this tiny South American man who I believe lives in a closet on my floor, as I often pass by him changing there. (He’s prone to striped briefs, if you’re curious, a snug fit that I image is useful when on his rounds.) I’m also convinced he hangs out in my apartment while I’m at work – snacks, bathes, Skype’s with his girlfriend back in Peru, etc. – but he’s tidy so I let it slide.

The real fear wasn’t that a tiny South American man had been entering my apartment, but that my neighbor across the alley had seen into my living room.

I live in one of those lofts in Old City where the large factory windows allow you to see directly into the other person’s apartment. During my first morning there, I was walking back from the kitchen carrying a bowl of cereal when I looked up and locked eyes with my neighbor. He was an average guy, about my age. Neither of us were doing anything weird, both were fully clothed. But I knew this was an important moment — a standoff, a stare down. The winner got window rights.

And I dropped to the floor.

I Army-crawled over and shut the blinds, and they’ve stayed that way ever since. Sometimes I’ll turn them ever so slightly, but I can’t possibly open them fully. Too much time has passed, and he has to be curious. Who wouldn’t be? I’m the freak across the alley who lives in darkness. More than my desire for natural light is my overwhelming desire to not provide any more fodder for his already fantastic dinner party story.

I’ve become Boo Radley, and it’s only a matter of time before precocious neighborhood youth begin daring each other to knock on my door. But at least there will be a tiny South American man there to greet them.

Sean Carney can be found on Twitter: @thewittygritty

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