Learned Helplessness: Of Roaches, Restaurant Vents, and Reality

Learned Helplessness: Of Roaches, Restaurant Vents, and Reality 1

Yves here. Lambert thought I should hoist this comment from NYC-based reader jr into a post. I find the later part of his story, where the fellow tenants refused to do anything about intolerable (and correctable) noise levels to be remarkable. New York City actually has very strong pro tenant laws. And now it is not hard to download apps that measure decibel levels. If the noise was in the “dangerous to hearing” level, this would be a slam dunk for a complaint. There might also be building regulations that specify maximum levels which are sure to be somewhat below the “dangerous” level. I can’t fathom this demonstration of learned helplessness, particularly in a city where complaining, including the formal sort, is almost a sport. But as Frederick Douglass wrote:

Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both.

In any event, this level of resignation does not bode well for any sort of collective action. If you can’t get citizens to address immediate concerns, how can you possibly move them to tackle bigger, less in your face problems?

PS. I had a “rat in restaurant” incident many years ago similar to jr’s roach story, but I will spare you.

By reader jr, from Links 4/22/2022/strong>

So I was recently told to try out a new pita joint here in Brooklyn by a good friend. I love me some falafel etc. so I hiked across town to pick up the order I called in. I was gargled and N95ed up, nose rinse in my pocket, but apparently everyone but me was under the impression that COVID was over. So I hung out outside, the place was busy and I knew it would be a wait.

The line inside shortened and I took my chance. The food looked good, people were chowing down with gusto, and the phone was falling off the hook. Seamless orders everywhere. They even had my favorite soda. I was excited to find a new “place”.

That’s when, in the full view of everyone in line, a plump cockroach decided to take the stage, ambling leisurely across the countertop. I froze and waited to see the reactions of the people around me. I was already turning to the door.

No one blinked an eye. They couldn’t have missed the fu(king thing if they were blind. Everyone went into “I’m not seeing that.” mode, I could tell because everyone kind of locked up but kept staring straight ahead or turned away or whatever. Only I actually watched the thing makes it’s way down behind the counter. The owner of the store was leaning right over it and didn’t even flinch. A suspension of belief.

Walking home, empty handed and grossed out, a memory came back to me. Before I left Manhattan, my partner and I had moved into a small apartment from our even smaller one for just a few months. This was two winters back. My partner had gone to her mother’s house out of state for a solid three month stretch to care for her after a serious surgery. I was alone in the place. Some of you may remember my comments were fairly wild around that time, something about Steve Pinker and voodoo fetishes made from human hair. I was lonely and stressed out.

Which was nothing compared to my mental state when the noise started. As the weather grew colder, an exhaust vent on the roof belonging to a restaurant downstairs began to squeal. The colder it got, the worse it got. I called the landlords, who pretended not to know that they were the landlords of the restaurant downstairs. I called the city, who pretended to send out inspectors who then wrote reports about how they found nothing during their pretend inspections. I put an app on my phone that registers decibel levels, it told me I had the equivalent of a Shop-Vac running outside my window 24/7. I stuffed a yoga mat, comforters, foam padding, etc. into the windows and it STILL was mind numbing. I really started to lose my $hit, as in manic episodes and talking to myself.

So I decided to get the other tenants on my side. The noise out in the hallway was even worse than inside my apartment, it literally rang in your ears. It had to be driving everyone else nuts, right?

Wrong. Everyone claimed they couldn’t hear a thing. One neighbor looked surprised when I mentioned it. Another said she had never noticed it until I brought it up, even as we stood in the hallway with the air vibrating around us from the force of it. Someone else said something to the effect of they don’t spend a lot of time at home anyway. No one was even vaguely interested in doing anything about it, I mentioned calling the city in a non-pushy way and got lots of non-committal looks and nods.

Only one little old lady on the first floor knew, or admitted she knew, what I was talking about. She said it had been going on for years, that it would never get fixed because it would cost the landlords tens of thousands of dollars to tear out the ancient vent system etc. and replace it. She was pretty safe from it on the first floor but she didn’t know how anyone else lived with it. She had used to live on a higher floor but it, and some other problems, had driven her down to the first floor.

I consider myself fairly jaded and cynical and I was blown away by this behavior. I couldn’t process it. When my partner got home, the noise was beginning to subside and she didn’t think much of it until I removed the stuffing in the windows and then she was like “D@mn.” The bottom line is that people can ignore almost anything, can justify almost anything, can believe almost anything, if it will allow them to maintain their illusions of stability. Their sense of normalcy. Their prime location digs.

Which bodes ill for the troubles ahead. No one will do a thing to help themselves or others if it means breaking through the illusions they pay so much to inhabit. Did I mention all of my neighbors, minus the little old lady, were firmly in the PMC? Someone above mentioned how they can ignore the fact that Biden is a shambling corpse who blurts out nuclear war initiating non sequiturs. I think they are going to ignore a lot more than that until it really hurts, then they will lash out at the nearest target. When they get hungry or thirsty and UberEats stops answering the phone.

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