Dead neighbor, or overactive imagination?
December 21, 2008 9:34 AM   Subscribe

I think someone in my building may have died in their apartment. What should I do?

I live on the top floor of a large (20 apartment) building in Brooklyn. A few days ago we noticed a strange death-smell in our bedroom, and traced it to a crack where the floor meets the wall. Of course we assumed that it was just a rat in the walls or something, and sealed the crack. Problem solved.

Well, a couple days have gone by and now the smell has spread. You can smell it in all the hallways and stairwells on the first three floors. I know our building houses a lot of older tenants. I'm starting to think that maybe someone died in their apartment. What should I do about it?

It's Sunday now, and the week before Christmas. This makes it tricky because I can't even call the landlord until tomorrow, and he may be on vacation or otherwise unreachable. Also, a lot of people are traveling right now, so even if we knock on doors and some people aren't answering their doors or phones, they could just be on vacation, right? That's also a reason why none of the other neighbors may have noticed or complained.

So I'm stumped. What should I do? Who should I call? What else could it be?
posted by hermitosis to Grab Bag (58 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
Call 311! They will probably connect you to 911. I would get on this now!
posted by sweetkid at 9:37 AM on December 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'd go with the police for this one. You don't know what to do. They will.
posted by merocet at 9:38 AM on December 21, 2008

yeah, this is not a time for self-help. call the cops.
posted by Saucy Intruder at 9:39 AM on December 21, 2008

Call 911.
posted by grouse at 9:40 AM on December 21, 2008

Yup. 911. Hope it's "just" an animal.
posted by Stewriffic at 9:44 AM on December 21, 2008

Call the police. Or, speaking as a landlord, call the landlord's emergency contact number. For a variety of health/ethical/human reasons, this needs dealt with now.
posted by richardhay at 9:46 AM on December 21, 2008

As an answer to "what else could it be"... it's Winter. A larger critter such as a raccoon may have found itself a cosy home in the attic, then died for some reason. Being on the top floor you'd notice it first. I'd still complain though regardless of the cause. Your lease entitles you to a certain level of contentment in your apartment. This falls into the 'somebody else's problem' category.
posted by hungrysquirrels at 9:51 AM on December 21, 2008

311, see what they say.
Also, update when available, please.
posted by piratebowling at 9:55 AM on December 21, 2008

I'd call the cops. They will take it from there.

And please, please, update this thread when you find out what it was.
posted by davey_darling at 9:56 AM on December 21, 2008 [2 favorites]

Not to be over-reactionary, but another reason you should get the police on this asap is that you don't know if foul play could be involved.

More likely it's just a dead animal, but if it were a person and that person was the victim of a homicide, it would benefit the detectives to get to the body sooner rather than later.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 10:00 AM on December 21, 2008

Nthing calling the landlord or super's emergency number.
posted by brujita at 10:01 AM on December 21, 2008

Copitty cop cops.

As a bonus, you get hot uniformed men all over the place for a bit..
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 10:03 AM on December 21, 2008 [8 favorites]

Response by poster: I'm having my sister come over to do the smell test to see whether it's just my imagination. Could be garbage? However it may impugn my critical thinking skills, I think I'd better be pretty sure something is amiss before I seriously disrupt a lot of people's weekend.

If you knew the sorts of things I've experienced as a tenant in New York City and NOT called 311/911 about, you'd be truly amazed.
posted by hermitosis at 10:14 AM on December 21, 2008

i don't think you'll be "disrupting a lot of people's weekends" by calling the cops, it's their job. and think of the relative of the dead neighbor who'd rather find out about this sooner than later.
posted by camdan at 10:31 AM on December 21, 2008

CALL 911! Jesus!
posted by tristeza at 10:33 AM on December 21, 2008

Another vote for cops.
posted by rtha at 10:35 AM on December 21, 2008

Call the cops?
posted by fixedgear at 10:38 AM on December 21, 2008

Is your sister's nose really going to be able to tell the difference between the decomp smells of a dead tenant, a dead raccoon or pet, and a rotting wad of pork trimmings in the garbage can of a tenant that's been on vacation 3-4 days?

Cops should be called. You could try to sniff around the halls to zero-in on which apartment they should check, if you can stomach it.
posted by CKmtl at 10:40 AM on December 21, 2008

I don't think you guys are getting the sense of apprehension hermitosis has.

He mentioned that he can't quite tell if it's just a garbage small or a death smell. It's quite possible a neighbor left some trash and went away for the holidays. He also mentioned difficulty in tracing the source. This makes it a bit harder to investigate by knocking on neighbors doors in the first place

Finally, when he mentioned ruining other people's weekends, I didn't take that to mean the cops at all (Of course cops work on the weekends). I'm pretty sure he's referring to the landlord and tennents who will possibly see a door busted down to reveal a trashbag. Put yourself in the position of being the guy who called the cops about a trashbag before getting high and mighty.

I still stand by my first suggestion, but surely you all can understand why it's a delicate situation and calling the cops as the FIRST response might not be the most level-headed one.
posted by piratebowling at 10:44 AM on December 21, 2008 [5 favorites]

I think I'd better be pretty sure something is amiss before I seriously disrupt a lot of people's weekend.

It's not like they are going to cancel some policeman's day off to deal with your bad smell. Just call the cops, why bother your sister?
posted by grouse at 10:46 AM on December 21, 2008

My vote is to sniff around until you are pretty sure you know which apartment the smell is coming from. Then knock on that door, and the neighboring doors, until you find a person who lives close. Ask them their opinion, share that you are worried that someone passed away, and then together call the cops.

Who could get upset with you for exposing (what is hopefully) forgotten garbage, if several tenants were worried?
posted by Houstonian at 10:52 AM on December 21, 2008 [2 favorites]

I have a friend who moved to NYC from the West Coast a couple of years ago. In her time here, she has lived in about a dozen places (deliberately, wanting to test different neighborhoods) and there have been THREE INCIDENTS of people dying while she was there and smelling up the place.

CALL 911. OMG. The cops arent going to bust down the door unless THEY think it smells like a dead body, and guess what, they know what a dead body smells like.

They're not going to bust down the door, and guess what, it's the super's job to come over and open doors up. It's not like youre doing this on Xmas Eve. It's a Sunday. The landlord is available in emergencies.
posted by micawber at 11:00 AM on December 21, 2008 [2 favorites]

Houstonian has it spot on. Don't just talk to your sister (although that's cool too), talk to other tenants. I bet some mefites would come to your place to sniff around, too, if you really wanted.

I do think that if this is the kind of fire-proof post-war construction that I'm imagining (concrete walls and fire doors), that I would take action sooner rather than later. But if it's a shitty tenement-style place where smells tend to, erhm, mingle, I wouldn't worry about it too much.
posted by sondrialiac at 11:13 AM on December 21, 2008

Nthing "definitely call 311." They'll figure out whether this is a cop thing or a firefighter thing.

When I was doing my EMT training, I had to spend some shifts at a firehouse. They get called for the weirdest things that one would imagine would be cop territory- or no one's territory. Someone called because they thought they had a bat in their house. At 4:30 am.

Anyways, I'm sure they take care of these things all the time, absolute worst thing that could happen if you're wrong is someone's door gets knocked down. If you're really feeling shy about this, you can decline to leave your contact information in most cases.

P.S. Given that you posted a link to "Butt Magazine" in the Blue, I feel safe to point out that men in uniform = yummy.
posted by charmcityblues at 11:15 AM on December 21, 2008

Call the landlord first, he has keys and can poke around more easily.

Failing that, take matters into your own hands and start knocking on doors on the first 3 floors, asking them if they smell the smell and have they seen so and so.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 11:18 AM on December 21, 2008

If you knew the sorts of things I've experienced as a tenant in New York City and NOT called 311/911 about, you'd be truly amazed.

Is this a boast?

Think of the smell as smoke. Would you do something about it then?

Please call the cops.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 11:31 AM on December 21, 2008

Even if it's just garbage or a dead animal, it's a public health issue. Even if it's not a job for the cops, they'll make sure that the right people get on the case.
posted by winston at 11:46 AM on December 21, 2008

The cops will have had way more experience than your sister in identifying dead body smells.

Call 311.
posted by the latin mouse at 11:53 AM on December 21, 2008

If you knew the sorts of things I've experienced as a tenant in New York City and NOT called 311/911 about, you'd be truly amazed.

Is this a boast?

it's not a boast, it's just kind of the way things are when living in crappy apartment buildings in big cities. your standards are (have to grow to be) much lower than other peoples'.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 12:04 PM on December 21, 2008

Just throwing out there that some things might be time sensitive if there really is a dead person: pets need to get fed, oven should be turned off, etc.
posted by losvedir at 12:17 PM on December 21, 2008

Hunh. I'm surprised about all of the 911 talk. Ain't that for an emergency? If it's a corpse it ain't going anywhere. If it's a dead squirrel or someone left a casserole on the counter before leaving on a two week vacation, then that's not a police issue either.

I'd call the super or manager. That's what they're there for, They might just go "Oh, another dead squirrel in the light well. It'll be gone in the morning."

Once I was pretty sure that there was a corpse stinking up my building, growing in stench for several days. Turns out that it was just someone cooking up a 'special' holiday treat form the old country.
posted by Ookseer at 12:31 PM on December 21, 2008

Response by poster: I would never hesitate to call authorities if I was sure it was warranted; what I was looking for here was some sense of protocol to follow. Misanthropicsarah and piratebowling did a good job of articulating why this isn't an urgent pounce-for-the-phone situation for me.

I figured there were enough details to warrant my asking for advice. On further investigation, it's hard to be sure that the smell that we detected in our apartment on the 4th floor is even the same as the smell on the 1st/2nd floor. I'm starting to think they might be coming from different sources. Then again, it's colder today than it was yesterday, and the halls/stairwells aren't heated (in fact, several of the windows are open, since the painting crew pretty much sealed them that way permanently when they visited this summer), which means that smells in general don't carry as far. I've polled several people in the building now, and so far one of them smells death, one detects garbage, and the other couldn't smell anything at all. None of them seemed particularly concerned.

So what we have on our hands ISN'T an emergency. I'm willing to give it another day and in the meantime talk to more of my neighbors and just check up on things. I appreciate the urgency most of you seem to feel, and if all of this turns out to actually be something important then I'll make sure everyone gets the "I told you so" they're entitled to.
posted by hermitosis at 1:00 PM on December 21, 2008

Best answer: Decomposing human flesh smells like old Chinese food mixed with shit and piss. Kind of a sickly sweet smell that somehow smells damp and musty. If you close your eyes, you can kind of smell cobwebs and mold.
posted by ColdChef at 1:30 PM on December 21, 2008 [26 favorites]

So what we have on our hands ISN'T an emergency. ... I appreciate the urgency most of you seem to feel...

You've got this backward.

Calling the police does not necessarily require an emergency. Living in New York, you should know this. You do not appear to.

You wrote, "I think someone in my building may have died in their apartment." You have pondered this smell for "a couple days." You posted this thread, and brought your sister over to your apartment to "do the smell test," and to "polled several people in the building."

And what people are saying is, you ought to have reported your observation to the police and then forgotten about it. Among the two alternative courses of action here, that is not the more melodramatic.
posted by cribcage at 2:00 PM on December 21, 2008 [7 favorites]

Calling 911 is for emergencies. Calling the police is not the same as calling 911.
Definitely call the police, they check things like this all the time, but call their non-emergency number.
posted by forforf at 2:15 PM on December 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

So this isn't a leap-for-the-phone emergency, but have you considered the fact that if there's a death, there might possibly be a homicide? And the more the investigation is delayed, the colder the trail becomes?
posted by PatoPata at 2:34 PM on December 21, 2008

No advice to offer, never having encountered such a situation myself, but please post back here if/when you find out what it is/was.
posted by limeonaire at 2:44 PM on December 21, 2008

i'm seconding limeonaire - please please tell us.
posted by citystalk at 3:16 PM on December 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

Walk over to your local police station, and talk to them... or call 311. 311 is not for emergencies, but for everything else.
posted by R. Mutt at 3:21 PM on December 21, 2008

The police would prefer if you alerted them to a suspicious smell, just as they would prefer that you report anything that seems out of the ordinary. The protocol for doing so is to call their non-emergency reporting number and leaving details with the dispatcher. They will follow-up as they see fit. If it is nothing, you will never hear about it again. If it is a dead body, they might come back to ask you a question or two. For what it's worth, in my old neighborhood, I called the police on occasion to report things less suspicious than the smell of decomposition in my apartment building. Police are there to serve the interests of civil law and order, not simply to respond to emergencies.
posted by mrmojoflying at 3:28 PM on December 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

Also, I believe that you can choose to not leave your name when you call 311. At least i could when we were having a problem in Brooklyn with stripped cars being dumped infront of our (illegal for living in) loft building.
posted by R. Mutt at 3:36 PM on December 21, 2008

The police are experienced with this sort of situation, it's their job to decide when things are emergencies or not.

I don't really understand why you're balking.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 3:37 PM on December 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

And bodies tend to leak, leaks tend to drip, call the cops. Have Flickr account ready, have camera ready and post again, happy holidays.
posted by Freedomboy at 3:45 PM on December 21, 2008

Dead body or not, the smell could indicate a public safety issue. Call 311 and let them decide who should investigate. You won't be wasting anybody's time, I promise.
posted by indyz at 3:51 PM on December 21, 2008

The fact that you cannot get ahold of your landlord (or his representative) in case of an emergency is not ok. It is also the reason one could have to call 311. Though you might want to leave a message on his machine prior to calling the authorities - if that is what you choose to do - just to show that you tried.

(and sadly, if it was an older person - in a rent controlled apt. - your landlord might not mind a broken door. )
posted by R. Mutt at 4:06 PM on December 21, 2008

I can't fathom ignoring a potential dead body in the building when you can just call the non-emergency 311 number and let someone WHOSE JOB IT IS to handle this sort of thing take care of it.

If nothing else, imagine the wretched homecoming you could be saving someone.
posted by Space Kitty at 4:44 PM on December 21, 2008

I get why you don't want to call the police, but you really should call your landlord on the emergency number. If you're afraid of feeling foolish, then tell him/her that you think there is a dead animal in the walls. No need to go for the dead person angle straight away :) Tell them the smell is bothering you, and you can't track it down, its been several days and it hasn't gone away. Then the ball is in the landlord's court to decide whether its an emergency or not.
posted by Joh at 5:20 PM on December 21, 2008

Non-emergency police call. Please do it.
What if there is a pet of some sort in there who is starving to death while you ponder the "what ifs" and take a poll until you get an answer you like? I wouldn't want that on my conscience later.
posted by stagewhisper at 5:51 PM on December 21, 2008

Response by poster: I placed an anonymous call to the police through 311 and left them the landlord's number as well so they could follow up with someone with keys and such if they need to. I don't know if they've come yet, I've been out all evening.

For those of you who are really looking forward to a follow-up, I wouldn't hold your breath. Even if they found something, it's not likely that I'll be around to witness it or will even hear about it from anyone else. We don't really know any of our neighbors, and being on the top floor, not a lot of people pass through here.

To be perfectly honest, I'm not at all convinced that there's anything to be found. The more I poked around in the building, the more I got the sense that the two smells weren't actually related, and now tonight I can barely smell the downstairs smell at all anymore. But sure, it's harmless to call someone and check on it.

If it seems baffling that I would be so hesitant to become personally involved in this matter with the police and my landlord, what can I say. We just moved into the building this summer, it's full of older people, mostly married couples, and we're conspicuously younger and the only gay people in the building, and no one seemed particularly happy to see us arrive, if you get what I mean. We've really tried to mind our own business and keep a low profile. I would like to think that the ice would be broken over something a little less eccentric than, "Is that awful smell coming from your house? Do you think your neighbor might be dead?" or to the landlord, "Do you mind driving an hour in the slush on a Sunday evening to come knock on doors and count heads?" If the smell persists tomorrow morning I will call my landlord during regular business hours and tell him about it.

As for the police, I have rarely had an encounter with the NYPD that didn't leave me feeling impotently furious or degraded, especially our local precinct. I laughed out loud reading statements above like "Police are there to serve the interests of civil law and order, not simply to respond to emergencies." Maybe where I grew up, but not here. Being able to report anonymously was a big help in this respect.

I didn't intend to kick up a huge fuss here, I thought I made it pretty clear from the outset that I was far from certain what the situation really was, and I think some people's imaginations really ran away with them. It's like you wanted there to be a body. But it's okay, I love you all just the way you are. And if it makes you feel better, if anyone else is ever in this situation and they bother to search AskMe before posting, they will definitely, definitely call the cops first thing.
posted by hermitosis at 6:36 PM on December 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

The way I see it, you've only compounded your problem here. Not only do you have the delightful scent of rotting garbage/animal/corpse permeating your apartment building, but now you've also got several hundred MeFites wondering what the smell is. I say call 311, let the cops send somebody over, find out what's going on and put an end to this unbearable suspense!
posted by Faint of Butt at 6:38 PM on December 21, 2008

I have failed at preview. We love you too, hermitosis.
posted by Faint of Butt at 6:39 PM on December 21, 2008

As for this:

If you knew the sorts of things I've experienced as a tenant in New York City and NOT called 311/911 about, you'd be truly amazed.
it's not a boast, it's just kind of the way things are when living in crappy apartment buildings in big cities. your standards are (have to grow to be) much lower than other peoples'.

C'mon people --this is the healthier, happier nyc. Please don't pursue tough urbanite fantasies by not acting. Be a good citizen by applying a bit of courage. Help us all out. 311/911 is mindblowingly organized and responsive these days.

...and may Kitty Genovese rest in peace.
posted by ezekieldas at 6:53 PM on December 21, 2008

Response by poster: The Kitty Genovese story is a myth.

And I've acted before, plenty of times. Once a friend and I saw a guy shoving a girl into a car filled with other guys, and she seemed upset about it so we called the cops -- don't know what the outcome was, but I know that they were at least pulled over. So that's something. And when someone close to me was sexually assaulted, the police were very helpful. So that's something too.

But otherwise, I've called and made noise complaints, I've called to make domestic abuse complaints, and I've called when I myself was the victim of a minor assault, all fruitlessly. And what I've learned boils down to: "Call if necessary -- but you'd better have a plan B. And a plan C." And if you're not sure whether it's necessary, usually the moment passes and you just have to move on. Posting here was about figuring out the theoretical way to proceed if I decided it was warranted. Everyone else decided for me that it was warranted, but as the one with the nose, I made sure to proceed with caution.

Last year some local brooklyn paper had a front page article about how people in the Greenpoint/Williamsburg area were the "biggest whiners" because those areas had logged the most calls to 311 regarding noise, waste, dwelling, and crime complaints. I thought that was funny, because for the most part, I thought it showed that people moving to these neighborhoods cared enough about their surroundings to intervene. But the attitude that calls these people "whiners" is still very much in effect throughout much of the city (and it's a paradox of course, because EVERYONE in this city complains nonstop. In fact, that article I mentioned shared the front page with an article complaining that a local restaurant was charging $5 for a coke, with no free refills!!</em. I wrote them a letter to point out the irony).
posted by hermitosis at 7:29 PM on December 21, 2008

Yeah, that story you posted about Kitty Genovese has a great deal of authority behind it. Did you read the author's credits???

*eye roll*

I have no love for the NYPD. And I have been here for a very long time and remember when this city was not safe.

You make a phone call.
posted by micawber at 7:55 PM on December 21, 2008

(Coming a bit late to the party, but anyway:)

A couple of years ago I spent about weeks living next door to a deceased neighbour (and her very much alive cat, as it turned out, as I found the animal on my balcony at 3 o'clock in the morning after the authorities had removed the neighbour's body). At the time she was found I was pretty much where hermitosis was with this question (actually I believed the appartment to be empty, based on a misunderstood conversation with another neighbour and the fact that I had never seen the deceased and never heard any sound coming from her apartment) though I had looked in the neighbour's mailbox down in the communal hallway to check whether anyone had been home lately.

I do remember the mix of 'if someone died in there, something needs to be done about it' and 'oh come on, this doesn't happen in real life, does it?' that kept me from taking action.

Though Coldchef has far more expertise on the subject than I do, here's my take on dead body smell. When it starts it resembles the smell of over-cooked potatoes (which probably matches the damp and musty sickly sweet from Coldchef's description). After a while (as decomposition progressed, I guess, though a sample of one is probably too small to draw any conclusions from) there was an increasingly sharp sour hint of vomit on top of the sickly-sweet.
posted by rjs at 12:57 AM on December 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

Even if the Kitty Genovese story is a myth, the concept it refers to most definitely is not, and that's the important takeaway.
posted by iamkimiam at 8:14 AM on December 22, 2008

Mod note: Yea-or-nay Kitty Genovese debates and such is getting pretty far from the question here, which it sounds like is pretty much answered and acted upon barring what-ended-up-happening followups from hermitosis, so let's please not get all open forum in here.
posted by cortex (staff) at 8:24 AM on December 22, 2008

Years ago my Dad decided to pay an after-work Christmas visit to an old friend who had descended into alcoholism, lost his job and family, and moved into a small Manhattan apartment by himself.

There was a pile of mail in the mailbox, and no response to repeated knocks on the door (the phone had been disconnected). Rather than just assuming that he wasn't home, Dad called the police, who entered the apartment and found the body.

If my Dad hadn't gone out of his way for a holiday visit, who knows how long poor Marty would have sat there? And why did it take an accidental visitor to do what the neighbors wouldn't?

I guess my thought is, what's the downside to calling the police? And what's the upside of living with a rotting corpse?
posted by dinger at 11:17 AM on December 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

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