"Your grocery delivery of 10 pm on 15 November..."
November 26, 2021 4:17 PM   Subscribe

My neighbour is behaving in a way that might be low-key stalking/harassment, and is in any case definitely paranoid, aggressive, asshole behaviour. But, he is also old enough that I wonder if age-related cognitive issues might be a factor. How to proceed?

Background: Spouse and I moved into our flat earlier this year. It's a small block of six flats, three owner-occupied and the rest absentee landlords. We don't know the neighbours on much more than a "hello" basis, partly because of covid. It's a shared freehold, and we have a joint management company. So, there's been one annual meeting and a bunch of (somewhat contentious) back-and-forth by email all year about some maintenance that (legally) needs to get done. The others are dragging their feet. Formally, Spouse is a co-director of the management company and I am not; we usually discuss the maintenance thing amongst ourselves, and then she responds from her email.

One of the neighbours is basically a pompous overbearing sexist old thus-and-such (e.g. when Spouse responds to an email thread about the maintenance issue, he ignores her and emails me). We have had some brief (civil) conversations when running into each other, but he behaves very strangely and unreasonably on occasion, by email or by letter shoved in our postbox.

For example, a few months back he sent a very long, officious email (containing absolutely wild legal threats) because we ran our washing machine in the evening (before the building's agreed cut-off time for that sort of noise). Although we've run the same washer many other times on the same settings without comment, on this occasion he was (claiming to be) in a panic that the spin-cycle was threatening the structural integrity of the (steel-framed concrete) building. (It's a new washer, fitted correctly, we run it often with no complaint, etc.)

More recently, we had some groceries delivered (around 10 pm, as usual; this is what our work schedules accommodate), and woke up to an email (again full of wild legal threats) complaining that the garage door had been open for a few minutes at night, threatening legal action if "the criminals" were to damage his car, etc.

There have been some other examples. During the maintenance discussions, he ignores practical concerns and suggestions, and emails me privately about the (irrelevant to the discussion, nonexistent) spectre of "the criminals" trying to break into the building.

Most alarmingly, his most recent missive revealed that he keeps a log of comings and goings from our flat (which are pretty minimal, but that's beside the point, the point being we're under surveillance by an evident lunatic). This freaks us the fuck out.

The common denominator seems to be that these email outbursts follow a situation in which Spouse has tried to advance the group maintenance discussion in some practical way (most recently, she privately lost patience with the foot-dragging and got her own quote from a tradesperson, and explained it to the neighbours by email in som detail; Downstairs Guy's rant about the grocery delivery was a day later).

I basically don't have time for this guy's bullshit and neither does Spouse, but it's causing significant stress, especially the surveillance part. I'm a bit conflicted; if I felt power dynamics were different, I'd be more inclined to be charitable. But on the face of it, he's an overbearing guy who's imposing his delusions/emotional problems on others, taking up their time and emotional energy, and in such cases I'm normally less interested in motivations than in the effect of actions.

But: he's also almost 80 years old, and some of his behaviour makes me think there might be a dementia-type issue involved. So I am actually somewhat concerned about:

- his well-being;

- his wife's well-being; I've met her a couple of times, only exchanged a few words; I don't know her beyond a general impression that she seems maybe not in good health (so I'm somewhat worried if Downstairs Guy has a mission-critical caring role);

- some administrative stuff with the management company: he takes his Secretary role very seriously, but nobody has access to things like the joint bank account without asking him.

My questions are:

1. Ethical --- basically how much patience/forbearance is this guy entitled to?

2. Should I be alerting someone to a possible mental health issue? If so, whom, and how do I do this humanely and sensitively? If so, how do I deal with the fallout? He will flip his shit at what he'd perceive as the suggestion that he's incompetent or that his control of his little fiefdom is in jeopardy.

3. If this is just an intolerable gammon/nosy neighbour issue, and third-party intervention is unwarranted, how do I deal with it? I need to deal with practical matters with this person on a semi-regular basis but there's, like, absolutely no shared set of facts (and I am not interested in walking on eggshells to have a decent living situation, otherwise I'd not have spent 10 years saving to be done with landlords).

The other neighbours are unlikely to be of any help; they've all lived here for like 35 years and usually enable/defer to him out of friendliness, fear, middle-class British instinct for not rocking the boat, who knows. I already asked Spouse if we should put me as co-director instead of her so she can avoid some emails, but we decided that "guy gets triggered by having to negotiate with a woman/"foreigner"/person less than half his age (?)" is not, like, reasonable grounds for making accommodations.

Also probably relevant: we're in a UK city; I think/hope this situation is far from being the sort of thing that people would think warrant it, but even if it were, I'd be unlikely to involve police, especially if there's a mental health concern.
posted by busted_crayons to Human Relations (12 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I thiiink this is just creepy old man behavior.

3: I'd sign up for the stuff yourself but have your spouse write the emails under your account. I'd avoid contact as much as possible with him - filter emails into a special folder that are automatically marked as read. And... Is the noise thing actually illegal / agreed on? Are you allowed to open and close garage doors at night?

Sometimes old people get confused about what's right/legal and what isn't. What if you worked at night, and had to often respond to calls/emergencies? What if you were returning from the bar or the airport at 11pm?

I'd get clear on the house rules and state them clearly anytime they are misinterpreted. If you break a real rule, apologize ahead of time - that's courtesy. If you didn't break a rule, firmly stand up and state the clear rule. "Yes, we used the garage door at 11pm, but that is totally within our rights here. Please don't bring up "issues" that don't break rules. If you would like suggestions for mitigating noise you could ask your doctor."

The tracking thing is weird. I would say "we recently learned that you are tracking our movement. That is a violation of our privacy and we request that you stop doing that. Surely you can understand while you may have noble intentions it is creepy to have someone tracking you."
posted by bbqturtle at 4:55 PM on November 26, 2021 [8 favorites]

Nothing in your post suggests a mental health problem - sounds more run-of-the-mill nosy neighbor to me. I once had an old woman as a neighbor who clearly was keeping mental note of all the comings and goings of the neighborhood (and the length of everyone's lawn, oy).

his most recent missive revealed that he keeps a log of comings and goings from our flat

Because he said he keeps a log, or because you're assuming he does because he knew the time of the grocery delivery? If the latter, you're making a bit of a leap.

Don't get me wrong, he sounds quite unpleasant and his fear of "criminals" is certainly overly paranoid, but I'm not sure what else you could do besides trying to find some humor here, and keeping your encounters with him brief but polite. Let him threaten legal damages if that makes him feel better - he obviously doesn't have any grounds in the example you've provided. Given his age, he's likely not going to be your neighbor for too much longer anyway.
posted by coffeecat at 5:00 PM on November 26, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: 1. As people reach late adulthood it's not uncommon to feel more frightened/afraid. I've seen it in a few aging people who are close to me. Perhaps they feel more defenseless.

2. If you think he and his spouse are getting around okay and able to care for themselves, I might hold off on alerting anyone but I am more of a hands-off type of person.

3. I would try to talk with him face-to-face when possible, and if you absolutely have to respond to an email, do it yourself, ignore his threats, respectfully state the facts, and then move on.

He sounds run-of-the-mill nosey and paranoid. He has no real power over you. You can't stop a nosey codger from looking out his window and spying on your comings and goings. I would ignore him. Keep the correspondence strictly when absolutely necessary. Threats of legal action mean nothing until there is real legal action and that seems unlikely.
posted by loveandhappiness at 5:16 PM on November 26, 2021 [13 favorites]

I know a lot of people with similar or much worse stories about neighbors in their HOAs, co-ops, etc., especially in small organizations.

I would recommend KNOWING your rights but not necessarily asserting them to your neighbor. Like, he probably can’t actually sue you over these things he says he’s going to sue over, can he? If I were you I’d appease/apologize but probably not change my behavior much. Like, what if you said, “So sorry about that! We’ll try not to let it happen again!”

Because ultimately, asserting your rights may be a much more frustrating experience for your than just kind of going with the flow. It’s not fair, but you’re stuck with this guy for now. If there’s something you’re willing to compromise on it might buy you some goodwill, if not with Mr. Nosy, then with your other neighbors who will see that you’re making a good-faith effort to keep the peace.

I *would* recommend coming up with a plan to get the checkbook into more than one person’s hands, though - all else aside, it will be a real pain in the ass if/when this guy becomes incapacitated or something and no one can get the checkbook.

In short: be pragmatic.
posted by mskyle at 5:19 PM on November 26, 2021 [11 favorites]

My grandfather had dementia for about a decade before he died. He recorded his neighbours' movements. He spent hours every day typing up long letters threatening to sue people for imagined offences. He actually made plans to capture/kill the paperboy (who he disliked/feared for no reason), using leg traps he wanted to set up in the bushes behind the house. (!!)

But he was actually completely fine. In his mental landscape I'd categorize these things as more like tics than deep obsessions. He was fussy and disapproving and a little perpetually affronted, but he wasn't angry or dangerous. In fact he was pretty happy, and was fun to spend time with.

I'm saying this because if your neighbour is civil/mild in person and ridiculous by email, it might be worth trying out simply ignoring the emails. I doubt my grandfather's letters got replies and I doubt he ever noticed. So maybe it's worth a shot?
posted by Susan PG at 5:39 PM on November 26, 2021 [8 favorites]

I'm American and when I lived in London, we had a neighbor like this, in an arrangement like yours. She lived in the flat below us, and I presume owned her flat. We rented from a couple who owned the flat we lived in, and across the hall was a renter who had a separate landlord. I presume all of the owners had communication with one another, of which I was blissfully unaware.

Anyhow, the downstairs lady was not elderly, she was maybe late 40s/early 50s, but she was always watching us, leaving us nasty notes for things like having sealed and bagged cat poop in our trash bin (where else does it go?!). She insisted nobody ever lock the top lock from the outside, even though we all had a key, and spoke to us very sternly about it, then left us a threatening note about how she would report us to our own insurance agents (how would she know who that is?!) when we thought we did as she asked but failed to leave the correct lock unlocked. She also regularly left the door unlocked herself but of course we never called her on it.

She also made note of when we came and went and made comments about it all of the time, and often tried to tell us about nonsense rules that didn't actually exist (like the aforementioned insurance one) under the guise of helping us because we were American and Uneducated In Such Matters.

Even though she tracked our movements she or her boyfriend often would lock the door behind her if we were arriving at the same time she did, more than once even when our arms were full of groceries. "I'm sorry I just don't know for sure who you are" etc.

I'm just ranting now. She sucked very much as a neighbor. She regularly threatened us and hated us even though we tried hard to be polite and good neighbors. I don't think that she was mentally ill, I think she was just an unhappy jerk. We ignored her completely and while it never seemed to make her lose interest in bullying us, she also wasn't able to do anything beyond make us feel sad whenever we saw her, so we just accepted it. And then we moved. I'm sure she is tormenting whomever lets the place now!
posted by pazazygeek at 6:27 PM on November 26, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I live in a similar situation and am on the board of the homeowners association. Just one comment based on personal experience. DO NOT retaliate in similar jerk-like fashion. Because doing so will make it much harder for the HOA to take appropriate action. Make a written record of interactions, stay neutral in your interactions, and do not stoop to their level. It will just make things so much easier in the future should things escalate.
posted by eleslie at 6:05 AM on November 27, 2021 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone. One kind of eye-opening/disturbing thing for me is that surveillance of neighbours (his emails indicate that he either keeps a log, or wants us to think he keeps a log) is apparently common enough to register as a normal, if annoying, behaviour; in my mind it's completely beyond-the-pale deranged.

Follow-up question: there are five of us negotiating about what to do about a building maintenance issue (in point of fact, to do with the (electrically operated) garage door, which is non-compliant with some safety regulations, 20 years old, unreliable, and also the only entrance/exit from the building).

The basic conflict is: (1) the current setup is very impractical and possibly dangerous (no manually operable emergency exits); (2) Spouse and I don't have a lot of patience with objections to fixing something if they're basically just inertia/laziness about changing something; (3) Downstairs Guy doesn't do reasonable discussion, facts, etc., only passive-aggression, threats, demands for deference, attempts to pull rank; (4) we're the newcomers, everyone else has been here for 35 years and is happy to defer to Downstairs Guy, and we're consistently outvoted.

Current situation is: if Spouse or I work late or go out in the evening, we're not 100% sure we can get into the building we live in, because the door is unreliable. Reason for not fixing this, which all the others seem fine with: after 7pm, "the criminals" might steal their cars. (We're relatively centrally located in a major city; the neighbourhood is full of the usual gentrified hipster shit and crime is pretty low; there's some innocuous drunk-people noise but the fear of vehicle theft is not reasonable and it's fucking with being able to function.)

So, I need to engage with Downstairs Guy. So far, diplomacy on our part has been treated as acquiescence, and nothing has gotten done; attempts at persuasion haven't worked because Downstairs Guy won't acknowledge our concern. So we need to press the point in some way, but we don't have any leverage. I'm getting very frustrated because it's such a trivial matter which is now taking up a lot of energy because of having to negotiate with crazy.
posted by busted_crayons at 4:45 AM on November 28, 2021

Response by poster: (To clarify: the door is on a timer set so that it is closed 7 pm - 7 am; one must open and shut it with the usual little remote control key fob between those hours; it doesn't reliably open or close; on a couple of occasions where it's failed to close after several attempts, I've simply left it open, because their refusal to participate in replacing it isn't a good reason for me to stand there worrying about it all night.

Another possible dimension: I first thought that some of the other residents might be concerned about the cost of the repairs; it was much cheaper to buy a flat in this neighbourhood 35 years ago than now, and they are mostly retired. I don't think cost is the issue for Downstairs Guy.)
posted by busted_crayons at 4:52 AM on November 28, 2021

Have you gotten estimates/quotes on getting the garage door fixed? That seems like it would be a good first step to take. Like, if you went to all the other owners saying, "It will cost around X to fix the door; I will coordinate with the builders who will do the work; I will make sure everyone gets their fobs for the new system," would that get you anywhere? Also is it something where you could afford to cover the cost yourself (not fair, obviously, but if you're the only one who's bothered by the garage door situation...).

Alternately is there any kind of inspectional service/fire inspection that you could appeal to about the safety aspect? And what do the legal documents around your shared freehold/joint management company say about keeping the property in good repair, etc.? (And seriously, is there really only one exit from the building? Where I live that would be illegal even for a freestanding single-family home, never mind a six-unit building.)

Ultimately, though, your options are either 1) get everyone else's buy-in (and exactly how you do this will depend on the personalities involved but you can appeal to their desire to have it fixed, their legal obligations, and their pity for you who keeps getting locked out); 2) pay for it yourself; 3) sue your neighbors/co-owners.

(Oh, and do you know any of the renters? How do they feel about the door situation? Annoyed enough to complain to their landlords?)
posted by mskyle at 5:33 AM on November 28, 2021

At some point, we all live around someone like downstairs guy (we used to live next door to an elderly gentleman that would send out regular missives by email (no idea how he got everyone's email) about 'undesirables' spotted in the neighbourhood etc and who put little flags with passive-aggressive notes next to any dog poop not picked up). As long as his weirdness stays on email, I would just completely ignore it (but keep the emails and notes, just in case). He's old and set in his ways and, where it doesn't directly impact you in any real way, let him continue. We all have our own weird ways of being.

As far as the refusal to engage with your spouse goes, I think that is something you should hold your ground on, firmly but courteously. If he responds to you after a message from her, simply reply telling him he needs to respond to the actual office-holder.

The maintenance issue with the garage door seems to be one where you can use his weirdness to your benefit - get three quotes to get the issue fixed properly and circulate them, pointing out that the current situation creates a security issue and you're concerned about unauthorised people being able to come and go as they please unless the door gets fixed. There must be a way to propose a motion or similar in the management company - do it formally and in writing, but make it clear that failure to address the issue will mean you feel obliged to report the problem to 'the authorities' due to the non-compliant door. If the management company doesn't fix the problem, you'd have to carry through on that, which could create unpleasantness all around. An alternative would be to seek advice from the relevant authority about what the relevant standards are and present that along with the quotes to strengthen the argument that the management company has no choice or they risk penalties and further cost.

Basically, fix what needs to be fixed and let people be otherwise.
posted by dg at 3:14 PM on November 28, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I think a lot of commenters on this thread are downplaying the seriousness of the situation, pretending that loud, angry old men are harmless and adorable...

In reality this man isn't harmless or adorable when he's spying on you and making frequent threats to you. It's clear that this man does have power over you: the power to make your life stressful, the power to invade your privacy, the power to be a sexist jerk to your spouse, the power to be a significant and constant nuisance inside your residential compound. His behavior is not harmless. I don't think you should ignore him.

I would strongly suggest that you address his behavior directly and publicly. Send an email to him, and cc everyone in the building, saying:

- though you have been making allowances for him thus far, his recent threats and spying have become unsettling,

- he will kindly stop spying on you immediately,

- if he has any complaints or fears or concerns pertaining to your activities, he will henceforth contact the building management or the police or other helpers, and not you,

- you hope you can get past this spot of trouble and be cordial neighbors again.

On your end you can set up an email filter that takes his emails directly into some other folder where you do not have to look at it and make sure you don't respond to them. Let your building management deal with his incessant complaints. He's their problem, not yours. But do keep an eye on his emails that go to your folder. Check them periodically. And, god forbid, if he should escalate his threats to actually making plans to kill you or your spouse by setting leg traps, I hope you will report him to the police with alacrity rather than assume he is "actually completely fine" and "fun to spend time with".
posted by MiraK at 11:42 AM on November 29, 2021 [2 favorites]

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