Outside 346 Lower East Side in 1940s New York City, the neighbours chat about the unbearable heat, the annoying mosquitoes and the local gossip. The hot topic is that Anna Maurrant, Frank’s wife and Rose’s mother, is having an affair with the milkman. The women’s excited chatter suddenly stops when the subject of their gossip appears. The characters also include Daniel Buchanan, uneasy about his wife’s imminent childbirth; Abraham Kaplan, a Jew whose anti-capitalist harangues entertain some and exasperate others; a youthful Jenny Hildebrand, from a German family, radiant after graduating from high school; Italian Lippo Fiorentino, who hands out ice creams to everyone; janitor Henry Davis, who lives in the building’s basement; Mrs. Olsen, prepared to leave her baby to spy on the neighbours; and a couple returning from a night on the town.
This ensemble of characters also includes Rose Maurrant, the daughter of Anna and stagehand Frank, a tough guy, hard drinker, severe and reactionary, insensitive to Anne’s need for affection. Rose is a young, decent clerk in a real estate agency, besieged on many fronts. Firstly on account of the rumours about her mother’s adultery, but also because of two seducers of the worst kind: her neighbour Vincent, a hustler always ready to pick a fight, and Harry Easter, her predatory boss who tries to trick her with promises of a career in show business. The counterpoint is Sam, the Kaplans’ son, a law student who loves her deeply and repeatedly suggests they flee to start a new life far away from the slum.
Life goes on. Children mimic stock New York characters in their games, the neighbours celebrate Daniel Buchanan’s newborn child, and the bailiffs evict the Hildebrands, abandoned by the father and unable to pay the rent. One of the ongoing snippets of everyday life has an ominous potential: Frank Maurrant tells his wife Anna he has to go downtown, and Rose is away at a funeral. Anna invites the milkman upstairs. The inevitable happens: Frank makes a surprise return, climbs the stairs to the apartment and two shots ring out. The milkman dies on the spot, Anna is taken away by ambulance and Frank escapes in the confusion.
Shortly afterwards, we witness the consequences of the tragedy: life goes on as if nothing had happened. Nannies spend the afternoon snooping, pushing their prams past the spot that appeared in the newspapers. Amongst those directly affected, Rose returns from the hospital where her mother died and finds solace in Sam, who once again asks her to run away with him. She rejects him because she doesn’t want to be a burden and force him to abandon his studies. The police find the murderer, and before taking him away, Frank tells his daughter that he loved his mother but couldn’t control himself. Everything is back to normal: new tenants move into the Hildebrand’s apartment, and the neighbours chat about the stifling heat, the annoying mosquitoes and the local gossip.