Do You Know Your Neighbors?

Or, how I met a bunch of people in my building and learned to foster community among urban renters.

Apr 4, 2012 at 9:00am | Leave a comment

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I have moved across the country or to another continent every three or four years for the past decade. By now, I actually enjoy landing in a new place and finding my way around. But the first few times I did it, the learning curve was steep. I felt lost in every imaginable way, and it sometimes took me years to find like-minded people. Nevermind the time it takes to build meaningful, mutually satisfying relationships with friend-potential acquaintances.

Perhaps because I think it takes a long time to make lasting friends, I never much worried about knowing my neighbors. I was lucky when I lived in Boston that my BFF couple pals lived right down the road. One ill-fated winter morning, I had to call them at 3 a.m. to drive me, in my car, to the ER. Migraine sufferers, live close to your loved ones!

In Copenhagen, I’ve only met neighbors for distressing reasons. When there was a shooting on our block, my neighbor Ana* and I met in the stairwell and talked about what we’d heard.

When we lived in another part of town, I ran into a different neighbor, Mette, only because our other neighbors were known for frightening everyone with their dramatic screamfests, and I called the police when too many things hit the wall we shared one afternoon. “I’m so glad you called,” Mette confessed, peeking out of her door as two towering officers hustled up the stairs to check on everyone. (Of course, I wanted to ask, “And why didn’t you?”)

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How I ended up in my current building was total chance. The renting market in San Francisco right now is ridiculous. When I went to apartment showings, upwards of 50 people would show up and apply on the spot for the most squalid, tiny little units.

I had applied for upwards of a dozen apartments and was negotiating on five that I would have gladly taken when the leasing agent who handles my current home called. I’d been approved. Could I sign the paperwork that day? Even though it wasn’t my first (or second) choice, I took it immediately. You don’t say no when hordes of people are vying for the same thing.

(I also now realize that I’m extremely fortunate because my downtown apartment, my third choice, is insanely awesome. When friends hear the story of my ambivalent acceptance, they seem insulted that I had supposedly better options in the running. Perspective is everything.)

Within the first week, I met one of my neighbors. Jen was on her patio directly opposite ours on a Saturday morning, sweeping away leaves and watering her plants. She waved hello and shuffled across the expanse of roof between our decks.

“This is such a nice unit!” she enthused about our new place. “I’ve lived in this building for 17 years. If you ever need any extra pots for your flowers,” she said gesturing back to her porch, “Just grab some of mine. I have lots of extras.”

I thanked her profusely and explained that though we don’t share any walls, we’re the quiet boring tenants that most landlords like. Since she travels at least as much as we do, we agreed that we could swap mailbox keys to help each other out.

“And you know,” she added before going back over to her side of the roof, “Rob and Jill upstairs are very nice. They also have a cat.” As if on cue, Rob hollered down from the deck above ours. “Hey kids! Welcome to the building! Hey there Jen!” Everyone waved.

Were they for real? Did I really just move into the middle of a big city and surround myself with friendly neighbors?

The next day, I got a text from the building manager. “Ellen next door has your package. Call her.” Who was Ellen, I wondered. I called the number as I walked to the adjacent building.

Ellen met me at the top of the stairs. “Oh hey there! Did you just move in next door? I used to manage that building too. Now we just take care of this one, but I sign for everyone’s packages to help out. Here’s a building key so you can come over for your things anytime.”

I almost can’t believe she’s real. For the past six months, Ellen has been my homegirl. She helps me find the right number for the management company and never complains about my unending stream of galleys from publishers and goodies we have sent from Denmark to soothe my sweetie’s homesickness. I go over to Ellen’s any time I need to know the score around here. “When did they last remodel the fifth floor units? What’s with the tiny building in the back yard?”

After meeting her, I figured that this isn’t some kind of elaborate hoax. Everyone here really is this awesome, and I thought some of my own friendly gestures couldn’t hurt. I went up to Rob and Jill’s and knocked quietly one evening a week later, and the door flew open a moment later, both of them grinning expectantly.

“Uh, hi there,” I said. “I’m Brittany; I live downstairs. I grew some extra cat grass, and I thought your cat might like it.”

A minute later, I was in their tiny apartment, meeting their enormous kitty and being offered some treats to take to my cat in return.

“Where did you move here from?” they asked excitedly. When I mentioned that we’d just moved back from Europe, I thought they’d start clapping their hands.

“We lived in Europe for years,” Jill said, explaining that they worked for the State Department. “We were the last ones out of Yugoslavia in the ‘90s. We locked the doors behind us.”

A chill ran up my spine as I explained that I’d traveled through the Balkans a few years prior and counted it among my favorite places in the world. Needless to say, bonding over remote locations and reverse culture shock is pretty powerful stuff.

“How are you handling being back?” Jill asked empathically.

“Walgreens overwhelms me a lot,” I confided, something I rarely tell people because I hate being that obnoxious stereotype of an American who lived abroad and now thinks they have all this nuanced perspective about everyday life.

But with Jill, it was OK. She smiled and said, “Oh, the first time I went into Macy’s, I just burst into years. We’ve been back 18 years, and sometimes I still have trouble.”

I wanted to hug her.

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Instead of invading anyone’s personal space, I’ve made a concerted effort to build relationships with the people I meet in the building. Last weekend, my honey and I went out of town for a few days. Instead of calling our cat sitter, I rang Jill.

“Would you guys be willing to check on Malcolm the cat twice this weekend?” I asked. They came down to get the key and ended up staying for an hour, giving us the latest neighborhood gossip and chatting about when the next earthquake might hit. I left them a nice bottle of wine and some goodies for their kitty and practically begged them to let me return the favor the next time they go away overnight.

I know it’s all a little sappy, but knowing that I have neighbors I can call makes me feel warm inside. I suppose I simply hadn’t considered how nice it is to have a pal who will water the flowers and check the mail in your absence. (Or a neighbor who lets you borrow her clay pots. At least half of my current planters are not my own. Thanks, Jen!)

All of this makes me feel like staying put for a while, like maybe I don’t have to keep rushing off to new cities to meet new people. Maybe I can settle into my neighborhood and learn to love the familiarity mixed with the occasional surprise. Actually, I think I already have.

*I always change people's names who haven't obviously consented to being described, if fondly, on the internets. Everyone in this article has been renamed.