A friend and I were having supper in a restaurant near my co-op in lower Manhattan when I noticed the string of missed calls and text messages on my silenced phone. My downstairs neighbor was calling for help. I left my friend with the pizza – and the check – and ran home, hoping my plumbing wasn’t the cause of their latest misfortune.
As I ran, I remembered when the couple downstairs had moved in. I didn’t welcome them with a cake or a bottle of wine. I figured we’d run into each other in the lobby and take it from there. But our introduction took place more dramatically: as we moved their newly unpacked possessions out of harm’s way of a building sewage overflow in their bathroom.
I’ve come to know most of my neighbors through shared experiences rather than by way of a Welcome Wagon. In the early days, emergency child care was a big draw. When I brought my screaming infant home from her first vaccination, I plucked from the building directory the phone number of the upstairs neighbor I had seen in the lobby with two children. She came down immediately and rocked my daughter until we both were calm.
Over the years, I have come to know other neighbors as we grouse about the burden of building projects: not the actual work – which was usually not done by us – but about the cost and inconvenience that comes with undertakings such as replacing the elevator and the roof and redoing the lobby. And then there is the bonding that springs from mutual adversaries, such as unreasonable and litigious shareholders and fine-happy government agencies.
Following my initial and messy meeting with my downstairs neighbors, we became better acquainted as we discussed plans to correct misdirected waste lines that had been installed decades earlier in the original warehouse-to-co-op conversion. After completing the renovations that seemed to cure our mutual plumbing problems, our encounters became far more enjoyable, occurring over nothing more dramatic than food and wine and each other’s company.
Now, as I returned home from the restaurant, I was back in crisis mode. I entered the building and found my neighbor’s door open. He stood inside, talking into his phone, despondent. A quick glance and I could see why. Beautiful silk and wool carpets were soaked. A watermark was forming at the bottom of bold, hand-painted wallpaper. In the bathroom, the remainder of the ceiling was bulging under the weight of water that had gushed from the burst pipe above it. The problem was too big for my help alone.
Fortunately, other neighbors in the building had already come to the rescue – the financial analyst who shares my love of photography, the ceramic artist who gives me a stunning bowl every year for my birthday, and the community activist who makes sure that I know about every political event in our district and that my family is pitching in.
This impromptu cavalry was under the able command of our super, who had driven back from New Jersey for this crisis even though he had worked all day with our porter and a plumber on a gas-line project in our building, and had also been busy patching a tear in the pipe so he could restore water to the rest of us. Clearly, our co-op was having a run of bad luck.
I then ran up to my apartment and returned with snacks and drinks. In between calls to their insurance company, my flooded neighbors were questioning the decision made years ago to buy the apartment. I didn’t want to add to their distress by pointing out the obvious: their apartment was filled not just with water but with neighbors, fellow homeowners who know that at any time in any home – cottage, mansion, or lean-to – stuff breaks. Yet unlike other living arrangements, our co-op rises and falls based on the amount of goodwill that exists among shareholders. And we were all reminded on that hectic night that, in a crisis, community is the antidote to calamity.