New York's Cooperative and Condominium Community
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What do you do when a stranger calls?
Community living means knowing who belongs in your building – and who doesn’t.
I walked into my building one evening to find a stranger sitting crossed-legged on the lobby floor. Our co-op doesn’t have a doorman, and there was no sign of a break in. The stranger didn’t seem to be in distress, just low on battery power judging by the charger plugged into the wall socket. Maybe he tailgated in. People who try to walk through the front door behind my neighbors usually are met with firm resistance. My approach has by now been honed to three words – “Use the intercom” – before I yank the door closed.
But this guy was already inside. He hadn’t heard me come in, so I took a moment to size him up. He looked like a teenager – jeans, hoodie, and sneakers – but he was talking instead of texting on his cell phone, which gave away his age before I spotted the graying hair and frown lines. His hunched-over lotus pose didn’t hide his short stature and slight build. Not that I could take him in a fight, but if he got nasty I probably could run out the door before he untangled himself. No, I decided, he wasn’t a threat. He was one of my lower Manhattan neighborhood’s entitled, nerd-turned-millionaires trying to be the cool kid he wasn’t in high school. Rude, but otherwise harmless.Wait. Did I just decide this guy wasn’t threatening because I recognized his “type”? The thought stopped me cold. What if he had been younger? Taller? Darker? What if he had been a woman, trim and fit in yoga pants with a high ponytail? Or weathered and weary in sweatpants with a banged-up shopping cart? The guy on the floor was an intruder – not just in the lobby but also in my head. Annoyed with both of us, I took the last few steps that placed me at his Adidas and asked, “Who are you?”“Sorry,” he said into his phone, “could you hold a second?” Glancing up, he appeared to conduct his own quick appraisal. From his vacant expression and lack of upward motion I guessed his assessment was something like, “She’s not a threat – not more important than this phone call – and she is not getting get me off this floor.” He tilted his head toward the nearby elevator. “I’m waiting for my son. He’s upstairs.”So, a neighbor had let him in, although I knew he didn’t have an invitation to spread out in our lobby. Before I could respond, the elevator doors opened. Our building’s new porter was inside. I motioned with my hand for him to stay where he was. He looked at the man on the lobby floor and nodded. I had backup.I also had a story that may or may not have been true: purportedly, there was a child in the building who was expecting his father to be waiting for him in the lobby. Still, I refused to let the guy sprawl out on our floor, especially when the upholstered bench we bought during our recent lobby renovation was just a few feet away. Hoping a strong hint would suffice, I motioned to the rows of small brass doors behind him and said, “I would like to check my mail.”“Well,” he said in a surprisingly loud and menacing voice, “you should have just asked me to move.” Then, without moving, he returned to his phone call.My first impression had been wrong. He was not harmless. He was just as wrong about me. I was getting him off that floor. I glanced up at our porter, who nodded again, and in my best imitation of Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada, I said, “It is not unreasonable to ask an intruder sitting on your lobby floor to identify himself. And now,” I said with a dramatic pause, “it is time for you to get up.”He glared at me. I had also miscalculated his physical ability. With the strong core of someone who does a lot of Pilates, he untangled his short legs and sprang to his feet in one fluid, grunt-free motion. I took a step back and the porter took a step forward as the stranger ripped his charger from the socket and stormed out of the building, the wire trailing behind him.Wide-eyed, I looked over at the porter. He smiled and shook his head as he resumed polishing the brass around the elevator. “I don’t know everyone yet, so I thought he might be a resident,” he said. “You know I had your back.” Yes, I knew. And that was a good thing, too, I reflected, since some first impressions can be more reliable than others.
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