The year before my first novel was published, my husband and I bought our first apartment, a two-bedroom in a co-op overlooking the Hudson River in Yonkers. We loved our new community of neighbors – many of whom had, like us, moved from Brooklyn – and the cheerful efficiency of the staff and the pages of rules whose primary purpose was to limit irritations. We had a gym! A pool! A parking garage! And a 24-hour doorman! This was heaven.
Paradoxically, my novel, Carnegie Hill, is a domestic satire about an elegant co-op, yet when I wrote it, I was living in a cockroach-infested rental with peeling floors in Ditmas Park, underneath a family who held Pentecostal church services in their living room. The idea for the novel came to me during visits to an elderly friend who served on his co-op board in the Upper East Side enclave of Carnegie Hill. My friend told me all manner of wild stories, tempests in teapots, and I built the novel from his experience, larded with my imagination. I hoped the comedy I’d written didn’t reach too far beyond the bounds of reality.
I attended my first co-op board’s open meeting a few weeks after the book came out. Only then did I realize that I hadn’t reached nearly far enough. I had depicted tense, high-stakes closed-door battles, but I had failed to conjure the rabid, unhinged chaos that is the open board meeting.
“It Was Estelle!”
In that first meeting, I was pleased to see the community room packed with shareholders. The board had recently voted to reduce the number of open meetings from monthly to quarterly, thinking, rightly, that fewer meetings would improve attendance.
The treasurer began with her report. Then came another director’s update on the community-room renovation. When she shared the dollar amounts of the bids that had come in, hands shot up. “Do we really need to hire an interior designer?” “Can’t we do without the renovation?” “Shouldn’t we be more careful with building funds when we’ll need to replace the boilers soon?”
An elderly resident had recently crashed into the fence by the parking garage, and the property manager shared the costs of replacing the fence versus building a concrete wall that might prevent a similar accident in the future. Again, the hands. “It’s irresponsible to spend that much money on a wall!” “But a wall is safer. How could you put a price on human life? Margaret could have died!” “It wasn’t Margaret,” someone corrected, “it was Estelle.”
After the social, gardening, library, and admissions committees presented their reports, a shareholder asked with thinly veiled rage why her recent petition to reinstate monthly open meetings, our building’s hallmark tradition, had been ignored. She asked everyone who signed the petition to stand, and the sea of residents rose around me and levied their complaints. Now I understood why the meeting was so well attended.
A beleaguered board member moaned that it was impossible to get anything done when every meeting began with two hours of bickering and that the purpose of electing directors was to give a handful of people the power to make decisions efficiently. Another board member dissented. He wanted to involve the community in major decisions – which led to a debate over what qualified as a major decision. Wasn’t the broken fence major? Didn’t Margaret’s life matter? A chorus of correction rose from the ranks: “Estelle!”
Soon, the mob dispensed with the courtesy of a raised hand and began shouting at each other. People I knew to be intelligent and kind had been possessed by a primal rage. A profound realization struck me: my novel was not satire. Not even close. The board meetings in Carnegie Hill had been full of drama, yes, but the arguments were rooted in logic. The battle royale I witnessed in my community room that night was pure madness, born of fear and whipped into a panicky froth.
The board president begged the audience to be civil. He said the board was down two directors and would lose two more in the spring. If people couldn’t be nicer, no one would be willing to serve. That calmed the crowd. They loved complaining and micromanaging. They’d been waiting three months for this night – but actually volunteering as board members and taking accountability for running the building? Who had the time?
Jonathan Vatner’s novel, Carnegie Hill, was published last year by Thomas Dunne Books. His second novel, The Bridesmaids Union, is scheduled for publication next year.