Driving the monotonous 500-mile section of Interstate 80 that connects me to my sister in Cleveland used to be as effortless as walking from my apartment to the front door of my Lower Manhattan co-op. But after spending two years viewing others as potential threats and equating isolation with safety, both routes have become, in their own way, minefields.
In my building, the tensions were starting to show during our first pandemic annual meeting. I was still a we’re-all-in-this-together team player in the summer of 2020 when I opened my new laptop and appeared in my Zoom cube, like a contestant on the 1980’s TV game show, “Hollywood Squares,” only without the comedian Paul Lynde in the center square to lighten the mood. As one who had stayed in the city those first awful months of the pandemic, I struggled to hold a neutral expression when shareholders decamped elsewhere groused about how hard it was to hear the rest of us while their kids were splashing in the pool, or while those pesky ocean waves were breaking just behind their beach chairs. As a group, though, we were generally in the cordial, kumbaya mindset of the time, which was mostly tolerant and grateful simply for being alive.
Unfortunately, it didn’t last long.
As we adhered to government mandates, the self-ism created by isolation delivered a blow to the cooperative nature of our co-op. The fragile equilibrium we’ve maintained among our multigenerational, multicultural and economically diverse shareholders was challenged by increasing displays of self-determination (“Why should I submit revised plans for higher quality changes?”), self-centeredness (“I’m too busy to get a storage unit for the boxes I put in the fire stairwell.”) and self-absorption (“Who is the super to tell me to rinse out my recyclables?”).
In my building, the temperature might have come down the second year of the pandemic if we had held our 2021 annual meeting in person, in what we grandly call the Roof Garden, a sliver of cedar floor planks surrounded by beautiful, fragrant, bee-loving plants. Instead, the board decided to go Zoom again, providing the virtual shield behind which shareholders could fire off criticisms and accusations.
Those who at the last meeting praised the board and the super for their efforts during lockdown to keep the building in repair and running safely were now demanding accountability for the co-op’s expendable income — which doesn’t exist — and for the super’s overtime hours, which he undercounts and for which we could never pay him enough. Newer shareholders demanded to know why we keep having unplanned projects pop up. It was as though in a year they forgot that the authentic old loft building with low maintenance they had happily bought into also has unplanned, and expensive, authentic old loft building breakdowns, which we pay for with assessments to keep the maintenance low. In addition, the empathy we felt last year for small neighborhood businesses that were shut down and couldn’t pay their rent seemed to fall away when it came to our commercial tenant, whose rent we had agreed to subsidize with an assessment to keep the maintenance low.
In the months since surviving the last annual meeting and the drive to Cleveland, I now catch up with friends — and neighbors — at whatever level of in-person they’ll tolerate, even if it’s yelling up at their window from the sidewalk. In the future, I’ll be taking the Lake Shore Limited to visit my sister, at least until the automotive industry perfects its solution to the dangers caused by self-absorbed operators: self-driving cars. In my building, I’m not interested in a self-operating co-op, just a co-op that operates cooperatively again. That’s why I’m pulling for our 2022 annual meeting to be in-person. It may be our best shot at once again recognizing our neighbors, our board and our super as same rather than as other. We could have it in the Roof Garden, in the lobby or in someone’s apartment. I volunteer mine.