Michele Cardella in COVID-19 on July 6, 2021
The rumor started last summer. Confined to my Lower Manhattan co-op apartment, dizzy with pandemic restrictions that soared and dipped like a ride on the Coney Island Cyclone, I heard it over and over again: “There’s no COVID in Florida.”
When this summer rolled around, I was more than ready to see if landing in Fort Lauderdale would be like stepping from black-and-white Kansas into Technicolor Oz. Before the second vaccine bandage fell off my arm, I rebooked the long-delayed trip to visit a friend who had moved to the Sunshine State just before lockdown. Getting off the plane in Fort Lauderdale, I was feeling optimistic. The airport dress code – last-chance shorts, faded oversized beer-logo T-shirts, and bathroom slippers with crew socks – signaled no worries. With good reason. South Florida’s yellow brick roads took us to restaurants, bars and parks that were packed with raucous crowds who had long ago shed the weary and hesitant look I continue to share, though behind masks and at a distance, with my fellow New Yorkers.
Complainer in Chief
The one place that felt remarkably like home was my friend’s new apartment. Not because residents still wore masks in the building’s common areas – they didn’t. It wasn’t the bottles of hand sanitizer in the lobby – because there weren’t any. And her condo, with its spacious, sun-filled balcony, bore no resemblance to my co-op, which doesn’t have a square inch of outdoor space. Her balcony overlooks a lush, tree-lined golf course while I’m so close to my across-the-street neighbor that I can tell from my window whether he’s eating poached or fried eggs.
Unmistakably familiar, though, were the conversations among my friend’s neighbors about the challenges of living in their condo. Just as in my co-op, residents complain that their complex has too many rules – or not enough rules. This one’s reliable – that one’s a complainer. He’s a peacemaker – and they’re troublemakers. I heard a lot about a cracked tile by the front door. Some want just to replace it; others want to redo the whole entryway. Pet owners are confounded that dogs and birds are permitted – but barking and chirping are finable offenses.
Each neighbor I was introduced to greeted me with an outstretched hand (because there’s no COVID-19 in Florida) and said, “So you’re the one Eric complained about!” Eric, I learned, is the condo’s chief complainer. It seems that my evening arrival, followed by an 11 p.m. cup of tea, was too much late-night commotion for him. And just like the complainers in my co-op, Eric is also the person most likely to break house rules.
When Less Is More
I heard from some of my friend’s neighbors, as I hear from some of mine, that they may just sell and find another place, maybe a house, one that never needs repairs and where everyone in the neighborhood gets along. In other words, Oz. Of course, house owners I know complain with equal exasperation, just with different specifics. “The neighbors’ new deck stairway blocks my view.” “Why don’t they park their car in front of their own house?” “That hideous paint color must have been on sale!” “Her dog never stops barking.” “Can you believe he called the cops because my dog barks?” And so on.
More space between neighbors doesn’t necessarily solve the problem. In the “Little House on the Prairie” books, Pa Ingalls was satisfied with his homestead only when he had the whole state to himself. Even in the middle of the continent, without plumbing or electricity, where the children were thrilled to play catch with an inflated pig bladder, Pa couldn’t stand having neighbors. As soon as someone planted a stake within shooting distance, Pa and the family would pack up and move.
Maybe Pa got it backward. Maybe the answer is to have even less distance between neighbors. Astronauts live in the space station for months. We hear about their work, about what they ate and how they toileted, but we never hear about their squabbles: whose spacewalk blocked someone’s view, who snatched an extra pudding, who left his wet towels floating around the bathroom. Now great minds are planning to colonize Mars, developing ways to provide earthling transplants with oxygen, water, food, shelter and health care. I wonder how they’re going to make and enforce their community-living rules. How much do you fine an interplanetary immigrant for not separating recyclables, or for not returning the spacesuit cart to the lobby, or for making a cup of tea after docking at 11 p.m.?
After five uncomfortable days of premature social proximity in Florida, I returned home to a New York City that was stepping off the COVID-19 roller coaster at a slower but steady pace. As the taxi rounded my corner, I saw a string of moving trucks parked in front of the apartment building across the street. This time last year, I watched from my window as the same trucks lined up in the same spot to move people out. Now they were moving people in. Take that, Florida. There’s no place like home.
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