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Susan Gordis

The saying goes, “Good fences make good neighbors,” and although I can appreciate the idea that boundaries are an important concept and that the act of defining limits can be enormously useful, somehow this approach to having neighbors is not the one which many New Yorkers apply to their interactions with the other people by whom we are surrounded. We natives understand that New York City is really a series of small towns which ooze into one another with no specific boundaries separating them. And some of those little towns are smaller than you might imagine.

Twenty-five years ago we moved into the apartment where we now live. At that time the building population included a great many elderly widows, women who had moved here when they were first married, had raised their children who of course grew up and flew away, and whose husbands had died. These women had lived together for decades, and they had established a community during their time here which required no charter, no incorporation papers, no town square. They lived in a vertical village which stands on less than half a square city block, and it was and still is a neighborhood, a town, a city in its own right.

At that time the intercom system was a plug board (think “Bells are Ringing”) which required a building staff member to physically connect one apartment to another. I’m sure the staff heard many an interesting (or mundane) conversation between two or more tenants, but they considered keeping the tenants connected to one another an important part of their job functions. What is now done by telephone or cell phone was achieved through that mechanism, coordinating what we now call a play date for the children, or arranging to borrow an onion or a serving dish, or just the exchange of talk and gossip between neighbors.

Jay and I are both people who rely on the concept of neighborliness. We believe that if you start with those people who are physically closest to you and just keep going you can include each and every person on the planet, at least in the abstract. Of course we don’t like everybody in the world, and we like even less some of the things that we humans do to one another, individually and in groups, but we each want to be connected to the people around us. So when we got to this building and found that the neighbors were already friendly with one another we set out to join that community, and it seems we have been very successful in doing so. (One neighbor has told me that he considers me to be The Mayor of the building, although I’m still not sure what duties and responsibilities go with that exactly. Oh goody, another unpaid job!)

When new people become building neighbors some are able to “get with the program” immediately. Others observe the warmth of the interactions among those of us who are already here when they arrive and learn to avail themselves of the opportunity to be included. Still others simply don’t understand what is possible and go on being alone in a crowd. It’s great for those of us who live this way to add new members to our group, and of course sometimes those recent additions are the children who are born. In our twenty-five years we have seen newborns come home from the hospital and grow each day, amusing and educating us along the way. We have watched small children grow into adults, and when some of them become parents we enjoy it when they come back to visit. We have celebrated their triumphs and shared in their disappointments, and congratulated or consoled their parents (whose opinions of achievement or failure often differ from those of their children).

Some years ago one of our building staff seemed to smile a lot less, and the absence of his warm grin was a great loss. It turned out that he had lost so many of his teeth that he had become self-conscious. One of the building residents who is a dentist had offered his services gratis to this lovely gentleman, but the lab costs would need to be paid. A letter came around (delivered under our doors) asking for contributions, and indeed enough money was collected so that we had the necessary dollars for the laboratory with some left over to offset the costs of the dentist’s overhead. A couple of months later we were greeted again by that beautiful, welcoming smile we had been missing, and each of us who had kicked a little money into that fund were pleased.

In April of 2000 (on the 15th, Tax Day!) we gave a party. The invitations were headed with, “People who live under the same roof should eat together,” and the only people included were building neighbors. We certainly couldn’t invite all the people from 170 apartments (nor would we have wanted to), but we entertained almost forty people that evening. I cooked for a week, or so it seemed, and begged refrigerator storage space from some of the invitees. I declined all offers for people to bring food, except if they are bakers and then they were encouraged to bring desserts. In addition to what we purchased we were able to offer divine homemade desserts – carrot cake, chocolate chip cookies and something I solicit for New Year’s Eve every year, chestnut cake. I wisely didn’t display the desserts until people had actually eaten their dinner or no one would have eaten anything except those fabulous sweets.

We have weathered some hard times as well. We New Yorkers seem to invariably behave brilliantly when the power goes out in a city which is said to never sleep, or when the transit workers or garbage collectors go on strike. We even come through on a smaller scale when someone’s refrigerator dies just when they’ve come home from marketing (of course it never croaks before you go shopping), or when the hot or cold or all the water in our building goes off. The most dramatic of these difficulties through which we supported one another, of course, was September 11th, 2001.

The whole world was focused on the events of that day, but those of us who live and work on this island were affected in ways we could never have imagined. Anytime we saw the face of someone we knew we had to ask, “Is everything all right?” or “Is your family safe?” At least a half dozen different building neighbors came up to me to ask specifically about my husband’s safety, and I was surprised at how many people who are not in our “inner circle” knew that Jay was working as a news cameraman. Thankfully not a single person who lives under the roof we share had been hurt or had lost a family member, although of course each of us was touched in one way or another by the events of that awful day. My selfish concerns were about the fact that my sweet Jay worked bravely for twenty-seven of twenty-nine days and we had very little time to be together.

During that period of time each of us was very busy recounting our oral history of where we had been that morning, the people we knew who had had “narrow escapes,” and the like. Of course Jay had heard stories from people all around the city, many of them enormously tragic, including the reports about our incredibly brave firefighters who were working tirelessly searching for survivors. But those of us who were not in the news industry instead exchanged information and offered support to one another on a smaller scale.

My neighbors and I talked about how we felt, here on an island which had been attacked. One was angry that her father-in-law seemed disconnected from the events because he lives far away, as if an attack on an American city was not important to him because it hadn’t happened in his “backyard.” One told me how he had been scheduled to go on a trip the following weekend and canceled it to stay here on our island to try to impose normalcy around him. Another told me he had hardly been home in his apartment because he kept taking visitors from one place to another, deliberately escorting them, in the hope that they would be less frightened to be here. A couple who live two floors above us felt they needed to scurry home from their country house because it was simply impossible to be away from their Manhattan home in light of what had happened, and got here as soon as they were allowed to use the roads back into town. As I am a touchy person, I patted the arms and shoulders of dozens of my neighbors as we spilled out our feelings while standing at the mailboxes, or waiting for and traveling in the elevator. Four or five of them seized the opportunity and hugged me. These were hugs exchanged by people who had never hugged before, although there are a dozen or so neighbors whom I greet with a hug, a kiss, or both.

The main thing we were doing was holding on tightly to our sense of community, even in the face of such horrific circumstances. And indeed little by little things returned to “normal,” that is, we found ourselves able to speak about something other than September 11th, and life went on. But the adversity of power outages, transit strikes, the lack of water under this roof, and certainly the singly most awful event of the 21st Century – so far, that is – served to strengthen what was already a solid foundation that holds up the building in more than just a structural way.

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