Friends in the Building

I’ve been living in the same building since October 2009, when I moved in with my then-boyfriend-now-husband. He owned the place, and before we decided we were going to get married, we decided I was going to buy his ex-wife out of her share of the apartment. This was partly why getting married didn’t end up seeming like such a big deal. When you’re bound by real estate, that seems much more consequential than a bunch of words and some silly license from the state.

This building is mostly owner-occupied and you can immediately tell the difference between a place that is and one that isn’t. In a renter-occupied building, you never know if people are going to say “hello” to you in the hallway, but in an owner-occupied place, you can be pretty sure they will. Having been a renter for so long, it’s clear to me why this is. There was a time when I was moving either every year or every other year. I developed a reputation among my friends for finding great places to live, and then having to move out of them. Over the 25.5 years I’ve lived in New York, I’ve had in 11 different residences:

1990-91: NYU student housing three-bedroom in East Village with two roommates

‘91-’93: large Village studio with boyfriend

‘93-’95: post break-up, East Village two-bedroom with friend

‘95-’98: for cheaper rent, three-story house in Park Slope, Brooklyn with three roommates — until house is sold

‘98-’99: another three-story house in Park Slope with two roommates — until house is sold

‘99-’01: duplex half of house with garden in Park Slope with one roommate — until house is sold

‘01-’02: very tiny two-bedroom, which is the first apartment I ever had all to myself. Less than six months later, new boyfriend moves in with me.

‘02-’06: bigger apt in Park Slope, with dining room, with boyfriend

‘06-’08: two bedroom in Park Slope, with new roommate (after breakup with boyfriend, 7-week trip to Guatemala, and two months of couch surfing) — until crazy landlord forces move

‘08-’09: studio sublet in owner-occupied building in Kensington

‘09-present: one-bedroom with then-boyfriend-now-husband

So, you can see why someone might not feel a need to put down roots. It’s not like I didn’t know any of my neighbors before I landed in my first owner-occupied building, I generally did get to know the ones who lived on my floor, and the ones who were really friendly (there’s always a few), but there was no sense of that being the norm. The norm, as a New Yorker, is not to greet anyone you don’t know — because between the door and your corner, you could encounter anywhere from five to fifty of them. Imagine walking just three blocks like that when the average New Yorker walks two to five miles a day. It would be nuts, and there are too many crazy people on the streets of this city already. This is why we aren’t friendly: not because we’re jerks, but because there are just too many of us. And when you live a building that can contain hundreds of people, that you might not be staying in for that long, it’s the same.

If you own your apartment, though, you are quite literally invested, and generally, so is everyone else who lives around you. So people say “hi.” Once you get used to it, it’s nice. Sometimes, when I get home from work exhausted after a fourteen hour day and an hour each way of commuting, it can be hard to make conversation, but people generally don’t expect much in that department. In fact, a lot of people clearly don’t want to talk beyond saying “hello,” they’ll immediately turn to their phone or their mail or the wall to signal you about that, or they’ll make conversation with the person(s) they got into the elevator with, as if you’re not there. It’s kind of a weird etiquette of being friendly but not, and you never know exactly how much is expected. I will generally chat about superficial things with the people who live on my floor, and one or two others who I’ve had conversations with before due to extenuating circumstances (like running into one of our neighbors who’s an artist at an open studio tour, or finding one of them trying to take my bike hook in the bike room).

In my case, there’s one whole other level of weirdness, because my husband originally moved into the building with his ex-wife. When you have a talk-about-the-weather-or-say-hi-only relationship, it’s not like you’re discussing the intimate details of your life. You’re not invested deeply enough for that, plus, you might only run into that person once every few months, and a lot can happen in the interim that you don’t have the time to catch up on in the minute or so you that spend together in the elevator. So for some of our neighbors, it could have been like one day Damon was living with this one woman, and the next time they saw him, he was living with this other one — despite the fact that there was, in reality, close to two years in between. How do you surface chat about that? “So, uh…what happened there?” Yeah, no. Plus, people aren’t going to know for sure that you live there until they see you at least twice. So I think for some the thought process was like, “Oh, he’s with someone new,” then, “Oh, she lives here now,” then, “Oh, I guess she’s here to stay,” and for some of them, “Maybe she was a home-wrecker but now they’re married so it’s legit,” and then they would finally talk to me.

Still, while I say “hi” to everyone in my building, I hardly know any names. I know the few names Damon knew and told me about, of people who were on the board when he moved in, or with whom he used to smoke cigarettes in front of the building back when he smoked (Damon made his one building friend this way, but now that he doesn’t smoke any more, they only hang out when they happen to run into each other during an international soccer tournament, since that was the other thing they have in common), or because they lived on our floor and were especially outgoing (like our neighbor down the hall who is in a wheelchair and orthodox, so he occasionally needs a person/shabbas goy to do things for him, plus he likes to talk. He doesn’t remember either of our names, so instead, for some reason, he calls Damon “the general.”). Damon and I use descriptive made-up names for everyone else, like, “the woman from the lesbian couple down the hall with the short hair” (since we just surface chat and we hardly ever see them together, we only felt confident that they were a couple when they had a baby), or “the short, Latino-looking woman who wears big hats who’s married to that older Black guy,” or, “the older English guy with the bike,” or, “the musician’s wife.” When they started a building email list, then I finally had names attached to emails, but the names still weren’t associated with actual people. I exchanged a series of emails with someone named Traci (who never listed her apartment number) about giving away some ink cartridges that I bought for my old printer, and when I finally met her, she turned out to be my next-door neighbor. I’d run into her and her husband and her kids so many times, but I’d never have guessed that she was Traci with an “i.” When I refused to take money for the ink cartridges, she said I should come over to her apartment some time for a glass of wine, but I didn’t really know how to make that happen. She’s married and has two little girls, it didn’t seem like I could just drop by at any time and that would be okay. So I said, “Sure,” but that was last August, and I have a feeling the offer doesn’t still stand. This all seemed so silly, so last November, I emailed the idea to have a holiday party to the building mailing list – I knew other buildings had them, why not us? Not a single person responded, so I guess I’m not the only one who doesn’t have the time and energy to make new friends, maybe I’m simply the only one who feels bad about it. It just seems weird to be surrounded by this diverse group of interesting- and nice-looking people — artists, musicians, lesbians, these are my people — and not actually be friends with any of them. (Plus, it would all be different if I had kids, as so many people in the building do. It’s automatically something they have in common, and an additional reason for them to become friends, so that their kids have friends in the building too. So thinking about it that way enables me to feel bad about not having friends in the building and not having kids at the same time.)

Why do I feel this way? Friendship hasn’t always exactly been a bed of roses for me. In my childhood, I was a year younger than everyone, I switched from public to Catholic school (and I’m not Catholic), then moved from the city to the suburbs, then started a gifted program which kept us on a different schedule from all of the other kids and made us natural targets for ridicule (it was junior high, after all), and all during that, had friends move away to different schools or states several times. Even when I got in with a solid group of friends in high school, we still weren’t exactly nice to each other, that just wasn’t really done. Being cutting to everyone was how we proved that we were cool. All of that contributed to making me afraid to put myself out there. I could point fingers and name names of those who were bricks in the wall of the edifice that is my fraught relationship with humanity by taunting or turning on me (yes, I’m talking about YOU Susan Matthews), but given the circumstances, and that I was a kid who was always too much in my head, I think I would have ended up here eventually regardless. It was only when I arrived at college that I discovered that people didn’t have to be like that; that, in fact, the presumption was that everyone was worthy of friendship until proven otherwise, not the other way around. Needless to say, it was something of a revelation — the Friendship Revelation of My 20s. Suddenly, I felt like I could be friends with anyone, or at least anyone who I had an excuse to talk with, like a class or a dorm in common. That meant even the those in the Bible study group, or the sorority girls, or even the one person I knew from high school who ended up also going to Stanford — and was placed in my freshman dorm. I mean, seriously, Stanford, I came all the way across the country and you put my past one floor down? Still, it really was like we were entitled to be entirely new people at college, which just felt like we were being ourselves.

I managed to keep this friendship open-door policy through much of my 20s, although I learned that it had its limits. Film school was somewhat backstabby, and I also figured out there that it wasn’t worth it to have guy friends who would hardly ever let you finish a sentence, much less treat you as an equal, and there are a lot of guys like that. As I entered my 30s, I found that some friendships just weren’t deep enough to grow and mature as we did, or only had room for the other person to grow so much that there wasn’t room for me any more. I still met people at parties and on buses and in hostels when I traveled, but I didn’t have the same expectations about what those friendships would be. Maybe I couldn’t be friends with anyone, but I could be friends with anyone for a few hours or a few days, and that can be great too. That was the Friendship Revelation Addendum of My 30s. Which is irrelevant when it comes to making friends in your building. You pretty much know that you’re going to see them again at some point, so if you decide to take that next step to being friends and then find out that you don’t really like them that much, you’re stuck with them until somebody moves. You can’t ghost friends in the building, you can only hurry into the elevator, pretending not to see them and trying to get the door to close before they can get on (which you’d have to be a jerk to do to pretty much anyone else).

Now I seem to be at a point where I’m not sure I want any more friends, but I’m conflicted about it. With all of us so busy, it feels like I don’t have time to see the friends I have. Plus, as I get older, I find more and more that I really am that introverted kid, which means talking to people can be fun, but damn it’s exhausting. So, the Friendship Revelation Addendum of My 40s is that while maybe I could be friends with anyone, maybe I don’t have to be friends with everyone. And yet I can’t decide if this one is a failure — me giving up because of my issues with friendship — or a victory — me triumphing over my other issues with friendship. I mean, can you really just decide that you have enough friends, that you should maybe even pare it down? Because I do see that I’m not the only one who’s changing as I get older. Certain aspects of everyone’s personalities become more prominent while others diminish. Sometimes we don’t like the things that become more prominent in our friends, or we just notice them more because of how we’ve changed, or we’re less tolerant of the things we used to ignore or excuse just because they were our friends – or they feel that way about us. We start to wonder (or at least I do), What is the basis of this friendship anyway? Was it just an accident of fate or geography, that we lived down the street or in a certain dorm, or had so many classes together? Is it because we just happened to meet at work at that time when neither of us knew anyone, or we shared an interest in something, like going to bars and picking up men, that’s not so relevant any more?

A pile of boxes has amassed outside of Traci’s apartment (I still don’t know her husband or her kids’ names), which leads me to believe that they are moving. Another chance at a building friendship down the tubes, or is it just as well, since they’re leaving anyway, and that’s one less friendship I’d have to maintain or feel guilty about not maintaining? I haven’t figured that out yet. Maybe it’s going to be the Friendship Revelation of My 50s — although just saying that gives me hives. “Of My 50s.” Guess you gotta have something to look forward to.

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