On the list of move-in traditions for your first apartment, I managed a couple. I got carried over the threshold and we have boxes to unpack. Staying indoors for weeks on end and avoiding our new neighbors was not one I had anticipated.
On March 7, 2020 my partner, Ben, and I moved into an apartment. It was our first place in Philadelphia. One week later, I was working from home and we were practicing social distancing. All the plans we had to meet our neighbors and become a part of this building and this community quickly changed.
In one early interaction with a neighbor, we knocked on his door, introduced ourselves, shook his hand and asked him to turn down the music — then we rushed back to our place to wash our hands. That was the last hand I shook. He had just returned from Puerto Rico that morning, the next day Puerto Rico went into lockdown.
Now I avoid these future friends like the literal plague. If someone is waiting for the elevator, I use the stairs. If I happen to encounter someone in the stairwell, I hug the wall as they pass, but always with a smile.
I still want to meet my neighbors. How can I become friends with people I haven’t met yet, but can hear through the walls?
There are 64 units in the building, so that’s at least 64 neighbors to meet. Individual calls would take too long, so following our digital instincts Ben and I cooked up the idea of hosting a virtual housewarming party to meet our neighbors in the most socially awkward way possible.
To drum up participation, I hang a handwritten poster in the elevator and in the mail area. While this is happening, we cross paths with Chuck, a neighbor from the eighth floor, who booms from a safe distance, “welcome to the building”. He gives us a verbal RSVP, he won’t be able to make it, but thinks it’s a great idea. He’s heading out of town to quarantine with family. He bought three plane tickets for ten dollars each.
For our more immediate neighbors, I go the old-fashioned route, a handwritten note under the door. I debated whether I should put the notes in Ziploc bags, but in the end, I thought maybe that was overkill.
Getting ready for the Zoom party I opted for real pants, I can sacrifice my newfound level of everyday sartorial comfort, and handle being squeezed into jeans I haven’t worn for weeks, all in the name of making a good first impression. Ben wears a collared shirt, true to his motto of “never be afraid to be the best dressed in the room.”
The hour of the party arrived. As with any party, someone arrived early, but after we reached a manageable number of people in the room (6 max), the conversation revolved easily, at first, around the virus that is dominating our lives at the moment.
We learned lots about the building, the odd noises that travel far, the garden on the roof, a bit about our new neighborhood, and how our new neighbors were dealing with the lockdown.
Unlike normal parties, there was no catering, drinks were not poured, and as we do not pay for the premium version of Zoom the clock counted down to the enforced 40-minute end of this experiment in meeting new people online.
We finished by asking people if there was anything that was bringing them joy about this unusual situation, we heard about Rob rediscovering cooking, John connecting with his pets, and Cathy reminisced about her pre-COVID-19 trip to Puerto Rico.
Our condo board has been welcoming. I connected with a couple of the members who couldn’t make it to our ‘party’. I wanted to get a sense of the building in times more normal than these.
“The building’s really special in the sense that it’s got a lot of artists, it’s got a lot of people that have moved into the building in the neighborhood before it was popular,” said Evan Urbania, a HOA board member and owner of Chatterblast, a social media marketing company in Philadelphia, told me over a Zoom call.
Evan has lived in the building for five years and says the best way to go about meeting people is to think of it a bit like college. “The community has always been focused on who you know on each floor, kind of going back to dormitory living, at least that’s been my observation.”
Laurie Churchman, a neighbor on my floor, who was stranded in Peru for the Zoom meet-and-greet, says people do have a sense of boundaries, even in non-corona times. “I think people are appropriately respectful. Everyone is congenial, people like each other, people know each other, people introduce each other, but people are respectful of other people’s privacy too,” she said.
“If you had moved in under other circumstances,” Laurie continued. “I feel like I would have been down there knocking on your door. So hopefully once we’re all back to a place where we can get close to each other, we can introduce you around.”
That sounds nice. Ben and I look forward to that day too.