Everything I Learned About Being a Good Neighbor During a Crisis I Learned from My Neighbor When I Was in Crisis

The Brooklyn Bridge sees significantly less traffic due to coronavirus cases and fears on March 17, 2020 in New York City. Justin Heiman/Getty Images
The Brooklyn Bridge sees significantly less traffic due to coronavirus cases and fears on March 17, 2020 in New York City. Justin Heiman/Getty Images

Many Americans are already socially isolated, and the physical distancing that we need to do as a society to prevent the spread of coronavirus will exacerbate loneliness, anxiety and despair. In the last 48 hours, I have read a bunch of important pieces about the importance of mutual aid, social solidarity, and social connectedness.

And as I was brainstorming what we as community members, as nonprofit leaders, and as a society ought to do to take care of each other during this crisis, what came to mind for me immediately is what I needed during a personal crisis.

First, a little context. From about 2010 to 2016, as ioby grew and my job became more national, I spent more of my life in everyone else’s neighborhood instead of my own. I became what I thought was more self-reliant, but what was actually socially disconnected. I came to rely on apps for everything that used to just be called favors. A ride home from the airport? I no longer called friends; I used Lyft. Pick up something last minute at the store for me? Nah, I’ll just use Amazon Prime. Walk my dog? A dog-walking service. Help me put together some IKEA furniture? Taskrabbit. Instead of asking for someone to water my plants while I’m out of town, I even built a self-watering irrigation system for my fire escape kale. I convinced myself that I had optimized my life because I didn’t depend on anyone else.

In 2016, just three months after I moved into a new apartment building, my dad was hospitalized after having a seizure and quickly diagnosed with a fast-growing brain cancer. He had surgery to remove the cancer two days before the 2016 election. He died three weeks after Inauguration Day in 2017.

It was 106 days of hell—my family was gripped with fear, anxiety, boredom, sadness, uncertainty. During that time, I traveled back and forth between NYC and Washington DC between work and family. I was on my own, scared and trying to do the next best thing.

Just before this began, I met my downstairs neighbor, Hadrien. One day, my dog was barking at the front door but no one had knocked. I opened the door and Hadrien was standing there with my mail in his hand. He had been walking my mail to my doorstep for the first four months that I lived in the building because my landlord hadn’t given me a key to the building’s shared mailbox.

Hadrien invited me to dinner at his apartment with his roommate and the flatmates in between our floors. We all started to spend time together for Sunday night dinners, watching movies, or just hanging out on the terrace together.

When my dad was first hospitalized, I rushed home to pack and left quickly for Penn Station, quickly texting the neighbors to let them know I’d be gone for awhile.

Hadrien immediately texted back—Don’t worry, I’ll water your plants.

A few weeks later, I was trying to balance work and family plans for the holidays as my dad started chemo and radiation. I was a mess.

And Hadrien simply offered—I’ll take care of your dog.

I repeatedly came back to Brooklyn completely depleted, emotionally exhausted, and on the doormat in front of my apartment I would find a little note from Hadrien, just checking in.

We buried my dad three years ago on Saint Patrick’s Day. The 106 day period leading up to his death was a wakeup call for me in community care, being a good neighbor and love.

When I came home from the funeral, I found on my doormat a box of chocolates, and Hadrien’s riff on the Forrest Gump quote: Sometimes life just gives you shit, not at all like the surprise gooey deliciousness inside a chocolate.

Right now, every single person in New York City, perhaps in the entire country, is having their own personal crisis, trying to balance work and family, filled with fear, anxiety, boredom, sadness, uncertainty.

It’s important for us all to remember how calming it can be to have someone nearby looking out for you.

Art by Mona Chalabi. https://www.instagram.com/monachalabi

The artist Mona Chalabi made this beautiful reminder for us about who is most vulnerable: people with chronic diseases, older folks, freelancers, health workers, people who are undocumented.

I’m worried about my mom, who is over 55, by herself in Virginia. But I’m soothed to know that her neighbors to the right and left of her are checking in with her every day, and they’re all looking out for one another. I know her neighbors’ names, and I have their phone numbers and email addresses. This makes me feel so much better about her wellbeing.

So, I realized, if I’m putting this much faith in my mom’s neighbors, whose parents do I need to be taking care of? I mentally ran through all the neighbors on my block, and tried to visualize who is older and lives alone. I dropped off a note introducing myself, giving my address, email address and phone number, and offering to pick up groceries, meals, or prescriptions for the elders on my block. It took less than five minutes, and now we have a stronger social bond.

While public spaces are empty, what can we do to keep physical distance without social distance? I plan to drop off little notes and treats for the elders on my block now and again over the next few weeks. I also know that I’m still pulling a regular paycheck, and I’m saving money by not eating at restaurants, not paying for my metro fares. Inspired by Sarah Goodyear, I’m brainstorming ways that I can take what I’m saving every day and redistribute it to families and local small businesses that are losing money as a result of physical distancing.

adrienne maree brown taught us “What you give attention to grows,” so here some more ideas to make sure we give attention to social connectivity even during physical distance:

— Italy taught us that we can sing together.

— We can string up twinkle lights and put candles in our windows.

— We can chalk the sidewalks with messages of love and kindness.

— We can plant flowers.

— We can buy gift certificates at our favorite restaurants to be redeemed later.

— We can have book club meetings by video conference.

— We can make designs in our windows to send messages to those across the street.

— We can FaceTime our nieces, nephews and niblings far away to give their parents a break.

— We can create hyperlocal childcare circles in places where kids are out of school (an app called Wiggle Room can help with this).

— We can prepare care packages for people we know and people we don’t know.

 

Hadrien and Bug

For those of you who don’t know me well, I ended up marrying my neighbor Hadrien, which makes me believe that there’s almost no difference between love and being a good neighbor. If all of us commit to taking care of the one or two most vulnerable people in our neighborhoods, perhaps we can each be the building blocks of nationwide network community care. Dr. Cornel West says it better: “Justice is what love looks like in public.”

Related Bios

Erin Argyle Barnes

Erin Argyle Barnes is CEO/Co-Founder @ioby, supporting neighbors working together to plan, fund and make projects. She is proud to be one of the inaugural #ObamaFellows.