The Pandemic Turned My Neighbors Into Friends

The casual closeness reminds me of my own childhood in Mumbai.

Mother Jones illustration; Getty

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Since the arrival of COVID-19, our lives have shifted in ways big and small. Most likely, the pandemic will not end with a bang—we’ll be dealing with some version of it for years to come. As we slowly adapt to our new normal, we’ll embrace some changes and resent others. A few of us at Mother Jones wrote about some of the shifts we’ve noticed in our personal lives and the world around us—from the “love it” to the “leave it” to the “We’re still figuring it out.” Read the rest of the essays here

 

Sinduja Rangarajan

For a large chunk of last year, my then 3-year-old daughter and my husband did what a lot of parents with children did during the pandemic: They wore masks and went out for bike rides in our neighborhood in the evenings.

One evening, my daughter and my husband took an extraordinarily long time to get back. Out of curiosity, I stepped out to see what was up. Our apartment complex had more than 100 condominiums all lined up next to each other. Redwood and Cherry Blossom trees surrounded it, and there was a lot of common space for kids to run and bike around. I walked three times around the area before I called my husband. They were hanging out in a corner that I’d never been to. Under a canopy of trees, my daughter was playing “camp camp” with a neighbor’s daughter. They were collecting twigs and sticks and piling them up in one place. My daughter refused to leave. She’d found her best friend.

Since that day, every evening after we wrapped up work, we’d take my daughter to play outside with her best friend. Soon she found other best friends in the complex. Bike rides were only a ruse. She’d step off the bike the moment she saw any of the kids and start playing. After a day of screens and Zooms, she was eager to see someone her age. I could sense her emotional health improving. She felt lighter and happier after these spontaneous playdates.

This was all happening in April last year when so much about the virus was still unknown. We didn’t know that the virus was less likely to spread through surfaces. We didn’t know that kids were less likely to get seriously infected. We didn’t know that the virus was less contagious outdoors. Still, as parents, we took the risk to let our kid hang outdoors around other mask-wearing kids. We suspended our disbelief about the virus for a few hours every evening. Initially, our conversations with the other parents were awkward and shrouded in anxiety, but still, as our children played, we talked. We shared notes about what each of us was doing to get through the day. We shared homeschooling resources and information about preschool Zoom classes that had popped up. We consoled each other about our little kids learning to “mute” and “unmute” when they barely knew what a computer was. I deluded myself into thinking I was doing this for my daughter, but in the process, I was talking with adults, real people, parents who were struggling to get through the day as I did.

After a few weeks of leaning on each other for support, one of my neighbors said that our community had reminded her of her own childhood in India. I agreed with her. I remember stepping outside my apartment to play with lots of kids in common spaces in our complex as my mom made dinner. Mumbai is an overcrowded city, but one of its virtues is there is no dearth of people around you. And like every big city, it can be harsh and alienating, but to survive it, you need to find pockets of humanity. Remembering my upbringing reminded me of how much my mom invested in building a community around her. Finding people who were accessible was much more important than finding like-minded people with whom you’d like to have a beer. These don’t always have to be at odds, but when you optimize for close geographical proximity, it’s rarer to find someone whose world views exactly match yours.

Before the pandemic, I was commuting three hours to work in San Francisco. My everyday routine consisted of dropping my daughter at a preschool in the morning and in the afternoon dashing through traffic stops and delayed BART rides to make it to the 6:30 p.m. deadline to pick her up. I was completely exhausted by the time we hit the parking lot of our home. There was no bandwidth for taking her out to a park on a weekday. She’d also had her fill of friends and playtime at her daycare.

It wasn’t as if I completely ignored our neighbors before. I knew the names of their dogs and collected their packages when they were away. But during the pandemic, our neighbors became our friends. When the pandemic hit, the lockdown tied us to our geography. Our community is diverse, with people from different age groups, races, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Our next-door neighbors were a family from India. Next to them, some graduate students teamed up together to share an apartment. Next to them, two single moms were raising their children and sharing an apartment. Before the moms moved in, an old disabled man lived with his sister-in-law and brother-in-law from El Salvador, who were taking care of him. In the row of apartments opposite to ours, was an old couple who’d lived there for more than 20 years. Often our mail and deliveries would get mixed up with theirs because our apartment numbers were too similar. When we’d dutifully return the packages; we’d share a thought or two.

Many times during these brief interactions, I got a sense that their beliefs differed from ours. A neighbor commented about how lucky we were that we lived next door to a police station. I’d quietly disagreed but never engaged. Every once in a while, I’d receive the cold shoulder from a group of moms who stayed home with their kids. They’d taunt me about not having the time to invite them for dinner or attend their weekly lunch potlucks.

When the pandemic hit, suddenly, everything that separated us—from our sociopolitical beliefs to our hobbies—became smaller. We were bound together by the universal experience of the pandemic.

The pandemic gave us a way to work through many invisible fault lines. I was better able to relate to moms who stayed home all day taking care of their kids. I was able to even more appreciate the labor that went into child-rearing through the day. Stay-at-home moms in our community were aghast at how much worse it must be for me to hop on office Zoom calls with wailing kids in the background. Even though I couldn’t attend their Tuesday lunch potlucks, I was at least able to meet up with them for a few hours in the evening.

Even if I end up moving away from this apartment complex and even after the pandemic ends, I am going to spend time building a sense of community around me, to find support as I raise kids. This past year has taught me that children playing with other children is the best form of childcare, and neighbors are a low-cost solution to finding support. A community has always been humanity’s answer to survival. I would never agree with some of their viewpoints, and they’d probably never come around to seeing things the way I did, but we all acknowledged that our kids needed a community. We’d found a common language to ground us and build trust. My hope is that our commonalities may open up ways for us to work through other differences and learn from each other.

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