Small town effects in big cities

A couple of weeks ago, we had a really windy storm in New York City. In the morning, we looked outside on our balcony and noticed that the grill cover we have for our electric grill had vanished. We both walked outside and looked all over the deck for it. Nothing.

“Where could it have gone?” we asked.

Our apartment is on the top floor of one of those classic walk-ups in NYC. Rather than face the street, we face the backs of other buildings. This is always a treat in the summer, when you can sit outside and wave across the way to someone else enjoying a coffee and the Sunday edition of The New York Times. But in winter, our block returns back to the anonymous, impersonal view that’s more common in the city.

We peered over the edge of the deck and looked all the way down to the ground, to the backyards of those lucky enough to have them, and tried to find our black grill cover. No dice. We looked left and right at other balconies. And then — there it was. Or at least, it looked close enough to pass for one.

Some number of buildings over, on the same side of the street, and at least one floor below ours, we saw the edge of a plastic tarp peeking out over someone else’s deck table.

“Well, that’s that,” said my husband. And he opened up his laptop, did a quick search for our grill, and located a new cover on Amazon for $35.

“Wait, what?!” I demanded. “We can get this back. This is totally recoverable.”

“Oh yeah?” he says. “How?”

I considered the options. Hanging up a banner or sign outside wasn’t nearly as likely to help in the winter months as in the summer. And while I am friendly a couple of neighbors in other buildings, we hadn’t yet connected with that particular unit.

“I’ll think of something.” His hand rested on the “Buy Now” button on Amazon.

“Are you sure…?”

“Yes, I’m sure! Don’t be silly. It’s right over there. I’ll go get it.”

“You have 24 hours,” he told me. “If you don’t get it back by then, I’m buying a new one.”


After a Google Satellite image search, my husband narrowed down the porch to the most likely building, and as I set off to work that morning, I wrote out a note on a piece of paper. It said:

“Good morning!

Did you notice a mysterious black tarp appear on your back porch last night?

It’s our grill cover!

Please call or text if you are able to return it. We’ll invite you over for burgers when the weather is nice again.”

As it was still 7 a.m. on a work day, I decided it wouldn’t be prudent to indiscriminately buzz apartment units. So instead, I just taped this note facing the interior of the front door to the building. And I waited.

By 5 p.m. that night, I still hadn’t heard back. I decided not to text my husband, lest I prove him right. But I’ll admit, I was a little surprised that my scheme hadn’t worked.

But then, at 6:22 p.m., I got this text.

“Hi! Yes! The black tarp / grill cover landed and is still on our terrace. You can pick it up anytime just lmk when you are on your way.”

I smiled and promised that I would head by on my way home from work.

here’s something really special about getting to peek inside somebody’s apartment.

It happens so rarely in New York. Aside from close friends and family, it’s not often that you’re invited over or invited inside to a new place. As New Yorkers, we live so much of our lives out in public, out on the streets, in the office, on the subways, that by the time we get home, we keep things pretty close. While there have been a few rare opportunities that I’ve interacted with brand new people for the first time in their apartments, these moments are rare.

Needless to say, I was jazzed to find an excuse to make a new local friend.

After work, I walked down the block and buzzed up for the new neighbor. Sure enough, there was my grill cover. I tried to make some small talk, but it was clear that she hadn’t planned to actually let me in. I mused aloud about how fun it is to have the outdoor backyard view like we do and offered to point out our place to her. At that, she consented, so we walked inside and out onto the balcony.

I pointed up and to the right. “Weirdly enough, this thing blew two buildings and two floors down. That’s us there,” I said, gesturing toward our building and unit.

While outside, I took stock of her patio and noticed all of the flower pots. Then something clicked.

“Wait a minute. You had all of those beautiful flowers out here all summer long, didn’t you?” She nodded. “I’ve always admired them. And actually, this is weird, but did you ever have a little kid’s ‘pretend wedding’ out here? Was that you?’

I was afraid for a moment that I’d just terrified her, until her eyes lit up with recognition.

“YES!” she exclaimed, then laughed. “That was my daughter. She and her friend wanted to get dressed up and have a make-believe wedding out on the porch.”

“There were stuffed animals and you were reading the script, if I recall…” I offered. “Remember me? I was drinking a glass or rose and they shouted to ask me to be a witness. When the ceremony was over, I cheered and shouted with them!”

“Of course! That was too funny.”

“It was so cute,” I confessed. And I wasn’t lying. At the time, that little moment had made my day.

“Well,” I continued, taking my cue to leave. “I don’t want to overstay my welcome. But I wasn’t kidding about having you over in the summer to pay it forward when the weather is nice again. It’d be great to get to know our neighbors a little better.”

We smiled and parted ways. And I returned home, grill cover in hand and new friend in the making.

Sometimes the best way to get something done isn’t always the most efficient. And it was a great reminder that small-town effects can exist in NYC, too. You just have to work a little harder to get there.

Originally published at Dry Erase.

VP @ BolsterTalent, alum of @USV, @StackOverflow and @NorthwesternU, board member at @CompSci_High and @NUalumni, co-founder of #BeyondCodingNYC