The tendency to whining and complaining may be taken as the surest sign of little souls and inferior intellects. — Lord Jeffrey
I struggled to maintain a deadpan expression, using what was left of my energy to fight the impulse to break into a full-blown guffaw followed by a rolling of my eyes that would take my entire head along for the ride. You have to be cordial, said a calm, firm voice in my head. But how can I when this is so unbelievably asinine? answered another, in the high pitch of a tired child. Before my inner adult could quibble back, both voices were silenced by a wail that originated from outside of my skull: “So? What are you going to do about this important issue?” (I learned long ago that every issue at a homeowner’s association meeting is “important.”)
“What would you have me do,” I answered, “stand on the corner all day and night and reprimand people who don’t pick up after their dogs?” Careful, the calm voice in my head returned to warn, don’t say anything you might regr — “You live in a city, you deal with assholes. Our management company is not responsible for policing random acts of inconsideration, and, personally, I don’t have time to deal with this shit — no pun intended. Next?”
An older man, a nice guy whose face I knew but whose name escaped me, raised his hand slowly. I nodded for him to go ahead while suppressing a knowing sigh: he had come to the last two meetings to complain about some mystery noise that keeps him up at night. I listened to this third recitation of his grievance and proffered the same answer I’d given him twice before, my tone imbued with the patience and understanding his innocent elderliness elicits in me.
“I’m sorry you are suffering from this nuisance, but in order to help you, I need to know where the noise is coming from. I can’t send a violation notice to every unit that is adjacent to yours.” I suggested, as I had in the past, that he try introducing himself to his neighbors and politely inquire as to the source of the sound. “When it comes to noise complaints, I like to give people the benefit of the doubt — always try to resolve the issue in person. It promotes communal courtesy. You never know,” I said, with more optimism than I felt, “whoever it is might not be aware of the problem.”
It was David who insisted I volunteer to be on the board of our homeowners’ association. “You’re the people person,” he’d said. It was our first home (still is), and we wanted to protect our investment by getting involved in the implementation of everything, as the building was brand spanking new. That was four years ago.
“I’m not sure I’m up for doing it again,” I said as we walked home from the last meeting.
“When is the annual election?”
“Next month,” I answered. “I’m just so jaded. The stupid complaints, and most of them are so stupid. The imprudent suggestions, like requiring all guests be approved and identified in advance, or shutting down one of the elevators to decrease our carbon footprint. Like I’m going to check with someone every time my dad wants to visit? And you want to decrease your carbon footprint? How ’bout you don’t drive that SUV or have that kid.”
“They’re not all bad,” David said, and he had a point. There are the shining examples, the handful of involved homeowners, the ones I consider “good neighbors” — considerate, helpful, sensible. For them, I didn’t mind the many hours spent mediating on a variety of issues, working out the budget, monitoring the emails, choosing high-quality-but-low-cost vendors, running meetings, and all the other responsibilities that come with the unpaid gig. What I minded were the incessant complaints.
Some people seem to regard kvetching as a hobby. For example, one guy has fussed about noise in the neighborhood from day one. I once suggested to him that perhaps a building constructed in the city between a few prominent nightclubs isn’t the best choice of residence for a seeker of peace and quiet. In response to my reasonable observation, which I’d communicated politely in an attempt to offer perspective, I received an onslaught of threats. I quote, from one such email: “…it would prove to be very disadvantageous for this building’s reputation, if for example a news story in the local media were developed explaining the disappointment of moving into a new, upscale and expensive condominium only to find it was so poorly managed and where anything goes.” He accused me of not doing my job, an interesting prospect when one considers the job of a board member is to decide where association funds are allocated and to enforce the rules and regulations as set forth in the building’s governing documents, not to stand outside the club and hush bar patrons. I’m not sure what sparked his next statement, but it made me chuckle: “Let me assure you, you do NOT want to get into a pissing match with me.” He went on to say something about how I’d better look for good counsel, yada, yada, yada. None of this concerned me, as the more blustery browbeaters rarely follow through on their threats, and when it comes to “pissing,” I’m confident in both my distance and accuracy.
Four years later, the same person continues to bellyache about noise in the neighborhood and most recently has threatened to write a letter to the editor of the Union-Tribune in a supposed bid to drive down property values. When I saw this latest gripe/threat, I sighed, shook my head, and thought, Really? This is how you want to spend your time? Moving to a condo in the middle of a city and complaining about noise is like waltzing into Chuck E. Cheese and demanding the manager ban children.
I realize complaints are part of the territory — how else would I be able to enforce our rules if I were not notified of those who break them? It’s the endless nitpicking over petty issues that I have no surefire way of preventing that I find exasperating (e.g., skateboarders in the alley, theft in a parking garage, a particularly hot day outside).
“So?” David asked, as we arrived to our home sweet home, the one I work so hard to protect and improve. “You going to run?”
“For all the drama and annoyance it brings, I like making sure things are running smoothly and that our considerable fees are not being squandered on stupid shit,” I said. “Last year I lowered our dues by tightening our budget and hired better window-washing and janitorial companies. I installed new security cameras and dealt with numerous individual issues. True, I was assaulted in the hallways countless times by people who don’t even bother to say hello, but then I get to bitch to you at the end of the day about how thankless the job is. So, in short, yes. I already sent in my candidacy form.”