When Your Neighbors Party Through the Pandemic
Illustration: Michael Kennedy

When Your Neighbors Party Through the Pandemic

Our advice columnist gets you through a quarantine dilemma — as well as how to get that expensive coffee experience at home

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My partner and I live in a small apartment building, and everyone’s been good about observing the shelter-in-place order in our state — everyone except our upstairs neighbors. They’ve got people coming in and out of the place all the time, and it feels like they’re not taking this shit seriously at all. This isn’t the first example of them being not-great neighbors — don’t get me started on the Great Parking-Spot Debacle of 2018 — but given the health consequences, it feels more urgent. Am I overreacting here? And if I’m not, what’s the right move?

No, you’re not overreacting. People are stuck inside not only because coronavirus is so contagious, but also because we can’t do widespread testing for it. (If we could, our respective comings-and-goings wouldn’t be so fraught.) And even if we don’t have symptoms, we could still have it and spread it to a bunch of vulnerable populations who might be more easily infected or would suffer more if they caught it. Staying inside keeps all of us safe. And by your use of the royal “everybody,” it sounds like you and the other neighbors have something like a sense of community, all in it together to do your part to maintain good public health.

That said, you should probably just mind your business.

From your letter, it’s hard to tell whether you’re saying “everyone’s been good” about social distancing because you’ve all been in open communication, making a concerted effort at keeping each other healthy, or if this is just you keeping track of what everyone is doing and judging their behavior. Implying that there’s a “right move” here suggests that there’s a move to be made, that an escalation needs to happen. But does it? And if it does, what are you going to do? Who put you in charge?

For starters, it sounds like your upstairs neighbors are sheltering-in-place, even if they are doing a really poor job of it. Besides, it’s the visitors you have a problem with, right? Well, your neighbors might have a decent reason for these people coming over. They could be delivery people dropping off food for a generous tip. They could be helping your neighbors with some needed work around the house or medical care. Or maybe I’m being too charitable. Maybe they are being terrible and reckless. Maybe they and their little friends are coming over barefaced, bare-handed, breathing all over everything and imperiling the whole building for funsies.

If you’re going to be getting mad at your unruly cohabitants, though, it would help to know why. And that means talking to them (through their door, or over text, or on social media, to be safe). It’d give you a chance to express your concerns and convince these folks that they’ve been erring. Maybe they listen, maybe they don’t. But I guess the Great Parking-Spot Debacle of 2018 and all the not-so-great neighboring that came before it means that things don’t go so well when y’all get to talking. So go talk to your other neighbors (through their doors, or over text, or on social media, to be safe). Ask how they’re feeling, if they share your level of concern. If they do, then you all can work together to figure out a way to reach out to the folks upstairs. If they don’t, maybe reconsider how much something needs to be done.

This is about the public good, and not your feelings about what your neighbors are doing, right? If they’re actually putting everyone in harm’s way, and you can’t reason with them, and if the folks in the other apartments are concerned, then do things that help you and them and everyone in the building. Post some signs with behavior recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control or your local health department in the common area. Mask up and make a big show of disinfecting the doors and the railings and the mailbox and the stuff that everyone touches. Leave a box full of latex gloves and bandanas in sandwich bags by the entryway. Or by your neighbor’s door, even. If you must mind their business, do so in a way that shows you mean well. Otherwise you’re just being a busybody.

Man, I need help. Coffee help. I love it, I just never really learned how to make it myself — at least, not good coffee. And now making it myself is the only option. I’ve got an old Mr. Coffee machine and a French press I’ve never used. Walk me through this. What do I need? What do I do?

Do you need the coffee to be good or does it just need to do coffee stuff. If it needs to be good and you’re more concerned with that than the craft of coffee-making, just buy some premade cold brew the next time you go to the grocery store. Save yourself the grief. But if you’ve decided to take on a new grief in these perilous times so that you might forget about all the other grief hanging around, then let’s think on the craft of coffee-making.

For your Mr. Coffee, grab some grounds in your make and flavor of choice, a filter, and follow the instructions. If you don’t have a make and flavor of choice, then congrats! Your search for one can displace some of your pandemic dread. For the French press, drop your grounds in the bottom. If you happen to have a kitchen scale, do about one gram of coffee for every 12 grams of water. (For a Starbucks medium, that’s 30 grams of coffee.) After that, drop in some not-quite-boiling water and come back in four or five minutes, depending on how strong you want it. Easy. Worse comes to worst, though? Some ice, some milk, and a little simple syrup — one part sugar, one part hot water — go a long way.

Those are the basics, anyway. If you want to take your French press and get fancy with it, invest in a grinder for a little fresher taste. They make hand-crank and automatic versions, depending on how much time you have. Keep the grounds relatively coarse, or they’ll mix in with the final product. Then, do the same you would with the store-bought grounds. But it can get even fancier. One guy I know does pour-over — in which you play the role of Mr. Coffee, pouring the water over the grounds yourself — and has his routine down to a science: He preheats water to a precise temperature while he weighs out his grounds on a digital scale down to the bean, pours his water in the same direction, and watches his digital timer so he can snatch the grounds away the nanosecond it starts to beep. It’s a beautiful, meditative ritual. It’s also one I usually admire from next to the instant coffee machine, because I’m not terribly picky.

But don’t fret on your coffee too much. It’s a hobby for some, a nice habit to get your day started (or afternoon, or evening, who knows what time means anymore), but if you truly need the escape, then go ahead and disappear down a rabbit hole of internet forums and weird purist dogma. Either way, you have plenty of time to play with your brew and get it right where you need it.