My brother has an interesting hobby. He attends Registered Community Organization (RCO) meetings.
Technically speaking, an RCO is a designated group that represents the interests and concerns of local residents about relevant zoning issues. But for my brother, it seems to be an elaborate way to track his community’s raccoon population and interact with a lot of people named Karen*.
“You have to come to a meeting,” he told me a few months ago. “You’ll have enough material for three blog posts at least.”
That’s no joke. I attended the May meeting and met such a colorful cast of characters that I didn’t know where to start. After a month of reflection, I suppose the obvious place is with Stella, the 80-something woman who chairs the group. Before the meeting, my brother told me two things about her: she figure skates every day; and during last month’s meeting she was very obviously wearing two pairs of pants.
I wanted to love her, mostly because some day, I know I will become her. But that turned out to be impossible thing to do because midway through the meeting, as I – a neutral third party – was asked to count the paper ballots cast for a variance request by a homeowner to turn a single-dwelling unit into a double, she – a fussy old lady – questioned my ability to count.
“There should be 22 votes,” she told me. “Are you sure you can do this?”
“I’m totally confident,” I replied with a wink. “It’s just counting to twenty and then two more after that.”
Of course, I really didn’t see the need for a formal vote. Anyone who had been listening for the past half hour could tell that no one was going to grant the variance because it would have meant twice the amount of students moving in.
But the worst thing about having to count the votes wasn’t that Stella doubted my ability or that it was a pointless task. It was that I was missing the most exciting thing on the agenda. Item #5, listed simply as “RATS!!!”
Phyllis, a woman wearing a t-shirt with two cats in plaid hats, took the floor.
“I’m tired of it,” she began. “I’m just tired of it.”
I looked at my brother from my counting station across the room and saw that he looked dangerously close to falling out of his chair – presumably because he knew what was coming next: A detailed recap of her rat siting delivered like a formal police report.
“The rat appeared on the 600 block of 30th St. at approximately 7:45 p.m.,” she said. “I followed on foot for several hundred yards.”
The Second Karen, who appeared to be wearing a poinsettia headband, nodded vigorously.
“It’s from the new construction,” she explained. “They disturb the rats and they all come out.”
I was going to suggest that they consider the Harlem approach to rat control, which is to let a small pack of feral cats wander the streets, but I kept my mouth shut because I got the sense that this wasn’t a problem that Phyllis actually wanted to solve. Besides, she had already changed the subject and was now talking about being tired of students with substance abuse problems living a recovery house in her neighborhood.
What any of that had to do with zoning issues, I don’t know, but Herb, Stella’s husband and the group’s defacto leader, seemed to enjoy that bit of off-roading before reigning back in for some subcommittee updates.
This is as good a time as any to note that while my brother might find this group entertaining, he also takes it seriously. He chairs several subcommittees, including the one that is a liaison to the local University, and truly cares about his neighborhood and in the people who live in it. Even the weird ones.
In any case, when the Recruitment Subcommittee took the floor, I fought the urge to yell, “If you want new members, then stop meeting in a decrepit basement full of broken suitcases!!”
Instead I said, “I work in Marketing and if you want to engage the community, then you should interact with them.”
I suggested they ditch the basement and meet in a local park for a social event – perhaps with cookies and tea donated by a local business. Then, once they got to know some new people, they could invite them to the next meeting.
“In PR, we always say ‘Come for the party, stay for the event,’” I joked. “Same thing!”
While I was giving my speech, I could tell that my brother was holding his breath – either because he was nervous that I was going to mention the suitcases or because he thought that Phyllis the Tired was going to eat me alive.
But as it turned out, neither of those things happened. Phyllis and all three of the Karens liked the idea – which I guess means that every once in a while, my advice isn’t half bad.
Unfortunately, Herb was having none of it.
“If we meet out in the community, we can’t control who shows up,” he said. “And then, we could have 20 students come and vote for the variance to create more multi-dwelling units. We don’t want that!”
My jaw dropped. I don’t know why I thought that this community organization actually wanted to represent the entire community and not just the interests of a select few – but I did. I suppose I never took them seriously, but now I didn’t feel quite so bad about it.
On our walk home that night, I asked my brother why he spent time with this particular organization and not some other one that perhaps has a better chance of getting things accomplished.
“I just like going,” he said. “Even if I sell the house and I’m technically not part of this RCO, I’m still going to go to their meetings.”
Ladies and gentlemen, if we were searching for the craziest person in the room, we have a winner.
*Names and other details have been changed.
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