Paying for Memberships Won’t Cure Loneliness

Chloe Olewitz

While living in New York I became something of a serial joiner. I am a born and raised New Yorker—yes, we do exist—so it is technically my birthright to belong there. I stopped to help tourists with maps every chance I got, especially when they were holding them upside down. I knew how to hail a cab years before I learned what a lawn was. And to this day I explain patiently that it’s perfectly possible to be a well-adjusted member of society even if you didn’t take the driver’s test until you turned 22.

I understand the absurdity of calling this big metropolitan city mine. There are 8 million people in this city, people everywhere, all on top of each other all the time. But to me, this has always felt like my town, which may be why I became such a joiner in the first place. I was a local living in a town populated by tourists, transplants and transient takers asking what New York can do for them, not what they can do for her.

The general rule that it’s hard to meet people in New York applies to born-and-raised locals as much as it does to newcomers. For some, after-work happy hours pass as a good time. The rest of us seek out activities and adventures where we might find someone like us, or at the very least, where we might learn something. This is especially true when winter kicks up biting winds off the East and Hudson Rivers and the sky is black by four in the afternoon. Many New Yorkers—whether by birth or by choice—need a little encouragement to resist the pull of the couch.

And so, we join. I didn’t set out intentionally to be part of the bandwagon brigade, but I watched my wallet get fat with all the membership cards that replaced the cash that belonging cost me.

There were loyalty programs for two separate movie theater chains, plus MoviePass before it tanked. I joined points schemes at sporting goods stores to fuel my exercise habit. My coffee shop punch cards stacked up six high, sometimes 10, depending on the season and spanning at least three boroughs. I joined the New York and the Brooklyn Public Library systems, which were both free but still added cards to the collection. I joined a martial arts academy and spent either the end or the beginning of almost every day there for three years. I forked over thousands of dollars a year to join a swanky members-only social club with multiple New York City locations and outposts around the world, paying for the privilege to be a part of a prestige-hungry community and take it with me.

I believe I wanted to be a part of something more specific than the city membership I had earned through the lottery of birth. I was seeking both friendship in the particular and community in the abstract.

Two years after relocating to Brooklyn from Manhattan, I moved out of my own apartment and into what is now commonly called a co-living space. I had lived “in community” before, in Hawaii and in Morocco, for example, but in New York co-living is more about saving money than it is about togetherness. I did my best to help my family understand that for all intents and purposes I lived in an apartment with roommates, and my unit just happened to be in a building full of apartments with roommates, all united by apps and message boards and slack channels allegedly designed to build community. Look! Events and get togethers! Organized bonding! Happy hours!

It only took a few weeks to find myself utterly disappointed by the realities of co-living. I discovered that these people weren’t my people at all—more than having nothing in common, we didn’t even get along. We had very different ideas about the concept of community, and about what it meant to be a good neighbor, let alone an ethical human being. We bickered and argued, navigating the waters between passive aggressive tendencies and outward hostility. Five roommates’ worth of dirty dishes will do that to you.

Co-living was the beginning of the end of my joining spree. All my memberships were proof positive of the validity of my existence in these spaces. I was a part of more communities than I could count. But if joining meant that I belonged, then why did I feel so alone?

Beyond catered amenities and cost-sharing in cities where living alone can be prohibitively expensive, the whole spiel of co-living is anchored in the promise of the chance to live with like-minded people. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from all the joining, it’s that the promise of “like-minded” anything is inherently a lie. Co-working and co-living businesses are still businesses. Fitness clubs and fancy gyms are still companies. Even if they are screening who comes in the door, even if you have to interview or apply before you wind up with that shiny new membership card in your wallet, for most companies, a business’ success comes from accepting more members and collecting more dues.

It’s a cynical approach, but it’s not far from the truth. I had joined myself into oblivion, but I felt just as alone as when I’d started out. I looked around rooms full of what were ostensibly my peers and I didn’t know a soul. If I knew them, often I didn’t like them, or just as probable, they didn’t like me. Sometimes we just couldn’t connect, no matter how hard we tried, and we scapegoated our schedules.

“Let’s do lunch!” “We’ve got to get together soon!” It was what we were supposed to say, but it wasn’t true. I only eventually learned that it was false; early on, I thought we really meant it when we set out to make plans. I dreamt up excursions and cute coffees and catch-ups in our street clothes outside the walls of the dojo. But in New York, plans fall through more often than not. Maybe elsewhere too. I wouldn’t know. I don’t know that I belong there, either.

For me, it took realizing that community is not a thing that can be sold before I could learn that community is not a thing that can be bought. Some of those memberships served me—I am still a passionate martial artist and I have earned a lot of free coffees from those punch cards—but none of them ensured my belonging. I admit I love that members-only club, but it’s more my velvet-lined private escape than it is any kind of meaningful social experience. Most of those memberships are moot now, too, because I left New York last fall to travel perpetually. I left the stack of plastic at home and set out entirely alone.

There is good that can come from joining, and from trying new things in new groups with people who may or may not be like you. But I’ve learned that a taller stack of membership cards won’t cure big city loneliness. You may find a new hobby or an outlet. You may even make a friend. But in the end, all I wound up with after not finding my people where I thought I would, was a big stack of plastic and a better sense of myself.