What can I do for my downstairs neighbors?
June 5, 2013 1:29 PM   Subscribe

My downstairs neighbors are two of the sweetest people I know. They've done me many favors, from bringing food to inviting me for dinner to watching my cat. I would like to do something in return, but can't think of anything I could do that's equivalent to their generosity.

I watch their cat when they're away, but they're not away as often as I am. My apartment is not appropriate for hosting (no dining area, common furniture, or anything that could suffice) and my cooking pales in comparison to theirs anyway. They bring me home leftovers from their work, but my work doesn't involve food so there are no leftovers. I've offered to take them out to dinner, but they demurred. Ideally there was some favor I could do on the regular for them in repayment for their kindness. I've offered, but true to form they said it wasn't necessary. But I feel like a leech. I could bake a loaf of zucchini bread or buy a bottle of wine, but that just seems so inadequate and giving them wine every time they do something for me would feel too transactional. I don't craft or knit, otherwise I'd make them something cool.

I know, this is the most socially awkward question ever, but really, I've been racking my brains about this for a few months now and still have no ideas.

They're a young couple, married for about a year, and religious. We aren't close friends so I am not sure of their interests--they're just incredibly kind people who spontaneously decided to start helping me out when they moved in.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (25 answers total)
Donate to their church, or to some charity associated with their church?
posted by bac at 1:31 PM on June 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

It's possible that what you're doing in return is simply allowing them to help. Many people take pleasure in helping others and don't get that opportunity often. Maybe they view you as someone who needs to be taken care of, and they enjoy having you fill that role in their lives.
posted by AmandaA at 1:33 PM on June 5, 2013 [9 favorites]

Keep doing what you're doing, and perhaps do something bigger for them on Christmas*and their anniversary.

*or whatever their religion's big holiday may be
posted by troika at 1:37 PM on June 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've offered, but true to form they said it wasn't necessary.

Then leave it be.

But maybe, some time that you're out shopping, you see a really great piece of art that goes with their decor, you pick it up and give it to them, expressly because "Oh, I saw this and it reminded me of you guys," not "This is in return for looking after my cat." But don't go looking.
posted by Etrigan at 1:37 PM on June 5, 2013 [5 favorites]

I've offered, but true to form they said it wasn't necessary.

You need to respect them and listen to what they are saying to you.

But I feel like a leech.

If you have an opportunity to help someone else, you could send them a note saying it was their example/generosity of spirit that inspired you to do it.
posted by headnsouth at 1:44 PM on June 5, 2013 [19 favorites]

Maybe you could pick them up a cat toy of some kind for their cat? They would probably appreciate knowing you were thinking about them and its a pretty low investment if they don't like it.
posted by SpaceWarp13 at 1:50 PM on June 5, 2013 [5 favorites]

Write them a sincere thank you note the next time they catsit or have you over for dinner. Let them know that you're touched by their ongoing generosity and kindness and that you hope to pay it forward. I know you've thanked them verbally, but there's something special about writing out down.
posted by matildatakesovertheworld at 1:51 PM on June 5, 2013 [3 favorites]

A loaf of zucchini bread sounds like a nice thing to do. Really, just try to look for opportunities to be nice to them. They're not looking for a quid pro quo kind of relationship, but I get that you're feeling the inequity right now.

Things I've done for people who've done nice things for me in the past include: baking cooking (I just get the store kind and bake those - I'm not a great baker), baking zucchini bread, buying movie theater gift certificates, loaning or gifting books I think the nice people would enjoy reading, bringing over art supplies or other goodies relevant to their hobbies, stuff like that. These things were all well received.

I once received a super cute note from a friend's pets that I looked after over a long vacation, which was delivered with ice cream and cute stickers. That made my day.
posted by lriG rorriM at 1:54 PM on June 5, 2013 [4 favorites]

The key to this type of neighborly interaction is that it's not built on a quid pro quo. It's nice to give someone a bottle of wine when they've done something like house-sit for you, but there's no need to reciprocate every little kind gesture on a 1:1 basis.

I think that a periodic loaf of zucchini bread or any other yumminess you could offer them would be nice. It doesn't have to be transactional-- if you're making something delicious for yourself, make some extra for them occasionally. It doesn't have to be in response to a particular favor they've done you--just that you thought they might like some. I like the idea of a cat toy. Maybe bring some flowers sometime when they have you over to dinner. I wouldn't give them anything that they would feel they needed to put on permanent display.

They're presumably doing these nice things for you because they're nice people who have relatively easy ways of showing it (cat-sitting for a nearby neighbor and bringing home leftovers, while delightful and kind, don't exactly involve superhuman effort.) Do nice things for them within your ability, don't abuse their kindness, and demonstrate that you're a considerate and friendly person and you'll be fine.
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 1:56 PM on June 5, 2013 [15 favorites]

Art is a very personal choice and they might feel obligated to display anything you bought for them so I dont think Id feel safe going that route. I second the written thank you notes with movie gift certificates or the pay it forward and let them know you were inspired by them.
posted by WalkerWestridge at 1:59 PM on June 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Maybe find out their anniversary and send them a nice bouquet of flowers. I would say it's appropriate to treat them roughly the same way you'd treat any friends — not transactional, but with a give-and-take of thoughtfulness. Also, handwritten thank-you notes for big things like housesitting are always a good idea.
posted by annekate at 2:01 PM on June 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

It might be helpful to consider that the goal of giving a gift is not necessarily to equal the original gift, and thereby to even the balance or clear the slate.

You might choose to accept and acknowledge your indebtedness to your neighbors, to give them small gifts when they occur to you, and to continue to be on the lookout for kindnesses you can do for them. I bet if you keep looking, something will occur to you.
posted by ottereroticist at 2:03 PM on June 5, 2013

We have some friends like that. One thing we do is cook dinner and invite them over to watch cable. We have all the channels and they don't have any. So they get to watch stuff they might not otherwise watch.

It's casual and fun!

Most people like pizza and eating pizza on the sofa and watching a movie is convivial and easy.

I think they like you as a friend, so act like a friend back!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 2:04 PM on June 5, 2013 [3 favorites]

The best repayment for this sort of thing is being a kind, friendly, and considerate neighbor. My neighbors that take care of their homes and give a friendly wave are great and if they needed help or a favor I would do it. The neighbor that let's their dog out to shit on my lawn and have drunken screaming matches on week nights, I wouldn't piss on them if they were on fire.

So yes, thank you notes and bottles of wine are lovely. But being an upstanding neighbor is gold.
posted by munchingzombie at 2:07 PM on June 5, 2013 [5 favorites]

I don't craft or knit, otherwise I'd make them something cool.

So what do you do? If you are a web designer, you could offer to whip up a simple page for them. A personal page, or maybe something connected with their church maybe? If you work retail maybe you could offer to let them use your employee discount sometime? Or whatever it is that you are good at, see if there is something they need in that bailiwick.
posted by Rock Steady at 2:07 PM on June 5, 2013

They're a young couple, married for about a year, and religious.

Consider that, in addition to just generally liking you and being nice, they may get spiritual satisfaction from showing you generosity. My husband once thanked a religious (Protestant Christian) friend for having us over, and this friend said, "extending hospitality is a holy act." If their faith tradition is one that emphasizes generosity and kindness, your being a gracious, willing recipient of their hospitality is in some ways a gift to them.

Plus, regardless of one's religious background, it's enjoyable to be kind to a neighbor and have the person be grateful for that kindness.

So, I'd advise that you not get hung up on paying them back in kind. At the same time, you could look out for things that would support their interests, especially when you're on the road--they like to cook, so maybe look for some interesting spices next time you travel.
posted by Meg_Murry at 2:16 PM on June 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Can you do something to pay it forward? Think of a few acts of kindnesses, with maybe a few fun pics to document what you did, and give them a card with a heartfelt note that you wanted to pass on their kindnesses in their honor so the world can be a better place.

Buy coffee for the next 5 people in line behind you at the coffee shop.
Randomly add a few quarters to parking meters that are about to run out.
Make up brown bag sandwiches lunches and give them to a few homeless people.
Buy a few stuffed animals and bring them to a children's hospital to donate.

If someone did this for me, I would weep with joy.
posted by HeyAllie at 2:33 PM on June 5, 2013

You mention they live downstairs – is this a ground-floor flat? Any chance you could help with gardening, give them a plant or tree, or a hanging basket of annuals? House plants can be a problem with cats, as you know, but if you give them something for the outside – ?
posted by zadcat at 2:38 PM on June 5, 2013

Next time you travel send them postcards.
posted by travelwithcats at 2:50 PM on June 5, 2013 [3 favorites]

I could bake a loaf of zucchini bread or buy a bottle of wine, but that just seems so inadequate and giving them wine every time they do something for me would feel too transactional

Bake for them anyway. Pick a good recipe, quality ingredients, and measure by weight.

Don't do it as a transaction, just do it as a micro-hobby.

Do it even if you aren't as good a cook. They'll appreciate it.
posted by sebastienbailard at 2:59 PM on June 5, 2013

zucchini bread is not inadequate--it is yummy! i like the cat toy idea too and other little things like coffee, starbucks gift cards, etc. i wouldn't buy them art as it is such a personal thing and if they don't like it they will feel badly when you don't see it in their place. paying it forward is always good too. glad you have such nice neighbors.
posted by wildflower at 3:53 PM on June 5, 2013

Whatever you do, don't turn their "social contract" acts into an "economic contract," because that ruins everything.

Repayment according to a social contract = kindness, favors, consideration, appreciation, sharing, thoughtfulness, etc.

Repayment according to an economic contract = anything material that you paid for.
posted by Short Attention Sp at 4:20 PM on June 5, 2013

Anyone can tie off the edges of a fleece blanket, and it's great when you're on the couch and chilly. Keep baking! Make a lasagna. Take over flowers. Special fresh fruit in season, farm fresh eggs, fresh herbs, or unusual spices--I'd be ecstatic if someone gifted me cinnamon sticks or saffron threads. Make some cat toys. Movie tickets. Find a book on a topic of interest. Music?

The last three especially are materials paid for, but something chosen specifically with the interests of the people in mind gets a pass, IMO. Nothing wrong with inviting them to go with you to a movie, either!
posted by BlueHorse at 9:24 PM on June 5, 2013

Send them a thank you note or card every time. Give them real praise I am so appreciative of your friendship and your willingness to take care of Goober when I travel. Your generosity and neighborliness is a great gift, thank you so much. The occasional gift of flowers is nice. If you know their taste, and there's a concert or play coming up, you could ask them to go with you I'd like to see Artist in concert, but no one I know is going. Would you come as my guests? At Christmas you could make a donation in their name to a local food program or the United Way.
posted by theora55 at 8:50 AM on June 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

schroedinger: "My apartment is not appropriate for hosting (no dining area, common furniture, or anything that could suffice) "

I wonder if you're selling yourself short here. All you need are a few chairs. Add some coffee and some of that zucchini bread you mentioned, and you're set for a very pleasant couple of hours of conversation.
posted by maurice at 9:32 AM on June 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

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