An Open Letter to the Rowdy Neighbors, From Karen Next Door

I didn’t call the cops this time, but I’m watching you.

Caroline Zelonka
Aug 1, 2020 · 9 min read
Loud, raucous indoor drunken party attended by 20 and 30 somethings.
Loud, raucous indoor drunken party attended by 20 and 30 somethings.
Photo by Jacob Bentzinger on Unsplash.

We haven’t all formally met, but you’ve seen me around. In the driveway, at the mailbox, or on the balcony of my house, exactly 10 feet away from yours.

If you were watching — which I’m pretty sure you weren’t –- you saw me on that balcony Saturday night, my phone pointed in your direction. Yes, I was taking pictures and recording video, because what I heard was worse than what I saw. The iPhone makes a decent recording device if things are loud enough.

My name isn’t Karen, by the way. It’s Caroline. Pretty close, and I do fit the stereotype. Gen X white lady, five months overdue for a haircut, an aggrieved expression on my face. They say 2020 is the Year of the Karen, and I could easily stand in a police lineup with the Central Park Karen, the Starbucks Karen, and the Karen of Pacific Heights.

Despite my Karen-like appearance and demographic, I consider myself to be a mellow, laid back sort of person. Not the type to get worked up over a group of young folks having fun on a Saturday night.

Two young women drinking cocktails and presumably shrieking a lot.
Two young women drinking cocktails and presumably shrieking a lot.
Photo by Michael Discenza on Unsplash

That said, I’m going to register my complaint, starting with your music. It was terrible and way too loud. The karaoke — also terrible and even louder. I know you complained about the male/female ratio, but it’s pretty common in Seattle and really common at the tech firms where you guys probably met.

But there were a few women there. Those high pitched voices shrieked at a frequency that cut right through the window-rattling bass.

I am not opposed to calling the cops on neighbors.

In fact, I did it around this same time last year, after capturing another iPhone recording from this same balcony. This February, it was presented as evidence in a jury trial — in which I also testified — that convicted another neighbor’s then-boyfriend of assault in the first degree.

He tried to kill her and now he’s in prison, thanks partly to my Karening.

I didn’t call the cops on you guys. It would take a lot more than bad karaoke for me to report a loud, raucous party. Instead, I am writing this letter.

Because in 2020, it’s not just pistol-whipping tweakers we need to worry about. Parties can also kill us.

It’s not just a good idea. It’s the law.

On July 25, 2020, the day of your event, King County was about a month into Phase 2 COVID restrictions. By law, gatherings are limited to no more than 5 people outside your household per week.

Your floor plan is identical to mine, and I have an idea of how many people can fit into the space. Judging from the noise and shadows behind the curtains, I estimate there were at least 25 people in your house that night. And I know 20 people don’t live there.

I also know at least one of you is a data scientist, which means you should be familiar with the concept of relative risk.

For those readers who don’t, here’s a definition: Relative risk is a ratio of the probability of an event occurring in the exposed group versus the probability of the event occurring in the non-exposed group.

I ran your numbers through the Georgia Tech COVID-19 Event Risk Assessment Tool, which calculates risk based on reported case counts.

At a 25-person gathering in King County, WA, there’s a 25% chance at least one guest will be COVID-positive.[1]

And because CDC antibody tests have estimated actual case counts to be about 10 times higher[2], it’s almost certain that at least two of your guests, if not more, brought the ‘Rona to the house that night.

Glad I shut my windows.

I realize there’s a small chance this was a planned event, and that everyone self-isolated for 14 days prior to your party. But even so, it was still an illegal gathering. These laws exist for a reason.

Did you not read about the choir practice of death?

Back in March, you may remember a story out of Skagit County, a few hours’ drive from Seattle. I mention it because it made international news, and reporter Richard Read’s piece was extremely gripping.

But if not, I’ll summarize. Smalltown choir, aware of the pandemic, decides to go ahead with its weekly rehearsal in early March. They practiced physical distancing and told the sick to stay home, but they figured they were safe. After all, Skagit County had no known COVID cases at the time.

They came, they sang, and a few weeks later, almost all of them caught the virus, and two of them were dead.[3]

CDC graphic titled: After choir practice with one symptomatic person, 87% of group developed COVID-19.
CDC graphic titled: After choir practice with one symptomatic person, 87% of group developed COVID-19.
Graphic by the Centers for Disease Control, can be used as royalty-free.

Researchers guessed the “forceful breathing action” of their singing blew viral particles into the air, which were deeply inhaled by other singers.[4] Singing requires lung power, as you should know.

In a July 9 report, the World Health Organization corroborated this theory, citing a model that showed viral particles are emitted during speech, with “increased rates correlated with increased amplitude of vocalization”[5]

In other words, loud talking and singing almost certainly spreads COVID. And it can hang out longer inside. Coronavirus loves a good choir practice, or karaoke party.

The practice lasted only 2.5 hours — less than your party — but in Skagit County, it will live in infamy as the event that put the virus on the map.

Masks only work if you wear them.

Three young men in masks, standing close together on a balcony, with red Solo cups in hand.
Three young men in masks, standing close together on a balcony, with red Solo cups in hand.
Actual photo of actual partygoers, by author. People blurred on purpose.

I couldn’t see inside your house, but the guys I spotted on the balcony were wearing masks. They weren’t six feet apart but they weren’t in each others’ faces, either.

But most of you were indoors. Getting progressively louder, presumably drunker, talking, laughing, shouting, and playing drinking games.

It’s been a few years — um, decades — and I’m sure the games are different now. But I know a drinking game when I hear one. And I know it’s impossible to down any quantity of alcohol, or any liquid, while wearing a mask.

I’m surprised that you didn’t just have it outdoors. You have a yard. Heck, you could have borrowed mine. It was warm outside, late July, 8:52 p.m. sunset. Seattle days don’t get more perfect than this.

But I guess your DJ needed to set up indoors. That or you were worried the neighbors would shut you down early for a legit noise complaint.

Did you know how irresponsible it was to throw an indoor karaoke party during a pandemic?

Did you care? Because I can’t picture you, or anyone within 100 miles of the 98144 ZIP code, being the kind of dimwit or “freedom or die” type that give Americans such a bad reputation.

Even if I am giving you too much credit, and you are super dim or arrogant, the social pressure in liberal Seattle and/or Amazon and Microsoft would nudge the shit out of your behavior. I grew up here, I worked at both places, I know.

But from what I could hear, and I could hear a lot, you didn’t strike me as a bunch of douchebags. You actually seem like people I’d hang out with — if it weren’t for the age gap and awful music. Energetic, slightly nerdy, high on summertime sunshine, and young. So, so young.

I get it. I was young once myself.

Like me, you probably worked hard in school, and even harder at your job, and now you’re getting a taste of the good life. Hanging out with new friends, getting a little toasted, hooking up or at least trying, and reveling in the joy of landing in a cool city with the kind of ridiculously-paying job that allows you to buy a million-dollar home before 30.

Photo of the author on New Years Eve, 1999, at a fabulous party.
Photo of the author on New Years Eve, 1999, at a fabulous party.
Photo by author.

“Hey kids, lemme tell ya about San Francisco during the dotcom craze! Remember Y2K? I was there!”

You might have been there for Y2K — technically — but you weren’t old enough to have your dating life personally impacted by the last big viral scare — AIDS.

“If you have sex with one person, you’re sleeping with everyone they slept with.” Pretty much everyone who hit puberty in the 80s heard this at least a couple of hundred times.

My guess you haven’t heard this particular warning, because AIDS is no longer a death sentence. We have antivirals and other effective treatments now. But it took over 20 years to happen.

How many years until they find something for COVID? Some say we are two years away from a vaccine. Not holding my breath. Even if they do make one, producing and distributing it at scale will be a huge undertaking. It might take a decade or more, and in the meantime, infections will continue unless we take action.

Which brings me to my point, neighbors.

I am not scared of catching COVID from you. But I am scared of everyone like you, which means I’m pissed.

It’s people like you who are going to keep us in masks and in fear for far longer than we need to be. You’re the reason hundreds of thousands more Americans will lose their jobs and their health insurance, and millions of kids will miss out on an education[6].

The economy will suffer, businesses will go out of business, all the restaurants and music venues and parks that make Seattle a bucket-list city to live might be gone by the time we’re allowed to enjoy them.

And of course, a shit-ton of people will die. In pain at home, or in a hospital alone. Or if they’re lucky, they’ll get one last FaceTime call if their nurse is nice enough to hold up their phone to their face so they can say goodbye.

Those who don’t die could be permanently disabled. I had a lot of fun in my 30s, and most of it required a healthy, working heart and set of lungs.

“We’re all in this together” is not just an advertising cliché. It’s the only way out right now. Look at Europe, China, Netherlands, Italy. New Zealand is practically COVID-free. But not us. American cases are on the rise. It’s getting worse and it’s all our fault.

Graphic: Daily New Cases of COVID-19 as of July 30. Flat curve for three European countries, rising curve for United States.
Graphic: Daily New Cases of COVID-19 as of July 30. Flat curve for three European countries, rising curve for United States.
Graphic by author.

No, I didn’t call the cops. It’s not my style, and the problem is bigger than you and your crew. But I am writing this in the hope my message will resonate with you and your ilk, everywhere the curve is climbing.

We are all in this together.

You, me, the single mom next door to me, the woman who runs the Little Free Pantry, the family who runs Parnell’s Mini Mart, the incoming freshman class at Garfield High, Governor Jay Inslee and gubernatorial candidate GoodSpaceGuy, the surviving members of the Skagit Valley Chorale, Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos, our grandparents, parents, siblings and cousins, partners and exes, enemies and friends.

At the risk of repeating myself: we are in this together. And we must work together if we are ever going to find a way out.

So on behalf of the citizens of Judkins Park and everyone else on this plague-ridden planet, please try to be more respectful next time.

Your neighbor and friend, Caroline

[1] “COVID-19 Event Risk Assessment Planning Tool.” 2014. Gatech.Edu. 2014.
[2] “CDC Says Head Estimates U.S. Cases Might Be 10 Times Higher Than Data Shows.” n.d. Time. Accessed July 30, 2020.
[3] Hamner, Lea. “High SARS-CoV-2 attack rate following exposure at a choir practice — Skagit County, Washington, March 2020.” MMWR. 69 (2020).
[4] Van Doremalen, Neeltje et al. “Aerosol and surface stability of SARS-CoV-2 as compared with SARS-CoV-1.” NEJM 382, no. 16 (2020): 1564–1567.
[5] World Health Organization. (‎2020)‎. Modes of transmission of virus causing COVID-19: implications for IPC precaution recommendations: scientific brief, 29 March 2020.
[6] Washington Post. 2020. “‘It Shouldn’t Take a Pandemic’: Coronavirus Exposes Internet Inequality among U.S. Students as Schools Close Their Doors,” March 16, 2020.


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