The Art of Borrowing: A 100 Day Project
In India, borrowing is deeply woven into the fabric of everyday life. So when Charmie Shah moved from Mumbai to New York City, she was struck by its absence.
As part of her work in Debbie Millman’s School of Visual Arts Masters in Branding program, Shah was tasked with developing and executing a 100 Day Project—a creative concept piloted by Michael Bierut, and later brought to Instagram by Elle Luna and friends in 2014.
“Debbie Millman asked us to choose a topic that is both personal and universal—something that could contribute to a larger dialogue rather than an insular experience,” Shah recalls.
Not long after, “Knock Knock, New York” was born.
Here, Shah, now a brand designer at Jones Knowles Ritchie, tells us more.
Why did you choose this concept? After moving to New York, I was feeling lonelier than ever, and I was not very good at making small talk with strangers. It was almost like building my social life again from scratch. But then during [a] visit [back home], I realized that I am very good at talking to my neighbors, even if I was speaking to them for the very first time since I would always go to them with an ask. I realized that it just takes one brave attempt to start a conversation, and even better when you have the perfect icebreaker. And hence I decided to take my learnings from Mumbai to try on my NYC neighbors.
Tell us about the importance of borrowing. Why does it matter? A recent Cigna Study revealed that nearly half of Americans feel they have no one they can talk to about their problems, a condition that has only worsened since the pandemic. But a simple act of borrowing leads to a conversation, leading to a connection that counteracts loneliness. Human beings are social creatures and these small connections make us happier and less lonely. We all want someone to have interesting conversations with on a random Tuesday afternoon, even in the middle of a pandemic. And in a crisis, your next-door neighbor is the first person you could run to asking for any kind of help.
Growing up in Mumbai, borrowing was a daily activity. Was it culture shock when you got to the states and realized how rare it is?
Having moved to New York three-and-a-half years ago, I've lived in five different apartments across two boroughs in the city and yet I’ve not known a single neighbor. Compare that to Mumbai, where I practically grew up in my neighbor's house. In India, our neighbors are just like our extended families that we see regularly. Growing up in Mumbai, and being the youngest kid in the family, it was my job to borrow that necessary cup of milk, sugar or curd from my neighbors. And hence, my first instinct when I needed something was to ask for my neighbor’s help. The times when it bothered me the most was when I had to buy single-use items like a screwdriver, or urgently run to Walgreens for a box of tampons. New Yorkers do find it strange when someone comes knocking on their door asking for help, and after doing that for 100 days I can definitely say that some of them wanted me to disappear and were not very happy to see me, while others welcomed me with open arms.
Why do you think the practice disappeared in the US?
I believe it is after the rise of big-box stores and the convenience of ordering online through Amazon. There is a Walgreens, CVS or Target on every single block in big cities, and Amazon Prime pretty much delivers everything you want in a few hours. It is because of this level of convenience that most of us no longer need to interact with our neighbors to source ingredients like milk, eggs and sugar. But before all that, knocking on a door and asking for that extra cup of sugar and borrowing from your neighbors was once a part of our everyday lives. And there’s something I really miss about these old-fashioned ways of human interactions.
Tell us about what all you have borrowed.
I started my journey by borrowing some change. Some other successful attempts were to borrow a pinch of salt, a roll of toilet paper, an iPhone charger, a pillow, a cup of milk, an egg, a tomato, a lightbulb, a blanket, a tampon, a screwdriver, a roll of paper towels, a saucepan, a wine bottle opener, a hair dryer, a power drill, an air mattress, a travel bag, a MacBook charger, a vacuum cleaner, a blender, a WiFi password and a Metrocard. Some of these took more attempts than others. Two other unsuccessful but really interesting asks were to borrow an HBO account (so I could watch the finale of “Game of Thrones”) and to borrow a car (I was really kidding myself on that one).
Where all did you borrow? Was it all in your building?
It all started in my building, but then soon I needed more New Yorkers that I could borrow from. I reached out to my friends and family in New York, and since everyone was in love with what I was doing and equally intrigued, they agreed to help me out by letting me borrow from their neighbors.
What have been some of the connections you have forged?
Two of my strongest connections were with Fran and with Hank, who I borrowed eggs and milk from, respectively. Another guy I connected with immediately was on Day 5, when I borrowed a pinch of salt. The reason my relationship grew with them after the initial connection was because I reciprocated by making them a “thank-you breakfast” (something that we also do with our neighbors in Mumbai).
What surprised you the most about the project?
Throughout this journey of 100 days, I really pushed myself to borrow everything I felt the need for. And what really surprised me is how much people are actually willing to share with you. Most of us want to help. And the ones that couldn’t help me genuinely apologized for it.
Have you still been borrowing, even though the project is over?
Since borrowing comes naturally to me, with nearly 20 years of training, I still do it all the time. It’s a part of my everyday life here now. Not just that, I recently decided to rent a studio apartment in the same building I currently live in, and before making the final decision, I knocked on my neighbors' door, asking them about their experience in their studio apartment to just learn from them, which was honestly very helpful.
How has the pandemic impacted you as it pertains to social connection and things like borrowing?
Going out for a cup of coffee or a walk in the park with your friends or neighbors has definitely been affected. But that doesn’t mean that there are no other ways to continue the relationships you have with people living next door. During this time, when we are away from most of our loved ones, our neighbors are the ones who are the closest to us. Even something as simple as baking a fresh loaf of bread or making a cup of coffee for your neighbors and leaving it outside their door could put a beautiful smile on their faces. And is there anything better than spreading joy?