To watch Spencer Knoll go about her day is to see New Haven unfold and refold before you: first, into all its individual pockets of life nestled in the most unlikely places, and then back into an echo of sleepy heartbeats drumming beneath a lazy evening skyline.
For Knoll, this city smells like lavender drip and carrot cake as she remembers her customers’ favorite orders at Kaiyden’s Coffee Shop in Wooster Square. It feels like brisk wind brushing against her arms during morning walks to East Rock Park, and it sounds like night rehearsals for “Choir Boy” at the Yale Drama Association, or YDA. It looks like home, even though 2022 is only the second year that Knoll has lived here.
In 2019, the ex-Brooklyn resident, then fresh out of Sarah Lawrence College, was looking to explore what she knew and loved best: theater. She saw storytelling as a medium of “political action,” constantly thinking about “what stories [are currently] getting told” and the ones that still need to be told to “change people’s perceptions.” But as in-person performances slammed to a halt at the start of the pandemic, she pursued other means of “serving the public.” Today, Knoll works at the Housing Collective in Bridgeport, fighting for equitable housing practices in a state that is still short of over 86,000 affordable homes.
“I’m a low-level employee,” Knoll said. “A lot of my work is … data entry and contract review, and that sort of thing. But it feels good to be doing those types of things in service of the greater good, which I really feel like the housing collective does.”
Knoll pointed out the importance of paying attention to the systemic and historical issues at the root of housing inaccessibility that policymakers and the public alike tend to overlook. Central among these issues are sexual violence prevention and restoration, she said, as she alluded to her goal of leaving Connecticut a safer place for women one step and one day at a time.
Now that city nightlife and local entertainment scenes are slowly returning to New Haven, however, Knoll is excited at the prospect of getting involved in theater again with the YDA — this time as a behind-the-scenes house manager. Together with her boyfriend, who currently attends the Drama School, the duo is confident that theater will always be part of their lives in some shape or form, permeating their mission to “uplift communities” through storytelling.
As more residents leave their homes and as community spaces reopen, she looks forward to adding new chapters to her New Haven story, to charting the uncharted and turning unfamiliar faces on the streets into family. Her weekend shifts as a Kaiyden’s barista offer her the perfect opportunity to do all three. Ironically, being a tea drinker working at a coffee shop, she mentioned that it is ultimately the people who make every minute count more — every sound that much brighter — than the timeless whirring of coffee machines. It is the local mothers who have just dropped off their children at school, the Yale students looking for a post-midterm refreshment or the welcoming bosses who allow her to play her favorite music while working, she said. To all the New Haveners making their tea and coffee at home, Knoll recommends investing in a small teapot that you can carry around and directly drink from, as well as an electric frother for milk. It makes things look “fancy,” she added with a chuckle.