It's 9 a.m. on a Saturday, and in the lobby of the Brittany Apartments in Arlington, 30-year-old Bob Severson is having coffee with Al and Frankie Lang, a retired couple.
Other tenants wander past the front desk, where Helen Hemmings, a 10-year resident of the Brittany, is stacking Krispy Kreme doughnuts on a tray and refilling the coffee pots. Coffee and doughnuts in the lobby is a weekend ritual.
The Langs moved in just six weeks ago, but already, they say, the other tenants feel like family. "We fitted in so quickly; we are so comfortable with the people here," said Al Lang.
Others in the 400-unit building on South Four Mile Run Drive say the same thing, pointing to a packed schedule of activities that draws tenants together and explodes the notion that apartments are sterile and lonely places to live.
Tenants at the Brittany play bridge every Sunday night. They attend all-night video parties. They bike to Mount Vernon. They host continental brunches, with residents volunteering for pancake duty.
They agree that it's rather unusual.
"Compared to other apartments I've been in, this is friendlier," said Severson. "It's got a little bit more of a family atmosphere."
The Brittany "family" is a varied bunch. Special activities director Vicky Shanko estimates that 20 percent of the tenants are senior citizens, 30 percent are aged 35-60, 35 percent are young professionals and the rest are students.
Many tenants are part of the military; others work for embassies or are foreign exchange students.
"It's a mix that doesn't usually get thought of as coming together that easily under a social program," said property manager Frank Miller.
Shanko says the secret is human nature: "I think people want to get involved. They want to know someone knows their name, that someone recognizes them."
Tenants say the secret is Shanko, an energetic leader who plans the schedule, telephones for volunteers and sends thank-you notes to the ones who help clean up.
The activities program has been under way for two years, and Shanko acknowledges that it had a slow start. "At first, people would basically come down for the free food and that was it," she said. Then, gradually, the plans caught on.
One of the most popular activities is the twice-weekly aerobics class, which Shanko leads. Last Thursday, the spacious party room was filled with tenants in shorts and leotards, stretching and jumping and jogging.
"The reason I moved in here is because they bill the place as being a social place. Apartments can be so cold . . . . This makes you feel at home," said Glen Cox, 35, a Navy lieutenant.
Jack Kitaeff, an Arlington psychologist, said many of his patients complain of feeling alone and alienated in the Washington area. "They say that in this area, people don't live here; they stay here," Kitaeff said. "You could live somewhere for one year or four or five years and never know the people who live next to you.
"People come here for experience, then go somewhere else where they want to live, not stay," Kitaeff said. Because their work is a top priority, "they don't look to where they live for socialization; they go there to sleep."
Told of the activities program at the Brittany, Kitaeff said, "It's unusual to find that community spirit here."
Don Brazelton, Chris Lisanti and Steve Wichman went to school together at the Air Force Academy in Colorado. Now they are roommates at the Brittany. One evening last week, the three showed up in shorts and T-shirts for the 6:30 aerobics class.
Brazelton, 24, said he had heard bleak forecasts about the life of young people in the D.C. area. "You hear so much about the single life of Washingtonians; that gets a little discouraging," he said.
"We lived here for a year and a half before we ever went to any of the activities," said Wichman, 23. "It seemed like a mausoleum at times. Then we started meeting people in the weight room," added Lisanti, 23.
Twenty-year-old Anne Rowan, who works as a legal secretary, said most people overcome their initial reluctance about spending time with strangers in the building.
"Sometimes when you see some of the outings posted on the bulletin board you think, 'I don't want to go,' but then you do and you meet people," she said.
According to Shanko, creating a community from a stack of rental apartments takes persistence and creativity -- and a little understanding of human nature. "I just think of things I did at home, things your family does," she said. "I think people want to get involved, but they're scared. People miss home."