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Good fences

June 24, 2008

Maritza at Marshfield Tattler posted about today’s Op Ed in the New York Times about a guy who decides to get to know his neighbors by inviting them for sleepovers.

After reading this article, Maritza is wondering about others’ experiences with neighbors. And I wouldn’t be Harriet M. Welsch if I did not give a long and rambling response.

Growing up, no matter how often we moved, my parents always seemed to befriend the neighbors. When I was 3, there were the S-es, a Swedish-American family who lived next door. They had a daughter my age and an older son, and my mother and Mrs. S would exchange child care and help each other out when the kids were sick or in need of distraction. Then we moved to Connecticut, where we lived on a cul-de-sac of classic 1950s-era colonial suburban houses. We stayed there for three years and before we left, we knew almost everyone on the street. We kids ran in packs despite a large age range. We put together baseball games on the circle at the end of the road, climbed trees, played in the stream on the other side of the street. We kids knew our neighbors simply because they were there. My parents made more of an effort. They befriended the Ns next door, two sisters and a brother from Norway who seemed unspeakably old to me at the time but who were probably around 60. They would give us easter baskets every year and when we were caught in a bad ice storm and lost power for a week while my father was at a business conference somewhere warm and sunny, Mr. N kept us well supplied with firewood that he chopped himself in his back yard. The K’s across the street and a daughter a year older than me and a son a year older than my brother. My parents still count them among their closest friends, even though they haven’t been neighbors since 1976. The C’s next to the K’s remain their friends too. Mr. C died a few years ago and Mrs. C remarried, but my parents still see them every few years. The C’s had us over ever Christmas and let us use their New Hampshire cabin for summer vacations. The Ws moved in later to the pink Hansel and Gretel cottage at the end of the road that we’d thought was abandoned, two doors down from the Ms who had five boys, all gymnasts. When we moved to England, The Ws adopted our dog.

In London, we lived in a posh block of flats that looked only slightly less fancy than Buckingham Palace, across the street from Regent’s Park. Neighborly relations were much more formal there, but we still knew our neighbors. Our next door neighbor was the Queen Mother’s cousin, who lived there with her husband and a flock of long-haired dachsunds, who used to fling themselves at the window in excitement when my brother and I would come home from school. The time when our babysitter got too drunk and passed out and didn’t hear us ring the bell after school, their ancient maid (who had to be ninety if she was a day, shriveled up inside her black and white uniform) came to fetch us and took us into a room upholstered in dark green with dozens of framed pictures of equestrian scenes all the way up to the 14-foot ceiling and served us hot tea with plenty of milk and biscuits while the lord and lady of the house asked us questions that were meant to reassure us but actually terrified us. Upstairs, our neighbors were an older couple. When we moved out, they came down to say goodbye, the woman gave me a hug and said, “And you play the violin so much better now, dear,” which horrified my mother who had not thought my early bow scrapings could be heard through the heavy cement floors.

After England, we returned to the same Connecticut town as before, but we lived on a shorter street where the yards were larger and the houses were farther apart and hidden behind trees. We didn’t know many of the neighbors. My parents instead returned to their old friendships with their old neighbors. Our next door neighbors, however, we did talk to. The parents were older than mine, probably close to my grandmother’s age, and their children were grown up and living elsewhere, bbut they were very kind to us. They had a pond, and would let my brother and I skate on it with our enormous sheepdog Stanley, which we did nearly every day in the winter, stopping only to watch the carp swimming slowly under the ice and wondering how they survived. When I was in junior high, their oldest son, a television producer, hired me to play in a video he was making to teach piano. My part ended up on the cutting room floor, but I got the biggest paycheck we would have for a long time. My first babysitting job, at age 12, was for another neighbor. Their house was on another street, but their yard backed up to the back corner of ours. They later moved a couple of streets away and remained my best client.

A couple of years later, my family moved on to Indianapolis, but I headed to France out of protest. When I returned to the new house, my parents still hadn’t made friends with any of our nearby neighbors. They never really did, although they would nod and say hello. It wasn’t that kind of neighborhood. My good friend C lived across the street, but our families didn’t visit much. C and I kept each other company at the bus stop long after our friends were driving to school. My parents built of a group of friends from their church and left most of the neighborhood behind.

My first chance to explore neighborliness on my own was when I moved into my first apartment for the summer between my junior and senior year in college. I was living in Philly with a friend who’d just graduated and was starting art school and working at a record store. We shared the apartment with a med student who we rarely saw. Our next-door neighbors were loud and argumentative and we knew everything about them, as it was all shouted through the walls. There were two men and a woman who lived there and that seemed to be the problem. Eventually one of the men moved out, but he came back a few days later, doused locked the couple in the bathroom, dowsed the place in gasoline and set it on fire. All of my roomate’s LPs melted in a stack to the front porch. Although we lived there another month afterwards, we were both pretty freaked out and did our best to stay away as much as we could. My roommate stayed mostly with the guy she was dating. I was left to wander the streets of Philadelphia on my own.

After graduation, I spent a summer living communally and playing summer stock before moving to Boston, where I shared a Somerville three-flat with three other college friends. We didn’t know our neighbors there at all. I don’t remember even seeing them. Even the apartment into which I could look directly from my bedroom window was bare. A ladder stood unmoved in the room on the other side for the entire time I lived there.

My first Chicago apartment was full of unfriendly, sociopathic graduate students. The only neighbor I knew anything about was the guy who lived alone next door who always wore a black trenchcoat and fedora and had loud sex every Tuesday night at 8 p.m. on the dot. The following year, I moved to an unfurnished apartment with a huge sunny bay window and built in shelving in the dining room that I took over from a friend in my department who was leaving our program and moving to Boston. My next door neighbor had just graduated from our department as an undergraduate. A few months later, he moved out and another woman from my department moved in and we quickly became best friends. Together, our apartments made up the entire floor. Our front and back doors faced each other and we spent many enjoyable evenings on the fire escape in the alley drinking bear and eating bowls of late-night mac and cheese. Fortunately we also went to the gym together. We also later worked together at several different jobs and she was my maid of honor at my wedding. But we both moved out of the city and don’t see each other or even talk much anymore. Maybe for some friendships, proximity is key, being in the neighborhood is necessary.

When I moved to Ukrainian Village, I didn’t know a soul but my neurotic landlady, a Ukrainian immigrant who had capably taken over the property management business after her husband was murdered and was raising several beautiful daughters on her own. My building, a ramshackle coachhouse that had been turned into a rickety three-flat a hundred years ago or so, was full of Ukrainian bachelors crammed into tiny apartments. They didn’t speak much English and my schoolgirl Russian only got me as far as hello and goodbye with them. But we nodded and smiled and every now and then I’d find one of them in my apartment fixing something while my landlady supervised. Or I’d see them on the receiving end of one of her tirades about cleanliness. She was mother and wife to them as they worked to try to earn enough to bring their families over. I didn’t know anyone outside my building, but there was a woman across the street who always waved at me from her window. When it snowed, she would send her son, a hulking high school boy, out to shovel out my car, which always embarrassed me, even as I appreciated it.

Eventually, I bought a loft in the Loop and Mr. Spy moved in with me. The only people we ever talked to in that building were the doorman, whose wife had a baby about the same time we had AJ, and the sad, crazy Ukrainian woman down the hall who was always wandering the halls drunk in the early afternoon talking about things that didn’t make sense. No one else said a word to us until AJ joined our family. Babies are good conversation starters, particularly in a building with no children.

Up to this point, my relationships with neighbors had pretty much deteriorated steadily. Maybe it was changing times, and the different ways we relate to one another now, different senses of community, more fear. But I also think it had to do with aging. Children have an easier time with neighborliness. They are not as afraid of connection. As I aged, as there were fewer children around, there were also fewer interactions with neighbors.

A few months after was AJ was born and a few months after 9/11 emptied the neighborhood we lived in except for our building, we did the expected thing and moved to the suburbs where we were immediately confronted with neighbors. Our village of 500 prides itself on its sense of community. Neighbors stopped by and introduced themselves. But it wasn’t until AJ started kindergarten at the public school that we really started to get to know them. AJ and the children next door and across the street run in packs much as my brother and I did when we were young. We share garden equipment with the family next door in the summer and lean over our snow shovels in the winter commiserating about the weather. We are not close friends with any of them. We don’t feel real connections with any of them. At the same time, we also feel like there are some, at least, who would step in to help us if we really needed it. We’ve seen it happen for others. And it’s nice to know that there is a safety net of sorts.

Mr. Spy and I have mixed feelings about neighborly responsibilities and privileges. We are both hermit-like by nature. But I also feel like there’s something to be gained by building bridges to those around us. It puts us in perspective, reminds us that we are not the center of the universe. Neighbors are like family – we don’t usually choose them. They are just there to be dealt with in one way or another, whether by ignoring them, or talking with them, or silently fuming about them behind their backs, or collecting their mail while they’re on vacation or peering at them through the slats of closed blinds. But I can’t help but feel we are more responsible people for considering them. The better we know our neighbors, the better behaved we all tend to be. And while I still wish the neighbors wouldn’t take their noisy trash out at 11:30 at night when I’m trying to sleep, I know the reason it happens is because they get home so late from work sometimes. And I am reminded how lucky I am to not have a two hour commute after a dinner meeting that runs long. So I stick in my earplugs, and roll over and go back to sleep. Tomorrow I’ll wave hello as we are out pulling weeds or mowing the lawn or watching our kids try to jump across the stream and miss. Because that’s what neighbors do.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. The Lass permalink
    June 24, 2008 9:38 pm

    This brought up a lot of memories and thoughts – however, I’m exhausted right now and will address them tomorrow.

  2. June 24, 2008 9:58 pm

    “The better we know our neighbors, the better behaved we all tend to be.” Hear, hear.

    The other day I was out on the sidewalk, and Jay-Z was picking up trash. Without me! Loved it.

    Right this minute I am sitting up listening to some happy teen noises on the street outside. Joey’s mom goes shopping late at night–I still don’t know wny–and he’s out there, so I’ll just keep a quiet indoor vigil for a bit longer, hoping his mom gets home and he goes in the house.

  3. crankygirl permalink
    June 25, 2008 7:08 am

    I’ve never had a close relationship with my neighbors except my all-purpose apartment-painting cat-sitting neighbor. I prefer the anonymity of the city.

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