Since I’m not particularly up on the latest news, and since I haven’t regularly read The Wall Street Journal since my first semester in college (The front page was so easy to read in lectures with all the little boxes of information.), I just came across this year-old article about neighbors charging for services: Yes I’m Home. No, I Can’t Pick Up Your Child. Despite its age, it’s relevant, especially in a town like Montclair where so many people work from home or are able (or need to) have one parent home with children. It mentions at-home folks getting taken advantage of by commuters. But do neighbors really ask each other to go grocery shopping for them? I can see a neighbor asking if I’ll be around for a delivery. But if someone is taking advantage, a “Sorry, I can’t” should suffice. Most people know that at-home doesn’t mean feet up on the coffee table watching courtroom reality shows, right? Just like most people know that working in an office doesn’t mean checking Facebook and surfing the internet and commenting on websites all day, right?
I’ve found that the give and take of suburban neighbors is an excellent way to prove that people are basically good. I mean, check out these flowers that a neighbor gave us as a Thank You. I have no idea what they were thanking us for. Did they get us confused with someone else down the street? Are they thanking us for finally putting some flowers out in front of our house? Either way, we get to benefit from their thankfulness. They also thanked us with pie when I watched their daughter who was home from school with a cold. Mmmmm. Flowers and pie. Neighbors are good.
When I moved to Brooklyn in 1994, my first place was in the “no garden in front” section of Carroll Gardens. Having spent the previous seven years in Upstate New York, and having grown up in a small suburban town, I was pollyannaish in my anticipation of meeting my new neighbors. The building had eight apartments, and once we were moved in, I decided to meet my neighbors. I started on the fourth floor, and it only took knocking on three doors with a “Hi! I just moved in on the first floor!” to realize this “just wasn’t done.” Renting does not always instill a sense of investment in neighbors. And families of five don’t want to invite you in to their one-bedroom apartment. Especially the 20-something couple on the first floor.*
So anyway, now I’m back to living in suburbia, and it’s mostly different. I don’t think my neighbors would let me climb over their fence to break into my house and then just watch.* They’d want to – need to – help. In fact, I’m sure they wouldn’t let me break an unpolished nail on the task at all. However, had I bothered to knock on the 30-odd houses on my street to introduce myself, I would probably have been met with some perplexed “Is she high?” looks.
Still, neighbors can be pretty amazing. At four in the morning, when I had to drive my husband to the emergency room, I only hesitated for two seconds before calling our neighbor across the street to please come stay at our house with the sleeping kids. And when we needed advice about the lawn or which tree service to call, we knew that our other neighbor would give us good information (partly because the tree bordered his lawn!). And when we were away during one of the major snowfalls in January, our neighbors cleared the sidewalk and our walkway for us. Then we did the same a couple of weeks later. Nice, right?
Just this weekend, I locked my keys in the trunk at Costco, and a neighbor lent us his car so my husband could come pick me up. (I’m hoping my husband doesn’t use that incident as an excuse to get a second car.) We dropped off a bottle of wine with them as thanks – you see, they were hosting a work gathering when I called. And they were still just wonderful about being interrupted. Perhaps it was because they could show the Big City guests the quirky charm of the suburban experience?
In a time when fewer and fewer people live close to family, it’s good to know that favors can be asked and given without anything expected in return. Gestures like wine, flowers, and pie are wonderful and delicious, but they are the bonuses to the security of knowing that the people around us have our backs.
*That was different, by the way, when I moved closer to work and closer to affordable rents in Gravesend, Brooklyn. There, the neighbors come to you. And they want to know everything about you. It came in really handy when I locked myself out and I had to climb over a neighbor’s fence and pry open my window and stuff myself through said window. The ever-larger audience made it super fun!