I’ve become a bit obsessed with infographics lately, and have found myself subscribing to different news feeds. This one, about neighbors, came in my inbox today. It reminds me of a couple of stories that I’ve been meaning to tell. At the Connection Gatherings Leah, Sarah, and I have been asking and inviting people to talk to their neighbors. This is a story about some of my neighbors, and what talking to them can lead to.
It was Friday. I had spent my day off cleaning, organizing, getting the house in better shape than it had been lately. Detail work like organizing basement shelves, dusting the washing machine, going through old files, getting rid of stuff I haven’t used or seen in years. You know, the stuff no one else will ever notice, but you.
Earlier in the week I’d made plans with Jordan’s cousin, Laura, and her fiance to come over. I texted Collin (another cousin of Jordan’s) to come over too with his wife, our friend, Amy. The game plan was cards or a few board games, a bottle of wine, some beer and the possibility of a bonfire. A low key evening where no money needed to be spent and we didn’t have to actually go anywhere. We started in the dining room, with curtains drawn and the window cracked to allow a breeze in. I saw Dave sitting on his porch, drinking a beer alone.
Dave moved in two weeks ago, into the house next door. It was previously owned by a very sweet old lady whom Jordan and I would chat with from our porches from time to time. She passed away last summer and her house had since been empty. It sold a few weeks ago. Dave, Jordan, and I chatted politely over the back fence last weekend while the dogs went wild barking at each other. We exchanged pleasantries like “let us know when you mow the lawn and we’ll let the dogs in. They’re afraid of lawn mowers” and Jordan and I shared the wisdom given to us when we first moved in: “don’t worry about the guy that jogs back and forth on the street in the middle of the night with a flashlight. He’s harmless.”
But Friday night, the six of us chatted around the fire on Friday, wine glasses and beer bottles in hand, avoiding the smoke billowing from logs and old financial papers, and I thought of Dave. New neighbor. Sitting on his porch. I asked Jordan if we should invite him over, and the consensus was “why not?”
As I walked up to his porch, I got nervous. Would he think I was a really strange neighbor? Did he want to just be left alone? Was it weird to ring someone’s door bell next door if you really didn’t know them? How late was too late? Was I being obtrusive? Will he know I saw him on his porch? Will it look like I was spying on him from my dining room? Should I have left my wine glass at home before walking over? Should I have put on shoes? His name was Dave, wasn’t it?
I rang the door bell and immediately regretted it. Nala, his golden lab, went berserk. Barking, pacing by the door, looking out the curtains, barking louder each passing second that I stood on the porch.
Shit! I’ve upset the dog, I thought. Run away! He took way too long to answer the door and I debating whether ringing again was overkill or if proper etiquette was to knock the second time instead of ringing again? He was home. Why wasn’t he answering? Was he avoiding us? I considered bolting before he answered but before I could take off, he opened his door.
“Hey,” I said, even more aware of how crazy I looked barefoot, holding a glass of wine on his porch, the sun already set, the moon already out. “We’re having a bonfire and wanted to see if you wanted to join.” He paused, smiled a little, and said “Oh man, I can’t. I’m about to go to a birthday party for a friend.”
“No big deal. Some other time then.” And I walked back to my yard.
Later that night, after our cousins had already gone home, we let the dogs out one last time before heading to bed. Immediately, the raucous of barking and chasing between the fences could be heard. I saw Jordan and Dave standing over the fence line chatting. I walked out and said hey. Dave said, “Thanks so much for inviting me, I would’ve if I didn’t have to go to that party. Actually the bonfire probably would have been more fun.”
“No big deal.” I said. But it was a big deal. 13% of neighbors never talk to one another. 23% only talk a few times a month (I imagine the nights before trash collection). 9% talk once a month. and 10% less than one time a month.
When we first moved in in 2009 we of course knew no one. We learned a few names giving away a surplus of tomatoes that we had grown when we couldn’t bear to eat anymore. Through that, we met Cindy, met Amy. Cindy was the one who shared the good advice about the late-night flashlight toting jogger. We met another neighbor, Trish, that summer borrowing yard work tools, and we invited her over to Jordan’s graduation party after-party. Trish met Jordan’s cousin Drew that night. They talked all night, started dating, and they got married last June. They had their first son, Dylan, a few weeks ago.
Last year, our neighbor Buck told us that his sons were carpenters, worked in construction and if we ever needed some work (any kind of work) done to let them know. It turned out we did need some work done. We tore out a ton of bushes along our fence and needed someone to haul it away. The sons did. A few months later, instead of going with a $10,000+ bid from a random company for a new deck, Buck’s sons built it over a weekend for much (much much) less than $10,000. We had one of the sons (they all start with the letter D and all look pretty handsomely identical) over for chili in the Fall to celebrate.
Last year, our neighbor Charlie, Amy’s boyfriend, yelled across the street, beckoning us over. “I want you guys to meet my dad!” he yelled. Jordan and I exchanged funny looks. Meet his dad? What for?
We walked across the street onto Amy and Charlie’s porch and met Mr. Harmon. Chuck Harmon, Charlie’s dad. The Chuck Harmon who was the first African-American baseball player for the Cincinnati Red’s in 1954. A living piece of Cincinnati and baseball history, sitting on a porch across the street.
Bikes get left on our grass. And so do wrappers for fruit snacks. We return the bikes to the yards, and just throw away the wrappers. We know the names of most kids on our street, and can point which directly they went when Sara next door starts yelling for her four kids. We smile, we nod, we wave, but we also talk. “Being neighborly isn’t just giving a smile and nod to your neighbors when you see them on the street. It’s a way of life—a way to build a real social network that can connect you to hyper-local current events, political action, and groups you can join to make your community a better place to live and work.”
You don’t have to talk to your neighbors. It can definitely be strange, weird, off-putting. (Like the time I recently went to welcome another new neighbor who was moving in that day and instead got this response: “Will you move your car either up or back on the street? It’s taking up two spaces.” My car was parked in my driveway, I told her, but I welcomed her nonetheless, apologetic I couldn’t be more helpful with the car situation.) But talking to neighbors can also be worthwhile and meaningful in small ways, like getting our dogs used to each other so they won’t bark through the fence so much, finding out that a few doors down Buck’s sons know how to build a deck and it won’t cost $10,000+ thankyouverymuch.
Or, talking to your neighbors can be worthwhile and meaningful in some pretty big ways, like Drew and Trish finding each other, and a baby being born some years later because of the intentional serendipity of a small invitation to a neighbors a backyard party.
So you don’t have to talk to neighbors. You can go home, shut your door and avoid eye contact, if you like. But I’m sure Drew and Trish are pretty happy that we did do just that. I’m sure little Dylan is pretty happy too, or will be once he learns to sleep through the night. I’m happy we have a brand new deck that didn’t leave us broke. I’m happy that we met Chuck Harmon and Charlie got to share how proud of his dad he is. I’m happy that Moses & Paige (our dogs) will get to know Nala and stop seeing her as a threat and stop barking. And I’m pretty sure Sara is happy that other people are looking after her kids, too. As for the lady who wanted me to move a car that didn’t belong to me? I’m sure she’s happy that she’s done moving and that she doesn’t have to figure out how to maneuver a UHaul past parked cars anymore. Moving is so annoying, isn’t it?
How long have you lived on your street? How often do you talk to your neighbors? Who is the best neighbor you’ve ever had? What does it mean to be neighborly? Do your neighbors help each other out? When was the last time you sat on a neighbors porch? Have you ever been in a neighbors living room? Do you know the names of the people on your street? What stops you from talking to them?
What would help you get to know the people who live around you? What is one small step you can take this week?