"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Do You Know Your Neighbors?

A lot has been made of the fact that Ariel Castro kept three girls prisoner in his house for over decade without anyone knowing or even suspecting that anything was wrong.  Some neighbors reported that they ate BBQ with him, and that other than a few slightly unsettling signs, all seemed well at the house next door.  As in many cases of  perverse behavior, neighbors thought that Castro was a regular guy, fun to be around, and an active member of the community.  How was it that they did not pick up on any clues?  Surely there must have been something odd in his behavior, some quirk, or telltale sign of weirdness.  Such, however, is the banality of evil.  ‘Good’ people are capable of doing terrible things.

In an article in the Washington Post (5.11.13) Peter Lovenheim suggests that in today’s society we are far more atomized, self-centered, and indifferent than ever before.  The strong sense of community which existed in the past, when Mrs. Carlson peered out her lace curtained windows, when the postman reminded rowdy boys to stay on the sidewalk, and the bus driver knew everyone’s names, has disappeared.  Although communities may subscribe to the Neighborhood Watch program, they in fact are far too involved in their own lives to pay much attention to what goes on across the street.

While this is true up to a point, it doesn’t take into account the nosiness of neighbors. “Mrs. Jones is walking rather unsteadily”, a neighbor notes.  “I hope her cancer has not come back”; or “Did you notice the number of vodka bottles in the Lelands’ trash?” We notice everything about what goes on outside our neighbor’s house, but have no clue as to what does on within. We have probably never been invited over, and they are on their best, most socialized behavior when they come out. Lovenheim wonders if and how he can get to know his neighbors:

Did I live in a true neighborhood or just on a street surrounded by people whose lives were entirely separate from my own? What would it take to get to know the people on my street beyond a casual wave while walking the dog or a passing conversation about newly planted roses?

I had my own devices.  I was a member of a babysitting co-op when my children were little.  I volunteered more often that most and my treasury of chits built up quickly.  Contrary to most parents, I liked the job.  It offered me a privileged look into the inner sancta of the neighborhood.  Even according to my strict rules (Don’t touch anything) I found out more about my neighbors in two hours that I ever would over decades of living next to them.  Medications were left out, books piled by the bedside table, dishes unwashed in the sink, clothes piled neatly, waiting to be put away.  I surveyed every room, looking for clues to intimacy, parenting, intellectual life, health, and pastimes.

My parents-in-law lived on a large suburban lake just twenty minutes from DC.  After dinner I would take the rowboat out and row past the houses built along the water. To take advantage of the lake view, all houses were built with large glass walls on every level, and because of the sloping terrain, most had at least three levels. At night when it was dark in the middle of the lake, the lights were on in the houses, and from the rowboat I could watch what was going on inside.  A young girl would slam her door on the third floor, and run down the stairs to confront her parents having a late dinner. A teenage boy was smoking dope in the rec room.  The husband pushed his chair back and went to his study where he leaned back, lit up a cigarette, and made a call.

I had no idea what really was going on in those houses lit like a theatre stage, but I could guess.  Was the scene that I watched one of a happy family, or one in trouble? What did the dinner table chair pushed back quickly mean; or the slammed door? Why did I rarely see any signs of affection?  Why didn’t the husband come up behind his wife in the kitchen and give her a kiss like in the movies?

I live on a street which looks like many others in our leafy upper-middle class professional neighborhood of the city. Well-dressed people come and go. Kids are piled into cars on the way to school.  Lawns are mowed, repairmen come, houses are painted.  However, our street alone has a dog-poisoner, a woman who deflates your tires if you park in front of her house, a hermit, and three creepy Bulgarians. We have had only one block party in thirty years, a hokey affair with brownies and prosciutto rolls; and to no one’s surprise, few people knew each other.  Two houses down was like Timbuktu for most people, and the end of the street terra incognita. We all chatted, talked about garbage pickup and the local schools, and went home.

Only once did I think that some real neighborliness was coming to our little corner.  The Landons had built a hot tub in their back yard, and Betty Landon winked to me and said that my wife and I should come over to join her and a ‘few friends’ in the new plaything. I had images of getting drunk and naked with Hot Betty, and having a Fellini-esque orgy. Was I ever disappointed!  We sat in bathing suits sipping white wine and talked about garbage pickup and the local schools.  We sat according to a carefully-calibrated social intervals, never touching or grazing.  We got greyish and puckered, and went in to the meat loaf.

My mother was never one for neighborliness, and discouraged all contact with the families around us for fear they ‘would know our business’.  We had no business of any interest to anyone as far as I could figure out, so I never knew what my mother was hiding; but we kept clear of everyone.  I was dying to get a look into the house next door because of the '”retard” who lived there.  He moaned and groaned in the driveway while his mother harangued him until his father, half in the bag, hauled his golf clubs down the walk and threw them into the car.  Then she lit into her husband for leaving her to cope, to vacuum, and to drink. 

In our first house in a more modest neighborhood, the houses were right on top of each other, which made avoiding the neighbors a lot harder.  I was too little to understand why my mother hated Mrs. Helander, or told stories about old Mr. Fox, but one of the main reasons we moved to the West End was to get rid of close-in neighbors.

Potomac, Maryland is a suburb of Washington and is famous for its McMansions – huge, chateau-sized homes on small parcels of land, clustered in developments.  There is something about these houses with their moats, ramparts, and long drives that says “Go away”; and I assume that the nouveau billionaires don’t fraternize; but there could be some kind of fraternity of the newly-monied that bonds them far closer than we professionals.

On the other hand, there are the dilapidated row houses east of Florida Avenue where neighbors get drunk and fight, all hell breaks loose inside and the ruckus is simulcast through open windows. Everyone is out on the stoops in the summer, and it although it looks like neighbors know each other and are having a good time; these clusters are probably non-neighbor social groupings.  Beers with the compadres or a joint with the crew.

Lovenheim suggests that we make greater efforts to meet and know our neighbors:

Ringing the bell and introducing yourself to an elderly person living alone in your apartment building or inviting a few people on your block over for drinks or dinner is a great place to start.

I don’t think so.  Given the creeps on my street, the lame block party of a few years ago, my babysitting, and my theatre-going on the lake, I would rather stay within my own perimeter.  Before I got married, I asked my mother if she wanted to meet my fiancĂ©e's parents. “No”, she said. “They are your family, not mine”.  I feel the same way about my neighbors.

The house next door has just been sold, and I for once am taking a great interest in who my new neighbors will be.  I am not hoping that they will be interesting, particularly well-travelled, or well-read. I just want them to be quiet, leave the fence up, and to keep their windows shut. 

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