Neighborhood Watch

Before writing this post, I solicited ideas for topics, and was thrilled to receive several. I think I managed to at least mention them all. If you find yours, leave a comment and let me know!

The house across the street just went on the market. The couple who lives there have retired, and they’re moving closer to family. For weeks, our cul-de-sac has been clogged with their contractors’ trucks. Earlier this week, a flock of real estate agents descended for a preview. Yesterday the sign went up. Now we’re wondering who our new neighbors will be. We’re not looking for new best friends. We just hope they’ll be easy to live with.

I’ve moved seven times since I graduated from college, and one thing those moves has taught me: neighbors matter.

The first place I lived on my own was the walk-out basement of my landlord’s home in the Squirrel Hill section of Pittsburgh, where I was attending library school. When I showed up to see the place and told the landlord my name, he beamed and said, “Landsman.” I’d never heard the term before, but I could tell what it meant: that he was glad to have me as a tenant, because we were both Jewish. As it turned out, that’s as far as the friendliness went.

Mort and his family lived right above me, but in the nine months I lived there, we didn’t have much to do with each other. Sometimes, late at night, I would hear someone playing Pong in the room above mine. When I fried onions, Mort would call up and tell me to turn the fan on. “Your fumes are killing us,” he would complain. Once I came home from school and found a note on my toilet. “Please make sure the toilet isn’t running when you leave the house,” it said.

After library school, I moved to Los Angeles to live with the man who is now my husband, and was then a grad student at UCLA. David and I started out in Venice, in rented rooms over our landlord’s garage. Bars covered most of the windows on the street, and more than once we awoke to police helicopters hovering overhead, searchlights sweeping the alley outside our bedroom. The walls of the corner Laundromat were tagged by the Crips. Sometimes we heard people shouting in the night, but because neither of us speaks Spanish, we couldn’t tell sure if they were fighting or joking.

On the other hand, Sam and Maddy were ideal landlords. Sam kept the property spotless, right down white-washing the stems of his rose bushes to match the walls of his house. When I rammed a post in the garage with the car, Sam didn’t charge us for the damage. And when David visited his parents in London, Maddy invited me into their home for dinner so I wouldn’t have to be alone. David and I still use the covered Pyrex casseroles Sam and Maddy gave us for a wedding present.

We moved to Burlington, Vermont, when our daughter was two and I was pregnant with our son. We bought a raised ranch on a suburban street straight out of Family Circus. The neighborhood teemed with young families like ours, and parents pinch-hit for each other with hardly a thought, as our kids ran in and out of each other’s houses and played in each other’s yards, trick-or-treated and built snowmen together, and carpooled to school. If we had stayed there, the neighbors we grew so close to ten years ago would still feel like family.

But when Sophie and Sam were teenagers, we moved downtown. Our new home was so close to David’s office at the university that when the letter carrier dropped his mail off at work, she could tell him what she’d left at our house. Our next door neighbors were classical musicians. We loved listening to her practicing her harpsichord, and sometimes shared a glass of wine with him across the backyard fence.

On the other hand, the neighborhood was “in transition,” with owner-occupied family homes like ours vying for dominance with student rentals. Each fall, David and I introduced ourselves to our new student neighbors and made sure they understood the city’s noise ordinances. Just in case they didn’t, we kept ear plugs in our bedside tables and the police department’s phone number on our speed dial.

Student noise was on our minds when we relocated to Rhode Island, three years ago. We came down to house-hunt during Brown’s Spring Fling. At 10 pm, the partying was raucous. Starting at the university, David and I walked until we could no longer hear the music, and there were no more red plastic beer cups on the sidewalk. Anywhere beyond that point would be an acceptable place to live.

We ended up settling in a different area altogether — a more affordable neighborhood, a bus ride away from David’s work, but closer to the water. Our street has just six houses, with Narragansett Bay at one end. In the evening we can sit on our porch sipping gin and tonics, smelling the salt breeze and listening to the mockingbirds. We still can’t quite believe we get to live here. Tracking the tides is supposed to be something you only do on vacation, as I did all those Augusts on Cape Cod, growing up. This last month, as the horror in the Gulf has unfolded, the migrating sea birds and the play of light on the water feel particularly precious.

The restful beauty of this place wouldn’t be possible, though, if we didn’t also have good neighbors. Bill snow-blows our driveway. Diane brings over buckets of perennials from her garden. When Bob washes his car, his son Jackson scrubs his tricycle. Richard stops to discuss the progress of swan family in the cove. Liz waves from her porch, where she sits working crossword puzzles. There isn’t one door on this street that I would hesitate to knock on in an emergency.

But none we have never shared a beer with any of these people, and don’t know how they feel about the mid-term elections or the situation in Gaza, let alone the Galarraga-Joyce controversy. And I wouldn’t want to. Clear conversational fences make good neighbors, as the saying sort of goes. Besides, why should I discuss politics or exchange personal confidences with the people I happen to pass in person? That’s what the Internet’s for. If I feel like venting a frustration or celebrating a feat, I’ll go to email of Facebook or Twitter. If it’s really important, I’ll pick up the phone. But if I need a band-aid, it’s good to know that I can go next door.

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6 Responses to “Neighborhood Watch”

  1. averyoslo Says:

    Ruth, I love how you’ve advertised this blog post on twitter, and love the idea of conversational fences.

    Unfortunately, I’ve got one of those faces that prompt people to over-share. I know all about my neighbor’s hemorrhoids, their jailbird relative, their stance on the teabaggers… everything. Luckily writers can recycle that kind of conversational compost!

  2. Ruth Horowitz Says:

    Thanks, Avery!

    And yes, when you’re a writer, other people’s over-sharing can be really valuable. As I try to remind myself when I’m in a really vexing situation, it’s all material.

  3. gail salowey ciecierski Says:

    I’m jealous…sitting on your porch…gin & tonics (thanks for mentioning my idea)….the salt air….mockingbirds. Sounds nice!

  4. Tim Koechlin Says:

    Beautifully done, Ruth. An excellent illustration of how we learn stuff along the way. “Neighbors matter” seems so obvious, once you figure it out. As a kid, I often wondered how my mother knew stuff like this (“neigbors matter” or “it gets cold in the mountains at night” or “Abzug won’t do as well upstate.”)

    A less important lesson, perhaps: I am grateful to Ron Berger for advising me that if I buy a used car in the heat of summer, I should make sure the heater works.

    In the 1960s, my family vacationed every year in MA — cape cod mostly, before my parents built a house on cape ann. My brothers and I were Red Sox fans, so it was a great treat to be able to read the Globe sports page and listen to the Red Sox on the radio. I think this is esp. memorable for Carl and me, because we were so delighted to hang around w/ our older brothers. The broadcasts were sponsored by Naragansett beer. ‘Gansett ads included a schmalzy song, that included these lyrics: “I can see the some a-shining, over Naragansett Bay, so fill the glass my friend, and talk to me of home.” This is all to say that I have very deep and affectionate associations w/ Naragansett Bay — at least the mythic version conjured up by these beer commercials

  5. Tim Koechlin Says:

    I can see the SUN a-shining

  6. Ruth Horowitz Says:

    Love the Abzug Mom-ism, Tim!

    I haven’t been tempted to try a ‘Gansett. And I also haven’t indulged in an Awful-Awful. Yes, it’s the same drink we all remember from Montclair, sold to Narragansett Creamery when Bond’s went out of business, and now touted as a local specialty in Rhode Island guide books. (As if!)

    Don’t be too jealous, Gail. It’s not really as idyllic as I make it out to be. (On second thought, maybe it is…)

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