Wouldn’t you like to be my neighbor?
At our old house in a relatively small community on the outskirts of the Bay Area, we knew all our neighbors. Actually, my husband knew all our neighbors. The last thing I want to do at the end of a long day is make eye contact with someone and therefore have them think they can talk to me at any time about their crab grass, or their son’s soccer tournament, or the guy down the street with the car stereo that’s too loud. I want a martini – not idle chit chat. I had a friend once, and it was excruciating – all that having to spend time with them and pretending to care. Who needs it?
My husband, on the other hand, will start a conversation with anyone. When we go on vacation, he will make friends with the people next to him on the plane, the people he meets at the pool, the folks sitting at the next table at the restaurant. The only person I make friends with is the bartender – because I know where my bread is buttered – or in this case, where my tequila bottle comes from. Everyone else looks at me like I’m the bitchy wife of the nice, friendly guy. And pretty much, I am.
It’s not all fun and games being married to the friendly guy though.
It is a rule in my house on Sundays that I am not to be made to wear pants under any circumstance. Sundays are for drinking mimosas, watching football or bad movies, and not bathing. My husband knows this, and I thought he respected this tradition.
Until one Sunday afternoon when he suddenly brought over our new neighbors from across the street. Naked from the waist down, I quickly threw a blanket over me when I heard them come through the front door. My greasy hair was matted to my head, my blotchy skin red from the alcohol I had consumed. My third (or was it my fourth?) mimosa was in my hand, and barbecue sauce was caked on my face from the leftover ribs I gnawed on for a mid-morning snack.
The neighbors did a double take when they saw me. Did my husband take in homeless drunks off the street, they wondered? Imagine their horror to realize that he actually MARRIED me, and not because he HAD to. Because of my nudity, I couldn’t even get up and get them a snack, making me not only an unattractive and somewhat gamey alcoholic, but also rude. I could only sit there, fire shooting out of every orifice, vowing to make my husband suffer later for bringing them over unannounced.
Eventually, the same neighbors came back – on a day I was clothed and showered. They even invited us to their daughter’s wedding. (Well, they invited my husband. I came by default, as he could bring a date and he couldn’t find anyone else on such short notice).
They weren’t the only ones in our old neighborhood who braved a relationship with us – or rather, me. Our neighbors to one side of our house often cooked us Filipino treats; and our neighbors on the other side would exchange gardening tools and keep an eye on our house while we were gone. Still another neighbor from down the street, who was also head of our Neighborhood Watch, would walk by each night to make sure people’s outside lights were on and their garages were secure. All he asked in return was the occasional beer for him and treat for his dog.
Growing up, we were even closer to our neighbors. My dad died when I was 11, so my mother was on her own to raise me, relying on neighbors to check on me if she had to leave the house, to help her with large maintenance projects, or just provide her with the peace of mind that should we have an emergency, people who cared were close by. As a kid, I sometimes resented it because I couldn’t get away with anything, as not only did I have my mom watching me, I had everyone in a four block radius keeping an eye on me too. As an adult I came to appreciate how lucky I had been. They say it takes a village to raise a child, and I had a damned good village whom should probably be credited with keeping me out of Juvenile Hall.
We’ve lived in the San Jose area for two years now in a “duet” – a fancy word for duplex – in which we share a wall with neighbors we have never met or exchanged words with. When I take a run or walk around the lake across the street, the people on the trail with me rarely smile or return a greeting. In an emergency, I know of no one nearby who can come to the rescue.
As much as I hate to admit it, I miss being part of a “community.” Although our new neighborhood in San Jose is cleaner and safer than our old house (where we sometimes heard gunfire), it seems lonely somehow. I’m not sure if it is because here in the Silicon Valley people tend to work longer hours and commute long distances – making it too exhausting to stay in touch with their neighbors. A friend from work once told me that because of his commute, he can’t really go out with his colleagues after work; and doesn’t have the energy to make friends where he lives. He’s caught between two communities – and as a result doesn’t really belong to either.
It may also be harder for people to trust each other too. I know I tend to be very suspicious of the person who wants to befriend me right away. I’m always thinking they want something besides friendship. What I’m not sure. My tequila? My shoe collection? One of our bastard cats? Could it be they just want to break in and clean my garage? PLEASE?
Whatever the reason, I don’t think our neighborhood is unique in its feeling of isolation. The frenzied pace of modern life has made it harder to connect. We’ve replaced neighbors with “services” – a professional cat sitter when we go away on vacation; a security system instead of a Neighborhood watch; take-out Filipino food instead of home-made.
And while now I can enjoy an uninterrupted Sunday without pants – I don’t think the trade-off is quite worth it. I may even make the ultimate sacrifice and put on sweat pants and tell my husband to go out and herd up a neighbor or two to come over for a beer. It would be nice to at least feel like one person in the area knows our name, or would come running if someone was hauling away our big screen TV. And maybe while they are here, they can help me clean the garage. Hey … what are neighbors for?