Confession time: I don’t know the names of most of my neighbors. First names, a few, the people next door and some across the street. A couple of them work where my husband or I work, so we know them. A few, we call by observed behaviors, like Lady With Perfectly Kept Yard, or Patriotic Guy. There are dozens of little kids, plus a handful of elderly folks, most living alone. But I’ve seen them outside, talking with the people next door, and that makes me feel better. We wave at all of them, the way Iowans do.
My parents knew their neighbors so much better. On our stretch of Cedar Street in Davenport, they could have named every person in the house, as well as where they worked, their pets’ names, their hobbies and, well, other things they probably didn’t share with us kids.
Part of this familiarity, I’m embarrassed to say, was the direct result of the kind of dwelling my parents decided to inhabit. A ranch house, it had great big windows – does anybody call them “picture windows” anymore? – in the living and dining rooms, providing a vast vista along the west side of the house. We could see all the way from the top of the street to the bottom, or close enough. We knew when the Ludwigs went out dancing, and when the Sturdevents returned from Mass. (Names changed to protect the spied-upon.) We watched the teenage boys race their sleds down the snowy street, and the little girl next door ride her first bike up that same hill.
I thought it was intrusive, the way my parents gawked, but then again, they could have been captains of the Neighborhood Watch, not a bad thing at all. I can still see Dad, sitting in his chair one early summer day, cold drink in hand, suddenly springing to attention as he noticed the (not bad-looking) woman across from us struggling with a window air conditioner. You can be sure that AC unit got installed just minutes later, and all she had to do was watch.
My mom had a running deal with the younger woman living kitty-corner from us. Cheryl had two little kids and a house without a basement (a “slab,” as my parents called it), so any time the radio announced a severe storm watch or warning, she and the kids high-tailed it over to join Mom in our basement. Mom even stocked toys and soap bubbles to keep them occupied.
Some of the things my folks said about the neighbors became so entrenched, I knew what they were thinking just by seeing who they were looking at. That house down the street whose siding was stained, not painted – what an eyesore. That boy across the alley, what a shame. (The youngest of twelve, he had Down syndrome, and all of us worried about his future.) The girl next door with the terrible asthma. None of us had central air, so in the summer, we heard everything from their windows, including poor Kathy, gasping for air. (No wonder I was terrified when my own two kids received that diagnosis. But medicine had improved by then.)
Just as we heard them, I knew they heard us. And with a sister like mine – developmentally disabled, angry and argumentative much of the time – I felt a lot of shame and guilt over what the neighbors were hearing. Yet they were our friends, as nice as you could ask for, and if they thought anything of us after hearing her rages, I am sure it was mostly a feeling of helplessness mixed with a benevolent dose of compassion. No need to explain. They knew, and they cared.
All of which brings me to thinking about disasters, large and small, and how people ride them out. I’ve been seeing photos of the fires and dust storms currently raging in Australia, a world away and yet peopled with, well, people. I’ve been reading about the aftermath of Sandy, and how some people lived and other people died, and how it seems to have helped a great deal if those people knew their neighbors.
An article in the January 7th New Yorker titled “Adaptation” asks the question, “After Sandy, how can cities best survive?” The author, Eric Klinenberg, describes wonderfully inventive and protective structures in places as far-flung as Rotterdam, in the Netherlands, and the island nation of Singapore. But along with buried utility cables and floating city centers, he focuses on the ways in which ordinary people can take care of each other.
He reminds us that in July 1995, 739 people died in a Chicago heat wave. He notes this fact: in one neighborhood, composed of mostly poor African-Americans, many died. In another, not far away and similar both economically and racially, almost everyone lived. The difference? Those in the latter neighborhood knew each other, shopped in the same neighborhood stores. They may not have been best friends, but they knew where the elderly, the frail, the very young lived. And their magic remedy to this killer heat wave? Knocking on doors. Asking, “Are you all right? How can I help?”
During Sandy’s devastation, I heard an NPR reporter climbing a dark staircase to interview an old woman she’d been told lived alone on a floor high up. As she knocked and the door opened, we got to hear something wonderful – the conversion of a reporter to a human, one who called that old woman’s son and waited until he carried his mother out of that death trap.
These days, I’m not so embarrassed about my parents’ gawking. They were just looking out, and ready to help in a heartbeat.