While the spirit of neighborliness was important on the frontier because neighbors were so few, it is even more important now because our neighbors are so many. — Lady Bird Johnson
I was about ten paces from my car door when I heard someone call my name from behind me in the parking garage. I turned to see a familiar face rushing toward me. “Hey, Barbarella, I’m glad I caught you. Can I steal a minute?” I couldn’t help but glance longingly at my car. I’d been so close. I met the man’s eager gaze and nodded. “The young men in the unit next to mine had a party last night. It was terribly loud, kept me up all night,” he said. I raised my brows in encouragement for the man to reach his point. “Well, so I wanted to let you know.”
“Did you knock on the door and ask them to keep it down?” I asked.
“No,” he answered. I stared at him, a silent request for clarification. “Isn’t there some rule against parties?” he asked.
“No, people can do whatever they want in their own homes, as long as it doesn’t harm or unduly irritate others,” I said.
“Well, the noise was incredible. It was ridiculous. And who knows how many people they had in there. Isn’t that against the rules?”
“Excessive noise is, yes,” I said. “Thanks for letting me know. I’ll make sure this is handled in accordance with our rules and regulations.”
“You’re going to send them a violation, right?”
“As I said, I’ll make sure it’s handled according to our rules and regulations.”
“Well, if you send the violation notice, just don’t, you know, please don’t let them know who reported them.”
“Of course,” I said. “But if it happens again, you might try going over there. I mean, they may not have realized they were disturbing you.” Then, because it only just occurred to me, I said, “Do you know their names?”
“Yeah, they’re…well, I can’t seem to think of them, but it’ll come to me. But, anyway, thank you, and I’ll be sure to let you know if there are any more issues with them. I think we might have a few troublemakers on our hands,” he said.
This is my third year on the board of my homeowners’ association. When David and I purchased our unit (at the time, no more than a drawing on a napkin), the community concept had not been a deciding factor. Of course, we didn’t want sucky neighbors, but we weren’t looking for a building full of new best buddies either. I prefer a friendly hello in the hallway to a stop-in-the-foyer-and-shoot-the-shit-for-three-hours when all I wanted to do was collect my mail. Because of my voluntary involvement in our building’s affairs (control freaks have a hand in everything), I know more of the residents than most. Even so, as people move out and others move in, the number of familiar faces is dwindling.
It seems people don’t trust strangers, even if they share a wall with one. If someone encounters dog piss in the elevator, they’re inclined to point the finger at the person furthest from their invite list. “Must be that guy next to me, he has a dog. He never says hello, just the type to leave a mess.” Because we couldn’t possibly imagine that nice Amanda from down the hall and her adorable pup, Buster, as the culprits. “After all, it was only yesterday that she brought me a slice of homemade cake. How could anyone so thoughtful and generous disregard a mess like that?”
Whether it’s local business owners, servers at my favorite restaurants, or other residents in my building, I like to know the people I encounter on a regular basis. I spent most of my youth living in Navy housing — from San Diego to Adak, Alaska, to Newport, Rhode Island, and back. Every door in those neighborhoods was always open, and weekend cul-de-sac barbecues were the norm. If one of the military guys had to take off on leave, everyone on the block was available should the guy’s wife and children need anything. My parents, back in their hometown of Brooklyn, New York, would never have left a door unlocked or allowed their children to walk alone in the city. But the base was like a giant playground — we were set free and not worried about; we could walk a mile to the local market if we wanted because my parents trusted the village to look after us. When issues arose in our corner of suburbia, there was no privatized police force to report them to — neighbors discussed and resolved them face-to-face.
It’s easy to cast aside good-neighborliness in favor of insensitive and bitchy vitriol when hidden behind the guise of “anonymous.” How many incendiary comments on how many hundreds of websites would disappear if full legal names were required for posting? Along the same lines, I wonder how the delivery of homeowner complaints might be different should residents have to recite them in person to the alleged perpetrators. On the flip side, I’d like to think that if a dog-owner or coffee-spiller had to watch someone else clean up his mess, then he would be less inclined to leave another. And that the people who force pizza boxes into the trash chute (despite the large signs posted on every floor begging them not to) might instead choose to take a short elevator ride down to the trash room had they seen their flushed, 60-year-old neighbor struggle for an hour to dig out their mess at the other end.
If every person in my building did one thoughtful thing for one neighbor each week, I imagine the complaints I receive would all but disappear. In my ideal urban community, people look out for one another without being all up in each other’s business. I’m not talking maid service or anything, but simple things, like picking up a neighbor’s package that was left in front of the mailboxes and dropping it by his front door, or cleaning up your dog’s piddle so no one inadvertently steps in the puddle while walking into the elevator. True community requires common courtesy combined with neighborly considerations. Then again, there’s a good chance that in the future we’ll all be sitting in our boxes, connected virtually, conducting our lives and errands in online neighborhoods. I wonder how long it will be before someone figures out how to get their avatar to cram a damn pizza box down the virtual trash chute.