When I was a young kid we knew all the names of pretty much everybody in our whole little neighborhood. The kids were a pack; in the summer, when your parents kicked you out of the house after breakfast—everybody did this—you just found the other kids and skulked around until somebody came up with something to do. The grownups chit-chatted, invited each other in for coffee. The neighborhood teens babysat the neighborhood tykes. I can picture, something like 30 years later, what our neighbor’s kitchen looked like on the inside, from the low-angle perspective of a small kid who had trailed his mom over there for some reason or another. I have memories of it not being all that out of the ordinary, on a weekend afternoon, for a neighbor to knock on the door and ask to borrow a cup of sugar or flour or oil or whatever (I guess people baked cakes from scratch, maybe?); I think I have memories of being sent forth to go knock on a neighbor’s door and ask for similar stuff.
Now I am a grown-up and I would rather bang my hand with a hammer than knock on a neighbor’s door. I would rather drink spoiled milk. I would shave a stripe down the middle of my head, in a heartbeat, before I would so much as walk up my nearest neighbor’s driveway. I have no idea what their names are, or what they look like, or even how many of them there are. My wife and I moved our family to the damn forest so that we would not have to interact with neighbors. Prior to that we lived in a cul-de-sac, one of the persistent daily terrors of which was saying an awkward “Hey” to a neighbor who’d spotted me. This is better! Neighbors are hell. Neighbors are a nightmare.
(Possibly this is not a normal view of neighbors, in my neck of the woods. To find out, though, I’d have to talk to one. “How do you feel about having neighbors, neighbor?” Fuuuuuuuck that.)
This is what I thought about while reading an extremely weird op-ed on The Federalist’s website, this morning, titled “I Bake New Neighbors Bread To Welcome Them, And They Never Say Hello To Me Again.” In it, a 70-something -year-old woman laments the decline of neighborliness in her town ... and, uh, welcomes her own death so that she will not have to put up with it anymore. No, really!
I am glad I am this old so I don’t have to live in this cold, uncaring world for 50 more years. Many people appear to be shallow, immoral, intolerant, and hateful about their neighbor’s ideas about religion, politics, the color of their house, etc. I can’t believe these attitudes have taken root my lifetime, but they have. I have witnessed these changes. I am so devastated by these negative attitudes that it hurts my heart.
My neighbors are chilly, therefore I’m glad I’ll be dead soon. Don’t throw your life away!
I’m glad I was young enough—just barely, I think—to have still been trying out and learning socialization habits when the internet came along and pretty much overnight punted “lives nearby” to like 27th on the list of attributes people look for in friends and acquaintances (and even employees), just after “has dank memes” and just ahead of “good at basketweaving.” This change has facilitated lots of extremely bad shit, up to and possibly including the outright dissolution of society, but also, I don’t have to try to make the best of it with whomever the vagaries of real estate and human migration patterns happen to have plunked onto the landscape some number of yards from where I sleep, and lemme tell you, that’s a relief for me, a disagreeable hermit with a tenuous commitment to personal upkeep.
There really and truly was a time, though, when walking over and knocking on a door and introducing yourself to whoever moved in down the hall or up the street, and/or inviting inside and offering a beverage to whomever walked over and knocked on your door was among the easiest and most readily available ways to make friends and have amiable social interaction. More to the point, before the internet existed—before nearly everybody who lived outside a dense metropolitan center had a car, before planned suburban developments put every household within a mile of the same dismal handful of chain amenities, before easy travel and a hundred other factors made people less likely to spend their entire lives in one geographically small community—it made sense to think of this as something of a responsibility: The fabric of a community consisted of the neighborly bonds between people who happened to live near each other, who could babysit each other’s kids or lend each other some flour, who would know each other for decades, or it did not consist of anything at all. Being friends (or at least friendly) with the neighbors was how you kept life from being a Mad Max movie, basically.
And so if I imagine being someone who was already pretty dang old—who had already grown all the way up with an entire idea of how a community functioned and how to avoid being sad and isolated and lonely within one—by the time that change happened, yes, I think I might perceive the world as having turned a lot colder once the new neighbors seemed not only indifferent to these neighborly bonds but actively turned off by them. Once the new neighbors were more, well, like me. Once one of the things I might not really understand about the neighbors is their familiarity and comfort with maintaining, via the internet and, say, reasonable amounts of travel, connections to a whole constellation of friendships and associations from the places and jobs and social circles they’d had before moving to my neighborhood, and didn’t really need to be friends with me just because I lived across the street. Once the kinds of gestures and overtures I not only valued but understood to be the very basis of a community seemed worthless and even sorta distasteful to the whippersnappers around me. Once I felt lonely all the time and nobody seemed to notice or care.
The younger lady next door has two adult kids and she waves. It’s something, as no one else waves, often leaving me feeling invisible. Maybe I am. I am in my 70s and unless I go to the senior center I might very well be invisible.
I hope I would—will—do better than to conclude that “people” magically have become “shallow, immoral, intolerant, and hateful” just on the basis of my neighbors being chilly. But maybe I won’t. My colleague Alex Pareene wrote thoughtfully, back in April, about what he rightly identified as the “long, lucrative right-wing grift”: Convincing isolated and confused old people, primarily via Fox News, that the changing world outside their homes is a frightening place in a state of advanced and accelerating moral decay, and radicalizing them to the idea that this is happening because of ... whatever. Diversity, feminism, immigration, the dang gubmint, whatever. Maybe this is how that grift works, up close; maybe The Federalist has given us a window into how this particular moment in American history allowed things to get so bad so fast: A lot of old people got very lonely very quickly, and didn’t understand why, until a television network and a DayGlo con artist offered them an explanation that made sense.
It just happens to be the wrong one. The bonds of neighborliness have declined—in the wealthy world where this old lady and I and probably everybody reading this now reside—not because people are more shallow, immoral, intolerant, and hateful, but because those bonds of neighborliness are vestiges of a kind of community that once was necessary for shared survival, and now largely isn’t. Her frosty-seeming neighbors are still forming and nurturing communities, ones organized by stuff other than geography. They’re not doing anything wrong.
But then again, neither is the writer. For all the modern world’s amazing and unprecedented capacity to connect the people who know how to navigate it, it also seems to have a profound capacity to strand the suckers who don’t. She really is lonely. She really does feel invisible. For most of her whole life, you related to the outer world first and foremost through the people who came over and shared your living room. That was also how the outer world found out if, for example, you were sliding into isolation and loneliness and despair, and thinking things like “I’m glad I won’t be alive much longer.” Old-fashioned neighborliness may not be necessary for shared survival anymore, but it might still be necessary for her survival.
What I am saying here is that somebody should pay that old lady a visit. Maybe bring her a plate of homemade cookies, and stick around and chat for a bit. Somebody other than me, I mean.