Monday, July 28, 2008

Kindness of strangers

Earlier last week, I received an email from Chris, my former neighbor on Kerlerec Street in New Orleans. After the storm, she relocated to Denver where she thought she would be able to live happily among an enlightened community with bike trails and, unlike post-storm New Orleans, functioning city offices. Apparently, she's had a hard time adjusting to her new home. Her latest email included a letter to the Denver Post written in response to a really unfriendly act taken against her by a neighbor.

You see, Chris has these little dogs, Belle and Annie, who spend their days inside while Chris is at work. Apparently, Belle escaped the house one day while Chris was at work. Knowing that something wasn't quite right about the situation, Belle remained in the yard, barking, waiting for Chris to return. Belle's barking upset a neighbor who, rather than find out why the dog was barking, called the city to file an official anonymous grievance against Chris. Several days after the event, Chris received a nasty notice from the City of Denver explaining that her dog was a nuisance to a neighbor.

Chris grew rather incensed by the notice. Here's part of the letter to the paper:
Had this happened in New Orleans, my neighbors would have responded very differently. Calling the City would have been the last thing on a long list of options. They’d have started with me, and drawn on our life together as a neighborhood.

First, given what they knew about my patterns, they would have recognized that what was happening was very much out of the ordinary and they would have guessed that something was wrong. They’d have called me – ah, but you see, we all had each other’s phone numbers so that we could quickly be in touch if there was trouble. We also had keys to one another’s houses so we could take immediate, friendly action. A neighbor with a key could have come in, retrieved Belle from the yard, given her water and a bit of sympathy, and moved on. Failing that, they would have opened my gate, and taken Belle home with them, alleviating her distress and their irritation. I would have found a note on my door when I returned letting me know where my dog was.

None of that is the case in my Denver neighborhood. In the months since I moved in, I have often called out a friendly greeting to people walking by, only to have them look away as though they hadn’t heard me. On my last visit home to the Crescent City, I stayed with a great friend who has returned to her home in a neighborhood devastated by the flood. One morning, she and her across-the-street neighbor engaged in lively, laughing banter as they each stepped outside to retrieve the morning paper. Fran’s home has largely been restored. Her equally jovial neighbor was still living in a trailer. Touched by the good spirit in the air, I told Fran about what it’s like for me living here, in Denver, where some people don’t return a friendly ‘hello’. “In New Orleans,” she said, “you can be arrested for behaving that way.”

In New Orleans, I lived one block out of the French Quarter and worked for 16 years at Preservation Hall, the noted jazz venue. When I left for the Hall one night, the front door didn’t completely close behind me, and not long after I had pedaled off on my bike, my dogs nosed their way through the door and out onto the sidewalk, where they paced back and forth, perhaps wondering why I didn’t appear. A neighbor saw them from her balcony, came across the street, took them back inside and, since she had a key to my home, not only closed the door behind her but locked it. When she called me at the Hall a few minutes later, the first words out of her mouth were, “Don’t worry: the dogs are safe.”

She continues for a few more paragraphs, finally ending with a plea to the citizens of Denver to simply be nice. Her letter reminded me that Columbia has been a great place to live. I live in a rough-around-the-edges neighborhood, really, and only a few of us on the block have working vehicles and full-time jobs. I think about this now from Cannon Beach, Oregon, because I realize that if anything happened to my little rental property, I wouldn't know until I returned.

The kids across the street would be the first to find out if my house had been burglarized since they use my yard as their playground. (But really, if anyone does break in, he'd be hard pressed to make the danger worth their while. No electronics but a huge computer and a super-cheap cd player. The silver service is buried in the basement in a crummy box. I don't have jewelry but lovely pieces Alyssa made for me and a beat up strand of pearls. Oh, there are expensive instruments and bikes...darn.) Unfortunately I don't think the neighborhood parents like me very much. I wave to them, say hello, comment on the weather, how cute their dog is, how wonderful their children are, bring toys back to their rightful yard. But they ignore me until the day when they want me to drive them 10 blocks to the grocery store. This has only happened a couple of times, when one of the mothers walks to my door, nervously laughing between sentences explaining why she would like a ride to the store. It's pretty uncool, really, and sometimes I feel like a world-class chump when I hop into my moving greenhouse to help a neighbor who otherwise, I think, loathes me. Anyway, I hope I don't get broken into because the neighbors probably wouldn't even close the door afterwards. At least they haven't called the city about my extra wooly yard.

So I've been thinking about community lately. I work with stellar folks, I live in a great city, I'm a member of a supportive family, even the security guard who unpacked my daypack when he saw three strange things in my bag was nice to me (likely because he somehow knew I had been in 103 degree weather in an unairconditioned car for almost 20 hours prior takeoff). What's knocked me off my guard lately has been the kind words coming through the ether from people I've never met, whose eyes I've never stared into over quiche. Thanks, folks, for being so kind and good and supportive. I know my sentences are too long (a result of reading Latin) and I rant and rave about issues that a hot shower might cause me to forget. But, really, thanks for caring about my little dog, for seeing how great the Ozarks can be, for the compliments coming straight out of that far-fetched region of the baseball diamond. Maybe my airport security experience would have been different had I flown out of Denver.


Anonymous said...

you know,I usually send my comments via e-mail. But this one, I feel it's worth commenting publicly. The thing about the neighborly-ness in New Orleans is that it all feels so natural. I am from a place that, well very friendly, has none of the natural way of being friendly that I encountered in New Orleans. Nine years into it now, I find it amazing that people everywhere are not this way. It all seems so much more... human. My heart goes out to your friend. As she took so much time to write such a heart-felt letter to the paper, I hope that it is not out of home-sickness for New Orleans, saudade, melancholy, or longing. I hope rather that it is just out of a lesson learned and a gift given by that city that, with the storm, spread across the country- making people everywhere a little bit nicer, the food spicier, and the music a little bit better.

Michelle said...

I stumbled upon your blog while doing a search for some native Missouri plant and have been reading on and off since (but obviously not commenting like I should...) I felt it only proper to say something about the topic of your post.
I have lived my entire life in the city limits of St. Louis and I know having neighbors who are friends are priceless. Our neighbors are the sort of people your friend misses, they will watch out for our property and pets and we do the same for them.
In regards to your situation with your neighbors, I wouldn't be too hard on yourself. There's only so much you can do, some people just don't want to open up (that's our neighbors on the other side of us.)

Allison Vaughn said...

You know, people in Columbia are awesome, bend over backwards awesome. People throughout the Ozarks are terrific--help out with flat tires on Forest Service roads, fix your car for paltry amounts of money, (and the latest): email asking if the cheese you bought from their farm was good. Awesome people, I guess that's why the surly women across the street have me a little worried. Very un-Missouri.