I Think My Neighbours Have All Moved Away

Or maybe the sub-prime mortgage crisis has struck my street. (I’ve heard that the ridiculous mortgage terms many Americans accepted, but have had to walk away from by the thousands, were called by bankers “neutron mortgages”: when they blew up, the houses were still standing but the people were all gone.) Or maybe they’re dead. I never hear my neighbours, the ones on either side and in the three houses behind ours in this little pod of nearly-identical town homes.

Yes, I don’t know many of my neighbours, though I could navigate in the dark through every second floor plan of these cloned domiciles. (Reminds me: paint the garage door! Distinction!) On one side of us, I know Marie-Hélène is away – doing some mighty service work in Africa this summer – and Jean and Linda to the west spend most of July and August at the cottage. But if it weren’t for the Sodhi family, two doors over, right now we wouldn’t really know any of the folks in our in-fill housing development. Having grown up on a leafy small-town square, this is something I never quite get used to. It may be time for us to try a neighbourhood drop-in again. I do have loner tendencies, but I like to know my neighbours.

It’s a quiet contemporary disease. We build neighbourhoods with no front porches, houses that often look like gigantic additions to the primary home — the one for the CAR. Ever noticed? In most new houses, the garage is the most obvious feature and one of the main selling points. We love our cars, and most of us drive them absolutely everywhere. (Even in the “good old days”, my Dad drove his Mercury every day to his office a block away. Mind you, he did have an artificial leg.) And the other night, another factor in our progressive isolation from each other, even in cities and ‘burbs, became apparent to me.

I was reading. More specifically, I was reading aloud. Really loud. It was Chapter Five of The Hobbit. I’d been promising this classic tale to my son Sam for awhile – his brothers had all had the treatment when they were younger – and we began in August. (Bonus points, an elvish blade and a cosy nap by a peat fire if you knew that Chapter Five is the wonderful “Riddles in the Dark” section, in which Bilbo meets his — and eventually Frodo’s — nemesis, Gollum.

“Curse it! Curse it! Curse it! Curse the Baggins! It’s gone! What has it got in its pocketses?…My birthday present! How did we lose it, my precious?…But we dursn’t go in, precious, no we dursn’t. Goblinses down there. We smells them. Ssss!…Thief, thief, thief! Baggins! We hates it, we hates it, we hates it forever!”

Yup, that was me, in my pantingly frantic, psychopathologically obsessed, creature-of-blackness-and-dread voice as Gollum, screeching out his loss and his terror and his rage. With my Sam. In our street-facing parental bedroom. With the window wide open. Oops. What did that sound like on the sidewalk? Some people down the street don’t own three cars; they actually walk a fair bit, and Presland Road is a bike route, too. And our neighbours? Gosh, what must they hear, with a seven-year-old who argues madly and tantrums daily, a music-blasting Dad and a Mum who starts conversations from the opposite end of the house? Sheesh. Our windows are mainly open for about six months a year…

And then it occurred to me that, while I sometimes hear the noise of the late-night pedestrians shouting and skateboarding and laughing down the street, I never hear my neighbours from inside their houses. Ah. It’s the air conditioning. Maybe we don’t get a chance to drive them nuts with our banging and hollering because they’re so tightly sealed inside their artificial climate pods. That’s a small relief, I guess. We have AC, too, by the way, though we use it little and only to keep the temperature below 27 degrees (Celsius, needless to say) or so. It’s about energy costs, you know, and about the impossibly large resource footprint our energy-dependent and pampered society leaves behind it from all our comforts. We’re globe-huggers at my house, I admit.

Still, big questions of climate change and economic disparity weren’t really on my mind that day as I thought about my invisible neighbours and their blissful unawareness of the howlings of Gollum. I’m sure they can do without my manic impersonations of wizards, dwarves and the Great Goblin, but I’m here to suggest that maybe all of us don’t do so well when our neighbours are strangers. Many people are finding that the price of their pleasures, their plasma TVs and their secure and spacious homes, is loneliness.  While our houses and cars got bigger, our social network of acquaintances, friends and readily available family got smaller. We’ve forgotten how to do community. Some of us are even mildly phobic about those casual interactions — in markets, public squares and street corners — that sweetened life for our grandparents. In my little hometown, they still happen, but less and less.

Curse us. How did we lose it, my precious? In a subsequent post, I’ll throw out a few ideas about how we can rediscover our precious sense of neighbourhood. It won’t be terribly original. It doesn’t have to be. Let’s start here: do you have someone close by to borrow a cup of sugar from? Does your snow shovel work on any sidewalk but your own? Rilke comes to mind. The German poet once wrote this:

Whoever you are: some evening take a step outside of your house which you know so well; enormous space is near…

Perhaps instead of the desperate shrieks of my good friend Gollum, I could soothingly chant this mantra from the sidewalks of my street. Well, I could if anybody had their windows open, or a lawn chair out front.

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