I live in a “bedroom” community in Arlington, which for those who have cool urban digs or live out in the ‘burbs and have civic centers, means that people own property here because they come home to sleep. Or they work out of their home, or they’re too old to leave the home more frequently than the occasional Depends-and-dogfood run. I know that’s not charitable, but I’m not feeling charitable.
I’m the middle option of the above, and in some other post I’ll talk about what it’s like to work out of one’s home whenever you’re not on the road. The point is, I don’t know anyone else who lives here, except my downstairs neighbors to a slight extent. There are four condos that all lead off my main doorway: the family downstairs, the young-ish couple next door and downstairs, and the elderly woman who is my upstairs neighbor. I had never met the latter until a few days ago when I stopped on the way up to the door to allow her to pass – the snow shovellers had only moved enough snow to allow one-way traffic up our walk. Despite more than two years of looking at me like I was going to mug her, she started giggling at all the snow and asking me questions about people and events <em>I have never heard of</em>. Recognizing cabin fever and keeping alert for the appearance of a weapon, I stood well out of her way and wished her luck across the snow and ice. Presumably, on her way to Oz.
The other two sets of neighbors I met when I moved in, in early December of 2007. The nice family downstairs from me moved in the same day I did, so they invited the other three residential units over for cake. I don’t eat sweets, so I went with the time-honored hosewarming gift: I brought a bottle of nice wine. And ended up taking it home with me, because my downstairs neighbors are Mormons, and the young-ish couple broke it to us that “they” were pregnant, so the wine was going to go untouched. With a touch of disdain, everyone suggested I should take it far away. With a touch of enthusiasm, I did.
And that’s about as much contact as I’ve had with most of them since, except to exchange friendly nothings in passing.
But snowstorms will do strarnge things to people. I’ve jumped out of my norm to help people in tough situations because I feel like I have the strength or time to help shovel. I ask people I barely know whether I can pick up something from the 7-11 down the street, and I mean it. When things are difficult, I find myself missing a sense of community the most, so it would make me feel good to be able to do something to help, and hope that it led to even a relationship where I could leave a spare key with a neighbor. Old crazy next door is always around – she could keep it for me if I could make friends with her … and satisfy myself that she wouldn’t arm herself with one or more of my handguns to welcome me home.
Today, I saw the woman who lives downstairs on my way for cherry coke at the 7-11. She was walking her dog and I remarked that it must be very difficult on the pooches to go out to poop when they can’t find any grass. Even on two legs, I agree with the canines that it would be a lot more comfortable to squat on grass than cement sidewalks. Melody agreed, and that led me to inquire how they were weathering the snow and cabin fever (she’s a teacher, so has been home for more than a week with school cancelled). She told me that they’d had “a bit” of leaking in their basement – a situation I’d wondered about, because when I moved in I’d heard that the basements around here were none too sacrosanct when the weather gets bad.
That led me to think over the course of the afternoon about the three feet of snow my balcony was still retaining from the last week and a half. When the weather starts getting warmer, all of that would have gone straight down the side of the building to their foundation. About six, I heard one of them banging their doors per normal, so I dashed out and asked whether they had a shovel I could borrow. It was the husband (whom I maintain is a NOC, since he teaches “at the war college” and will never admit to why he’s deployed overseas all the time). He looked at me like I was crazy when I said I’d bumped into his wife earlier in the day and wanted to clear my balcony of snow so it didn’t make swampy into swampier downstairs. I explained again, and he said, “Yes, that’s a good idea” but still squinted at me sideways. I explained a third time, and he said, “Actually, that’s a terrific idea.” But his countenance never changed and he handed me the shovel with his arm as far outstretched as he could get it, as if he were trying to figure out what the catch in the whole thing is.
Undeterred, I ploughed out onto the balcony and spent 45 minutes throwing three feet of snow as far out away from the building as I could get it (including pulling down sheets of ice off the side of the condo). I was a rock star, going at it like I was ten years younger and in shape. As I wrapped it up, I wrote a note thanking them for the loan of the shovel and saying I hoped I got all that potential runoff far enough from the building that it wouldn’t molest their basement. They’re Mormons – I didn’t use the word “molest,” though I wanted to.
… and spent the next hour in the tub soaking an agonized back. What the hell is wrong with me? The guy downstairs didn’t appreciate the gesture at all. In fact, he clearly thought I was weird to chase him down to lend me a tool to work for his benefit. I think I’ve actually destroyed my back for days, and they think I’m a goofball. A neighbor who’s trying too hard. Some showoff who just likes to shovel snow.
I lay in the tub lamenting my poor judgment for a while, between paragraphs of a fun new book, and after a while it dawned on me. I’m the overenthusiastic neighbor who looks like he’s trying to think of something he can do for you. In a neighborhood like I grew up in, the kids went out and all played together until moms started appearing at front doors at dark and hollering for us to come home, wash up, go to bed. In a bedroom community like this, no one ever goes out of their way – I once got whistled at by some girls across the way for helping a woman who’d gotten over-ambitious with the number of grocery bags she tried to carry from the car. So I could be the guy who has to introduce himself because of Megan’s law, or I could be the guy who plays his music too loud or has sex with the windows open, or the guy who starts a fire and burns the place down. Instead, even if I’m in pain and slightly embarassed, I turned out to be the guy who tries to impress on his neighbors that we could have more sense of community than this. That, and the motrin, hopefully makes me feel better about what still seems like a goofball decision.