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Neighbors can make all the difference

October 3, 2018

Whispers from our neighbors’ garden used to climb into our yard along with their ivy.

My mother, putting her fingers to her lips in the universal signal for silence, would cuddle with me as we sat perfectly still and listened to the neighbor lady gossip with her sister, who lived a few blocks away, or with one of her friends who’d show up for cake and coffee.

My mother would’ve been happy for an invitation into those conversations. She would have liked to consider the older woman a friend and confidant. But our neighbor didn’t find us to her taste: She considered my mother, who was shy, circumspect and nervous about her accent, unfriendly. We found out that much by listening in.

From experiences like that one, I learned from an early age to be wary of neighbors — and, like my mom, to yearn for welcoming ones.

Because the relationship relies on a complex mix of fate and free will, your neighbors can fall somewhere between family and friends: You didn’t quite personally choose to have a bond with them — but you do. Sharing space — whether it’s a particleboard wall so thin you can hear when your neighbor coughs, a backyard fence over which shared honeysuckle grows or the river defining your thousand acres from your neighbor’s contiguous property — is a bond just as sharing a parent is a bond.

You might decide to ignore it, but it’s still there.

I once lived next to loathsome people. I didn’t know if they were running a circus, a brothel, a rodeo or all three out of their one-bedroom apartment, but they were doing something repugnant, which, from the sound of it, might well have been slanted toward the diabolical. What was worse, they did it loud and all the time.

The off-site landlords didn’t spend too much time handling complaints from low-paying tenants. The police did all they could, but apart from checking on safety and issuing warnings, there wasn’t much the officers could do. They were handling bigger issues.

As the months went by, the bad neighbors were having a curious effect: They were bringing the good neighbors together. It wasn’t healthy, because we were all moaning and griping and gnashing our teeth, but we were doing it collectively over cheap wine and snacks at various people’s tiny apartments, ones we’d have otherwise never seen. I felt guilty, as did others, because the glass-shattering tenants must have had problems, but a newfound sense of camaraderie, as well as plain old fear, eclipsed my good Samaritan impulses.

Then, one day, the bad neighbors moved out with more noise, yelling and people who helped them drag boxes crammed with stuff down the long hallway. They left the door open and the place empty. It smelled like a subway platform on a summer Saturday night.

I didn’t miss the bad neighbors, but I missed being a good one.

My neighbors now? They are perfect. They’re considerate, warm, engaging and trustworthy. We look after each other. There’s good talk, no yelling, much laughter and, as far as I know, no whispering. My mom would have loved it here.

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