oh the days that never were


There are three very intimate relationships in this world that we have virtually no control over: our in-laws, the people our friends marry, and our next-door neighbors. While the odds of circumstance tend to be favorable, the truth is, you can find yourself spending inordinate oceans of time around people you didn’t choose.

Which is probably good for us in the long run; we are notoriously bad judges of our own company, and just think of how many lifelong friends you’d miss if a computer hadn’t stuck you in the same dorm.

Let me concentrate on the “next-door neighbor” phenomenon, because I grew up in the ’70s and ’80s when that used to mean something. Back when someone forgot to hang up their phone, you’d call the next-door neighbor to see what the fuck was going on. Next-door neighbors had tools you didn’t, and if they had kids, the game was on.

They, too, had other next-door neighbors in this analog culture, and together you would be “the neighborhood”, a loose amalgam of families that never actually talked about “the neighborhood” – they’d just occasionally get together and trade stories about the crazy old fart who lived in the epicenter and hated them all.

I’m no social anthropologist, and I tend to amplify my thin anecdotes into biblical proclamation, but I’d be surprised if the neighborhood culture still holds sway like it used to. No better barometer, I guess, than your actual next-door neighbor, and how well you know them.

When I lived in Manhattan and Brooklyn, I was consistently about ten feet away from a neighbor (and, apparently, a rat – but that’s another biology lesson) and knew exactly nobody in my building. I asked Lars, my old roommate who still lives in our place in the East Village, if he knew any neighbors, and he said he didn’t.

At our farm, the nearest neighbor is about a quarter-mile away, probably near enough to hear screaming, but not near enough to distinguish it from the coyotes. I know who they are, the same way people at a small school know their classmates, but it lacks any intimacy.

Then there’s Venice, CA. We’ve lived on these ancient pedestrian-only “streets” at the beach since our great job shift in 2005, and they (like Venice Beach itself) are a schizophrenic combination of loveliness and squalor. The craftsman houses were built so close together that you occasionally must participate in the lives around you.

Our house a few blocks away abutted another old condo building with 48 inches to spare. I know exactly how far away it was, because I built a shed there. The other house was primarily filled with longtime AA members, and when they got on the phone with their sponsors, I learned a few lessons about tough love. Since they were actually four feet from my bed, I used to pretend they were talking to me, motivating me to get my shit together.

At our new place, we’ve got a bit more wiggle room: our next-door neighbors are about six feet away. They’re an awesome British couple (he’s from Yorkshire, she’s from London) with two kids just under Lucy’s age. Needless to say, it’s completely perfect.

On the other side, we’re surrounded by folks doing the same thing I was doing at 25: wasting time, drinking bad bourbon, and accidentally listening to the Spin Doctors. Except these people are still listening to the Spin Doctors. And Four Non-Blondes. And Metallica. Has culture started to go so fast that it actually appears to be stationary?

Either way, it leads me to today’s armchair psychologist questions, which I will also answer:

1. How far away (in feet) is your next-door neighbor?

6 on one side, 8 on the other.

2. Do you trust them?

I trust the couple with kids, implicitly. I trust the folks on the other side would happily let me borrow some sugar, and probably give me a bong hit.

3. If you had an emergency with your house, and you were out of town, is there anyone you could call to go to your home without driving?

Thankfully, yes.

And you?



Lucy, at 19 months, really wanted to meet the girls at a fashion shoot on our walk-street. Then, not so much


0 thoughts on “oh the days that never were

  1. Tammy Blackard Cook

    1. Maybe 15 feet on either side. One another house, one a giant apartment building mostly filled with grad students.
    2 apartment bldg: no way, though they all seem nice and oblivious. There once was a single dad there who had a daughter my Lucy’s age. It was blissful–she would yell to us in the backyard from her window. Many playmates and Shabbat dinners were spent in that apartment bulding. we met him when he blocked our driveway and we had to leave a note on his car (luckily, I was somewhat nice in the note as opposed to what I wanted to say)
    Other side: known for years, wonderful people. 1 great kid, 1 older obnoxious, not-so-likeable kid
    3. Without question. At least 5 or 6 neighbors.
    But this is why we chose this neighborhood.

  2. Salem's Little Sister

    1. About 50 feet on either side, in a cul-de-sac
    2. The single, attorney on the right, absolutely. I knew she was a good egg when after moving in, she kept up the swing in her front yard because she knew the neighborhood kids liked to swing on it. The neighbors to the left, no way. Mom, Dad, his son and their 2 little girls. Mom can’t stand step-son and actually locks him out of the house for portions of the day. He ends up at my house or their neighbor on the other side. He’s an obnoxious kid, but one on one is ok. When he’s with my son and another n’hood kid, he pits them against each other and mine ends up getting bullied. So, my sympathy is fleeting. Besides them, my 7 year old could go in any of the 6 houses close by and i’d feel fine about it. We ofter have cul-de-sac parties filled with lawn chairs and high powered baby monitors.
    3. Yep. At least 5 and I’ve put it into practice a few times.
    Like Tammy, the neighbors were a huge draw along with the cul de sac and the fact that we can walk our son to school.

  3. emma

    1. I’d guess 25 feet on either side. A small street separates us from the neighbor to the west.
    2. To the east, absolutely. The Mom is my sister’s best friend from high school. They are the perfect neighbors. You can depend on them for anything. A great family unit, complete with good role model daughters who were great babysitters until they left for college.
    To the west, a guy I went to high school with who is living in his Mom’s house (she doesn’t live there anymore) while he is getting his life back together and is a recovering alcoholic. He is a much better neighbor now that he is not drinking, but still not someone that I would trust.
    3. Yes. At least two on our block that I would call and one or two more in the neighborhood.

  4. Megan

    Maybe 20 feet on either side, on a cul-de-sac. Yes, both my next-door neighbors are absolutely trustworthy. And yes, pretty much everyone on our 17-house street is terrific and would do anything to help out a neighbor.
    We have an active listserv we use for everything from borrowing eggs to sharing crime alerts. Our cook-outs are the envy of the surrounding neighborhood. We had amazing solidarity this Spring when we all turned together to fight Amendment One. There is very little turnover. We’re right in town, but enjoy the peace and quiet of a dead end street. We’ve always referred to the street as our own little utopia and valued the genuine community we’ve found here.
    I’m currently contemplating the fact that I probably can’t afford to live here on my own, which at this point is bumming me out just as badly as the demise of my 15-year relationship. It feels like another death.

  5. Laura

    1. One wall away (we live in an apartment)on one side and about 8 feet away on the other.
    2. The ones who live in the same building yes. They are a lovely couple. One night when they heard me sobbing from prenancy weepies, the wife came over to check on me. Very kind. On the other side, not at all. The husband is verbally abusive to his wife and I have seen black eyes on her. I called the police once when things were especially heated, but I have no idea if they ever showed up.
    3. Yes. Very dear friends live two blocks away and Z’s mom is four blocks away. However, this is LA, so they may drive over just because.

  6. killian

    1. One wall away on each side. (townhouse/condo)
    2. Yes. On left, sweet couple (she is a nurse, he is in med school at unc); on right, nice enough loner guy with 2 cars.
    3. Nope. Do not have their phone numbers; BUT my best friend would only have to drive about 4 miles (from CHhill to Carrboro) to get to my house and she has a key, so I am ok!

  7. D

    1. One wall /floor/ceiling away as we live in Manhattan in a 12 floor coop building where we’ve lived for 12 years.
    2. We actually know and trust our immediate neighbors. We allowed our downstairs neighbor to use our kitchen and dining room about a year ago as the prep area for the bar mitzvah luncheon for 50 they held in thie apartment.
    3. Yes, besides the doorman and super, we have multiple friends in our building. I never thought it was that unusual that we knew so many of our neighbors in our building well but after your post, I realize we are pretty lucky.

  8. Sarah

    1) I live in a condo in Chicago…one neighbor’s door is 3 feet across the hall and shares a wall with my kitchen and guest room. The unit on the other side backs up to my bedroom/bathroom, but has an entrance from a separate hall.
    2) The neighbor across the hall has become a good friend. We drink wine on our porches (and sometimes roof) and he loves to bake and leaves me goodies outside my door. He has a key to my place. The other neighbor I don’t know well at all. But there are others in the building that I go out for drinks with, etc.
    3) Yes, see above neighbor. My sink started leaking last weekend before I left town…he called his plumber and had the guy stop by last Fri while he was home from work so the guy could diagnose the issue.
    Apparently that’s not the norm, though. None of my other friends in town know any of their neighbors.

  9. Piglet

    About a football field length on either side.
    To the west, a friendly family that owns the property. I’ve had friendly conversations with the paterfamilias from across the fence, just like in the Norman Rockwell days. My fig tree branches out over the fence and he actually asked my permission to pick some of the fruit and prune it.
    To the east, some renters who give me creepy vibes but who haven’t actually done anything wrong or right that I know of.
    I have in-laws who live about half a mile away, and who come visit on foot frequently, so yes to the emergency question.

  10. jje

    1) My neighbor on the right is close enough that we can almost lean out our windows to pass over a cup of sugar. On the left, we are two standard size driveways apart, with a thin strip of grass between the two driveways. Both neighbors are fantastic, though we tend to share life more with the neighbors on the left because of shared living/coming-and-going space. They are almost like an aunt and uncle to our boys.
    2) Implicitly. We all have keys to each others’ houses.
    3) See above. And we have many other trustworthy pals in our very walkable neighborhood of Dilworth.

  11. Ruth

    1. approx 6 luckily looong feet (our houses face away from each other) from the crabby, at-times mean, neighbor, 10 ft from a nice easy-to-get-along with couple. And, as if the relations weren’t good already, there’s a laurel hedge separating us. We’re always chatting through it and can see through but not really well, so we end up talking to partial people like the Home Improvement unseen neighbor.
    2. Crabby neighbor has burned almost all bridges, except in a life or death situation, we may come to each other’s aid…. Maybe. However, with the people on the other side, and for neighbors a few houses away or across the street, we already share keys, food, drinks, porch time, water plants and do pet-sitting, etc.
    3.Yes. One of the above.
    I have to say that even in the ‘good ole days’ of my small-city NC upbringing, we did have 2 scary neighbors, among many good ones. It wasn’t always rosy.
    FYI, I’m now in the SW quadrant of Portland, OR

  12. Jackie

    1. Just over the wall from our 10ft yard on all sides.
    2.on one side, yes. We’ve bonded over dogs and shared produce. On the other, no. They hate us. The woman is terrified of dogs and our 10 pound dog has slipped out of the house three times and raced at the woman and barked. I totally get her fear and I try very hard to keep the dog away from her but I have apologized and tried to chat. Complimented the husband on his very loud blues guitar playing. They won’t even speak to me.
    3. Not the nearest neighbors but we have several friends within close walking distance who would do anything we needed, as we would for them.

  13. Neva

    Megan – do you live in my neighborhood? You said exactly what I would say. We have an idealic little two culdesac neighborhood with 22 houses. We all know each other by name and have a listserv where we share all kinds of things.
    I would trust all of my immediate neighbors with my house keys (many of them have one) and my kids (they are often in one of their houses at any given time).
    We have called our neighbors several times over the years. It is handy to know them and how to reach them. My, sweet but sometimes spacey, husband went on the roof to clean the gutters and the ladder fell down while I was gone for the day. Luckily he had his cell phone on him, could call the neighbors to walk outside and pick it up again. Our closest neighbor (about 15 feet) has 4 children and is from Germany. She is an awesome cook and a fabulous Mom. Her husband is an IT guy who plays guitar in a band. Their cat spends more time with us than with them.
    Our other next door neighbor is separated by a walking path so about 50-75 feet away. He is a Duke environment/business prof and she’s a psychologist. They have kids exactly the age of ours and we hang out with them all the time. I bet I am getting together with one of my neighbors 2-3 times a week. This is SO different from the last neighborhood we lived in (which is only a few miles away). Funny how different things can be from place to place.
    Like Megan, too, we seem to bond over politics and banded together with about 18/22 houses having anti amendment one signs. We have a neighborhood book club as well as a recent neighborhood women for Obama group. We are meeting weekly to phone bank together. It is a really awesome place to live.

  14. Neva

    Megan – since I mentioned you wanted to say I’m sory about your relationship ending and also the loss of your neighborhood. We talk about moving from here when we don’t need the schools anymore but it would be sad.

  15. bridget

    1. one wall and one floor/ceiling apart in a large brooklyn coop.
    2. the neighbors next to us are really nice, two kids under 10, one about my son’s age. but – we’ve never really hung out with them or had the kids play together. we chat and catch up coming and going or in the elevator.
    the neighbors below us – we’ve actually had to go to mediation to try and solve our differences! they have a grand piano beneath our living room which the husband plays and the wife accompanies him on the saxophone. playing either ragtime ditties or holiday inn lounge music of the 70’s. We do not get along…there are some GREAT (horrible) stories there…
    3. there are several friends/families in our neighborhood that i could call in a pinch. they live blocks away from us though, no immediate in the building neighbors.

  16. Caitlin

    1. we share a hedge on one side, two feet away, with the most amazing neighbors ever — OK, it helped that Ian and Tessa used to live in their building and introduced us. When we moved in they greeted us with a bottle of wine. We swap babysitting, have their Easter brunch egg hunt in our yard, I make housecalls when they are sick, we chat across the fence and through open windows. They are even helping us look for a house to buy (though protesting that none of the houses are good enough, because they want us to stay).
    Neighbors on the other side are a rotating cast of 20something women, friendly but they don’t stay long enough for us to get to know them. I envy those of you with entire neighborhoods full of like-minded phone bankers and book club goers.
    2. yes, I would trust them with my keys, my kid, and put them in the ‘people I would drive to the airport at a god-awful hour’ category. We have a few other neighbors I like further down the block but the Venice style of having very high walls surrounding the property makes it a little harder to get to know people.
    3. yes indeed.

  17. heikewrites

    wall to wall with all, in a fairly large apartment building. learning to distrust them as we speak but mustn’t speak too much of it (preparing what looks like it will be a class action lawsuit together with most of them against the company that sold us our apartments (and cheated, and lied, and made unbelievable mistakes, and took the money and ran…).
    let’s just say, we’re all in it together
    until we’re not.


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