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