Today I imagined my neighborhood differently. It was during our early evening walk where my wife and I discuss the lighter parts of the day: the children’s preoccupations of the moment, oddities we saw or heard about, a bit of gossip, or what we’ve been reading or watching. Sometimes our conversations verge on free association riffing off each other as we stroll. Sometimes we walk in quiet. My mind wanders when we do that.
In my head the streets are filled with other people walking, more than the usual dog walkers and joggers by a large margin. These new people, make believe neighbors all, were social; waving to each other and asking about this or wishing well about that. The houses were still one story two- or three-bedroom constructs, but they were also shops. One was a florist, another a bookstore. There was a grocer and a wine shop(pe), and aside from the architecture the streets looked every bit as if they belonged in a British country village where tranquility threatens to be shattered by first one murder and then another. Unfortunately, the nosy vicar or widowed librarian figures out who the murderer is, but only after the cad strikes his third and final victim (the police detective being otherwise indisposed at the Covington Estate, investigating the connections between a land developer and the murdered local dowager’s playboy nephew who just yesterday returned from the south of France only to find his aunt gasping her last almond-scented breath.)
Across the street from my house is a park that stretches about a mile along the northern length of a gentle creek nestled up against a wooded ridge. It being Alabama, kudzu dominates the untended south bank in spring, summer, and some of fall, but it’s nearing winter so trees and shrubs are revealed and the deer and coyotes have run off to find better cover. A block downstream, the last house on the street has been converted into a pub. There are string lights and picnic tables on the green flats between the house and the creek. A small wooden stage is erected off the corner of the pub-blocking view of a shrubby thicket that’s just perfect for hiding the corpse of an inconvenient flower arrangement competition hopeful. The place is crowded with tweed-clad friends toasting one another as children play children’s games and dogs follow wagging and barking.
Inside the pub those not collegially playing darts are watching a football game with great non-rabid interest. Meat pies and heavy stews are the fare. A group of male students most definitely does not notice the table of female students they are building up the courage to talk to. In the back room this season’s first meeting of the community players convenes to decide what show they will put on for the Christmas Holiday. A surgeon suggests a musical, but she always suggests a musical. You would too if you had a voice like hers.
Back outside, the croquet players are striking camp, putting wickets and mallets in long cases. As the sun sets the streetlights flicker on. Every good imaginary land needs at least one Georgian era lamppost and my neighborhood-cum-quaint-English-village boasts hundreds. My wife and I turn towards home comfortable and feeling safe, though not because of the lights. We’ve seen Masterpiece Theatre and Midsommer Murders and are well aware of the homicide rates in places such as this, but we know where danger lies. Neither of us compete in any village poetry, ballroom dance, or baking festivals, and we keep well clear of that cursed stage and the siren song of the playing green and for god’s sake we would never volunteer to judge or referee. There’s no luck in those pastimes. We’ll just amble along, complimenting neighbors on their flower beds or new hats and taking in the same, thank you.
In real life, neighbors walk or run bye and we say hello. There are a few we know and a few others that we recognize by their dog if no way else. Lots of people we merely wave to. Often earbuds and jogging pace keep interactions at a minimum.
There is an annoying woman who manages to catch us out walking too often for my tastes. She usually wants to tell us how wonderful the last meeting of her anti-war group was. There doesn’t seem to be a specific conflict they are against so much as the idea that there is fighting going on, although she does take sides against the US if we are involved. I used to quietly endure her sermons but after a time, and it only was a matter of time, my mean streak sat the rest of my faculties down and made a very convincing case for mean streak-led action. I would pretend to agree with her but in the worst possible way. “I think you’re exactly right, we should do [whatever] but [any of the politicians she loves] has been caught lying about [whatever, but it has to be something the politician has been caught lying about – that is never a problem] so many times that he’s lost credibility. Nobody believes him anymore.” She looks aghast that anyone would think such things about her beloved public figure. Bring her in. “I don’t see how we can blame people for not listening.” And before she can rebut, “Has anybody from your group tried to write him or anybody in his office to get him to cut it out? He has to know he’s dragging the whole movement down.” She speaks to you about politics as if you already agree with her, can’t imagine that you wouldn’t. She’s childlike in that regard, and though I feel like a direct challenge to her pablum would be cruel, I wonder if patronizing is actually crueler.
Once, she went on about the importance of attending the neighborhood meetings when I wanted to go sit by the put-in at the creek. “These are the people that make up our community,” she told me. She went on about how too many people interact on social media when there are all these people “right here!” She went on to complain about modern life, particularly social media and the internet, pulling us apart and making strangers of those that live closest to us. I had a Eureka moment. “Thank god,” I thought.
In general, I enjoy the company of my neighbors. We chat, and get together every so often but when buying our house I didn’t interview any of the surrounding home owners. When I was a Realtor I would check names attached to tax records of all the houses immediately surrounding the one my clients showed interest in just in case a previous or current relationship would sour them – imagine closing on your dream house only to find that your high school bully or overbearing boss shares a property line with you. Buyers do a superficial check for activity in the streets and nearby parks or playgrounds but no one can tell if the area is populated by rude late night drummers who’s dogs think your soon to be yard is an amenity.
What’s unreal about my imagined quaint village is not the inversion of zoning laws or the want of people to be in the company of other people. It’s that people who qualify for acceptable loan rates in the same rough range and consider the same place to be a tolerable commuting distance from work or school would all get along so famously as to daily seek out the company of other people just because they share a sewer main. That’s true even without a marauding killer on the loose. I can imagine outgoing mezzo sopranos with reliably steady hands and see myself chatting with Sal the generous butcher about his son’s engineering scholarship but even if my neighborhood was filled to the brim with such wonderful folks there’s no guarantee we’d all get along.
Modern living is not pulling us apart and making strangers of those that live closest to us. Modern living is liberating us from the bonds of proximity. Your neighborhood is a collection of people with interests that may or may not be your own. The internet is unbound. If your thing is collecting antique playing cards, smiting video orcs, reading the metaphysical poets, writing Captain America/Winter Soldier slash fiction, or baking obscene cakes the internet has got a community for you. Modern living means that you can easily drive past the pizza joint within walking distance to the pizza joint ten miles away that doesn’t overcook the crust and whose waitstaff bathes regularly. Technology has freed us. We choose those we spend time with from a wider field.
I do have friends among my neighbors, but I get that I’m lucky that there are folks nearby who I share more than a shared anxiety over how the city is redrawing the flood zone map with. What if I didn’t have such people near me and had no modern escape?
I think next walk I’m going to add a few unsavory types to my mental menagerie. I’m thinking the pub needs a bookie. That’ll give it a quaint-noir atmosphere.