Know Thy Neighbor

Neighbors are a fact of life for most of us, I suspect. I think that one of the major defining separations between many city dwellers and many small town residents is the interactions that people have with their neighbors. Here, I know my neighbors. I know their names, I know their children, and I know their habits. If my neighbor’s house was on fire, I would call the fire department not out of self preservation, but out of concern. Likewise, if I saw strange behavior, I would probably speak up about it, and I know that my neighbors would do likewise. We may not be the best of buddies, but we look out for each other.

In the City, I felt like that was not the case. (And before you jump all over me, I am fully aware that there are neighborly regions of cities all over the world, where neighbors are friends and they do look out for each other, just like there are frosty, hostile neighborhoods in small town. I’m generalizing, people. Generalizing.) I didn’t really know my neighbors in the city, and they seemed suspicious and confused when I helped them out, or invited them to Thanksgiving because they were young art students who might not have anywhere to go.

I know that I complain about my neighbors a lot. Some of them are pretty noisy. But all of them are good people. I have a reasonably friendly relationship with the people who share this lot with me; there are actually two separate households in the front house, and we exchange baked goods and greetings and offers of assistance periodically. I also have two friends on the same block whom I interact with pretty regularly, and I exchange friendly nods and smiles with my other neighbors. I may not know everyone by name, but I know who lives where, and what they drive, and more or less what their working hours are.

I’ve noticed that some people who relocate here love this. My friend P, for example, is really pleased by the fact that people know her and her husband, and that they genuinely care about what’s going on in P’s life. She’s assimilated well to this aspect of small town life, which also has an ugly side; gossip, for example, spreads quickly here because everyone knows everyone, and it’s very hard to deal with something in private here. Other newcomers seem to really resent the fact that people here are generally (not always, I know) friendly to their neighbors.

At one point several years ago, my father and I were walking on the Coastal Access Trail I mentioned yesterday, and we ran into the property owners. The wife seemed like a nice lady, but the husband was very hostile. My father and I simply introduced ourselves, and my father mentioned that he was their neighbor, and that they should call if they needed assistance with anything. The wife thanked him, but the husband sneered and was rather rude. To my father’s credit, he responded with aplomb, merely saying that he was in the phone book if they ever needed anything, and that he would be happy to have them over to tea with some of the other neighbors so that they could get to know the neighborhood, if they wanted to.

They never called him, and I think this cut my father more deeply than he lets on. He made a genuinely kind offer, I think, and they treated him like an ignorant hick until he mentioned that he was an English professor (with more education than either of these yuppies (yes, Nicholas, they were in fact yuppies*) had). It’s sad to me that people seem almost afraid of neighborliness these days, because I think it’s excellent to know your neighbors. Especially when you’ve set up an adversarial relationship with them by trying to block a Coastal Access Trail; most people are willing to give you a second chance, if you decide to grow up and behave like an adult.

Not just because they might help you out some day when you need it. It’s just easier to be nice than rude, and it’s easier to get things solved by working together as a community. This town has a lot of problems, and they aren’t going to be solved by being rude to each other. I think that this divide between neighborly attitudes and frosty ones is a major issue in a lot of resort towns, and it generates a lot of resentment. Small actions make a big difference, especially in a town filled with people who have memories like elephants, primarily because we have nothing else to think about. People remember when you’re rude, or disparaging about the place they live in. They also remember when you tip them poorly, when you fail to be polite to their grandmothers, and when you make an ass of yourself in public.

After all, what’s wrong with being nice to your neighbor? Growing up in Caspar, we all knew each other, played soccer together in the street, had parties together, ate together…and banded together when someone needed help. That’s why I choose to live in a small town, because I like knowing that the people around me care about me. I like knowing that if I was in a major accident, a fund would be started at the local bank to help me with my medical bills. I like knowing that I can leave town for the weekend, assured that my neighbors will keep an eye on things. I like knowing that children and animals can play safely around the neighborhood, because people will watch out for them.

This is not to say that people don’t fall through the cracks; this is a town with some dark secrets and problems of its own which do need to be addressed. But being neighborly is a good way to start addressing these issues, by promoting friendship and goodwill among the people who live here. The only way to keep people from falling through the cracks is to know them.

*Furthermore, Nicholas, I would like to argue that yuppies are a serious problem here, as are WOOPs. The difference is that yuppies buy vacation homes that they only visit a few times a year, while WOOPs buy vacation homes which they slowly relocate to. WOOPs, at least, contribute to the local economy by buying things and paying taxes, while yuppies swan in and out of town bitching about how boring it is, which begs the question of why they bothered to buy property here at all.

Furthermore, I in no way shape or form mean to disparage the service industry. I greatly enjoy the efforts of the hardworking men and women in the service industry up here. I just think that an entirely service-based economy is not healthy, and that not all people are happy to work in it. To choose to devote your life to service is an excellent thing; to be forced into it is another. And although many employers here take great care of their crews and pay as well as they can, a service industry job does not generally pay a mortgage. Perhaps I should devote another entry to my issues with service-based economy, and my own suggestions for ways to break out of that here, assuming everyone isn’t tired of my ranting about this issue.