Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Dear Neighbor

I wrote this in response to the Day 32 prompt, "Dear Neighbor," from Suleika Jaouad's "Isolation Journals" project. 

No neighbors were harmed in the making of this (unsent) letter.

Dear Neighbor,

I'm not sure what it means to be a neighbor. The "rootless cosmopolitan" is made straw man of God knows how many NIMBY groups -- the untethered, probably highly-educated, clad head-to-toe in direct-to-consumer startup threads, upwardly mobile and geographically promiscuous person who moves in next door for a few months, maybe more, and never introduces themselves. That's me, I guess, although I did want to; I thought about baking cookies, in fact, but then considered that someone might be vegan, or gluten-free, or have some allergy more nefarious than I could divine. So I never did, and we remain strangers. I know some of your names, only by the packages you order: Melissa, Sergei, Jeanne. I've heard the thumping upstairs -- jumping jacks? -- and the vacuum. Proximity produces this strange intimacy that is also anonymous, like a gloryhole. Probably people don't talk about gloryholes with their neighbors. Whoops.

The first neighbors I really remember were the boys next door, Daniel and Nicholas, and their parents who sometimes let us watch TV (they had channels that we didn't) and eat snacks from giant Costco tubs. Licorice, animal crackers. We played so frequently with Daniel and Nicholas that they sometimes just popped over to our house and banged on the living room window to beckon us outside. After my family moved to Redmond, we hung out with the preacher's kids across the street in their palatial treehouse, or the girl a few houses down with lustrous straight golden hair. Sometimes, grudgingly, we spent time with two younger girls who we described as -- forgive our language, these were the days before Sheryl Sandberg's book -- "bossy." The only kid who we didn't really play with was Sam, whose backyard bordered on our own, but his family had the fanciest house and the nicest things: a blow-up outdoor movie screen, TVs in every room. They threw the block parties and movie nights.

I realized my family was not quite like all of our neighbors, or at least most of them, when the Bush yard signs went up in '04, and McCain in '08. All the same, I didn't feel alienated too badly or unsafe there. Maybe things would have been different if I had been out as bi then, or if I had been a different race, or if it were 2016. But as it was, our street -- awfully white, awfully conservative -- was still a nice place to be.

Which brings me back to you, neighbor. I'm not sure if the point of neighbors is to throw block parties, as Sam's family did, or to find playmates, like Daniel and Nicholas. Perhaps it's more this: on really windy nights, when the power would go out, my family would congregate around the dark living room window and look at the street to confirm it was out for all, down to the red house on the corner of 89th. Then we would open the door and go outside, and all the adults would chatter about whether the utility company had been called, if they were on their way. And then we'd go back into our houses, feeling comforted by the unlit windows of others. In such times it is good to have neighbors.


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