Neighborliness will seek you out and find you

Genevieve Beenen • for The Review

Living in an apartment building is, I find, like moving into a neighborhood. One major difference is that here neighborliness finds it easier to reach out and draw people in — even those who love their privacy or who were not looking for “plenty of opportunity to rub elbows with strangers” when scanning the vacancy ads.

The 100-apartment complex in which I find myself cozily ensconced does not offer a list of activities for residents, does not offer vacation trips, does not provide a tea room, an activity director or a swimming pool (no, Toto, this isn’t California). Its residents come from a variety of backgrounds. Some are retired, some go to work every day, some volunteer at one of our city’s many agencies, others live quietly and are rarely seen, while still others have voluntarily banded (bonded?) together to challenge each other to dominoes or sheepshead or to complete a jigsaw puzzle, and one day a week one hears bingo numbers being called out in the fairly full community room just off the entry lobby, a lobby where there’s always a pot of coffee the affable apartment manager sets to perk every weekday morning (often accompanied by shared sweets from others) and where residents can enjoy a cup and chat while they await mail delivery.

Two elevators (God bless that man named Otis) hum day in and day out, carrying residents to and from the five floors. Right next to the elevators is a staircase that able-bodied and health-conscious residents can choose for practical and aerobic purposes.

In the daily coming and going, one gets to know others and can, if one chooses, become known. Friendly “good mornings” get names attached to them. “Mail call” garners shared comments of delight or disappointment -- or laughter at the advertising that quickly finds its way into the handy recyclable basket parked right next to the wall of mailboxes.

An immediate excuse for introductions is, of course, resident cats and dogs. They break the ice for many newcomers, with pet names often remembered before the names of the people attached to them. Passing encounters in the laundry room on each floor allow an ordinary task to become a bridge to communication.

Even for those who may have longed for complete privacy and one’s “own space,” a basic need for community resides in most of us, and a hesitant response to extended friendliness will begin to draw one into the kind of communal life one finds in pleasant neighborhoods.

In this five-story “neighborhood,” the social atmosphere is set by our extraordinary managers. Not hired as caretakers but as professionals to run the place, they nevertheless exude warmth, humor, concern, and a willingness to listen -- although they also know the importance of maintaining a boundary and, when necessary to get things done, closing the office door. Their friendliness encourages many to stop by not only to report a non-functional garbage disposal, but to say hello, exchange how-are-yous, and share a bit of each other’s lives.

With little hesitation, this neighborly interest extends itself, with no intrusive force, from one apartment to the next. Privacy is respected, but friendliness is always at the ready. A resident may be offered cookies warm from a neighbor’s oven, or a bowl of soup “because the recipe made much more than I can use.” Neighbors become aware when one neighbor hasn’t been seen all day and may call or knock to “check things out.” Occasionally a dog will be walked by a friend when the pet’s “mom” or “dad” doesn’t feel well. Trips to a market, walks to the bakery, often find neighbors-cum-friends doing those things together.

Having a “room of one’s own” is a gift of extraordinary value. The experience is so ordinary that one can take it for granted, until the evening news reminds us that far too many never taste that luxury.

Being so blessed means I can close the door after a busy day, knowing I am surrounded by the treasures of my life (limited in monetary value, but priceless to me) and whatever peace and tranquility I bring to the situation. The construction of the building results in complete silence and privacy. If I hang a “do not disturb” sign on my door, it will be respected.

On the other hand, I can hang no sign, can even keep my door open, and over the course of an afternoon half a dozen voices will sing out a greeting to me, some will stop to see how I am. With the door closed, I can still count on an occasional knock on the door. A neighbor may ask to borrow cloves (yes), may ask if I know how to solve her computer problem (probably not but I can have a look), may need someone strong (!) to open her stuck window, or may need someone with wheels to handle an emergency. Like many here, I help out a friend with grocery shopping, exchange jokes with our resident humorist, ask a neighbor RN for advice. Feeding birds and squirrels is a shared occupation, with many residents putting a few dollars into the birdseed fund. Word gets around when someone is having a special birthday. And when the ambulance pulls up to the front door, heads look out to see if it’s someone we know and if there is some way we can help.

We live in a vast and complicated world. We are sister and brother to billions whom we will never meet, whose faces we can touch only on a television screen. The challenge to get our minds around that is overwhelming.

But just outside my door are scores of real people with stories of lived lives, outside my door are voices of acquaintances who are becoming dear, people with hands ready to reach out to others and to me in friendship.

Life in this ordinary neighborhood is quite extraordinary.

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