I live in a big city. I live in the largest city on the west coast of the United States and the second largest in the country. Millions of people live their own lives in close proximity. We don’t talk much.
I enjoy the anonymity of living in a huge city. I could go to one of the thousand stores in my area and not have Mrs. Brown tell Mrs. Spalding that I was buying dirty magazines. Not that I’ve ever bought dirty magazines, but if I ever did, no one would care. They don’t know my name, where I live, where I work or who my parents are. Other than my friends, no one knows me here.
When I was in high school, my parents moved us from Detroit to the suburbs under the guise of “a better education.” Really, my mom just wanted to show off to her friends that my dad, a blue-collar working man, made good money. He did make good money; over a hundred thousand a year as a specialized lithographer, a press man. There were only two presses in all of Detroit that were capable of printing high-resolution, large-scale art prints and my dad operated one of them.
My dad made good money, but he was also blue-collar, a fact that my mom knew when she married him, but that seemed to make a difference to her later in life when all of her friends’ husbands worked in offices. My dad didn’t have an office and he came home with ink-stained fingers every day.
I liked the fact that my dad didn’t work in an office. I absolutely loved visiting him at work. The sound and smell of the large presses was awe-inspiring to me as a kid. My dad beamed with pride as he showed my sister and me what this did and what that did. He gleefully showed off “my girls” to his coworkers.
My dad never cared about money. He never cared about the latest and greatest. My dad, like me, will drive a car into the ground. As long as it continues to go from point A to B, who cares how new or expensive a vehicle is? My sister is like my mom. They have to have new and shiny with lots of buttons. My sister just traded in a perfectly good car because it was a little old. I’m not sure where that came from, but I’m very glad I take after my dad instead.
Anyway, we moved to the suburbs when I was in high school, because Detroit wasn’t new or shiny enough. I hated every single minute of it. We left the hustle and bustle, and anonymity of the city to live in a small town, over a half an hour from Detroit. The suburb we moved to was awful. They had stupid rules about billboards and signs not being more than six feet off the ground or larger than ten feet across. Everyone spied on everyone else. It was truly like living in a fishbowl.
One night, I was hanging out with some friends at Dairy Queen, because it was one of only three places for high school kids to go. I was smoking a cigarette. When I got home that night, my whole family knew about it. So and so saw me, who called some other busybody who then called my mother and told her that I was at the Dairy Queen smoking a cigarette practically as it was happening.
As soon as I turned eighteen, I moved back to Detroit, back to the city where I could live anonymously and freely. I swore that I would never live in the suburbs again and I haven’t. My mailing address in Detroit was actually Detroit proper, Boston was Boston and Los Angeles is Los Angeles. I have always lived in the city and I always will.
Living in the city and not having everyone know your business is a trade-off. It means that I don’t really know any of my neighbors. I see them in passing and greet them, but I don’t know them, which is why it’s so surprising when something happens that forces me to get to know them.
This morning, I walked my dog and there was a woman standing outside the building across the street. I vaguely recognized her as someone who lives there. I walked by with my dog and came back, and she was still there. I thought it was odd that she was still there since people don’t loiter outside their buildings much, so I asked if she was okay. It seems that she went out for a walk only to come home and find that she was locked out. I asked her if she wanted to borrow a phone. She said thanks, but in the days of smart phones, she doesn’t actually know anyone’s number. I don’t either. I barely know mine.
She asked if I had a ladder. If I can just get over this fence, I can get in. My front door is unlocked. I know how shitty it is to be locked out of your house and I have a stepladder, so I went and got it. Her building, much like mine, is a row of townhouses with individual doors and a spiky wrought iron fence around the whole property.
There we were in daylight with my stepladder trying to breach the perimeter. We tried three different places and my ladder wasn’t quite high enough. Finally, we discovered that if she climbed the fence of the building next door, which is much lower, she could easily climb the fence separating the two properties. We both cheered as she made it in and she thanked me profusely.
In the time that we were plotting the Great Daylight Breaking & Entering, we exchanged names and talked about assorted tidbits of our lives. We had a real conversation simply because we live across the street from each other and circumstances allowed. We shared both defeat and triumph. I know one of my neighbors.
We won’t be friends or inviting each other over for tea, but I don’t expect that she’ll call my mom if she discovers I did something of which she wouldn’t approve either. In this great big impersonal city, I experienced a moment of personal connection and I did my good deed for the day. It was very neighborly.