Friday, November 30, 2012

Good Fences Make Good Fences

Good fences make good neighbors.
—17th century proverb

                                    ...I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
'Why do they make good neighbors? Isn't it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows. 
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out, 
And to whom I was like to give offense. 
Something there is that doesn't love a wall, 
That wants it down.'
 —"Mending Wall," Robert Frost

I've lived in cities most of my life. I enjoy city life very much: the diversity of human experience on display, the range of entertainments and intellectual engagements available, having many friends a short train ride away—I find these and other advantages endlessly appealing. There are disadvantages, too: dealing with strangers whose behavior can be unpredictable, a deep separation from nature, difficulty seeing the stars at night. Normally, though, I take these in stride, and I rarely think about them, apart from occasions when I meet with an unreasonable person on a bus or suddenly miss the sound and smell of wind in the trees.

Lately, the big drawback to city living on my mind is the lack of connection I feel to my neighbors. I don't know their names, I see them very rarely, and when I do, I feel guilty for not taking the time to try to get to know them. Trouble is, when you live in a city, there are too many people: not enough time to get to know everyone, not to mention the feeling that people who are too friendly, too familiar, out in public, may be after something more mercenary than simple friendship.

I could get to know my neighbors if I really tried, no doubt. My shyness and laziness are the main obstacles. Occasionally, though, there have been bigger barriers to my knowing a neighbor.

I once lived on the second floor of an apartment building in Hyde Park, Chicago, with three roommates. Our red brick building was old and a bit shabby, but because our apartment was roomy and not un-conveniently located, we generally enjoyed living there. Throughout the years I lived there, various folk came and went in the neighboring apartments, and while at times they could be noisy or otherwise slightly bothersome, as a building we typically got along fine.

One year, though, a family moved into the apartment below us, who we found harder to understand and live with. It consisted of a middle-aged woman and her teenaged son, with regular visits from what I assumed to be the woman's boyfriend. They kicked things off poorly by installing a camera at the front of the house to monitor who was at the door; this made us uncomfortable (who wants to be recorded at home by their neighbor?) and we questioned what sort of person needed such a camera in our relatively safe area. They later added such annoyances as smoking weed in the room beneath my friend's bedroom—forcing him to deal with the smell, which he loathed—and blasting loud music at odd hours, in addition to, interestingly, horror movies turned way, way up. Needless to say, we grew to resent these people.

Which led to an interesting time one night when the woman downstairs came to our door and knocked on it vigorously. It was very rare for residents of the building to knock on each other's doors, so it was always with a bit of trepidation that such a knock was answered. Occasionally, we'd just wait quietly and hope the knocker would go away, as it was rarely anyone with good news. In this case, we could not do so. She knew we were there: she hollered as much through the door before any of us answered.

The woman's complaint was that we had been stomping around our apartment and we needed to stop, because she had to sleep. A less gracious group of people might have replied that her family had been smoking weed and playing loud music and they needed to stop, because we had to live above them. Instead, we insisted, truthfully, that no one had been stomping around and that the floors creaked a lot when we walked because the building was old. She accused us of lying and insisted she was right.

This established a pattern for the coming months. We would live our lives relatively quietly apart from, yes, walking around in our apartment. And our neighbor would come up to our house, bang on the door, and tell us off. Later, she added the charge that we were throwing water on the bathroom floor and it was coming through her ceiling, and when we insisted we were doing no such thing, but that there was likely a problem with the pipes that she should call the landlord about, she accused us of lying and insisted she was right.

In retrospect, I have always wished that I could have solved—or at least addressed—this problem with a little courage, inviting this woman to sit down with me and get to know me, to understand that I was a kind person who had no wish to make her unhappy, that she was simply mistaking me and my roommates for callous, unthinking people. I still sometimes mentally run through the conversation we could have had, never really able to imagine her response, but always a little afraid that talking would have helped nothing. I'm more afraid, though, that it would have helped a great deal, and that I missed a chance to reach out to someone different from me, to establish a connection with a neighbor.

One night, we overheard a loud, sustained argument between the woman and her boyfriend, which, from the sound of things, not only involved vehement accusation, shouting, and bickering, but but also throwing things crashingly around the apartment, and perhaps worse. We called the police, who came and settled things down, we assume, though we didn't know any details. What we did know was that our neighbor stopped complaining to us.

I like to think that she understood, eventually, that we were just people trying to live, and that her family's activity was just as audible and bothersome to us as ours was to her. I suspect, though, that she just saw us as people who could not be reasoned with, who would rather call the police than involve themselves with their neighbor's life in any way. I think that, to her, we were not neighbors, but enemies.

The saying quoted at the top of the page is supposed to mean something like, "to keep on good terms with your neighbors, keep your life from interfering with theirs in unwanted ways." Robert Frost questions this idea in his poem; I wonder with him if our impulse to "mend fences" in this way may keep us from knowing each other at all, may make us miss opportunities for deeper connections with people. Indeed, I've often found that the fences are the only neighbors I have.

Photo sources:
Phtoto 1:
Photo 2: Google Maps


  1. I lived in the city for many years and confronted my Nieghbors. That turned out good most of the time. I now live out in the middle of no where and just love it. No fences here.:)