Ponderlust: Friends and neighbors


By Erin Rook, PQ Monthly

The late morning sun pushes through the gaps in the drawn blinds, casting irregularly shaped vertical bars of light across the bedroom wall in front of me. The cheap, apartment-issued window covering, already distorted from regular use, hangs slightly askew. I should open them, but I don’t.

It’s not unusual. I rarely open the blinds. It’s not that I don’t like that light; I don’t like the idea of people being able to see inside. Corbin tells me they can’t — or that they aren’t interested. I don’t believe him. I’m always looking in other people’s windows. Not in a creepy, Peeping Tom way. I keep a respectable distance, but my eye is drawn to open windows as I walk down the street. I dream up stories about the people who live there based on what the frame of their window displays. How could others not share that curiosity?

It’s funny how the people nearest us are often strangers. Stepping outside to smoke a cigarette, walk the dog, or check the mail, we exchange head nods and heys. Our longest conversations are about the name, breed, and gender of our pets (Cassady, Cocker Spaniel, and male — despite his resemblance to a pasta-loving pup named Lady).

I know none of my neighbor’s names. What little I know about their lives I’ve learned from observation. The guy who never says hello and recently brought home a model of the human spine seems to be studying anatomy. The ladies above are friendly if heavy-footed (and a welcome replacement for the previous tenants whose fights inspired 911 calls). The stoner family in the unit smokes so much weed we have to close the windows in the summertime. The older man down the way gets dressed up sharp for church every Sunday. I wonder what my neighbors notice about me.

But instead of actually getting to know one another, we hole up in our apartments, using social media to connect to people who aren’t close enough to make a spontaneous Starbucks run, to walk to the neighborhood park, to give us feedback on our outfits. We pour ourselves — our ponderings, personal interests, photographs — onto a screen in the hopes of connecting with boxed-in faces when there are real people mere steps away.

And yet, some of my best friends were neighbors.

As a child, finding a new friend was as easy as stepping outside. Candidates could be found on sidewalks, in front yards, on jungle gyms. The neighbor boy whizzing by on the cool-looking scooter, the fearless girl up the street who takes you beyond the block without adult supervision. Back then, it was as simple as finding someone nearby and around your age.

My first best friend was a girl named Jessica. Her mom sold Mary Kay to my mom, and we went to the Montessori preschool together. We played together while our mother’s gossiped or tried out new lipsticks or whatever young moms did in the late ‘80s.

Jessica had strawberry blonde hair, a face full of freckles, and enough My Little Ponies for the both of us. During sleepovers, we’d played out equestrian storylines with them on the bathroom counter under the soft glow of the nightlights. I saw “E.T.” for the first time in her living room (she cried). We both had a crush on a first-grader named Chase.

Though I’d amassed more neighborhood friends by age 7 than I’ve had at any one time since, Jessica was the one I was sad to leave behind when my family moved from Colorado to Oregon in the middle of the first grade.

Fortunately, my new neighborhood was full of friends waiting to be made. The best of these was Emily. She won the proximity game for not only living down the street, but for having once lived in my house (my parents were renting it from her parents). When we discovered that we were not only classmates but practically housemates, we became instant friends.

But somewhere between college dorm life and full-fledged adulthood, the idea of friends as neighbors has faded. And with it, the built-in reminder to be friendly to our neighbors. Needs that might have led past generations to knock on a door — sugar, childcare, a ride — are now better met by our virtual neighbors. Online, you know who you’re dealing with. Which means you can more easily avoid anyone you’d rather not.

As a result, real friendships are harder to come by. So much so that when one ends it’s easy to treat the loss like a receding hairline. Mourn what’s gone, make due with what’s left, but don’t bother trying to replace it. (Throw on a hat and hope no one notices you’re going bald. Post selfies in which you are wearing fabulous wigs.)

You can make it look like you enjoy the solitude, but community requires connection, and you can’t PhotoShop that in. Well, you could, but it wouldn’t be real.

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