It started five months ago with the people who share our fence.
They were nice and we were new, so the conversation revolved around our dogs, mail for the former owner, and if the HOA is strict about paint colors.
Handshakes and names quickly moved to swim invites and baked goods, with a walk for the ladies and a beer for the guys.
Southern California fence culture says, “That side’s yours, this side’s mine. Keep your tree limbs trimmed.”
But since I’m not originally from here, Carrie culture says, “Let’s knock the fence down and have a BBQ!”
The first thing we noticed about our new neighborhood is how it mimics deserted island living. We’ve never lived on a deserted island, but I’m guessing there’s a loneliness factor.
Around here, garage doors open, people drive in, garage doors close.
So I asked our new friends, “Do more people come out of their houses when the weather warms up?”
Jen laughed. “Nope.”
I moved to the next house and got to know them a bit before I asked, “What do you think about inviting the whole street and doing a BBQ here in the cul-de-sac?”
The unanimous vote led us to a 4th of July block party plan, so I got to work on a simple invite. The next week Jen and I set off across the street with a clipboard, pencil, and 23 papers, ready to introduce ourselves and match names to addresses.
Let the Weird Commence
One lady opened her door about three inches and looked at us like we were armed and dangerous, probably selling Amway and a side of Mary Jane in a jar.
With a bit of food in her mouth, she suspiciously held her right arm out of sight and acted like she didn’t speak much English.
If she had looked Hispanic I would have roped her into the fold with talk of tortillas and corn on the grill, but I’m pretty sure she’s Chinese, so I smiled and we kept our pitch short.
Her neighbor runs a dog grooming business, complete with a mobile grooming van on the street and a tall white poodle with purple highlights. Not kidding. Paws, ears and tail… super poofy and dip-dyed bright purple.
I don’t judge though. The renter lady saved my banana bread the other day when I ran out of cinnamon halfway through. I could have driven five minutes to Trader Joe’s, but I read somewhere that asking to borrow something from a neighbor makes them feel helpful and bridges a gap.
So I showed up in the dark with my teaspoon and a ramekin. Sure enough, she seemed thrilled to help and all of a sudden I found myself in our same floor plan with FeFe and her highlights. I walked home with a small mound of cinnamon and one less stranger on the street.
Another home included a male owner, a live-in girlfriend, a slew of older kids and a sweet boat in the garage-turned-man-cave. Super nice people who offered chairs and a sound system, ready to pitch in and help with the impending party.
I felt so distracted at the next house I could barely focus on the fact that calendars around the world said June. Our invitation said July 4. The warm sun cast distinct shadows. Jen and I wore shorts and tanks. It was clearly summer.
The couple appeared friendly and talkative, but perfectly poised behind their heads sat a gigantic, beautiful Christmas tree. Yelling, “Merry Christmas!” when we left could have been a great ice-breaker, but I refrained.
‘Cause I’m mature like that.
Lady number three told us she moved in the week before to help her ailing mother, and the fifth guy said, “This is great! I’ve lived here for over a decade and we’ve never done anything as a street.”
Down one sidewalk and up the other, not one person invited us in. Totally fine and somewhat expected, but I thought about our town in Baja and the stark contrast. The same walk in Porvenir might have plopped us at someone’s kitchen table with iced tea minus the ice, and an hour lesson about how to pick through raw beans before they go to the soaking pot.
A month later we welcomed all sorts of neighbors into the cul-de-sac and cranked the American country. I wrote name tags and tried to memorize names while strangers approached strangers.
I watched a man extend his hand across potato salad and watermelon to a neighbor he’d never met.
“Did you just move in?”
“No—I’ve lived here for four years.”
I heard an older lady say hi to a younger one for the first time, and then realized they shared a fence.
A woman diagonal from us brought her German dad and Austrian mom, both of whom had rad accents that made me want to ask dumb questions.
“Do you own lederhosen?”
“What comes after eight? Nein?”
“Have you ever heard the hills alive with the sound of music?
“Aren’t jokes about German sausages just the wurst?”
Instead, I offered the sweet old man apple pie and he asked me if I was religious. I didn’t want to get into the fact that I’m not, but it turns out we both love Jesus, so I told him my husband’s side is part German and we bonded over more sugar.
They met and shook and sang one line to a popular German song because that’s all my husband knew.
The whole thing was cool. And weird. But mostly cool.
I’m still thinking about the fact that his name is Gert and his wife is Gertrude. What are the awesome odds?
“This is so nice,” said a lady who rarely comes out. “I’ve lived here since 2001 and I don’t know anyone.”
A month earlier I introduced two women to each other who’ve lived two houses apart for four years but never met. Now they chatted and snacked at the same table.
Between telling me about his daughter’s boyfriend and his church attendance guilt, one guy got a tad sentimental. “Thanks for putting this together. I keep my garage open every weekend but no one ever comes over.”
It all seemed so strange to me, but I don’t blame SoCal natives. My hometown sits 430 miles away and feels nothing like this southern part. Same state, different culture.
The Neighborhood 411
Knowing what’s going on with your neighbors and being a busybody are two different things. We’ve all met people who love to be in the know and then spread it like butter.
They’re probably either bored or lonely, and though they may have good intentions, they usually just end up causing more divisiveness.
But showing up and seeing how people are truly doing brings compassion.
How’s the military wife with little kids? Could you grab her some groceries so she doesn’t have to tote toddlers to town?
Does your pasty white population include a family of color? I lived as a minority for a dozen years; being ignored/avoided gets real old real quick.
Did the young couple down the way just have a baby? If they don’t go to church or have a group of friends around them, they probably aren’t getting meals. No need for gourmet—pizza and a bagged salad could help them get through the week with less stress and more sleep.
Is the old guy next door in the hospital? He might be alone.
Has anyone moved into your neighborhood lately? Don’t let them assume your street is one big clique. You’re already sharing trash service and water lines; might as well share food and conversation.
Besides the most basic act of kindness (introducing ourselves), here are a few easy ways we can make outsiders feel like insiders.
- Give them a 3×5 card with your name, address and phone number.
- Tell them to call if they ever need to borrow anything.
- Take them a treat. Doesn’t need to be homemade or fancy.
- If they’re going out of town, offer to babysit their
- Ask to borrow something. Start small with something free, like a can opener or lemon zester. If that goes well, move on to something more exciting, like a peach or a cup of spinach.
My takeaway? I learned how stepping outside my comfort zone to knock on doors proved beneficial. We may not all become best buddies, but I now have way more houses I can barge into in case of an emergency.
Or a chocolate emergency.
“Go often to the house of thy friend, for weeds choke the unused path.” Ralph Waldo Emerson
“All will concede that in order to have good neighbors, we must also be good neighbors. That applies in every field of human endeavor.” Harry S. Truman
Have you ever invited neighbors to do something?
If so, was it a hit or a flop?
Is your neighborhood full of friends or strangers?