Neighbors

Jason and I had moved into our house a year and a half ago and still hadn’t met our neighbors.

I had waved at one once as he drove his Tesla into the garage and I had asked another if her dog could stop barking. But I don’t think that really counts as meeting.

This situation was fairly typical in Los Angeles. For a city built on the back of an industry that peddles exposure, its residents want little of it in their personal lives.

Jason and I had a shorthand for all of them.

There were the people who lived in the ‘Radio Shack’ house – a house sided with stark white boards that we knew was supposed to look modern and trendy but to us looked like the peg holders in a Radio Shack.

There were the neighbors who would get high and sing opera at the top of their lungs, the notes floating over the fence along with the faintly sweet smell of high-priced weed.

There were the road bikers, the artist compound and of course, the house with the barking dog.

We didn’t know any of their real names.

I decided to change that one night after I woke up, alone in our house, and thought I heard someone outside. Jason was out of town and I lay in bed, frozen to the sheets. I realized I had no one to call that was close – no one on our whole block that would know who I was.

For all I knew, the person trying to break in could actually be one of our neighbors.

The intruder turned out to be a curious possum but after that I decided I needed to change things.

Armed with fresh baked cookies, I walked up to the Radio Shack house and stood in front of their first locked gate (there were two). I rang the buzzer and waited.

No answer. I looked up at the towering house. Should I open this gate and walk up to the second gate? Why did they have two gates? Did this first buzzer even work?

I glanced up at the house and noticed a security camera blinking back at me.

I smiled into the camera, thinking maybe they were watching me and then realized how ridiculous I must look.

I sighed and gave up.

At the next house there was another gate and another buzzer. I rang the bell.

Silence.

Just as I was about to walk away a voice crackled through the speaker.

“Yes?”

“Hi! It’s Jessica, your neighbor from across the street.”

There was a pause and then the voice came through again, suspicious this time.

“Yes?”

I blinked and considered. I had expected my status as ‘neighbor’ would be enough to breach the locked gate. Clearly it wasn’t.

“I made cookies?” It sounded like a question.

“You did? Hold on.”

When she came around the corner she looked shocked, asking me why I had done this. She was thankful and mumbled guiltily about how she’s been meaning to throw a block party. After a few minutes it became clear from her slowly backing away that she didn’t want to chat. I handed her the basket and wished her a good day.

I considered giving up but felt encouragement looking at the last house. There were no fences and no buzzers – just a normal enough looking door. The front window was covered with stickers asking me to “Give Peace A Chance” and “Save the Oceans.”

I rang the doorbell and heard shuffling inside.

A man in his 60s opened the door and looked at me curiously.

I launched into my spiel of wanting to get to know my neighbors but he interrupted me halfway through and smiled.

“Come on in!”

I blinked, shocked, and then followed him.

He called back to his wife, announcing my presence and she came around the corner and greeted me warmly – like she had been expecting me.

“Have you had lunch? Here, sit, eat.”

I sat down at their table and felt like I’d discovered a little bit of home. Over salad and cookies we chatted and by the time I left we had made plans for happy hour in their backyard.

As I walked back home, I glanced back at the Radio Shack house with the two gates.

People today are building homes like this all over town. Places with double fences, minimal windows, and extra security cameras.

While privacy and safety are important in a city as sprawling as Los Angeles, I also wonder what we are losing in building all of these walls.

Back home, farms were so spread out I couldn’t see any of our neighbors’ homes. But I knew every one of them.

Here in LA, I live smashed up against our neighbors, and I could not tell you most of their names.

As a little girl, my mom used to strap me into the car seat and bring me along when she delivered homemade buns to our elderly neighbors. When I asked why we were going for this drive she used to say simply, “Maybe they just need a little visit.”

That kind of openhearted community doesn’t come as easily here. We build fences around our houses just as quickly as we build fences around our hearts. And I knew first hand that living inside them can be less terrifying than knocking on a neighbor’s door.

I smiled up at the security camera again.

I’ll be back.

And this time, I’m going for the second gate.

This piece was originally written for the Fargo Forum.  You can find them (and me) here.

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