When I was a new mom, we lived in an apartment on 57th Street across the hall from an elderly man who smelled like soup.
By Annabel Monaghan
When I was a new mom, we lived in an apartment on 57th Street across the hall from an elderly man who smelled like soup. I remember him because of the soup, and also because of the wisdom he passed along to me on the day I moved in. He told me that in life there are two things you cannot control that directly influence your happiness: coaches and neighbors. You can’t pick either, so his advice to me was to be lucky.
I took that advice to heart. When I left the soupy building, I moved across the hall from a woman who was exactly my age and had a baby who was born the day before mine. We drank cheap wine in the evenings while we bathed our kids. It was a play date that lasted for two years and made all the difference to my happiness during that time.
Neighbors are different from friends. Friends are people that you arrange to meet, at mutually agreed upon places, where you will presumably be prepared to socialize. Friends are generally people with whom you have things in common. And friends are people you choose. Neighbors are more like family. You interact with them because fate put you together. Your relationship revolves around your shared space and grows in the familiarity of your routines. Most interactions with neighbors happen, unplanned, in someone’s driveway.
As with your relatives, you cannot break up with your neighbors. When the dust settles, they are still there right across the yard. And they know what’s in your recycling.
I reflect on neighbors now in particular because there are three empty houses on my street. It’s exciting to imagine what luck will bring this time, but I have to admit it’s a little too quiet for me. I miss the little kid who used to come over and play basketball with my son until they were both drenched in sweat. I miss waving to the family on the corner as we all, inefficiently, drove the exact same route to school. Most of all, I miss the man who used to walk his dog (and his cat!) in the morning with his nose in The New York Times. These things are hard to replace.
My greatest hope is that my new neighbors will be borrowers, the kind that appear on your doorstep with a quarter cup measure in search of sugar. One of my favorite neighbors was a major borrower, and because of this we became fast friends. She used to knock on my kitchen window and ask, “Can I borrow some coffee beans?” And then she’d come back 10 minutes later, “Can I borrow your
coffee maker?” We’d laugh and laugh. How could you not adore such a person?
A borrower is willing to admit that they don’t always plan ahead, that they don’t exactly have it all together. Borrowers are imperfect people who are able to make themselves a little bit vulnerable to you in front of your stocked fridge. The act of borrowing shows that you don’t think a couple of eggs are a big deal, and that you’re going to be okay with any future vulnerabilities on the part of the lender. Borrowers just might be the most generous people of all.
I moved out of my last house eight years ago, equal parts excited to have working toilets and sad to leave my wonderful neighbors. The night before we moved, they invited us for champagne at a card table in their driveway. It was funny to be sitting in the driveway, but it was also fitting as driveways are where so much neighboring happens — the shared basketball hoop, the mis-delivered package, the spontaneous heart to heart, the tears you didn’t know you needed to shed. We toasted to our best driveway memories — the day I almost ran over their daughter because I was too pregnant to turn around, the week I spent mesmerized watching their house get painted, the morning we found a baby bat who’d fallen out of it’s nest.
I have had the best possible run of neighbors, and I hope my luck holds up. My preference is for families with lots of little boys, an aggressive holiday decorating style, and an inadequately stocked pantry. But I’ll take whatever I get.