My missing sense of community

Friends helping build our garage

Growing up in a town where my parents, and some of their parents before them, had grown up, meant they had a huge group of friends and relatives in the area. These friends and relatives were the kind that stopped by without calling first. Many didn’t even knock or ring the doorbell and they always used the back door. The front door was for the other kind of company — the ones who did call first and for whom my mom would tidy the living room — and for salesmen and for the paperboy when he collected his weekly bill for the local paper.

Weekends were full of comings and goings. People stopping by to say hello or to borrow power tools or dolleys or wheelbarrows. If they came before noon they were always offered a cup of coffee poured from the silver peculator sitting on the kitchen counter. They almost always said yes, then sat a while, usually smoking a cigarette while talking to my mom or dad. If they came after noon they were offered a beer or cocktail — there was always plenty of alcohol in the house, mostly for friends. Again, they usually said yes and sat, smoking and talking.

I fully expected to have the same sort of Grand Central Station weekends when I grew up. It was natural and that’s how life was. Full of friends who knew what the inside of your house looked like before you had a chance to tidy up. Friends who knew what you looked like without makeup. Friends who borrowed things and loaned you things and helped you with large projects and who drank coffee or a beer at your kitchen table. Friends who didn’t call first.

When Dean and I first moved to Pittsburgh we knew no one. We eventually made friends with people with whom he went to Carnegie Mellon and had some great times with them but it wasn’t the same. People didn’t come and go like at my parents’ house. We made PLANS. We set DATES. We CALLED each other before visiting.

Maybe, I thought in Pittsburgh, you needed to have a house first — not an apartment. Maybe after Dean’s out of grad school things will be like they were when I was a kid, living at home. Maybe a house will encourage people to stop by, use the back door and not call first.

Again, it took a while to get to know people in the DC area — longer than it took in Pittsburgh. We rented a house in Alexandria our first year and came the closest we’ve come to having the kinds of friends my folks had — at least I did. I became friends with the two elderly women on either side of our house and both of them would stop by without calling. Frances would use the back door (and encourage me to do the same at her house). Freda would use the front door. But neither called first.

When we moved to another house in Alexandria we made friends with Totty, our next door neighbor. We’d usually meet in the back yard — since we spent a great deal of time on the huge back screened porch. We didn’t make plans too often and didn’t call either, but we did spend a lot of time together. So I suppose we had a spontaneous kind of relationship with Totty. But that was all. No one else came and went. We didn’t have anyone to offer coffee or beer to on a regular basis. Everyone else made PLANS with us and CALLED first.

When I began working for Fairfax County Public Schools I met Rosanne and Dean and I became friends with her and her husband, Chuck. I remember thinking that, with Chuck and Rosanne, I’d finally met the kind of friends who would drop in on each other unannounced. I could feel it in my bones. It could have developed into that, but circumstances prevented our friendship becoming what it might have been. (long story for another time — or not)

When we moved to Bethesda I didn’t even bother to expect having the open door kind of friendship with anyone. I had not gotten over my longing for it, but I’d given up hoping. It took me a long time to like Bethesda. It took me a long time to make any friends here. I’m still working on making friends, but no longer the kinds that drops in. I’m not sure they exist — or perhaps I’m not the kind of person someone would drop in on and I’m not sure I’d like it anymore.

When I began working on a masters degree in 1998, I discovered instant messaging. I had long list of “buddies” and sometimes someone would pop in and say hi and we’d have a conversation. It was sort of like someone dropping in unannounced. I warmed to it immediately, but I don’t even do that anymore — maybe I’m getting old and don’t like interruptions in my solitude anymore.

Still, when I read blog posts about places that actually have a sense of community I can’t help but feel a little envy and remember the days in my parents’ house when friends would stop by for coffee and a chat.

5 thoughts on “My missing sense of community

  1. This made me really sit up (instead of my usual slouch) and take notice. I don’t have friends that drop by unannounced, and I don’t do it either. I really like the idea in theory, but I’m trying to decide if I would like it in actuality. I guess I feel like it would be imposing if I were to do it. There’s so much talk these days about how lives are over-scheduled. Maybe it’s that lack of a sense of free time that prevents people from dropping by and “shooting the breeze” like they used to.


  2. Sigh.

    I do have this–not necessarily the front door/back door distinction, but definitely the drop in unannounced looking for cilantro or an egg or the 30 foot ladder or just to complain about her kids for a minute. Sometimes it feels like my neighbors and I are all on vacation in cabins around a lake somewhere, where formality would be discouraged in the first place. Except we’re here all the time.

    It’s nice for an extrovert like me. I have friends, though that this would be totally wrong for. They are just as close or closer to me than the neighbors, but they call and make plans…

    Bridgett’s last blog post..Vacation


  3. Even though I have more of a sense of community than I ever have before, it’s still not much of a dropped-by-unannounced kind. It’s hardly ever done to me (with the exception of one person who drives me insane), and I hardly ever do it, no doubt because it never happened in my house growing up. Most of the folks I’m friends with here in Vermont are transplants too, and for all our informalities, we usually call first! We’d be fine if that didn’t happen (the calling), usually, I think, if we weren’t working…but we’re too set in our preVermont ways!


  4. Maybe the drop-in announced thing is less common than I thought — or less common these days? In certain places? All I know is that it was very common when I was a kid.


  5. If people dropped in unannounced , I’d have to a) be dressed and b) have a clean house. All the time. Eek.


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