In the suburban neighborhood of my youth, a hush fell with the darkness. Aside from summer nights when we were all allowed to stay out playing Statues or Kick the Can, children were safely home by the time the streetlights went on, and most houses gradually went dark by 11:30 or 12:00. As a teenager, I remember feeling that it was a great act of rebellion to slam a car door or even cough loudly when returning home late on a Saturday night. It was a respectable neighborhood; people were sleeping.
I now live in a college town, and not the kind of college where students are studying on Friday nights, or huddling in their dorm room with a few close friends to pass a wizened joint and talk about “Brideshead Revisited.” This school is a big, brawling, land-grant university with 40,000 students, a downtown full of bars, and a steady revenue for purveyors of kegs. The drinking begins after class on Thursday (there are very few Friday classes), and ends some time Sunday evening, unless it is Finals Week. Drinking is not a private and local matter; bands of students roam the streets en route to bars and parties, and on the day of a 12:00 home football game the revelry begins before 7:00 AM with stereos on “stun” and Beer Pong tournaments played in front yards. There are other sports in the Alcohol X Games as well, including one involving dunking one’s head in a wading pool full of ice-cold water, drinking an entire can of beer, being turned around to the point of vertigo, and, finally, being handed a bat, tennis racket or golf club with which one must try to hit the beer can after it is pitched. I have not yet seen this on ESPN, even ESPN15 where paintball is considered a sport, but I’m telling you, it’s cutting edge.
In the middle of all this, lives my family. We are one of only two owner-occupied houses on a street of student rentals, a street of beautiful houses built by the original Pillars of the Community at the turn of the last century, and presided over by towering trees on both sides of the narrow street. During the 1970s, due to a combination of urban flight and improvident licensing laws, all of the houses around us were snapped up by landlords, turned into duplexes, and gutted, or otherwise violated on the inside, while the exteriors remain largely as they were. The average age of our neighbors is 20, there are no other families on the street, and, for the most part, there is complete turnover once a year. There is an annual period of rapprochement, during which I bake cookies or brownies, we deliver them to our new neighbors as they carry in furniture and high-end electronics, and we are then treated with great respect when we have to deliver the news that the bass on their stereos is causing our house to shift on its foundation.
Last night, as I went out to call the last cat in at 11:30, Forest Street was roaring to life. It was a Saturday night, our teams had won a rare football-basketball-hockey trifecta, and it was unseasonably warm. Lights were on, people were in their yards, and it looked like a (literally) “noir” version of Sunday afternoon in the suburbs, with neighbors greeting neighbors, beers in hand. Although there was a time, shortly after moving into our house, when I was horrified by the nightlife of the local creatures, I have come to view my situation as the best of all possible worlds. I was very happy during the years I spent living in a “real” city, and I have, here, the bustle, noise and vitality of that crowded, busy existence. I love it that if I choose to be immersed, I can sit on my porch and speak to a parade of people on their way to and from campus, work or recreation. There are other times, when there is a heavy blanket of snow, and the students have all gone home for winter break, that I can look out from my porch at a car-less row of houses freshened by the snow, and imagine that I am seeing what I would have seen from the same vantage point in 1912. I have not, for a moment of the past 9 years, wished that we had bought a house in a suburb, in the country, or really, anywhere but here. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should admit that we have lived here for 11 years).
As I waited for the cat last night, I had a front-row, center seat for Life’s Rich Pageant. Next door, a birthday was being celebrated. This involved a trip to the bar, and a young woman who was wearing a typical outfit for such an outing: a tight, strapless black dress which began just below the cleft of her cleavage, and ended just south of her posterior, and stiletto heels at least 3 inches high. Dresses and skirts short enough to make it potentially illegal to do anything other than stand still or walk (slowly) are legion in these parts, as are the stilettos; we have witnessed more than one artificially heightened beauty wiping out on the climb up our hill, engaging in a frantic and hopeless scramble to prevent the ace bandage micro mini from revealing too much. (I should also note that we frequently see these outfits in their Walk of Shame incarnation the morning after, covered by a mans’ sweatshirt but still glaringly inappropriate in the harsh light of day. Assuming that one is sufficiently charitable to believe they were ever “appropriate”). The men in the group were far more casually dressed, in expensively shredded jeans and collared shirts, making it look rather as if Miss Michigan were being escorted out for the evening by the models from an Abercombie ad.
Wine and Song being inadequate for the Abercrombie boys, I came in at the point where they were discussing the procuring of Women for those not attached to Miss Michigan. “Dude,” one of them said, “they live across the street. This girl named Sheila made me dinner and I think we hooked up.”
“No way,” said the one with his cap on backwards, “there’s nobody over there named Sheila.”
“Yeah, well, I know I slept on this street. Or Evergreen or Park.” Miss Michigan, understandably chilly in her miniature costume, stamped her exaggerated heel and hugged herself.
“Can we just go?” she asked plaintively. Looks passed among the boys; mutinous on the part of the dateless, and imploring on the part of the boyfriend.
“Whatever” one of them mumbled. They started down the street, past our house where Rob and I now stood together on the porch. They greeted us kindly, genuinely and with appreciable warmth. Miss Michigan noted as they walked away that she “saw [our] kitty on the porch every morning.” We allowed ourselves a warm glow, as we do when the boy across the street rakes our entire yard unprompted and uncompensated, when a nervous interviewee asks Rob to help him with his necktie, or when a houseful of boys (!) brings over a plate of cookies that they sliced and baked themselves. It’s not conventional, it’s not suburban, and it’s not always easy, but it’s truly neighborly, and never dull. I wouldn’t trade it for all the driveway-sweeping, lawn-manicuring neighbors in the world.