Thursday, January 27, 2022

I hope your mother is okay.


     I try to be the person I wish other people were.
     But it doesn't always work.
     Sometimes it seems to never work.
     For instance.
     New neighbors moved in on our block. I'd better not say exactly where. People who don't care at all about their behavior seem to still care about publicizing that behavior. The embarrassment, I suppose, from caring what people think about you in general, as opposed to what any specific person thinks. There's a lot of that going around.
     So let's say, they moved to a place within sight of our house, and leave it at that.
     "I should bake them a pie," I said, to my wife. An old half joke. When we moved here, 21 years ago, well, it took a bit of time to get to know folks on the block. Whenever the doorbell rang, I'd say, "It must be one of the neighbors, bringing over a pie." It wasn't.*
     So I try to welcome new neighbors. Not with a pie. I've never baked a pie in my life. But with a plate of cookies, something. To show up and say hello. I assume they appreciate it, because I sure would have. 
     But maybe I'm wrong.
     I decided on a gift box from Misericordia, full of cookies and sweet breads. They have a bakery in Glenview. I wasn't sure anybody would be home, so took a Sharpie and wrote, "Welcome to the neighborhood! The Steinbergs" on the box lid. Planning ahead. I strolled over and stood in front of the side door; for some reason, it looked like one of those houses where nobody uses the front door. I knocked.
     There was a wait. I stood there. Finally, a man about my age came to the door, holding a cell phone at his ear.
     "I'm on the phone!" he said, with asperity. I could see that.
     What do you do at that point? Apologize and promise to come back later? The box was in my hands. I blundered forward.
     "Hello, I'm Neil Steinberg," I said, brightly. "I just wanted to welcome you to the neighborhood." I raised the box, as if to draw attention to it.
     He opened the door and took the baked goods.
     "If you ever need help with anything, I live right across the ..." I continued.
     "Thank you," he said, and shut the door.
      He never even said his name, a fact that echoed in my head as I walked away.
      I don't think I can describe how the encounter took the wind out of my sails. How to describe it? Semi-amused, semi-desolate. Because of course, this is how people are.  Sometimes, I feel like my whole life has been like this. Scraping my fingers across the brick wall of other people. Not to make it all about me. Maybe it was a really important phone call. That must be it. To a doctor, regarding his mother's fragile health. A surgeon, a specialist, hard to reach, on the phone now, discussing options for her care. Yes, that must be it.

* CORRECTION: "Someone did bring us a pie," my wife said at breakfast. "I've told you before, but you never remember. Elisa Staniszewski brought a pie from Three Tarts Bakery. I think it was triple berry. I remember because it was so effin' fantastic."


  1. Giving the benefit of the doubt is the high road but most likely he will not be a good neighbor.
    We had a similar encounter when we lived in Miami. We just decided to keep our distance and then he died a couple of years later.
    It turned out he was in the witness protection program.
    We learned this in a newspaper article that said he was killed in Columbia while visiting his mistress.
    I’m interested in seeing how your relationship develops.

  2. We may never know how our kindness creates positive ripples. Very kind of you!

  3. That's another solid nominee as permanent top-of-the-blog image! ; )

    While it was certainly very thoughtful of you to offer both a welcome to the neighborhood and quality cookies, it doesn't surprise me much that you weren't met with open arms. Folks don't seem to appreciate unplanned visitors these days. Heck, many refuse to even answer their phones -- the etiquette seems to be that a phone call (if absolutely necessary) should be preceded by a text...

  4. I've been pondering this all morning, and I'm going to finally theorize here that you did indeed interrupt him in the middle of Something Really Bad. The key here is that he bothered to open the door, take your gift and then say, "Thank you." Even though it was really brusque, the hurried thank-you tells me that he does know the social niceties, but that he was operating on auto-pilot while trying to deal with whatever it was on the phone.

    If his place is within sight of yours, you will have plenty of opportunities to bump into him (accidentally or on purpose) when you spot him outside in the near future, and I'm very sure that this first encounter here will be his first topic of conversation then.

  5. Yes, Mr. S, this is how people are. My wife has lived in our house for 43 years. I came along fourteen years later. We were the young punks, surrounded by the old geezers. They're all dead now, and we're the old geezers.

    Neighborliness is going away, like so much else. A flipper bought the house next door, and sold it to a young loner who was neighborly for a while, but he stopped speaking to us four years ago. Don't know why. Maybe our being forty years older had something to do with it.

    The lady across the street died in her 80s, and a woman half her age bought the house. She lives with her slacker son and her wayward daughter's four young children, who are never allowed to play outside. I think she's ashamed of her grandkids' biracial origins.

    The nicest folks on the block are the couple who fly their Thin Blue Line flag 24/7, no matter the weather. The one that's been co-opted by white supremacists for years. They just unfurled a brand-new one, at least four times the size of a standard flag, to emphasize their convictions even more strongly. Just in case anyone has failed to notice them up to now.

    They're the only people I talk to. Go figure. But even die-hard Nazis, as individuals, were probably congenial people in Hitler's Germany. I've heard he loved dogs and kids. Did they also like him back?

    Whenever there's a tragedy, it's always in what is described as a "tight-knit community." Hard for me to buy that one. I grew up in a suburb where I knew our neighbors for two blocks in every direction. But I haven't lived in a place that fits that description for almost forty years.

    I don't think too many of them really exist anymore. It's just another platitude that TV and print journalists like to use.

  6. We've been living in our new place for just over a year now and as I've mentioned before when we first moved in, the lady across the street brought us a box of cookies of all things.
    She sits on the porch with us now. Helps us with the goats invites us to church sends her guy over to shovel our snow when he shows up a very nice lady who sits by the fire pit with us.

    The guy next door brings pie, well he works in a pie shop and when there's one left over at the end of the day we generally get it. They also have kale scraps from the food they sell and he brings those for the goats. He's just a dishwasher there. It's not like it's his place but he's always very thoughtful and sometimes I'll give him a ride to work.
    We've been to his kid's birthday parties and when they're grilling they always bring over a plate.

    It's far from a leafy suburban paradise down here on Chicagos Southeast side. But the neighbors are nice. Very nice

    We try to be nice back. I get the impression that you have generally nice neighbors that your friends with. I'm sorry the new guy hasn't fallen in with the group yet. Hopefully he redeems himself. You did good.

  7. Looking forward to continued episodes of this leafy paradise drama as it unfolds...

  8. Too early to tell how neighborly he might be. Like to give people benefit of the doubt. You are an incredible neighbor!


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