In response to my recent article about a neighbor's highly odoriferous grilling habits, a goodly chunk of commenters raked me over the coals (or in this case the gas jets) for not marching over with a case of beer, introducing myself, and offering up a grilling lesson. I totally understand and celebrate that impulse, and it comes from a generous place.
In the little upstate New York town where I spend a lot of time, I fire up my smoker (many, many, many yards from anyone's house) and next thing I know, my husband and I are happily hosting a dinner party for half the town. A lit grill there is an invitation to dine - and that's the way it is in plenty of places around the country.
Not so in New York, where I've made my home for the past 15 years. In the Brooklyn neighborhoods I've lived in, the aforementioned salvo to a stranger would be met with at best suspicion and at worst, a call to the cops or an introduction to the business end of a baseball bat.
We're stacked up on top of on another in trim, tall, thin-walled buildings and jammed face to tush on rush hour subway cars and we have to live by some social barriers in order to maintain our surprisingly peaceable kingdom. A glance and listen across a crowded F-train car reveals a cross section of New Yorkers of varying age, ethnicity, profession, religious orientation, language and accent that would keep an ethnography grad student in dissertation material for a decade. And, for the most part, everyone's getting along just fine. This is why we live here. We're in our own little worlds with headphones on, nose in books and definitely not making eye contact, but somehow, separately, we're all in it together.
For a city filled with incredible social opportunities, it's astonishingly difficult to meet new people in New York outside existing constructs like work, classes, mutual friends or church. I'm sure this isn't true across the board, but if a stranger says hello on the subway or comes to knock on your door for reason other than to tell you your roof is leaking or something is on fire, many New Yorkers assume they're being sold something or recruited to a cult.
We're okay with that, but maybe we shouldn't be. If there's one thing that can fix that - it's food. And possibly drinks.
And as it turned out, a funny thing happened this morning. I was out watering my crazy rooftop garden, and my new next-door neighbor (not the dodgy griller, but the gent upstairs) was outside sipping his coffee. His head popped over the spot where the fence was sagging, and he introduced himself and started apologizing profusely. His fiancee had attached a hammock to a post, causing the part of the roof where it was attached to crumble to bits on our side. It's okay, I assured him. Gravity just happens, and I'm sure that must have been scary for her.
He seemed relieved - and like a really nice guy - but still mortified. Again, I assured him, it wasn't a big deal. Then I stopped and remembered what commenter Ed G. had written.
He'd said, "I've known all my neighbors every place I've lived. When someone broke into my apartment, it was my neighbors who had my back. During a particularly brilliant sighting of Saturn, it was my neighbor who asked me over for a scotch, a cigar and a view through his telescope. It's my neighbors who gave my kids candy on Halloween. And it's my neighbors to whom I give diapers and and sparkling wine when they have babies."
I took a moment for my inner former suburban girl and cranky Brooklynite selves to have a wrestling match and then blurted out, "I know you just moved here, but we have some pretty great parties and grill out all the time, if you and your fiancee ever want to come over..."
My neighbor, Dan, as I now knew, looked taken aback for a split second and then said, "That sounds really nice. Thank you."
Who knows if they'll ever actually show, but at least I know I've tried to serve up a little bit of neighborly goodwill in a city that's starving for it.