I think of myself as neighborly. By that I mean I won’t ring your doorbell at all hours, hoping for a beer and a chat, but I’ll be right over to lend candles if the electricity fails. My earthquake kit has extra cutlery and tuna, with you in mind, but otherwise we don’t do dinners. We live side by side, our walls so close I can hear your techno music at all hours, but we keep a certain emotional distance. The latter is vital: friendship seems like a good idea, but is it really? The stakes are just too high. A neighborly friendship gone south is like an affair in the workplace going wrong. At best, you endure months of awkward proximity. At worst, life gets so miserable you have to leave. Better to keep it to a simple understanding: in the event of the zombie apocalypse, we fortify our windows together and pool our weapons.
This is why I am in love with my neighborhood listserv. Emails arrive every day from people in near proximity who I’ve never met and, if I saw on the street, wouldn’t recognize. The exchanges are jaunty, even frivolous, at first glance. Looking for a reliable car mechanic? John recommends his. Want to borrow a car seat? Three neighbors have extras. Need a clip-on tie for the night? Done. Where’s the nearest pool table? A chorus chimes in. Meowy the cat is missing! Awwwws and sad-face emoticons.
There’s a warm and fuzzy feeling when an online stranger who lives nearby offers advice, opinion, commiseration. But it’s beneath this clangor where the true message lies. That’s not just a clip-on tie, but an implicit assurance that when solar storms bring down the grid, someone will throw you a flashlight and batteries. Good advice on restaurants? Will also dig with bare hands under earthquake rubble.
Being a neighbor is an important relationship, and neighborhood email groups keep just the right distance. We’re bonding in time for the next crisis, without the messiness of real friendship. It’s fine to be in a snit with your BFF. But you and me, we can’t afford that. The Mayan calendar ends soon. Yep, I got your back.
Caroline Paul is the author of “East Wind, Rain” and “Fighting Fire.” Her latest book is “The Lost Cat,” an illustrated collaboration with Wendy MacNaughton. Find out more at www.carolinepaul.com. and www.wendymacnaughton.com.