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Watching the neighborhood
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I usually run into my next door neighbor Phyllis as she passes my house with her middle school granddaughters, on their way to mid–week church services.

When I take my trash out, there’s almost always time for a hello and a head scratch to Hoagie and Carmela, the laid–back Great Danes in the fenced backyard behind mine. Sometimes the family who belongs to them are in the yard, too. 

Saturday, it was six year old Charlotte, playing “jungle” with her across–the–street neighbor Sienna (age 8). Sienna perched in the lowest branches of a five foot tall tree; Charlotte twirled in the grass, waving a recently plucked leaf the size of her head.

On a recent walk to Daffin Park with my down–the–street neighbor Carmela (a human being and an artist, not the aforementioned Great Dane) we ran into a couple from our block. Along with their good news of plans for law school in the fall, they shared attendant concerns about financial aid and jobs.

And last weekend, one of the regular babysitters for 49th Street brothers Van and Ty moved into a 48th Street bungalow she and a friend just rented. Van, age 7, served as her unofficial real estate broker–he saw the house’s “For Rent” sign and suggested she check it out.

In 14 years of Parkside Neighborhood living, this is the type of news that travels the neighborhood word–of–mouth grapevine. Founded on familiarity, it’s the kind of information people share with those they know and care about.

It’s a stretch to say that all the news is “good.” There was the divorce last year of a longtime neighborhood couple, and before that the death of a man in his late 60’s down my street, after fighting cancer for years. But often the sad stories can offer up a sweet side–in the year before he died, the man down the street and his longtime girlfriend decided to tie the knot. And both partners in that divorce are now in new relationships.

I heard all this from people I know and who know me. We live close to each other, we take care of each other’s pets when needed, we take in each other’s FedEx packages, we lend and borrow coffee and half–and–half.

Do we know each other by name?  Mostly. Some people I only know by sight, walking their dogs or their toddlers after work.

Sometimes there’s a nickname involved, like the genial, visor–wearing brothers in their thirties living next door to me, each the owner of a well–cared–for and often–used fishing boat. Before I fully cemented “Adam” and “Josh” in my brain, they were “the boat boys.”

I hope their nickname for me is as benign, and a little more creative. Along the way, one brother got his own place and was replaced by a roommate.  Names or not, we know each others pets and we’ve met each other’s parents.

It’s the IT era, so the Mayberry–style chit chat is supplemented with emails, Facebooking, phone calls and texts.   But face–to–face continues to win out as the neighborhood communication technology of choice.

Occasionally some downright bad news comes through the neighborhood network, with no sweet side to be found.  Early last week Carmela–the–artist told me about two burglaries on 51st Street that happened the day before. 

More distressing were several reports earlier this year of “the guy in the teal car” who harassed and threatened solo women as they walked or jogged. On nearly every occasion, he flashed them. Once he had a gun.

Back in January, while searching in vain for my missing dog, I joined two neighborhood–related list–serves, one computer–generated and the other a group email list hosted by the neighborhood association.

Since signing up for the list serves, each has generated a handful of notices about neighborhood meetings and plans for a neighborhood yard sale. Information on last week’s burglaries arrived days after the same news had made the rounds by word of mouth. 

There was also a “be on the lookout” notice forwarded from Metro Police for someone suspected of break–ins, although neither his last–known residence nor the place he’s suspected of frequenting are nearby.

Tucked into a recent email was the intent to start Neighborhood Watch as a way to keep each other informed.   The idea behind Neighborhood Watch is that people who live near each other collect each other’s names and contact information. If something that looks bad happens in the neighborhood, we call or email each other and share the news.

The assumption behind Neighborhood Watch is that we don’t already know each other, or have each other’s contact information.  And, if something good happens, like law school, or a game of “jungle” in the backyard, there’s no neighborhood network for that.

The Neighborhood Watch logo depicts a shadowed male figure in a billowing trench coat and fedora, reminding me of Dick Tracy from the Sunday funnies. If he turns up near my house, I’ll definitely call the police, and warn Carmela–the–artist and the boat boys, too.

It’s easy to get nervous when “the guy in the teal car” and home break–ins intrude on my sense of safety. It’s smart to pay extra attention getting out of the car, double checking the door locks, and taking a second look at who walks past.

But since I’ve been paying closer attention, what I’m finding is that the person walking by is often someone that looks familiar. So I say hello. I pet their dog. I introduce myself.