It is considered a truism that urban neighborhoods no longer possess the sense of community they once did. This is supposed to be especially true of suburbia, that sterile and artificial home to the career-minded and upwardly mobile. Yet even amid the Washington power game, traditional neighborliness survives and even thrives.
I recently went to Montana for a week, my second trip in three weeks. My brief time at home between travels was harried, so I hadn't thought to mention my upcoming trip to my neighbors; moreover, since I'd so recently hit them up to grab my newspapers, I drafted a friend to stop by instead.
I left early on a Saturday, convinced that everything was in order. But my helper is a late sleeper who likes to spend the day writing, escaping his house only late in the day. As a result, my papers not only sat out all day -- an abnormal occurrence -- day after day, but their sheer number, three on weekdays, looked like a lengthy accumulation.
By Wednesday one of my across-the-street neighbors, who had collected my papers on my previous trip, conferred with one of my next-door neighbors, who had picked up my papers the journey before. They checked with the people living on the other side of me, who thought I'd mentioned going to Montana sometime, but didn't know why papers were piling up and could find no one who had seen me driving, jogging or doing anything else.
At which point they looked around my house and discovered a window that I'd accidentally left unlatched and heard my stereo that I'd intentionally left on. Recent burglaries in our development caused them to fear the worst. The husband of one thought his wife should wait another day to see if I reappeared, but neither she not the other neighbor wanted to delay. So they called the police.
One officer appeared but wouldn't do anything without his sergeant's approval. When his sergeant arrived and talked with a growing throng of neighbors, the officer clambered through the window. After satisfying himself that nothing looked amiss -- especially important was the lack of a body -- he climbed out, and a couple of my neighbors rigged a dowel to effectively lock the window when they closed it. Shortly after they went home, my late-sleeping friend showed up, unknowingly missing the show but mystified by the absence of my papers, which my across-the-street neighbor had collected.
I returned the following evening, and after finding my neighbor's note in my mailbox saying she had my mail and papers and hoped I was okay, stopped by. Although she was concerned that I'd be angry, it was hard for me to stop laughing: the image I kept seeing was of my neighbors and the police gathered in a death watch in front of my house at about the same time that I was playing ball with my 28-month-old nephew in Montana.
With the press of daily life, I haven't gotten to know any of my neighbors as well as I'd like. However, I've gained an appreciation for people who not only care, but are willing to act, even when they risk being embarrassed if they are wrong.
When I thanked my next-door neighbor for his concern, he said "that's what neighbors are for or used to be anyway." At least one neighborhood is still alive and well in the Washington area. -- Doug Bandow lives in Springfield.