Fences make good neighbors.
When Robert Frost wrote “Mending Wall” in 1914 he coined the phrase, “Fences make good neighbors.” He probably didn’t have Baltimore in mind, but I’m sure he believed that boundaries are the key to healthy neighborhoods in any part of the world.
I came from a suburban world of big yards and long driveways and neighbors who didn’t have to interact at all if they didn’t want to and when they did it was usually pleasant and brief. In fact, it was probably pleasant because it was brief. We understood boundaries in the suburbs.
We couldn’t really comprehend what it meant to live in a city because we had never had to face the trials and tribulations that city people deal with on a daily basis. I am speaking, of course, about parallel parking.
When I came to Baltimore I was naive enough to believe that the space outside of my house was reserved for me and that, even though there were 56 houses on my one little street with two fire hydrants and a dry cleaning business on the corner, we would all have a place for our beloved vehicles.
I can almost hear my city friends chuckling. “Yeah, right.”
On the first day that I lived in my adorable new row house with the form stone façade I was educated to the finer points of living in a limited space with roughly 619,493 folks who are also trying to park. (Census: 2011)
As I attempted to fit my beat up Chevy Cavalier into the space between the bent and bruised red pickup and the orange Scion with the co-exist bumper sticker, a large woman stood on her stoop and eyeballed me. She watched as I shifted my car forward and backward inches at a time. Her arms were folded over her huge breasts and her head was tilted to one side as she studied my car rocking in a strained attempt to avoid hitting any other vehicle.
I could feel the sweat beading on my upper lip and under my arms as my anxiety mounted. Why was she watching me so closely? Did she not understand that when you watch a person park it activates a little known part of the brain that makes it impossible to do so?
After about a dozen reps of backward and forward I managed to get the car somewhere near the curb. I stepped out with a sheepish smile on my face. Still expecting the kind of measured interaction of my suburban world, I light heartedly promised that I would, eventually, get better at this and my new neighbor responded with a string of expletives that made my hair go curly.
Apparently, the practice of ramming your car into the others is a common one in the city as is the use of the f-bomb in reference to ones mother. Both bits of information shocked me.
When I recovered enough to pick my jaw up off the floor I laughed an uncomfortable laugh and said, “OK. I guess I’ll try that next time” and a neighborly bond was formed.
I learned, over the course of the first year in Baltimore, that city people don’t always feel the need to close the shades when they’re dressing or to make sure that when they sit and refresh themselves with a beverage the stoop they are sitting on is they’re own.
Quiet voices are not necessarily a priority for urban dwellers even if, nay, especially if it’s two in the morning. These tidbits were hard to accept at first but I came to understand that it’s the price we pay for the convenience of international food on every corner.
It can be frustrating to live so near to so many people and to feel their crazy brushing up against your own but it can be comforting, too, if you keep the right attitude and the right attitude is this: “We’re all in it together.”
It doesn’t matter if you’re a Republican or a Democrat in the city at those times when you lose your job or hurt your back or your kid gets sick. At those times it’s good to learn that the grocery store is right around the corner and that the neighbor doesn’t mind picking up a few things. It’s good to see people from all different backgrounds come together to solve a common problem.
For example, when winter came along and we got three feet of snow on our street there was a festive atmosphere as all 56 doors opened and we came out to free ourselves, and each other from Mother Nature’s grip. In no time at all we had cleared that street. The people who weren’t strong enough to shovel made coffee for the others. Those who didn’t have a shovel used their brooms to sweep up the steps.
Then we all went out to the corner pub to laugh it off and to exchange exaggerated stories of other storms gone by. In the city, it is understood that fences aren’t the only things that make for good neighbors.
Nancy Murray is pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing and the Publishing Arts at University of Baltimore. She is a playwright who as enjoyed full productions of her work at Fells Point Corner Theater, Silver Spring Stage and the Montgomery County One Act Festival where it was selected as The Best of Festival. Most recently she has been enjoying participating in the Submit 10 Series as both a playwright and as a performer.