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What Comes After Meeting The Neighbors?

Aerial view of urban sprawl, Las Vegas, Nevada
Marli Miller/UCG/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The 3-year-old boy watches us, stark naked, from his backyard playset as my girlfriend and I talk to his mother when I notice he’s pissing on the ground and smiling at me, like it’s our little secret. This kid, let’s call him Jet, does this sort of thing often. Not the public urination, that’s new to me, but the barest hint of a grin that grows into a smile, cheeks pushing up, eyes squinting—sometimes he turns away while this is happening—until he either starts laughing or runs away. Jet has changed my life ever since I met him and his moms, two nurses named Sarah and Cate, almost a year-and-a-half ago. Really, this family has changed my entire relationship with home. 

Geoff Nicholson, in his book The Lost Art of Walking, describes the hermetic unfriendliness of suburbia through juxtaposition: motion through a neighborhood, which yields observations of a distinct lack of motion elsewhere. “Walk some night on a suburban street and pass house after house on both sides of the same street each with the lamplight of the living room, shining golden, and inside the little blue square of the television, each living family riveting its attention on probably one show; nobody talking; silence in the yards; dogs barking at you because you pass on human feet instead of wheels.” 

The above passage largely describes my childhood. I had extended relatives one neighborhood away, and a friend a few doors down from me, and a girl I had a crush on a little further on, plus the Mormon family I dogsat for across the street. These people all formed a constellation of relationships of various strength and intimacy, but it’s easy to feel disconnected in master-planned communities where the presence of a car in someone’s driveway doesn’t always mean they’re home, and where you get used to the idea that staying inside is a better tradeoff than chancing an unanswered doorbell. This is half the reason I thought movies always showed nosy neighbors peeking through their blinds to watch the street: to see if their friends were around. 

Now, as a rent-paying adult, I understand the value of community, but it’s hard for that word, “value,” not to take on increasingly abstracted meanings in my own head. That’s probably because when I hear the word, I hear it in Elon Musk’s voice, or Peter Thiel’s, or a random hustle influencer’s, or, most distressingly, my landlord’s. At present, the lease on the place my girlfriend and I rent has been up for three months. We pay month-to-month in the interim because the homeowner can’t decide how much he wants to raise our rent. Our A/C has been broken this entire time. The garage is off-limits because the homeowner uses it as his storage space and sometimes, in the middle of the night, a sound like a spewing fire hydrant comes from that direction and we can’t do anything about it. My girlfriend just got laid off. Taxes are owed, high percentages of income are devoted to basic necessities, and the dipshits at various think tanks and research centers say employment is up, that things are rough but looking good despite inflation. Millennials, according to one insane article, are flush with cash! 

Put another way, the grand sum of feeling lately, even as I’m told there’s oceans of money out there to be claimed and that complaints of one’s shitty situation are tantamount to laziness, has been relentless anxiety. This, more than anything, makes me sympathize more with Laura Wagner’s generous assessment of neighborhood life, than Nicholson’s. A character in one of Shirley Jackson’s short stories, Pillar of Salt, describes the suburbs as the place where people start to “come apart.” But who is doing the pulling? 

My girlfriend is painting a birdhouse on our sidewalk with Jet’s mom Sarah while he and I play this game where he runs away from me, touches the backyard gate, runs back to me, giggles hysterically while I lift him into the air and spin him, runs over to Sarah’s lap, falls over, then gets up and repeats the whole thing again. Jet loves a routine. He sets them up without knowing and commits until something novel occurs, then he adds the new occurrence to the pattern. 

We met our neighbors the first day we moved into our place. Jet and Sarah wandered over while my stepdad and I were unloading furniture off the moving truck. Oft-spoken but true, Vegas is a small town. After introducing ourselves, it turned out that not only did Sarah frequent the bookstore I’ve worked at for several years, but that she and I, who had apparently had extended conversations there, shared mutual friends. It was a new thing, a little strange but mostly a relief, to get to know our neighbors, who turned out to be stupidly kind and now can only be accurately described as our close friends. Our back wall serves as a shared room these days. If we’re not at each other’s place, we meet at the wall and talk over it while Jet throws rocks or plays with his toys. When we’re not home, we leave each other food, gifts, messages, tools, or books on the wall. For now, anyway. 

Housing prices in Vegas, as everywhere, have gone up, legislation for any sort of rent control is constantly being stymied by lobbyists on the side of the landlords, the seven Southwestern states that rely on the Colorado River for water are unable to reach an agreement about cutting usage during the most severe area drought in over 1,000 years, and we’re all bracing for another unbearably hot summer. Lately, local initiatives to foster “community” within neighborhoods have focused on things like free festivals and children’s park days. Meanwhile, we’ve watched our street be cleared out of residents unable to keep up with rent increases. The condescending idea of community that gets paraded around here is bizarre not because it isn’t something worth rallying around, but because the material necessities that have to be in place to make it real are scarce. 

It has become a running, not entirely funny joke that if price increases won’t get us, the drought will. Mad Max–ian visions of water wars flit through the mind—mass exoduses to climate safe havens, pyramids of sand. Undergirding this apocalyptic sensibility is the idea that no one cares about anyone else, that our disconnection will be remedied once the right people move in and the wrong people stop wasting everybody else’s time. As Laura asks in her piece, “What's being obscured when the onus for solving the problem of loneliness is placed squarely on individuals and their (in)ability to get involved? How might we rearrange the structures and rhythms of our personal and collective lives for a different kind of sociality?” Here, “loneliness” can be replaced with any number of words: homelessness, unemployment, job security, education, scarcity, inequality. A picture of an even younger Jet with long hair hangs on our fridge. He won’t remember that time, but my girlfriend and I talk about it often. We lament the idea that Jet won’t remember us, either. It’s not a possibility but an inevitability that, in the near future, we’re going to have to say goodbye to our neighbors, who own their home and have far more stable support systems in place than we do. The prospect makes me alternately depressed and angry for the fact that I know such situations do not apply solely to us. It has never been enough to love one’s friends and home. Such luxuries, I am told, must be earned. 

And yet, I can’t fathom a world in which I could have done anything to deserve the friends we’ve made. It’s not a calculus that should ever be necessary. The grace, if it exists, of crossing paths with people who become important to you is not merely a result of happenstance. Whatever vital fabric is being torn across the country right now should have nothing to do with what has been earned, or who is worthy of a good life; these are merely widespread euphemisms for greed and callousness. Not only do people deserve more than they earn, they deserve the chance to share it without worry that there won’t be enough at the end. It has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life being part of Jet’s. It will be one of the most painful to be forced to leave. 

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