The Devil’s in the Details

How Your Routines and Rhythms Are Shaping the Culture of Your Neighborhood

When we moved into our new neighborhood one year ago, we met Terry. He lives across the street from us and is the heart and hub of the small loop of homes that make up our neighborhood. None of us really know each other, but we all know Terry. He keeps us updated on the comings and goings of everyone else, and serves as a one-man Neighborhood Watch. If you need a tool, Terry is your guy. Help with a project? Terry’s got advice. He keeps the common areas weeded, mows the tiny lawns of neighbors who can’t do it themselves, and lets himself into my backyard to throw clippings on my compost pile.

And despite the fact that he’s old enough to be her grandfather, Terry is the closest thing to a friend my five-year-old daughter has in a neighborhood where she’s the only child. We can’t drive into or out of our driveway without her shouting a greeting and an update to her favorite neighbor: “I went down the waterslide by myself today, Terry!” she’ll shout out of the car window. “Niiice!” Terry will respond, waving.

I’ve thought about Terry countless times as I’ve journeyed through my 2019 resolution to revitalize relationship and community in my life. And especially so as I’ve focused on neighborliness in recent months. What is it about this guy that makes him so easy to connect with? What draws people in?

For one thing, he never seems to be in a hurry. He works full-time, but whenever he’s home he seems to have endless amounts of time for shooting the breeze. Never once has he used the phrase, “well, I better get back to work…” to cut off a chatty conversation—something to which I default on a frighteningly regular basis.

Another thing about Terry is that he’s always a source of positive energy. Talking with him never feels like gossip. He offers friendly advice but is never overbearing. He’s old enough to be my father but somehow never condescends. He seems to take neighborhood dramas in stride, and accepts the varied lifestyles of those on our block at face value. He’s generous, always ready to help, and is a stalwart example of selfless service.

Would that we could all be such good neighbors. Such a shift would go a long way toward healing our growing personal, social, and political divides. And yet, as a prescription for America’s creeping problem of social isolation, a lofty list of personal virtues feels a bit out of reach. Terry displays a host of admirable qualities I could certainly strive to emulate—with time and mindful practice. But I wondered if there were anything simpler, in his routines and rhythms, that I could easily imitate—in order to bring myself into relationship with my neighbors today.

As I examined his qualifications for Neighbor of the Year more closely, I realized that one shockingly simple differentiator undergirded them all: Terry is the only person on my block who regularly spends time outside of his house.

Whenever he is home, Terry’s garage door is open, revealing a classic man-cave. Tool racks, shelves of landscaping miscellany, and meticulously-labelled storage boxes line the walls. But there’s also a small, carpeted area with a stool and a workbench-cum-desk not at the back of the garage, but right up front. This is where he drinks his coffee in the morning, reads the newspaper, checks his texts, listens to the radio, and occasionally smokes a cigarette. And what this means is that he’s actually open and available for connection—nearly every day.

When I first noticed this phenomenon, I asked him why he does it. He and his wife have a comfortable home as well as a beautiful, private back porch with gorgeous views. But there he is, day in and day out, perched on an old, uncomfortable stool right at the top of his driveway. Why? “It’s the only chance to connect with people,” he explained. “People are so private these days—I sort of have to create a chance to interact,” he said. And it works. Every time my daughter sees that open garage door I hear, “I wanna go see Terry!” as she darts across the street.

Not long ago I tried to knock on my next-door neighbor’s door to let him know he had left the hatchback of his SUV open during a rainstorm. But I couldn’t get to the front door of the house, because the waist-high gate surrounding his tiny porch was padlocked shut. Last Christmas when I tried to deliver a plate of cookies to a house whose inhabitants we literally had never seen before, a woman answered the door, but waved me off, pointing to the phone that was pressed to her ear. I left the plate on her doorstep and walked away, humiliated. And then there’s the neighbor across the street, whom I know by name because she attends the same church as we do. I see her pulling in every day, but I never get the chance to say hello, because she’s always quick to close the garage before getting out of her car. And in an entire year I’ve never run into anyone as I walk to the bank of mailboxes we all share. It’s more convenient for everyone to just grab the mail on the way into or out of the neighborhood, car idling.

The fact is that seemingly insignificant behaviors such as these accumulate over time into patterns, which eventually solidify into norms that ultimately define the culture and feel of our communities. They are subtle but powerful signals that say to those around us, “Leave me alone, and I’ll do the same for you,” and “Sorry, I’m too busy for connection.” Or, as in Terry’s case, “Here I am, let’s be friends” and, “I’ll help you out today, and maybe you can help me out tomorrow.”

I’m not one to turn my garage into a living room, but I have begun to act upon the realization that small signals matter by leaving my front door open more often and sitting on my front porch to read a book or have lunch, instead of inside. I now make it a point to walk to get the mail, and to leave the garage door open as I unload groceries from the car. And I take the long way to the park and back, just in case I might run into someone and create a chance for connection. Slowly, I’ve become more of a visible presence in our neighborhood. I’ve waved hello to the dog walkers and introduced myself to our newest move-ins, whom I noticed chatting in a nearby driveway when I was out on the front porch one afternoon. That was surely a moment I would have missed had I been enjoying my cup of tea in the solitude of my walled-in backyard. And who knows how long it might have been until such an opportunity arose again in my eerily quiet corner of the world.

Marc Dunkleman, author of The Vanishing Neighbor, theorizes that our increasingly lonesome neighborhoods are the result of “subtle changes in the American routine” that, among other things, have minimized opportunities for chance encounters and casual interactions with our neighbors. If this is true—as my experiences seem to indicate—then subtle changes to our routines might prove a useful starting point for reinvigorating our neighborhoods and our nation. The devil is in the details, as the saying goes. And so, too, may be the seeds of isolation, distrust and discord on the one hand, or rich relationships, strong neighborhoods, and thriving communities on the other.

What small change can you make to your routines that will signal to your neighbors that you want to be in community with them and are open for connection?

I'm a writer who's spending 2019 engaging in a yearlong personal journey back to community, connection, and relationship. It's called Project Reconnect. Join me!

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