You know how when you gather for a funeral, and friends and family members who haven’t seen each other since the last one always say, “We simply must get together”?
That’s not just a friends and relatives thing.
Relative strangers say it, too, and they probably mean it just as sincerely.
Do we ever really get together, though?
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At 11:15 on an unseasonably cool night this week, several of us from the neighborhood stood watching as firefighters battled the inferno consuming what used to be a neighbor’s home.
The fire was what’s known in the firefighting business as “fully involved,” and for a long while none of the firemen could enter.
As the flames climbed ever higher into the night, tearing through the roof and licking angrily at the inky black sky, we knew the only way anyone could survive was if he were already out or if he were not at home.
Our heaven-sent prayers, spoken and thought, that the homeowner was away for the night must’ve been consumed by the flames before they could reach their target, because the defeated looks on the sweat-drenched, soot-covered faces of the firemen as their partners unstrapped the oxygen tanks on their backs hinted at the truth.
Past midnight, a tall, slim man arrived in a black windbreaker with the word “Chaplain” written on the back in big, yellow letters. He summoned the homeowner’s friend, who had escaped the blaze, and put his hand on her shoulder. Others in that circle of sorrow put their arms around her.
I left soon after all hope for a happy ending had dissipated. Walking home, I passed several physically and emotionally exhausted firefighters and rescue workers who sat solemnly in a circle, slumped in folding chairs in the middle of the blocked-off street. Watching unseen from the darkness of the sidewalk felt intrusive, so I tarried for just a few seconds before heading home.
The homeowner was William Michael Logan, “Mike” to those who knew him, and he was a construction engineer at N.C. Central University. Fire investigators said once the smoke detector went off, Logan told a woman at his house to get out. He, however, was unable to escape.
A neighbor standing outside said that he had recently moved into the neighborhood – recently, in this case, being within the past year. For some reason, I felt better hearing that, figuring that might explain or excuse the fact that I hadn’t introduced myself to him, hadn’t welcomed him to the neighborhood in which I’ve lived for seven years.
Another neighbor said no, he’d lived there for seven years.
That – knowing he’d been in the neighborhood as long as I had – somehow felt much worse, since it made me confront the question, “What kind of neighbor am I?”
I still haven’t answered that one. I tried to blame “a bad one” on being shy, or on the fact that everyone is busy with their own lives, working late into the evening. I even tried to blame it on the architecture: you know, the way houses are built these days no one has front porches for settin’ a spell and talkin’ anymore, and with garages the way they are you can almost drive all the way into the house before getting out of the car.
Those lame excuses offered no solace, especially not to someone who grew up in a place where not only did you know everybody in your neighborhood but you knew just about everybody in the whole town.
Or they knew you. When I was eight or nine, my buddy Lorenzo and I wandered a couple of miles from home, to the other side of town. Armed with a rake taller than we were, we knocked on doors and asked if the homeowners needed any work done.
Fifty years later, I still haven’t figured out how the maid at one of the palatial cribs knew my jug-eared self.
Know me she did, though, because by the time I’d returned home, she’d called my grandmother and told her I was out in the street hustling for jobs.
Grandma gently rebuked me, telling me she appreciated my desire to work but that it was unnecessary, and not to wander so far from home. When it came to grandmas, I hit the lottery.
When it comes to my current neighbors, I feel as though I’ve hit the lottery, too. All of the ones I know are among the finest people I’ve ever met.
The problem – and it’s one we discussed while the fire raged and the next day – is that I haven’t met many of them.
Even as the house burned, we lamented how sad it was that few of us knew each other, and we vowed to rectify that. One neighborhood resident suggested we get together and play bid whist, and even punched into her phone a few telephone numbers to call back.
In the light of the new day, as TV news crews stood outside the charred house and a fire engine rolled slowly up the street to make sure the fire was completely out, I stood on the sidewalk talking to another neighbor. We’ve played tennis together and speak pretty near every day, but we both agreed that this summer, we’re going to help organize a neighborhood block party to foster a sense of community and get to know all of our neighbors.
I asked Frank T. McAndrew, a professor who has written extensively on social isolation for publications such as Psychology Today, if it’s unusual for neighbors to not know each other. “I depends on where you live,” he said. “I used to live in Maine, and people there are really reserved and kind of keep to themselves. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if people lived next to each other for seven years and didn’t know anything about them.
“Here in the Midwest, where I live now, it’s a really different vibe. Someone would have to work really hard” to be isolated. “It would be more common,” McAndrew said, “in a prosperous neighborhood with bigger houses.”
Kathleen Mullan Harris, a sociology professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, said part of the reason people may not know their neighbors is because of social technology. “They may have 500 friends on Facebook,” making it seem that they’re well-integrated into the community, she said. “But it may be the opposite.”
The consensus on Mike Logan, expressed verbatim by others and by me, was “I knew him to wave and say ‘Hey.’ He always seemed friendly.”
I regret not knowing him better, not going over when I saw him piddling in his yard and introducing myself. Upon his death, though, I acutely felt what John Donne wrote: Each man’s death diminishes me.
Yes, I feel diminished by the death of a man I never met.
Even more, I feel diminished that I never took the time to meet him.