by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

Let me tell you about my neighbors.

On one side, in a tri-level house, are Morty and Josie, who have two kids. Josie has big blond hair and wears frosted lipstick. Morty is the life of the party, always laughing and smoking a cigar.

On the other side are Jay and Shirley and their three boys. The boys play football at the side of the house. Whenever they get any spare change, they put it in a cup in the kitchen so that one day they can buy a swimming pool.

A few doors down are the Baroogis, with their six kids, all black hair. They have a small basketball court alongside their big blue house, and all the neighborhood children gather there after dinner. Next to them are the Cippons, with three boys — one of them plays trumpet in the high school band — and next to them are the Montegnas, with four kids — three redheads, if you can believe it. Every night after dinner, even in cold weather, Mr. and Mrs. Montegna walk the neighborhood, and if you have a new tree or a new mailbox they’ll take notice and say something like, “See you got a new mailbox.”

I can walk you through my neighborhood, point at every house, tell you who lives there and what their stories are, from the cul-de-sac at the bottom of the hill — the split-level belongs to the Maguns, Holocaust survivors — to the bend in the road, where the pink house shelters the first girl I ever kissed, Merrill Pedinoff. Don’t get excited; we were 3 years old at the time.

Yes, it’s close-knit, my neighborhood. The only problem is I no longer live there.

I haven’t lived there in 24 years.

A nice place, but …

In the neighborhood where I live now, I cannot tell you more than two families’ names. This was brought home to me last week, after our electrical power was blown out by a windstorm. When I called the electric company, the person asked me for my address. And then, to pinpoint if the trouble had been previously reported, the person asked for my neighbors’ addresses.

“Their …addresses?” I said.

“They’re on the same street, right?”

“But I don’t know the house numbers.”

“Even your next-door neighbor?”

“I know it begins with a 2-5.”

“Well, how about their names?”

I offered the two names I knew.

“And how do spell them?”

I had no idea. Was it “e” or “i”? Here I was, in a jam, unable to name more than two people on my block, and incapable of spelling either one. I hung up the phone with even less power than I started with.

What has happened to our neighborhoods? When I tell this story to people, they nod with sad familiarity. Most of us, it seems, can’t tell you who lives beyond the reach of our sprinkler systems. If we’re in attached homes, it’s a mystery who’s beyond the adjacent walls. If we’re in apartments, we might nod at whoever gets off the elevator. Otherwise, forget it.

In my old neighborhood, you not only knew the people, you knew where to find them. Parents were either inside or on their porches. Children gathered by the basketball court. When their mothers or fathers wanted them, they would step out into the street and holler, “MICH-AEL!” or “MI-CHELLE!” “TIME FOR DINNER!”

The kids would come running. If they didn’t, another parent would go out to say, “Didn’t you hear your mother call you?”

A terrible truth

The temptation is to say that we are more selfish now. More self-absorbed. We shuffle our kids to skating lessons, gymnastics lessons, art school, church. Sign of the times. The Me Decade, followed by the Greed Decade, followed by the My Family Is More Important Than Yours Decade.

But then you read last week’s story from Jacksonville, Fla. An 8-year-old girl named Maddie bursts happily out her front door, going to play with the other kids on her well-kept block. Only she doesn’t come home. And next thing you know, her parents are on television, weeping, saying they never should have let her leave the house. They distribute leaflets. They hang yellow ribbons in trees. They pray.

And finally, police discover their little girl. She is taped to the bottom of a waterbed, stabbed to death, her corpse rotting away. The murder suspect, who confessed, is a 14-year-old boy.

Her neighbor.

So maybe neighborhoods aren’t what they once were. Or maybe we aren’t. Whatever cord used to hold a block together, give it a sense of collective snow-shoveling, collective lawn-mowing, collective parenting, is dying now, being replaced by fear. We lock our doors. We drive our kids. We don’t say too much.

I stroll through my neighborhood. I wave at the families. I call out their names — I can spell them all, even the children. But it is only in my mind. It is a long-departed street. It was a long time ago.

To leave a message for Mitch Albom, call 1-313-223-4581. He will sign
“Tuesdays With Morrie,” noon-1 p.m. Nov. 27 at Barnes & Noble in Bloomfield Hills and 1-2 p.m. Nov. 28 at Borders in Novi.


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New book, The Little Liar, arrives November 14. Get the details »

Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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