My brother lives on a lake in the Midwest. In the summer it’s pretty easy to see what the neighbors are doing just by looking down the shoreline and it is not uncommon for several neighbors to gather where one has fired up the barbecue and, before you know it, there is what we city dwellers would call a block party. So when he visited here for the first time, he particularly noticed that we all tend to live behind our own individual cinder block walls.
The reason why I bring this all up is that our house was broken into last month. The reason nothing was stolen is also the scariest part of the story: my wife was home at the time of the break-in. I was about 30 miles away from home and she had just called me to see when I’d be back. Right after she screamed, “Someone is trying to get into the house,” the line went dead. The 911 operator kept her on the line until the police arrived so I got no answer when I tried to call back. Helpless is not a good feeling. The person I was with suggested I call one of our neighbors to verify that the police had arrived and everyone was alright. It was just then that it hit me: I didn’t know any of my neighbors’ phone numbers.
There is really no excuse for it. We have lived in the same house for nine years and only two of the houses near us have changed owners in that time. To make this confession even worse, I only knew the last names of two of our neighbors. Perhaps like a lot of you, I knew most of my neighbors only by first names, and we wave at the mailbox or in the garage on the way to or from work. But we are Westerners who tend to enter the house through the garage and see the front yard only now and then when there is yard work to be done. Come to think of it, I am the only one in the neighborhood who does his own yard work.
By the time the excitement had died down a bit, our neighbor came over; we thought to ask about the commotion. But he had just arrived home with his 10-year-old daughter to find his back window smashed, the brick lying in the dining room. When the police arrived for the second time, they discovered that ours had been the second visit of the day. Burglars had opened his garage, pulled in a vehicle and loaded it up with just about everything of value. The most irreplaceable item was his daughter’s sense of security and safety. I suppose such a loss of innocence is inevitable, but it was heart breaking to see it in her young face.
Serendipitously, the neighbors are talking now. We know last names, home, work and cell numbers, even e-mails and there will be a block party this month. People are watching out for each other and the latch-key children in our neighborhood know who is home during the day if they ever need anything. Necessity has pushed us into community. Thankfully, the price we paid for our privacy was not catastrophically high.
Steve Hammer is the associate pastor at Esperanza Lutheran Church in Ahwatukee Foothills.