Five years ago I accomplished one of my lifelong dreams of homeownership. Growing up I had only known what it was like to share walls with people. Between living in a multi-family unit in Brooklyn, to the nation’s largest cooperative community in the Bronx (Co-op City), apartment living was a fact of life. Dormitories were my home-away-from-home after leaving New York for boarding school, then college. After graduating, I dwelled in a series of apartments in Nashville and Houston. By my late twenties, I was completely over nosy, psychotic neighbors who watched my every move and complained about the faintest noise emanating from my stereo. In a few instances, it was apparent my skin played a major factor in how I was treated by certain neighbors and leasing offices. When I opted to avoid the unwarranted harassment that came with renting in predominately White neighborhoods, safety was a concern. The final straw for me was narrowly escaping death in Southwest Houston, as HPD errantly fired a bullet through my door, past my ear, and into my freezer.
I went through the rigorous process of qualifying for an FHA loan. Months of overdraftless bank statements, stellar credit, and a liter of blood were all that was required. I finally closed on my home the last day of April 2011. I’ll never forget the feelings of relief and accomplishment that flooded my brain the first night I laid in bed under my own roof, unattached to any nagging neighbor, safe from the threat of physical harm. I was now the monarch of Meekville, and as such, I was determined to be left alone. I took pleasure in not having to ride an elevator with meddlesome residents or hear lead footed lummoxes trample on my ceiling. My music would be played loud enough to reverberate through my entire abode without complaint. All I had to do was pull into my garage and go about my life autonomously.
Of course I would wave from my car to acknowledge my neighbors’ presence, so as not to come across as a pompous prick. But realistically I couldn’t care less about whether we interacted at all. I didn’t want to know where they worked, their religious and political affiliations, or the names of their children. I just wanted them to wave back and get the heck out the way so I could get to work.
But, because the Great Architect is obviously a comedian, I found myself in need of a neighbor’s assistance less than thirty days after moving in. My new landscapers managed to clip my water line causing a geyser to sprout outside the wall of my garage. Directly across the street was oil & gas pipe fitter and neighborhood handyman, David Reynolds. Add a few pounds, a beard, and a West Texas accent to Tim The Toolman Taylor and you have Mr. Reynolds. Seeing an opportunity to help in distress, Reynolds rushed over and showed me how to shut off the water to my home. Apartment living hadn’t prepared me for this, but Mr. Reynolds was well versed in anything involving home improvement. Once we shut the water off, he went back to his garage/after work machine shop and picked up a few useful tools. He cut a hole into the wall of my garage, fitted a piece of PVC over the severed pipe, and saved me hundreds on emergency plumbing. I was extremely grateful.
Afterwards I made sure not to just wave from the car, but roll down the window to have a conversation with the Reynolds whenever I passed. And the conversations are rarely short; Mr. & Mrs. Reynolds love to express their conservative opinions in elaborate detail. I resolved to make them the only neighbors to whom I would devote more energy than a car wave. Certainly, I did not have the bandwidth to interact with my other neighbors. For the greater part of five years this has been the case.
That all changed on Saturday. The weather was gorgeous enough for my son to enjoy a late January bike ride, so I took him outside to flourish in the warm sun and hopefully run his battery down enough to get some writing done on my book. As Hunter peddled feverishly up, down, and around Otter Trail’s cul-de-sac, I internalized a super villain smile – the plan was working, muhahaha! But, while Hunter was enjoying his time outside, he started to get bored on his own. He wanted another kid to race against. “Can you call Karys Daddy?” I thought “someone else to wear him out?” Sounded like an even better idea… Sure!
All of a sudden I heard Mr. Reynolds call me from across the street. I braced for lengthy conversation. He pointed out the hole that still remained in my wall from the emergency pipe work he helped me with right after I first moved in. “Bout time we patched that up, don’t you think?” I nodded my head in agreement. While he went back to his garage to grab patchwork supplies, my next door neighbor, Mrs. Climaco, a Filipino nurse, came outside with her two boys. Previously I exchanged numbers with her husband Allan, who would call me any time my dogs Houdinied their way out of my backyard. Beyond a couple of texts and a few panicked phone calls, I had interacted minimally with the Climacos over the past half decade. Apparently their boys Mikee (7) and Aiden (6) had nagged the Mrs. all morning for a park visit on Saturday. However, seeing Hunter burn rubber on his training wheels inspired them to go back inside and grab their bikes. “Do you mind if they play with Hunter?” Mrs. Climaco asked. I responded “of course not, let them wear themselves out!”
While Mrs. Climaco tended to the boys, I went back into my garage to receive a do-it-yourself tutorial from Mr. Reynolds on repairing sheetrock with vinyl spackling. Fifteen minutes later, my sister showed up with my niece Karys and the lawn chairs she typically uses for her spring soccer games. Mrs. Climaco took a seat with us in my driveway and we talked while the kids played. I must admit, I was a little nervous she would ask if the Eddie Bauer car seat in my garage was the very same car seat I had scavenged from her curb before trash pickup a few years prior, but she didn’t bring it up. Whew… that would have been aaaawwwkward LOL! Anyway, as we talked, another neighbor, Mike, who lives a couple doors down on the cusp of the cul-de-sac, decided to bring his three daughters outside. His eldest is only 10 but handles an ATV like a pro. The middle child prefers her electric Frozen kidmobile, while the youngest loves her Elsa bike on training wheels. In little to no time this was the scene in front of my house:
Keep in mind this is the most I had interacted with my neighbors in… well… ever. Watching the kids play so gleefully made me miss the excitement of going outside during my childhood. I even got a chance to show off my long forgotten lacrosse skills:
Sorry Aiden! LOL. He was ok by the way. He picked up on lacrosse rather quickly after that. A few more kids ended up joining in on the fun as the afternoon progressed. Black kids, White kids, Asian kids, and Hispanic kids all laughing and smiling without a care in the world. Soon I was giving baseball lessons:
Yes, that’s my son Hunter dancing in his Power Ranger costume while my niece Karys runs the bases. I’ve never been more proud.
As the sun started making its way closer to the horizon, the kids insisted on keeping the party going – at my place. Mrs. Climaco and her boys entered my house for the first time ever. While I felt happy to have finally broken the ice and shared my home, I was ashamed that it took five years for me to even consider sharing my personal space with the people physically closest to me.
What I realized as I got to know my neighbors, and the kids got to know each other, is that nothing is more important than being engaged in your community. What are my neighbors to think of Black men when the Black man right next door doesn’t care to open up to them? How can they be informed about what goes on in the mind of a Black man or a Black child, or what goes on in a Black person’s household? Should I be surprised when they are unable to humanize Black people, considering they have very few intimate experiences from which to draw conclusions? If I don’t allow my neighbors to get to know me and my son, can I be mad when their opinions about Black lives are formed through mainstream media? Would George Zimmerman have pursued Trayvon Martin if he had previously watched the game in Tracy Martin’s home? These questions tormented me through the weekend.
Even in predominately Black communities, consider how much more it makes sense for neighbors to be acquainted. Would we have as much Black on Black crime if parents of young Black children frequently spent time conversing in the homes of other neighborhood parents? Would kids act up as much, knowing the eyes and judgments of their entire community are upon them? Isn’t it safer for me to know the predilections and predispositions of my son’s peers through close observation? Wouldn’t it be easier to identify and and stem disruptive elements alien to the community’s ethos?
In this dot com era, people are more likely to engage with associates through social media than any other avenue. People can choose to ignore conflicting viewpoints in favor of tribalistic ideas and value systems. After all, Black Twitter is rarely a blip on the radar of the platform’s conventional users. Digital walls create segregated bubbles of thought and conscience, making community interaction more vital than ever in 2016. For the safety, livelihood, and happiness of our children it is imperative that we get to know our neighbors.
So, to all my neighbors reading this that I have yet to meet, I’d like to say “Hi, I’m Demetrius, the Black guy next door!”
P.S. – Yesterday the Climacos invited me, my son, and my niece into their home. Hunter and Karys had a blast playing with Aiden and Mikee in their game room. I sat on the couch talking with Allan, his mother, and his in-laws about how much we don’t miss Northeast snow.