I remember the first time I talked with a neighbor on our block. He was an athletic guy, not quite 40 if I had to guess. His head was shaven clean, which balding men prefer these days, I think to remove any doubt from your mind as to whether they know they’re going bald. They may not have hair, but, dammit, no one is going to say they’re in denial.
“You’re going to love it here,” he said with great confidence. That sounded nice, but there was something almost pushy about it. “Or else,” I imagined him adding.
But he was right. Our block is one of those handsome but not gorgeous blocks, sparkling here and there with architectural improvement, yet still broken-down enough that a young couple will say, “I wonder how much these houses cost.”
What makes it lovable, though, are the neighbors. David Brooks observed in a recent column that liking your neighbors is a reliable predictor of happiness. Doesn’t surprise me.
The people here are not my confidants or my new best friends, but their simple overtures—a wave as I step out, all pajama, to grab the newspaper; a wordless nod from across the street, one lawn-mowing man to another; short conversations about the elementary school or the new pizza place in Del Ray—do make me happy. In this one realm of life, there are such frequent demonstrations of decency that I—cynical, introverted, and perhaps having seen a few too many movies about the evil lurking in the hearts of men—even feel a little out of place.
In the warmer months, we get together: short-notice potlucks during the week and an occasional full-scale barbecue on the weekend. The mood is always light. Our kids play, then are badgered into eating some food. Meanwhile, the parents talk and talk. Instead of trading comb-over jokes, the suburban males in our circle are kidded for their indulgences. “You will not believe how much money my husband spent on a pair of sunglasses. He’s like a woman.”
The men also make jokes about themselves, especially their hapless struggles to keep their aging homes in good repair. They don’t make jokes about the women, though, because that wouldn’t be funny.
These gatherings are drinking affairs. And sometime last year someone suggested that we get a keg. “Really, you think?” more than one person said. It sounded, first, impractical. How would this group of unabashed yuppies find their preferred kind of beer in that lowly frat-party vessel? My wife Cynthia, a recent convert to small-batch craft beers, was concerned that we’d have to settle for one of those mass-market lagers that 95 percent of Americans drink and which she has always shunned. But even if we could get a keg of one of her beloved India Pale Ales, another neighbor said, it would go to waste because those beers are so heavy and boozey and, well, a little too particular for everyone’s taste.
But the keg idea didn’t die. Its potential to save a few dollars appealed to our frugal hearts, but even more attractive was its semi-illicitness. It made you wonder what was next—smoking cigarettes behind the garage? This charming notion of acceptably naughty behavior for a group of inarguably well-mannered people hit some kind of mental sweet spot created by the daily rounds of bourgeois respectability.
We went ahead and got one. Midway through the next backyard party, the keg was, as we beer drinkers proudly say, kicked.
But then came the news that it had not been a real keg or even a half keg, the most common size. When my neighbor’s wife realized how little beer had actually been contained in the cute mini-keg her husband had brought home, she called him, the husband, a wimp. Our group of 20 or so adults had only knocked off about two Solo cups of suds per customer.
At the next party, we upped the ante and got a genuine half keg of one of those ballpark beers everyone is supposed to drink. About two-thirds of the beer was left at the end of the night.
Undaunted, we got kegs, two of the small guys, for the backyard party after that. The beer was primo stuff, with plenty of snob appeal, and we finished most of it. I myself had about six cups at my wife’s constant urging. She was out to prove that we’d drink even more beer if it were her kind.
After a few hours, though, someone spoke up and said, “Next time let’s just get bottles. Then we can save any leftovers.” There followed a neighborly round of head-nodding, as everyone seemed to agree this episode of marginal decorum had become something of a chore. Not me, though. I was wondering how to get my hands on a cigarette.