Thanksgiving With the Neighbors

by Jason Peters on November 25, 2009 · 13 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Culture, High & Low


Rock Island, IL

A little over eleven years ago my wife and I put our daughter, now almost twelve (and memorizing a poem a day), in her stroller and walked from our rented condo to take a look at the house we now live in but were then closing on. The neighbors to the north came out to greet us, and we had a very pleasant exchange with them. Then they told us they were about to go on vacation and that their destination coincided with a NASCAR event.

We aren’t NASCAR people, but that didn’t stop us from buying the house and moving in anyway. What a great move it has turned out to be.

At the time a thick hedge separated our front yard from theirs. We quickly discovered that if our daughter wandered on the other side of the hedge, we couldn’t see her. So I cut the thing down, hauled it away, and chopped out the stumps. “This damned hedge is unneighborly,” I told our neighbors, whom I had just deprived of at least one dangling place for their Christmas lights.

But the neighbors adjusted. They had raised three girls. They understood why we wanted to be able to see ours.

And now we have this long open continuous front yard. We can actually see each other and put down our rakes of a Saturday afternoon; we can walk toward each other to talk about the weekend’s projects and the football scores. From their front porch our neighbors can see my boys catching the football, and to these great feats of athleticism they can lend their cheers, and do.

And tomorrow we and our neighbors to the north will celebrate Thanksgiving together—again.

But here’s the thing: whereas I’m a “localist” who lives nowhere near any sibling, parent, or in-law, our NASCAR neighbors, who I doubt have ever used the word “localist,” live near all three of their daughters and all of their grandchildren, all of whom visit and dine with them every Sunday. And tomorrow all of us—the Peters Five and our neighbors and their daughters and their daughters’ husbands and all the grandchildren and a few friends to boot—will gather around their table, each of us having supplied something for the feast, and we will break bread and carve turkeys together.

They are all Chicago Bears fans by birth and Fighting Irish fans by religion, and we likewise are loyal to the teams of our inheriting: the up-and-coming Detroit Lions (two wins so far this year) and the middling Michigan State Spartans. But Thursday we Orthodox are going to dine with those apostate Catholics. We are going to break the Advent fast with a vengeance. We are going to cause a ruckus. I might even accept a Bud Light.

Our kids love our neighbors. They love our neighbors so much that when we can’t find our children we’re sure they’re next door with people who really love them—that is, people who provide television. We’re not so good at providing that, and we don’t much care for it, but we do care for our neighbors who love our kids and invite them into their house and who look after them when we need an extra set of eyes—because, as they say, that’s what neighbors do.

My wife’s a cardiac nurse and I (though I’m ashamed to admit it) am a college professor; our neighbors, on the other hand, are not college-educated. But they are great neighbors, and we love them. We would take them any day over just about any of our colleagues who might move in next door. Mr. Larry and Miss Laurie are heaven-sent. They are better people than almost all the nurses and physicians and professors and administrators we work with. Come to think of it, they are better people than either of us. Whenever we think about moving into a house in which my study won’t have to double as the kids’ playroom, or one that affords more space out back for our boys to wage B-B gun wars, we think of whom we’d be leaving. It wouldn’t be easy to leave our NASCAR neighbors. Because—let’s be plain—they know how to be neighbors, and most people with our credentials don’t have a clue. Our neighbors know where they are and so have some sense of who they are.

That’s called putting first things first. A good localist, if he can help it, won’t get things all bass ackwards.

The other day I related my Thanksgiving plans to a chatty woman who was fussing over my hair in her own independent little salon. (She’s got some competition from a high-overhead chain just up the street, but what little money I’ll part with for being shorn a few times a year goes to her. Plus her shop sits serendipitously next to a bar whence flows Guinness Stout.) Her response to this was, “Oh, that’s neat. I don’t really know my neighbors.”

Several things have conspired against us to make this not knowing our neighbors more common than it should be, not the least of which are living arrangements designed not for the foot but for the automobile and its obligatory remote garage-door opener. It’s pretty easy in a lot of places not to know your neighbors. Plus your neighbors are sometimes jack-asses, and sometimes you are.

Some of my neighbors are bigots. Some are drunks. Some are litigious and distrustful and mean and unfriendly and dull. Some have no clue that they actually live in our neighborhood. Some need to go to parenting school. But all of them, notwithstanding what they deserve, are people whom we try to treat with kindness and neighborliness. Even I, a crank who tinkers and putzes about on the weekends with beer and cigars and “The ’70s with Steve Goddard” playing on the garage radio, should be so treated. Use every man after his desert, says Hamlet, and who shall ’scape whipping?

I don’t have the precise living arrangements I would like to have. I would prefer more land and privacy and stillness. I’d like a small woods and a bank of snow chilling a case of IPA and a fire on the ground to stand by. But I’m where I am. The built space is human in scale. I can walk everywhere I need to be, and I do. To a considerable though not complete degree I can spend my money with my friends rather than with my enemies. And thanks to the example of some unlettered neighbors, with whom I’ll share a drink and a dead bird tomorrow, I can endeavor to be a good neighbor.

I’m like State Farm! I guess that makes me an anti-federalist agrarian.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Bob Cheeks November 25, 2009 at 7:53 am

Ok, I just now caught the picture…and snorted coffee onto my keyboard!
It’s obvious of course that Global Warming is about to destroy life on Earth given the fact that its damn near December and “Pa’s” in his tee shirt and “Ma’s” bulbous breasts are exposed due to the incredible man-generated heat. For that reason the environmentally unfriendly celebrations on Thanksgiving Day should stop.
As Algore says: “The planet has a fever!”

avatar iw November 25, 2009 at 10:21 am

“NASCAR” people I would take any day as neighbors. As a matter of fact most people I know like NASCAR. I think I would rather live next door to one than some stodgy Professor. Happy Thanksgiving.

avatar Thomas G. November 25, 2009 at 11:14 am

Your description of the neighbors is as accurate a portrayal of the Gahr clan as has ever been written. Makes me weepy for my old Batavia home. To all the other Front Porchers out there, be they NASCAR loving, Fighting Irish, white trash Catholic like my beloved Family, or over educated displaced Meritocrats like myself, I hope you have a wonderful Holiday. Tomorrow I am giving thanks for Place, Limits, Liberty, Love and all the other values we hold so dear. God Bless

avatar Axe Head November 25, 2009 at 11:14 am

You know James Howard Kunstler would look at your NASCAR neighbors and see nascent “Cornpone Nazis.”

avatar Chris Floyd November 25, 2009 at 11:57 am

Ol’ Gilbert Keith Chesterton doesn’t get quoted around here as often as he should:

We make our friends; we make our enemies; but God makes our next-door neighbour. Hence he comes to us clad in all the careless terrors of nature; he is as strange as the stars, as reckless and indifferent as the rain. He is Man, the most terrible of the beasts. That is why the old religions and the old scriptural language showed so sharp a wisdom when they spoke, not of one’s duty towards humanity, but one’s duty towards one’s neighbour. The duty towards humanity may often take the form of some choice which is personal or even pleasurable. That duty may be a hobby; it may even be a dissipation. We may work in the East End because we are peculiarly fitted to work in the East End, or because we think we are; we may fight for the cause of international peace because we are very fond of fighting. The most monstrous martyrdom, the most repulsive experience, may be the result of choice or a kind of taste. We may be so made as to be particularly fond of lunatics or specially interested in leprosy. We may love negroes because they are black or German Socialists because they are pedantic. But we have to love our neighbour because he is there — a much more alarming reason for a much more serious operation. He is the sample of humanity which is actually given us. Precisely because he may be anybody he is everybody. He is a symbol because he is an accident.

avatar D.W. Sabin November 25, 2009 at 3:12 pm

Now now Axe Head, channeling Kunstler in this manner seems hasty. JHK can be downright neighborly despite his obstreperous nature and NASCAR-related invective.

C. Floyd…thanks for the Chesterton quote….negroes and German Socialists in one sentence …thats a first.

Peters, though you have much to be ashamed of, I would assert that , in your sordid case, being a college professor is way down the list. Actually, aside from your facility with a wrench or gapping tool…and your membership in the Cult of Laphroaig… is one of your few redeeming qualities. Next time , please put a thoracic tattoo on chain smokin granny. And where, perchance, are the gloomy teens with the pants drooping down around their skinny thighs or various skull piercings?

avatar John Ryan November 25, 2009 at 6:13 pm

This liberal, social democrat loved the article. Happy Thanksgiving Mr. Peters.

avatar Jeremy Beer November 25, 2009 at 7:26 pm

Floyd, that’s a wonderful Chesterton quote. You’ve my Thanksgiving thanks for it.

avatar woodcutter November 26, 2009 at 7:10 am

Good work jason!

avatar Anamaria November 27, 2009 at 2:51 pm

This is absolutely lovely. Thank you.

It’s interesting that it is the (over?) educated people who need concepts like “localist” only to re-learn truths that people have known for thousands of years. And (generally) we still don’t apply them as well.

avatar Student November 28, 2009 at 8:52 pm

This is the most condescending thing I’ve ever read.

avatar Tom November 30, 2009 at 10:11 am

This is the most condescending thing I’ve ever read.

You must be new to the Porch…

But here’s the thing: whereas I’m a “localist” who lives nowhere near any sibling, parent, or in-law, our NASCAR neighbors, who I’m fairly certain have never used the word “localist,” live near all three of their daughters and all of their grandchildren, all of whom visit and dine with them every Sunday.

I have thought about this irony often and just as often pondered the cause of it. I think part of it has to do with the fact that many people of meager means live a “localist” lifestyle by necessity while raising their children to “reach for better things.” Thus, there is a reason many people living the “localist” lifestyle don’t use that word: they don’t want to live the “localist” lifestyle anymore than anyone else.

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