I picked up my niece from school one day last spring. We rode home, like always, chatting about her day and probably listening to Prince. When we pulled onto our street, we noticed a little boy walking around outside. Unattended. It was the end of the school day, and the buses were doing drop-offs. Maybe he’s just excitedly waiting for an older sibling, I thought. We parked in front of the house, and the school buses came and went. None of the older boys or girls came over to him.
I didn’t like how close the little boy was to the curb, so when we parked, instead of going inside my niece and I walked over to him—not too close and not too fast. We didn’t want him to think we were playing a game and run away or dart out into the middle of the street. My niece loves children, a veritable teenaged Mary Poppins, so she’s chatting up this little one while I’m looking around for the grown-ups who must surely be with him.
He was adorable. He looked about 3 or 4 years old and was only semi-verbal. That was enough to tell us his name but not where he lived. We encouraged him to lead the way, and we walked with him, hoping he would just head back home. For a while we walked…and walked…wandering with him up and down the block. We peeked into open yards, scoped out second floor balconies, hoping someone was looking for him as well.
I started to get nervous and unsettled. Where were his adults? Who had him out here like this, by himself? Then I got upset with myself. How long have I lived on this block? Why don’t I already know who this boy is and who his people are? Why don’t I really know any of my neighbors?
I chalked it up to nature and nurture. I am, somewhat, introverted, and I really enjoy my own company. Then, there’s where and how I was raised. I’ve been in the Midwest for quite some time, but I was born and raised on the east coast—prime “mind your business”, “what’s it to ya’?!” territory. Plus, as a young Black girl, I was taught to be observant, vigilant, and aware of my surroundings at all times. Add to that the lessons of public transit, and I’d developed a very solid “don’t start none, won’t be none” disposition.
That’s useful for riding the Path Train and the subway, but less so for helping a toddler find his family.
My niece and I tried to come up with a plan. She suggested we knock on a few nearby doors; I text my friend who recently finished her degree in social work to ask if she had any ideas. In the meantime, I snuck a photo of the little boy in case I needed it later. (I prayed not to need it later.) Our knocks went unanswered. Then, a woman emerged from a back door and came over to us. The little boy recognized her, and she introduced herself as his grandmother.
I introduced myself and told her we lived nearby. The grandmother told us that she was often left to babysit and proceeded to overshare about her daughter—what she was and wasn’t doing with her life and for her kid. I wanted to know my neighbors, but not this well. My niece and I politely departed and walked up the block to our house. We came inside and didn’t talk much about what had happened. But I wondered what my niece thought of the whole thing, and I hoped I’d done the right thing.
My social worker friend got back to me, and I was happy to tell her that the situation had been resolved. But I kept that photo in my phone for a while longer—just in case (call me a skeptic). Since then, I’ve avoided only one neighborhood block party, but I did check on the folks next door during a bad storm and shared about their downed powerline when I called the energy company. Baby steps.
So many lines, lyrics, and clichés come to mind: people who need people are the luckiest people… love’s in need of love today… won’t you be my neighbor… But there’s truth to it all. Community is essential and, as corny as it sounds, we need each other. So, might as well start with the ones who are literally, geographically, the closest to you.
Have you gotten to know your neighbors? Why or why not?Leave a Comment