Monday, February 28, 2011

Won't you be my Neighbor?

Last week was our last session of Public Administration and Its Environments, the first class in the MPA program I started. It’s gone by quickly, and overall, I’m surprisingly pleased (or pleasantly surprised?) with the program and with our first professor. His lectures don’t just apply to the kind of work I do, but are germane in the broader sense and usually give me something stimulating to consider as I drive home late on Wednesday nights.

Things certainly aren’t looking good for local government- aside from the strain of the economy and the resulting decrease in tax revenue, in general, people just don’t want to give their money to the City. I mean, it’s understandable- times are tough and trust in government is low. But you can’t and shouldn’t expect the same level of services. If you thought those pot holes on your street took a long time to fill before, you can get used to swerving around them for a long, long time. Anyway, the point our professor made is that as services get further reduced, citizens are going to have to work together and partner with the local government to maintain their communities. He talked about old school Jeffersonian democracy- small, energized groups of citizens “barn raising” with their neighbors and getting off their haunches to make a difference. Somehow, this didn’t come across as preachy. Shocking, I know. I think this is in part due to the boarder scope of his lecture and in part due to his realism. For example, he joked that things can “get really bitchy” at community meetings at his friend’s organic farm compound in Northern California. He acknowledged how difficult it is to come home after a long day at work and put energy into your community, or hell, even your next door neighbor. Plus, everyone’s afraid to fail. Everyone’s doubtful that any sort of grass roots action can be effectual, or at least, effectual for them. I know I am. I don’t even make it down to the local farmers market a block away on the weekends anymore.

Our prof also talked about the concept of sharing with your neighbors so that you can “own less and have more.” He claims the only reason he can afford to live in Santa Barbara is because of a serendipitous series of sharing-type events. There’s even a Nolo book on sharing- the same company that gives doles out legal advice about taxes, death and divorce- called: The Sharing Solution

It contains resources, sample contracts and MOUs for sharing a car, childcare, a vacation home, a primary residence, whatever. It’s a great idea- I mean, why don’t we do this more? Does every house on the block need its own lawn mower? (Ok, poor example, but you get the idea) Or what about a nanny? Couldn’t neighbors share child and elder care? I don’t even know anyone’s name in my small apartment complex. It’s like the opposite of whatever Melrose Place was about. I tried having a little party once and invited neighbors; the girl next door who I can sometimes hear stumbling around through the bedroom wall came over for a split second to check out my apartment and then her phone rang and she left. Another chick came over who seemed promising, but we never saw each other again. Ever. It’s so bizarre, really. I once heard that apartment dwellers have to act isolationist because we’re literally living on top of each other and need to psychologically stake out our own space. Still- how many times have I wished I could ask a neighbor of mine for a lime or a lemon? (I don’t bake, so a cup of sugar or milk doesn’t really apply) But I never have and probably never will. I wouldn’t dare knock on their door; and the thought of someone knocking on mine is almost creepy.

This may have to do with a sense of transience- I know I won’t be living in that apartment building on Vermont Avenue for the rest of my life. Still, if I cared to invest a modicum of energy into knowing my neighbors, I would certainly benefit. Take the guys in the building next door who have a sort of unofficial (and certainly unpermited) auto shop in the back of their apartment. I pull my car out every morning next to their junky cars, and pull up right next to the scene every night. I can’t stand it. There’s one recognizable bearded guy who I usually try to hastily avoid, and then a rotating mix of helpers. They’re not there all the time, but their shitty cars are. Water from all the rains has accumulated around the spare tires laying on the concrete. I expect to come home one night to see Heathcliff and his gang lounging on one of the Jeeps with a fish skeleton in his mouth. It’s an eyesore.

That said, when I was about to drive to Vegas the other weekend, my engine light came on. It never comes on. Ugghhhh…. There’s not a chore I hate much more than dealing with getting my car maintained and fixed. I swear, if I had automotive skill and capital to spare, I’d spearhead a chain of auto-repair places aimed at the discerning female customer. You’d make an appointment online, like an exercise class or an eye exam. There would be dedicated receptionists that were well-versed in customer service. You’d get a rental car or a ride to work within 5 miles if the job was going to take more than an hour. There would be lots of cushy seats for those who wanted to wait, with magazines and maybe even an adjacent nail salon. Relaxing music would stream in. It would be pleasant and stylish.

Instead, I ended up having to wait outside of a Pep Boys in Pasadena until they opened at 8 a.m., jockey for first in line with other hurried looking customers in suits, wait around for them to deal with the engine light, and then come in late to work. On the way to Vegas, the light reappeared, and I had to waste time in Vegas going to a local guy to check it out again.

If I had bothered to make friends, or even acquaintances, with the ersatz auto shop next door, I could have asked them to do the quick diagnostic and saved myself a ton of psychological hassle, as well as time. Life could be easier if we put ourselves out there even a little bit and got to know our neighbors. We could barter services! My mom does this with the woman who cleans her house. I don’t think she’s paid her in months- she just trades junk with her (which is resold as “antiques”). It makes sense, and it may make sense to do in a more mindful and concerted way. Now if only I could find someone next door who could do a mean blow out…

1 comment:

  1. I love this entry, Tiff! Joel and I feel super lucky to have two of our best friends as neighbors. The friend part came first, but the neighbor part has taken our relationship to a very special level, and it's all because we share more and rely on each other more for everyday, often mundane things. We also harbor fantasies of part time, commune-esque living. Part of what I find scary about growing old, settling down, gaining responsibility, and having babies is the isolation that I associate with the modern day nuclear family. XOX!