While eating breakfast at Guzzetta’s house after the first sleepover night, Lovenheim thought, This is so simple. Why don’t we do this? Why do I eat breakfast alone in my house and he eats breakfast alone in his house? Why is something so simple as one of us coming over and having a piece of toast with the other person as we talk about the morning paper so radical? How did that happen? I don’t get why we don’t do that.
A simple breakfast or two could have saved Lovenheim and Guzzetta a lot of quiet, solo mornings. And with Guzzetta’s daughter more than 20 minutes away, it could have saved the former doctor a very painful hour alone that he had suffered through some time earlier.
“This man served his community his whole life, and when he has a back spasm in the middle of the night, he has nobody to call on the street for help,” says Lovenheim.
In fact, that was one of the common threads that ran through many of his neighbors’ stories. They just didn’t know anybody on the block well enough to call when they needed help. But another thread linked many of the neighbors: They wanted that dynamic to change.
WHEN LOVENHEIM’S BOOK ARRIVED, I asked my (usually fun and sensible) editors at American Way if they wanted a piece exploring community in America or a profile of Lovenheim or, well, anything aside from a piece where I would pack a bag, walk down the block and sleep at a neighbor’s house.
So I tried to bargain with them. How about if I fly to Rochester and do a sleepover at Lovenheim’s house?
What if I just offer to make people dinner at my house?
What if …
No. No. No.
Though I grew up in my current neighborhood, I had spent the last 17 years living in New York City (a mere 12 miles away). I had returned to suburbia five months earlier and, aside from a few neighbors here and there, didn’t know most of the people on the block by sight anymore. Frankly, the idea of knocking on the doors of these very neighbors made me want to take up a new career or, at least, turn down the assignment.
But then the little sister in me kicked in, the part of my brain that doesn’t like to be defeated by challenges. I said yes.
I went outside on a scouting mission. I walked up and down the block, considering each house, thinking about the little I knew of the people inside. The only house where I really knew the neighbors was right next door. That seemed like cheating, so I dismissed them as contenders.
I even rang one doorbell. (And my heart raced as though I were a kid who had been dared to ring the bell of the neighborhood’s haunted house.) Nobody was home.
So I added “drop note about Lovenheim project in neighbors’ mailboxes” to my calendar and forgot about it for a few weeks.
But Mother Nature had other ideas.
BEEP BEEP BEEP. Shrieeeeeeeeeeeeek!
The carbon monoxide detector. Suddenly, I wanted nothing more than to know every one of my neighbors. I wanted all of their phone numbers and e-mail addresses. I wished I had invited them all over for homemade chili.
Selfish? Perhaps. But, looking back, I know I want my neighbors to feel they could call on me as well.
I wanted to understand how Lovenheim felt after he’d logged nine sleepovers: “The street feels much more like an extension of my home.”
Luckily, the neighbor I do know was home. And, as I lay in the spare bedroom laughing, I felt safe. My home was bigger than I realized. It stretched next door.
But now that’s not nearly good enough. The sleepover project tumbles through my mind every time I leave my house now. Every time. And it’s been weeks. I’ve been trying to figure out why it made me so uncomfortable, why — and I realize how awful this makes me sound — I preferred not knowing my neighbors. Now, the street that once felt a bit too small feels a little empty.
A stunt proposed by my editors has turned into a quest to change the way I’m involved with my own community. Lovenheim’s sleepovers may not be my way in, but perhaps there are some coffee chats in my future. Or walks around the neighborhood, during which I’m a bit friendlier and more open to conversation.
First, though, I need to knock on a few doors. It’s time for me to introduce myself.
Peter Lovenheim’s In the Neighborhood: The Search for Community on an American Street, One Sleepover at a Time (Perigee, $24) is available at major book retailers, including Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble and Borders.