It was the first neighborhood meeting of the new year, and those in attendance were still basking in holiday glow with good will to all. Nothing too controversial clouded the horizon as the agenda unfolded seamlessly and remarkably on schedule. The final item about local undergraduate-renters was thoughtful and provocative. What does “being a good neighbor” mean? How can young and old, students and residents alike share our ‘village’ life in this tiny, crowded corner of the city? What reasonable measures can university and municipal officials take to monitor apartments doubling as faux dorm rooms for institutions woefully lacking in campus housing? And, how do we respond to newly-arriving collegians and young professionals in their first home-away-from home yearning to breath free and to let loose a little?
A group of us decided to cap the evening with dinner at a nearby eatery which lasted several hours. Emerging into the lamplight of Salem Street, we spoke in low tones mindful of our recent presentation at the residents association. Nighttime voices tend to echo down the narrow lanes of the North End where sounds waft outwards and upwards through apartment windows long after folk have gone to bed.
At the corner of Sheafe as the clock approached 11:30 p.m., we split into two groups. Some welcomed an escort to their residences several blocks distant. So I thought nothing of it when my wife Mary told me that she would be home before my return. She would accompany the first group while I volunteered for the more circuitous, calorie-burning route. And that’s why I missed an opportunity to witness North End ‘neighborliness’ put to its first test of 2014. As my wife’s group trekked down the sidewalk, they encountered two young women who, from the loud tone of their voices and conversational topic, had apparently gotten a day’s head start on weekend partying and pub crawling. Our friend Sue turned to them with an urgent whisper:
“Shhhhh! There are people asleep already. It’s late!”
It was spoken without malice. Yet, that did it for one of the young ladies who, momentarily startled, mouthed off at the decibel level of a leaf-blower:
“Get a grip! God forbid anyone should be having fun! We live here and have a right to talk”, she snarled.
Discretion seemed advisable now that a teachable moment had been incinerated. So Mary and Sue continued on their way, and, that might have been the end of that. But, my wife hesitated after a few paces and began to count one Mississippi, two Mississippi … Having been married to her these 39 years, I would not have needed a crystal ball to predict what she might say next. You shoot a BB across her bow; she responds with a torpedo midship to your engine room.
“You two need to go back to the ‘burbs. You’re obviously not suited for city living.”
There is not a four-letter word, string of vulgarities, or colorful expression that could have matched the power of Mary’s verbal shot. Stung and sputtering, the loud one retorted from a distance:
“You silver-haired ______ !!! (word that rhymes with a synonym for suture) I’ve lived here all my life!” (This was a fib, Mary was certain. Maybe the gal really meant to say that she grew up in West Roxbury.)
Ah, that’s the girl I married. Gray hair since nineteen. So much for ‘Reality Neighborhood’ and life in our urban village. Too bad that Jane Jacobs in her famous chronicle never set aside a chapter on how to cope with gentrification in the North End – and with slights, real or imagined. Anyway, Happy New Year!
(North End resident, Thomas F. Schiavoni writes about neighborhood life and city living.)