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Kathleen Murphy column: Pulling the masks off faceless neighbors

Kathleen Murphy

I live in Duluth on a somewhat busy road. It's not Grand Avenue or 21st Avenue East. People aren't running for their lives to cross to the corner market like they do at 6th Avenue East. But it's busy. A semi-major thoroughfare. City buses pass by on a regular basis. If it snows overnight and I was foolish enough to leave my car on the street, the city plows build an impenetrable snow fort around it long before I've hit my snooze button for the first time.

But I've never had to wait more than two to three cars before crossing. So "busy" isn't the reason it took me 15 months to meet my neighbors across the street. I could have safely crossed at any time and knocked on their doors to introduce myself. But I didn't.

I used to think my reluctance to cross a street and introduce myself was a sign of the times. A society turning inward, if you will. Then I remembered that I grew up on a fairly quiet street on the east side of Duluth. We didn't know our neighbors across the street then, either. At least not well. We knew our alley neighbors, the neighbors who shared our lived-in backyard rather than the tidy front yard. Just as I do now. So perhaps my failure to cross the road came from growing up in a tight-knit community centered around the alley.

My neighbors directly next to me — who have lived in the neighborhood for almost 20 years and whom I did meet quickly after moving in — finally picked up the slack for me and introduced me to the people who live in the house directly across from mine. It turned out, I knew them. Not personally, but I knew who they were through other channels.

Days later, I asked the same next-door neighbors to fill me in on who lived in the other house across the street. The woman who lived there, it turned out, I did personally know. In fact, I'd first met her in the mid-1980s, back when I lived on that quiet street.

I have vivid memories of being out with my parents, bored out of my mind as they chatted with people they'd just "bumped into." Anyone who was once young has this same memory, I am certain. Seasons would pass as we waited, our parents discussing grown-up things we would never, ever relate to. Of course, I tortured my own children with the same tactic, so I am now privy to the knowledge that the time I spent waiting was probably not long. Bored children suck all the fun out of chatting.

The woman who lives across the street from me now was one of the people my mother would often "bump into" and chat with. Even with three decades separating the last time I'd seen her, I would have recognized her anywhere. But for 15 months, I didn't know she lived across the street from me.

Duluth is small like that. I'm not surprised these people who had been faceless to me the day before were people I actually knew. But I was a little surprised to discover that such an easily overcome boundary had set up camp in my head, limiting my notion of what makes a neighborhood. I like my neighbors across the street. It is comforting to know that we are all watching out for each other, creating a neighborhood.

So do me a favor: If you live on a busy street, cross over to meet your neighbors. You might be surprised to find who is living there. Just make sure to look both ways before crossing. It is, after all, a busy road.

Kathleen Murphy is a freelance journalist who lives and works in Duluth. Write to her at kmurphywrites@gmail.com.

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