Contrary to popular belief, social networking existed long before the Internet gave us applications like MySpace, Facebook and LinkedIn.
Our children are not the first generation to live their lives in full view of relatives, friends and acquaintances. In the tenements of the Lower East Side near the turn of the 20th century, large families crammed themselves into one or two rooms, while sharing a bathroom down the hall with other, equally large families. Often, those other families would be headed by brothers, sisters or cousins who had recently emigrated together from Europe. Any tenement might be stuffed with grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins and in-laws.
The expansion of subways to the outer boroughs of New York City, especially the Bronx, meant a much nicer standard of living for the working class. Newly built apartments had their own bathrooms. Apartment houses were built in “u” shapes around courtyards, so each room could have a window. A single family might have two or even three bedrooms, all of them separate from the kitchen where meals would be cooked and eaten. My parents’ families were among those that gravitated to the Bronx in the years before World War II.
When they came, they brought all the relatives with them. They did not just settle in the same neighborhoods. They settled in the same buildings or in adjacent buildings. Sons and daughters would get married and set up housekeeping down the hallway from their parents. Cooking ingredients and newspapers were readily passed between open windows overlooking those narrow courtyards. If your brother dated a girl, you would get to know not just the girl, but also her parents and siblings. There were always siblings in those days. Chances were good that you would end up dating one of those siblings, too.
I suppose growing up in this environment meant you either had to like being around people, or else go insane. My parents liked being around people. My mother had a circle of girlfriends who stayed with her from junior high school into middle age. My father joined the Navy, and, later, a fraternal lodge (the Knights of Pythias) and a union. He worked as a supermarket produce clerk, dispensing conversation and cabbage in equal measures.
To my parents, having a neighbor meant having a friend. I was about 4 years old when a family with three small girls moved across the hall from us. The younger two, who were near my age, became my playmates, while the parents visited each other’s homes every night. The girls’ father joined my father’s lodge.
The process repeated itself after we moved when I was 11. Our new next-door neighbors were a bit older than my parents, and their daughter was already grown. But they visited each other’s kitchens frequently. After Joe died, his widow Charlotte knocked on our door every night at 7 p.m. Every night she was surprised to find that we were still eating dinner, since my parents both worked and could not start cooking until around 6 o’clock. But Charlotte came in anyway, watched us finish, and then stayed for coffee and companionship until around 9 or 10 p.m. This nightly ritual continued until Charlotte died in 1986, several years after I got married.
A few years later, my parents retired to a low-rise condominium complex in New Jersey. The process repeated itself. They made friends with most of the families who lived around them, not deterred in the least that many of those families were young couples that had small children. Children were always welcome in my parents’ home. My mother keeps candy and chocolate stashed behind almost every door that is at child’s-eye level. Kids soon realize that a visit to my parents usually means a productive scavenger hunt. But somewhere along the way, they start coming for the company as well as the chocolate.
Both of my parents were gregarious people, but especially my father. If you met him, you were his friend. If you were his friend’s friend, you were his friend, at least as far as he was concerned. No detail was too personal to be shared: Political and religious beliefs, travel plans, children’s and grandchildren’s accomplishments, medical problems — it was all fair game.
I am very different. My life revolves around close family, a small circle of friends and colleagues, and work. My job brings me into close relationships with many clients’ families, and I enjoy that aspect of my profession very much — so much that, when I am interviewing new employees, I always stress that, at our firm, the concept of “personal financial planning” emphasizes the “personal” even more than the “financial.” But I’m quite capable of living across the street from someone for a decade without ever saying much more than hello.
Not my father. Give him a few days at my apartment in Fort Lauderdale, and he would ride the elevator in that 31-story tower as though he were the mayor, greeting people by name when they got on and off. My daughter told me this week that, a few months ago, she was sunning herself on the pool deck when my father came down to visit. He spotted a young mother and child in the water, and wheeled his walker to the edge of the pool to strike up a conversation. His granddaughter kept a wary eye on things, ready to dive in after him if he lost his balance.
As I lay in bed in the predawn darkness on the morning of his funeral, I realized that my father and I looked at doors from different perspectives. A door is something I shut to keep the world out. It was something he opened to let the world in.
I mentioned this a few hours later at his service. Being winter in New Jersey, a lot of my parents’ friends — those who survive — are in Florida. But the senior citizens’ center they attended still brought a busload of people who endured the cold rather than let their beloved friend go without saying goodbye.
My father died Sunday of cancer. He is survived by his wife of 64 years, two sons, two daughters-in-law, three granddaughters, one sister (another sister died earlier this year), many nieces, nephews and cousins, and, because the man never touched a computer, more friends than Facebook or I will ever be able to count.