Potlucks reveal how neighbors really feel
Last year, after my husband, Francis, transitioned out of the military and and we moved off base, I had to find new friends. Again. This isn’t easy at age 52, when most of my peers have well-established social circles with little room for newbies.
But luckily, we moved to a small community where neighborhood “porch parties” are customary. These informal outdoor affairs have simple rules — the host supplies the meat and some drinks, and everyone brings a dish and bottle to share. After years of attending military potlucks, we were relieved to be on familiar ground and waited patiently for an invitation.
A month ago, Francis and I were invited to a porch party on Green Lane, which intersects Friendship Street. The Green Lane couples had been having porch parties for more than 20 years, and had raised children, suffered illnesses, welcomed grandchildren, and experienced life’s ups and downs together.
We were curious about our new neighbors’ lives, and asked lots of naive questions. Little did we know, our innocent chit-chat would dredge up old animosities that had banished some neighbors from the porch party scene.
“Aren’t the people who live at number 32 nice?” I asked in blissful ignorance, pointing to the big house two doors down.
“Well,” the hostess frowned after a pregnant pause, “they’re a bit stuffy.” The other women in the Green Lane gaggle gave each other knowing glances.
“Oh, well, what about Fin next door? He’s a real character, isn’t he? Is he coming tonight?” I inquired, pointing to the house on the other side of the porch.
Another neighbor put a cupped hand to her mouth and whispered, “definitely not. He tends to pop off.”
As we ate barbecued chicken and sipped beer, I learned about one neighbor’s drinking problem, another neighbor’s PTSD-induced hostilities, and the rivalry between laid-back Green Lane and snooty Friendship Street.
Walking home that night, I was thankful that frequent military moves had spared us the burden of knowing neighbors long enough to find something to hate about them. At every duty station, the military communities were relatively open and inclusive. We made friends fast because we didn’t have much time together. Everyone was invited to gatherings. Be it beers in our driveway, a cookout on our stairwell patio, a fire pit in our backyard or happy hour at the base dog park, everyone came with a dish or bottle to share.
A couple of weeks after the Green Lane party, the neighbor at the end of Friendship Street invited us to another porch party. Friendship Street ends at the waterfront where the houses and people are undoubtedly fancier. Yet the informal party rules and social dynamics are essentially the same.
Just like the Green Lane party, Francis and I asked innocent questions that inadvertently exposed acrimonious conflicts. Over burgers and wine, we heard about noise complaints filed over an automatic generator and the grievance reported about the height of new construction.
We wanted to stick our fingers in our ears and yell, “LALALALALA I can’t hear you!,” but we listened to our neighbors’ resentments and tried to change the subject.
Last week, Francis and I decided that it was our turn to throw a porch party. We kept the customary potluck rules, but decided that military-style camaraderie would dictate the invite list. Instead of recognizing the old grudges between our neighbors, we would do what we did for 23 years in the military. We would invite everyone.
The Green Lane folks, the Friendship Street neighbors, the stuffy family, Fin, the fancy people in the big houses, the problem drinker, the angry veteran, the litigious ones who filed complaints and grievances, and even the guy who complained last month that our cars were taking up too much room in the street.
I’ll make my Kalua pulled pork, Francis will ice down drinks, we’ll put our cornhole boards in the yard. And if our neighbors get hostile, we might even have fireworks.