What do we owe our neighbors in this internet age?
I've been rattled thinking about something that happened last week. At the time, I labelled it "not suitable for blogging," but it's still on my mind...
As you know, I live alone and don't seem to cook for myself, so I eat a lot of shredded wheat and bananas - breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Sometimes I suspect I'm about to get tired of shredded wheat, so I trawl for dinner companions at Craig's List. I propose thusly: "have dinner with a friendly musician..."
This is a pretty successful, low-risk proposition; at worst my dinner companion and I bore each other for an hour. No harm has been done, and at least we've gotten out of our respective houses and had a decent meal.
Sometimes we don't bore each other too badly, and in that case we do it again. In one case, I'd been having dinner once a week with a guy for almost six months - "that's longer than my second marriage lasted!" he joked.
This guy has serious health problems, though they aren't evident when you meet him, and he seemed to me to be very much alone - he moved here from up north by himself and lives further out in the woods than I do, in an apartment (found on Craig's List) over a deserted woodshop.
So anyway, for these months of weekly dinners I had it in my mind that, perhaps, one day this friend would need help from me, and though our friendship was in most senses quite casual, I would feel I owed him that help.
Last week I thought the time had come. See, this guy has been, unlike many tipos found on Craig's List, reliable and genuine with me - he showed up, on time, on the day specified, in the place specified, week after week. He kept in touch by email and we even talked on the phone occasionally. But last Monday I realized he hadn't been answering my emails, hadn't responded to my phone calls, in fact had not confirmed our dinner plans, and so, for the first time in months, we'd miss a Monday meeting.
He still didn't answer emails or phone calls the next day, nor the day after that. This was so unusual I started to be afraid something had happened to him.
Maybe I'm a little more paranoid than most people would be, but -- my own mother died this way. Cooking breakfast, she suddenly suffered a cerebral aneurysm and fell to the floor. Since she had a job - and obviously hadn't shown up for work that day - a co-worker "swung by" that night to check up on her and found her lying on the floor, still conscious. It was reported to me that, when found on the floor in the kitchen, my mom gestured mutely towards the stove, which had been on all day, ready for the pan of eggs which never made it to the burner, worrying her, hour after hour, as she lay on the floor unable to reach it. After seeing her co-worker turn off the stove, my mom went into a coma and never woke again.
In the 28 years since that happened, I have thought often about my mother, a woman who lived alone, and the way she died. I wondered what would have happened if the co-worker hadn't come by.
And in these past years when I've been living alone out here in the woods, I've thought often about what would happen if I were suddenly stricken as my mother was. How long would it take anybody to notice I wasn't answering my phone? I don't have a "job" and I'm not generally very good at returning phone messages... I morbidly collect these stories we see online of people who are found, mummified, in front of their television sets, years after their deaths...
So anyway, by Wednesday night I'd worried myself into a frenzy over this guy. On the one hand, I'd never been to his house and had no relation to him other than our casual Monday dinners. On the other hand - if not me, then who? He has no job, no family, nobody checking up on him...
Suddenly convinced something was terribly wrong, I realized retroactively I'd had a responsibility towards him from the very moment I first noticed he'd gone missing - and I'd blown it.
I wasn't raised to be a good neighbor - my parents, mired in misery, led the selfish every-man-for-himself suburban life. I didn't learn the neighborly things by observation - the charitable giving, the making of casseroles for funerals, not even the taking care of the neighbors' pets. We were a fairly solitary island there amongst the string of houses on our street. So "the right thing" doesn't necessarily come naturally to me.
By Wednesday night I was electrified by alarm. After hours of worry I finally slept two hours, then woke up at four and deliberated some more. I'd looked up the guy's address and planned to go there at a decent hour. When to implement my rescue mission?
If (a) he really had been lying stricken on the floor for days, every hour I delayed might make a difference to his survival. Or maybe he was already dead! But if (b) he was fine and had just been being flaky for some unknown reason, I would frighten him and embarrass myself by showing up in the dark and knocking on his door.
I left the house at 7:45 am, clutching the map directing me to his corner of the woods. En route I called my friend Judy. I started crying hysterically, convinced I had waited far too long, been a "bad neighbor," that the guy would be dead and it would be my fault. She said, "Promise me if you get there and he doesn't answer the door, you won't go in, you'll call 911. Promise. It's been days, Melinama..."
I drove and cried, and got lost and cried, got back on the right route and cried some more, then finally I arrived...
And he was fine. I was flabbergasted. I explained why I was there (but he didn't explain why he hadn't answered his phone or email), apologized, and left.
So on the one hand, it was a false alarm; thank God, the fact that I reacted to his anomalous behavior with days of post-modern indifference didn't have consequences. For this I'm very thankful.
On the other hand, his flaky behavior reinforced this lesson: people you meet online don't behave the way you'd expect friends to behave. They just appear one day in your in-box, so some other day they'll probably disappear the same way.
I've been thinking a lot since then about friendship, and what people in this shattered modern world owe each other. I don't mean charitable giving, I've made a lot of progress with that (it's something you can do with a pen, a checkbook, and a stamp) - I mean actual, physical aid in real time. I have no answers, just questions. Since this musing has been interfering with my blogging, I decided to share it with you and see if you have any thoughts for me.
I'm gonna go have some shredded wheat now.
Technorati Tags: Philosophy, Friendship, Neighbors, Internet