Tuesday 16 July 2013

Hanging Out and Having a Laugh


Out in the Hood 
Photograph by David Alan Harvey

The sidewalk outside a liquor store doubles as a front porch for two Harlemites. Rather than sit in stifling apartments, many residents hang out on the street, where they can catch up with friends or just take in the scene.

This National Geographic photo may have been taken in New York City, but it depicts an aspect of city living that I would like to talk about.  My husband Jim and I are in Wilmington, Delaware at the moment, working hard to establish our daughter as a US resident with all she needs to begin her graduate studies at Winterthur Museum, part of the University of Delaware.  

Our daughter shares a house with three other graduate students - it's part of a row of Victorian homes shaded by a canopy of giant, ancient trees. These old houses were never built with global warming in mind. This vibrant and diverse urban neighborhood is distinguished by its lack of air conditioning units - something that has important implications for its citizenry.  

So, what's the big deal about no AC?  It drives people outside to their sidewalks.  Sidewalks in the summer become common living spaces - it's not exactly a party and not exactly a wake, but something very social and in-between.  It's 'hanging out and having a laugh'.  Cooling off outside means there are no televisions and no computer games, but there might be music.  There are all ages and there's a lot of improvisation and horsing around.  When people come together with the shared objective of being outdoors because it's cooler, a social magic begins to occur.  All ages and abilities collide in friendly ways and laughter is the common language. 

Some may call city folks with no air conditioning lower income and I do not mean to romanticise that urban reality.  I give thanks for the many blessings in my life, including feeling cool indoors on a sweltering day.  But as someone who has given over my adult life to the care of vulnerable loved ones, I often reflect on social isolation.  I look at the folks on the sidewalk where my daughter now lives with longing.  I want to join in the banter, to be part of a friendly, cohesive group.  I wonder, do these particular people look after one another in times of illness or infirmity?  Surely the happy times on the sidewalk form bonds that endure indoors and throughout the winter. 

Where I live in Ottawa, Canada, winters are long and cold.  Summers are hot and humid.  Either way, most folks do not know their neighbors and most children spend too much time on the computer or watching television.  We were alone amongst our peers when we chose to allow our daughter to walk to school at the age of 8.  People mostly stay indoors on account of fear (in the case of children unsupervised) or because of inclement weather.  

My son Nicholas is mostly bedridden and his friends are his caregivers (mostly young men his own age).  What Nick loves most is what I call 'boy banter' and what he calls 'trash talk'.  It's the kind of chatter that is teasing, friendly and open ended.  This sort of relaxed socialising is difficult to find for people like me and members of my family.

So, what am trying to say here?:  That I value sociability and I miss the opportunities for 'hanging out and having a laugh' with my neighbors and my friends.  I value hanging out with no particular agenda or activity in mind.  I value socialising in a group that includes all ages and all abilities.  In fact, it is my idea of fun - it refreshes my sense of who I am in the world because it reminds me of my place in the community.  

Maybe, when I get home, I'm going to put out two chairs on my front porch.  One for me and one for whomever walks by.  I'll let you know how it goes. 

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