Where Everybody Knows Your Business

(Image by Bryan Wilkins via Flickr)

Oh, God, here we go. The headline on Nextdoor Waterloo reads “Rooster crows all day long!” All my urban hackles rise, bracing to read a list of nasty, unneighborly gripes from people stuck at home with plenty of energy for vitriol. It was so nice until now, living the past thirteen years in this calm, sweet rural town …

I click on the headline and read the message: “Is this your rooster? It’s driving me insane.”

But instead of slamming back, the first response softens the annoyance by taking it global: “Birds are acting crazy. Someone said bees are acting weird at their beehives and now the roosters are crowing all day. Something is not right in the world.” Which prompts a joke: “You’re having a problem with the birds & the bees!”

Still braced for acrimony, I scan fast, the Jaws soundtrack thrumming in my brain. Ah, here we go: a partial confession. “Could be mine, but I can’t help it. Even though he’s kind of mean, he keeps my hens protected.”

“He must be driving you even more crazy then,” the complainant replies, “so I feel slightly better.”

Another neighbor joins in: “Ours always has crowed all day long. We have a peacock … mating season he is loud.”

“Well then I’m thankful you’re further away LOL” comes the light reply.

“Part of living in the country!” someone else writes. “After experiencing all the empty shelves at the grocery store, just remember that roosters (+hens) = chicks = chicken. It’s a good thing.”

“Oh believe me I’ve thought about him being dinner,” slams back, a little snark at last. Maybe that response felt like a scold. But instead of breaking into open combat, the conversation shifts to an earnest question: “Do you have a picture of the rooster? Could be mine …”

The original complainant does not bother providing a photo, just writes, “I must say, most of you made my day” and adds a smiley emoji. With hearts around it.

I sit back, wondering if I would be romanticizing country life if I observed that by and large, people are good-natured here. Nature, in fact, seems to be the key: There is an ease with plant, animal, and human quirks that I did not find in my years of city life. People are more relaxed, slower to flare up, and more direct and open, not bothering to sneak or ambush. Stuff that would prompt a feud in the city gets a chuckle instead.

Urban life is just as easy to romanticize, with its hot energy, creative stimulus, wild diversity, and constant surprises. But making friends with our city neighbors felt like burrowing into a sorority at a large university because you need a niche to keep from getting lost. Here, the entire town feels knowable, as though we are all connected in a meaningful and enduring way simply by choosing to live here. That said, the old stereotype of cities being lonely, alienated places does not hold up. A comparison in the Anthropological Quarterly found that people in cities had more friendships and a far more active social life. I did, too—it felt almost necessary. Here, my chosen life is quieter, but never lonely; I could not get lost in an abstract sea of humanity if I tried.

Scale changes everything.

At the moment, that is a huge relief, because during any sort of crisis or disaster, neighborliness—even from six feet—makes all the difference. We can all worry in the abstract, note the orange blotches of contagion spreading across the world map, and gnaw our knuckles over imminent economic catastrophe, but real, practical help and encouragement tend to be local. For the past thirteen years, we have received tons of useful advice, loans of tools, gifts of homemade wine, tips about a house for my mom or a job for my husband or a story idea for me. Along the way, I have played anthropologist, noticing that people here will come right out and speak their mind in ways that startle me, but they will also sail right over disagreements that could easily have turned into petty sniping. Part of the credit, I suspect, goes to the impossibility of anonymity. All those Nextdoor comments had names attached, and photos. And yes, this was an eye-roll about a tiny annoyance, but I once reported a story about a city couple who went all the way to court—with a lawsuit that took years to crawl through the system and left a glistening snail trail of animus behind—because the neighbor’s cat was jumping on their garden furniture. Not clawing it to shreds, mind you, just landing on a stray cushion every now and then.

Things stay real when you live a little closer to nature, when people still sweat over their own work rather than hire it out, when shames and joys and disputes and tragedies go public instantly. It is urban tradition to despise that aspect of small-town life, and yes, it can be disconcerting—on a tentative walk as I recovered from hip surgery, I had someone neither I nor my husband had ever met ask how my new hip was doing. But once you accept the fact that your curtains do not close, you realize that this tight weave of neighborly knowledge is also a safety net.

I scroll on. Someone offers the addresses of two neighbor who have fresh, organic, free-range eggs to sell in this time of shortage. A woman has apparently made it a project to pick up trash along various stretches of country road, and she posted, with a photo, “I’m out walking and did not bring enough bags with me so I left a couple piles along the road if anyone is out with their vehicle and can pick them up on their way by that would be awesome if not I will get them when I can.”

The last recent post is from someone who’s just moved here: “While my two kiddos and boyfriend were on a bike ride this evening, they were gifted bags, and I mean BAGS of extra free lunches—everything one could wish for to help feed kiddos during this ‘shelter in place’! Thank you so much to whomever.”

“Welcome to Waterloo and the neighborhood,” a man responded. “Get used to it. It was like that before all this!”

Which makes it a whole lot easier to shelter in place.