Neighbors come in three varieties: the good, the bad, and the unknown. With all three varieties, we create a history, whether we are aware of it or not. With good neighbors we look out for each others’ mail stacking up while on vacation or we share a garden’s bounty. With bad suburban neighbors, we argue over shrubbery borders, yappy dogs, and wrongly delivered newspapers. With bad urban neighbors, we argue over parking spaces, apartment noises, and wrongly delivered newspapers. Then there are the ones we don’t know, suburban or urban. We might wave to each other as we leave our homes in the morning or as we arrive in the evening. We might even know their first names, but we don’t know them.
Very rarely, though, we meet neighbors who make us better people. They can come from any one of the varieties listed above, but is some small way they contribute to our history in a way that makes us better than we were before we met them.
For me, this occurred with a small crew of guys who were firefighters in Savannah, Georgia. I lived in the apartment building next door to the firehouse and one day went over to introduce myself and ask for a crowbar. (uh huh, a crowbar…)
Five sets of eyebrows rose toward the roof of the brick firehouse while this request hung in the air. Finally, one set of eyebrows was lowered, and he asked, “What do you need a crowbar for?” I went on to explain that I locked my keys in my car, and I had seen a way to get into the car with the aid of a crowbar. I withheld the tidbit of information that while I had never performed this maneuver, I had seen it done successfully on tv.
The same guy answered, “We’re not going to give you a crowbar, but I’ll help you get your keys.” He was true to his word. That day he got my keys out, another time they got me into my apartment when I forgot my keys, and yet another time, they stopped by when they saw smoke billowing out of my kitchen window (no keys – or lack, thereof – this time. I had toast crumbs burning up in my toaster.)
I appreciated their help time and time again, and I wanted to say thank you, so I baked a cake. This cake involved oranges and cloves, and when the jar of cloves upended in my mixing bowl, I thought it was salvageable. I thought it wouldn’t be that bad. I thought the cloves would stay undercover. They didn’t.
When the oven door opened and the aroma of cloves hit me in the face with the force of southern humidity, I again thought that maybe this cake shouldn’t smell this strong. Of course, I hadn’t baked a cake from scratch before this. I hadn’t baked much of anything in the last few years, as college dorms weren’t equipped with stoves and baking racks. I hadn’t baked at home on school vacations, as my mother and aunts had all the desserts prepped and at the ready by the time the holidays arrived. I hesitated. It seemed shameful to waste this perfectly good looking, but clove-loaded cake.
I walked between two shiny red fire trucks toward the sound of a television in the back. I peered into the kitchen where someone stood at the sink washing dishes. A couple of other guys were sitting at the table reading the newspaper. I cleared my throat and stepped into their world. “Hi, I made a cake to say ‘Thank you’ for always helping me out.” Papers were shuffled down and to the side. The water was turned off. A chorus of surprise and gratitude sang out. I placed the cake on the table, told them to enjoy it and left.
A week went by and then two. I had been busy, waving at the guys only when I drove away to work. Sunday arrived, and I decided to bake again. Cookies, this time, and something I knew I could bake with my eyes closed. When I went to deliver the baked goods, I followed the same path as a few weeks ago, albeit with a bit more confidence. I knocked on the open door with my right hand, balancing the plate of cookies with my left. “Hey, I brought cookies,” I announced and went to put them on the counter. The same chorus of gratitude sang out, making me smile. If they could rescue me from poor key management, I could at least bake for them.
I started to leave and then thought to ask about my initial foray back into the world of baking. “How was that cake I brought?” Charlie said a little too enthusiastically, “That was a GOOD cake!” I looked to Tim, who had gotten up from the table and was headed toward the cookies. He glanced in my direction.
“How was the cake?”
“Charlie’s right. It was good, but you might want to cut the amount of cloves. I felt way too intimate with the cloves in that cake when I was eating it.”
At the same time that I burst out laughing, Charlie started to chastise Tim. “Don’t tell her that. It was a good cake.”
I settled their dispute by continuing to laugh and agreeing that it was clove heavy. We also came to an agreement that I would continue to bake if they gave me honest feedback so I could improve my baking.
When I left the fire station that day, I learned that neighbors can make you a better person. These guys with their honest appraisal of my cake taught me never to second guess myself. I don’t always remember that for my life in general, but it is my golden rule with baking. I am a better baker today because a couple of guys told me a truth that I already knew.