I just wanted to bake some cookies. And then things got a little crazy.
Over the holidays, I was back at my mom’s house in my hometown of Temple City, California. We were sitting around the day after Christmas, and on a whim I decided to try a new baking recipe: peanut butter chocolate chip cookies (yum!). I started preheating the oven and mixing together ingredients in a large bowl. Then halfway through, I realized that the recipe called for six tablespoons of vegetable oil, but my mom only had olive oil in the house.
Hmm… olive oil might make the cookies taste funny. But there’s no sense in driving to the store just for six tablespoons of vegetable oil. I know! I’ll ask around the neighborhood. Almost everyone’s got vegetable oil, right? And I’ll share some fresh-baked cookies in exchange.
I told my mom that I was just stepping out for a bit, and walked out to the street. My mom’s house (the house I grew up in) is on a small, quiet dead-end street in the suburbs in Southern California. It really is a nice neighborhood—neatly trimmed lawns in front of pretty houses. Everything looks clean and tidy. A few neighbors had lights and decorations up for the holidays.
I bounded up the front steps of the house next door. Rang the doorbell. Mentally prepared what I was going to say… “Hi there! My family lives next door and we’re baking cookies. But we ran out of vegetable oil. We’re wondering if you have any oil we can use?”
Well, guess no one’s home. I went to the next house. No answer there either. Then I went to the house across the street—they had two cars parked in the driveway. Surely they’re home! I went up to the front door, stood on their friendly “welcome” doormat, and rang the doorbell.
Now I was getting a little weirded out. What are the odds that all three families by our house are not home? Are people there and purposefully not opening the door? I’ll just try a couple more houses.
I did. Still no luck.
At this point I’d like to pause the story and ask you to take a guess. Guess how many houses I had to try before I got any vegetable oil.
Did you guess? Okay.
TWELVE. I had to knock at twelve houses! Only two of them actually opened the door. I couldn’t believe it. Granted, I’m sure some people truly weren’t home. But many, many of them were. They just didn’t want to open the door. Why? Do I look like a menace or something? I’m a young woman at your front door, by herself, in the daytime, wearing casual clothes, and not carrying anything. I mean, I grew up on this street. I’m your people!
My favorite was the house where, after I rang the doorbell, a young man got up from the living-room couch, looked over at me through the window (I gave him a smile), and then walked out of the room. No one opened the door. Are you serious?
Then there was the woman who came out to get her garbage can—after I had rung the doorbell at that very house a few minutes earlier and “no one was home.” I quickly ran over and introduced myself. She was actually quite nice once she realized who I was and what I wanted. But alas, she said she didn’t have any vegetable oil.
Now get this. I finally did obtain some vegetable oil, but it wasn’t even from someone opening their door. I was ringing someone else’s doorbell (by this time, I was clear over on the opposite end of the block) when I noticed a man getting his mail a couple doors down. I flew down the sidewalk and accosted him before he could get away. I said "hello" and explained the situation.
He looked uneasy and said, “Um… would you like a stick of butter?”
“No,” I said, rather confused. “I just need some vegetable oil.”
“Well, I don’t have any extra oil.”
I furrowed my eyebrows. “But I only need a few tablespoons.”
“OHH!!” He broke into loud laughter. “No problem, then! I thought you wanted a whole bottle.”
Huh? I thought. A whole bottle! That would be silly. Clearly, the concept of neighborhood sharing was entirely foreign to him.
But he suddenly became the nicest guy ever. His name was Larry and he introduced me to his dog, Yugi. Larry went in his house, brought out a big jug of vegetable oil and a plastic cup, and started pouring. He generously gave me well over a pint of oil, saying “Take a little extra just in case!”
And that’s how, a full half hour after I had “just stepped out,” I walked wearily back to my mom’s house with a plastic cup full of vegetable oil. Feeling kind of depressed. When I returned to the house, my mom asked me what I was thinking. “Neighbors don’t talk to each other here!” she said. “Next time, just go to the store.”
It was true. I remember growing up on that street and hardly ever speaking to the neighbors. When the doorbell rang, my mom hissed at me to be quiet and pretend no one was home. I didn’t think it was weird then; it was just normal. My mom has lived in that house for over 20 years, and the only neighbors she knows is the couple next door, with whom she converses with, maybe, twice a year.
I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. But I had forgotten.
Leaving the ‘Burbs
For the past few years, I’ve lived in Oakland, California. If we ran out of vegetable oil at our house, I’m sure I could get some from a neighbor after knocking on one or two doors (maybe three at the most). I know the names of most folks on my block, and sharing is part of everyday life.
Just yesterday, Cal and Richard offered us some lettuce they had too much of. Amy watched our mail while we were in Southern California. We loaned Ryan and Maya our bike trailer when they needed to haul some boxes. Flynn let us pick free figs off his tree, and we gifted him a jar of homemade fig jam in return. Our block even has an email listserv with over 50 members, keeping everyone in the loop about local happenings.
What about opening doors to strangers? Well, a couple of years ago, when I was new to the neighborhood, I had a crazy idea to organize a block party. I walked up and down the street knocking on doors to get signatures for the city permit. No one knew who I was. But about half of the houses opened their doors, and folks were happy to give their signatures. On the day of the block party, over 40 neighbors showed up. Since then we have had three more block parties—and I’ve met new neighbors every time.
Just to be clear, our Oakland neighborhood is not perfect. Far from it. Crime is high in our area, and burglaries and car break-ins are commonplace. It seems like we hear about a nearby gun shooting every other month. Oakland can be a rough place. But people still open the freaking door.
Temple City, on the other hand, is ranked as one of the safest cities in California. There is hardly any crime, yet people lock everything and set the alarm. When a person you don’t recognize knocks on your front door in broad daylight, you pretend not to be home. When you need a little bit of cooking oil, or you need a drill, or your blender breaks, you’d rather drive two miles to a store and spend money instead of just asking your neighbor next door.
It’s like everyone’s hiding from each other. To me, that’s just sad.
A thought crossed my mind while I was desperately knocking on door after door on my mom’s street: What if I was in real trouble and needed help? What if my car had broken down, or I had been mugged, and I needed to make a call? Would I have to knock on twelve doors before someone helped me? That would be terrible.
A Better Way?
The big question, of course, is how did all this come to be? Why are some neighborhoods in this country open and trustful, while others are closed and isolated? Is it result of individual choices, city planning, or demographics? All of the above?
I don’t pretend to know the answers. But I do know that I value the sense of community I have in Oakland. It’s not just about neighbors waving hi to each other. It’s more than that.
It’s a local support network. It’s using our resources together efficiently. Not wasting all the plums on your tree. Having potlucks, game nights, and clothing swaps. Saving money. Learning new skills. Making new friends. Watching out for each other. Feeling like you belong in a community, rather than feeling like you have to fend for yourself. It’s about safety and resilience. It’s about being proud of where you live.
I know the people who live on my mom’s street aren’t heartless grumps. Like most people anywhere, they are very friendly, kind, and generous. You just have to get them face-to-face first. Hmm… a block party wouldn’t be a bad idea.
The next day, I wrapped up some peanut butter chocolate chip cookies, attached a thank you note, and stuck them in Larry’s mailbox. I don’t know if this experience will make him more open to the idea of talking with his neighbors (part of me is hopeful), but I wanted him to at least know that sharing with neighbors can lead to yummy cookies.