When I was a kid growing up here in Memphis, the front porch was a well used part of our home. The porch had room for a swing, a couple of canvas folding chairs and still a pretty good sized spot we kids could gather to play board games--chiefly Monopoly. As soon as the weather was warm enough, after Mom finished her housework for the day, she made her way to the porch, sat in the swing and watched the world go by. Well, perhaps not the world, but our neighborhood certainly.
In those days of small iceboxes and daily delivery of ice to keep things cool, several trips a week to our little neighborhood shopping area were required. We had a small grocery, not much larger than a modern convenience store, but we obtained all our food from it. We had a hardware store, an ice cream parlor, a family practitioner--ole Doc Kessler, a barber, a shoe repair shop, a drug store, a drygoods store, a movie house, a service station, a dry cleaners, our church, and a couple of “beer joints” all within a 5 or 6 minute walk from our house.
We of course knew the names of all the shop keepers and they knew ours. Everybody had credit at the stores and customer service hadn’t been invented as a concept, but we had plenty of that too. I remember going to our grocery to buy a round steak for dinner. Mr. Fratini was out of round, so he sold me sirloin at round prices. The owner of the local movie theater knew exactly when I turned twelve; that was when I had to start paying adult ticket price of thirty-five cents.
Because making frequent trips to the shopping area was required of most folks, Mom could sit in her swing and visit with our neighbors as they came and went. Our next door neighbor and my Mom were best friends, but she was Miz Haffey and Mom was Miz Harber whenever they greeted each other or Miz Haffey stopped to gossip. Only now and then were they Bess and Elsie to each other. Each could rely on the other and cups of flour and sugar flowed back and forth between our homes. David and Johnny, two of their kids nearest my age and I played together every day, as we did with all the other kids up and down our street.
We were a community of Catholics, Jews, Methodists, Baptists and who knows what else and none of that mattered. Casseroles were always ready when there was a death or a crisis in someone’s life. Being in touch, knowing each other was so important.
When I left that neighborhood at age twenty, I never again experienced that sense of closeness and community to that degree. In the late sixties and early seventies, I got a CB radio. As I made my way up and down the Interstate between Nashville and wherever I was living, or when we were on a trip, that CB radio became something like our front porch. We talked and were talked to. Once while driving on a brand new stretch of Interstate in West Virginia, we were running low on gas. The highway was too new to have stations at each interchange, and the ones in the little towns that were spaced too far apart were closed because night was falling. I called out on the CB for anyone who might know where the nearest gas could be found. Finally, a trucker answered and gave us a mile marker location. I thought we might make it but I wasn’t sure. He said, “Don’t worry; I’m a new car transport running empty. If you run out of gas, I’ll come get you and haul you on board.” He was waiting for us at the gas station as I almost coasted in on empty. That kind of thing would have happened in my neighborhood, but it was getting rarer in my world then.
My world was very safe and circumscribed when I was a kid in the 40s and 50s. Much less so in the 60s and 70s. The number of connections in our lives dropped and when we did connect, it was often in the impersonal world of the CB radio. Not that I didn’t know people in my community; I did--those who lived on either side of us and perhaps across the street! It was rare for any store owner to know my name or for me to know theirs. Frankly, I felt a little like I’d slipped my moorings and was drifting almost alone.
Today we have Twitter, Facebook, texts, unlimited calling, email and more. I “friend” people and they “friend” me without every needing to speak to each other. I read the text message from kids or grandkids and try to figure out the meaning of the cryptic symbols. I fumble at replying wondering why I don’t just call them. We interact more than we ever have as a people, but we may know each other less than we ever have before. I think all this need to connect electronically is somehow related to our need to belong to a group or at least have meaningful relationships. Are these electronic tools important? Sure, were it not for email, there are friends and acquaintances I’d hardly ever connect to, but, is this kind of connection that for which we really long?
Maybe not. Howard Clinebell, a noted pastoral theologian, has opined that the single most important need in our lives is to love and to find love in a dependable relationship. Maybe that need to love and be loved fuels our need to share apparently random moments or thoughts we have on some electronic device. Surely it is that need that takes us to prayer and worship because of all the relationships in the world, the most dependable one is God’s love for us.
Just some thoughts as summer approaches and we go, not to our front porches, but to our backyard decks to relax and get away from it all! Except for the smartphone or iPad with wifi.