Rising before dawn last week, I noticed my neighbor’s yard lamp — a sight visible only in fall and winter, when the leaves grow thin enough to let its glow reach my bedroom window.
The appearance of this light from across the fence each October has become a polestar of sorts, pointing me toward the end of the year.
The light also reminds me that I have neighbors, something too easy to forget as I sit in the den many evenings, tapping at a laptop or surfing through Netflix.
E.B. White warned us about this kind of myopia in 1938, when television was still only a gimmick. He worried, after watching a demonstration of this new gadget, that TV would “insist that we forget the primary and near in favor of the secondary and remote.” He wouldn’t be surprised, I think, that many of us know more about the Kardashians than the folks next door.
But autumn, happily, brings the chance to know our neighbors again. During south Louisiana summers, as we retreat behind our rumbling air conditioners and draw the curtains against the heat, my neighbors and I see little of each other. We wave occasional greetings from behind lawn mowers, as if hailing the shore from a speedboat that’s plowing, plowing, plowing an endless sea of green. It’s work to do and be done with, and we don’t feel like cutting our engines for small talk.
Otherwise, what I notice about my neighbors in summer is how absent they are. In June, my block begins its game of musical chairs, as families cycle in and out for vacation trips. We collect each other’s newspapers and mail, the neighborhood a committee without a quorum to do much else.
Autumn returns us home again, and the bloodstream of my neighborhood quickens as the weather cools. People emerge from their houses like groundhogs peeping from their burrows. They trade gossip as they haul brush to the curb, no longer hurried inside by the sharp point of the sun.
The sidewalk serves as a seasonal promenade — mothers pushing strollers, kids gliding bicycles, and dogs pulling their owners down the block as if hauling a sleigh.
Last weekend, the neighborhood held a collective garage sale, with customers going from house to house in search of cheap paperbacks, bargain blouses, and gently used waffle irons and blenders.
The most valuable treasures on display, though, were the neighbors themselves — people I’ve come to rely on in a pinch.
No hurricanes visited the neighborhood this summer to test our resolve, but the memories of other, darker seasons linger. You know who your real friends are when the power goes out, the trees are down, and a glance down the block tells you that you’re not alone.
We shouldn’t need another hurricane, though, to connect us with the folks next door.
Danny Heitman is on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman.