Candace Batts, a petite African American woman, had been my neighbor for two years before I spoke a word to her. I knew next to nothing about her–I even thought she was younger than me, when in reality she was an Engineering Ph.D. student at Iowa State University. I knew she had a well-groomed ginger Chow, whom she walked religiously at four o’clock every day, but I made a point not to let our paths cross at that time. I didn’t want to initiate an inane conversation while checking the mail, and I was sure she didn’t either.
Then, by a stroke of coincidence, Candace knocked on my door to say that she would be my Brown University alumni interviewer. After much negotiation, we agreed to meet a week from Friday, Café Diem, five o‘clock.
I arrived early that chilly evening and ordered hot chocolate with whipped cream. Candace arrived a minute later and unknowingly ordered the same. She ushered me into a corner booth, and upon noticing the identical poofs of whipped cream waning in the steaming chocolate, said, “Well, we already found our commonality! Now that we’ve got that potentially awkward search out of the way, we can get down to business!” Her voice was vibrant and slightly sarcastic, paired perfectly with a commanding grin.
The interview flourished over the hour. We talked about Brown, of course; I gave her a list of stereotypes, and she affirmed every one with a silly anecdote. I had my qualms about leveling with a Computer Science major, yet Candace immediately confessed her own writing aspirations, giving me synopses of her two completed (but purportedly awful) time travel/romance novels. We unearthed a shared love for a cappella, and she harassed me for trying to run a 20k without training (she was an accomplished triathlon finisher). We parted prematurely because we both had plans, but as I shook her hand once more, I think we both knew our relationship as neighbors would change dramatically in weeks to come.
The thing is, it didn’t. It didn’t have a chance. A week after the interview, Candace was killed in a car crash on the snowy interstate. I was devastated, not only because this amazingly talented woman had her life cut tremendously short, but because our relationship was only a foundling. I was left with a single conversation over hot chocolate, a soggy obituary, and the worst feeling of regret I’ve ever had.
This is why I believe you must always get to know your neighbors. Introduce yourself as soon as they move in (pie or casserole optional). If they end up being nasty old misanthropes, so be it. There is no loss there. But don’t let isolated incidents of caustic neighbors deter you. You must get to know your neighbors because you never know when a kindred spirit, a running buddy, or a lifelong friend is living right next door.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.