I BELIEVE IN DOORBELLS
I believe in doorbells.
One day, while taking a quiet walk in my Brooklyn neighborhood, I noticed a small sign attached to a church-rectory door. It was posted adjacent to the rectory’s doorbell and it read:
Ring bell and wait for a response.
Announce yourself and await direction.
This, this, I thought, reminds me of something. Something old.
My mind leapt back to the doorbell in the entryway of the slum building I grew up in—near Manhattan’s Chinatown and Little Italy. When, as a child, I rang that doorbell, someone in my family (mother, brother, sister) would poke their head out of the fifth-floor tenement window. I would shout up: “Can I have a nickel for an ice cream?” or “Open the door.” And whoever was up there (someone I loved, someone who loved me) would respond. A nickel, rolled in a paper bag and weighted with a clothespin, would spiral down and smack against the sidewalk. Or the door would buzz, and I would enter the cool familiar corridor and climb the long stairs to home.
Although I was only dimly aware of it, I also regularly called out to my family in less overt ways. It responded, not with a religious upbringing (which I did not receive) but with rules for ethical behavior. Be gentle with Johnny Boy, the parakeet; share your toys with a shy cousin newly arrived from Greece; be extra kind to a weeping first-grade classmate who cannot explain her sorrow; be polite to Miss Dieudonne, the tiny old woman who works around the corner at Five Points Mission; include Gerry Picciarelli (the neighborhood girl with Downs Syndrome) in your games of jump rope, skullsie, hopscotch, regardless of how well she does. I was shaped by these rules.
In short, my family gave me a doorbell. Installed it and made sure it functioned properly.
I am standing on a street, in my neighborhood, in my city, in my country, on my planet. I’m an adult now and I have my own doorbell. I alone am responsible for it. When I ring it and call upward, my own face appears at the window. Every day, I ring that doorbell and wait for a response. I announce myself and await direction. I believe in doorbells.