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New Neighbors, New Wisdom

I GREW up in Boston's South End. Not literally. Actually, I was in my early 20s by the time I moved there. But in the two years I was there, I changed and matured in ways I had not anywhere else.

In the late 1970s, the South End was on the verge of a rebirth. Properties were still relatively modest in price, and many young couples and others interested in the investment potential of the aging three- and four-story brick walk-ups were beginning to purchase scores of them along the streets abutting Boston's better known and more upscale Back Bay. The renovation trend - fortunately or unfortunately - had not yet fully made its way to West Concord Street by the time I moved there.

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The sidewalks on my block were still an assortment of patched concrete and unmortared brick. The neat stone surfaces around the locust and maple trees, especially, had long since given way to the tentacles of the ever-expanding root systems. The street lamps were either ironclad antiques or more modern geometrics that tended, for some reason, to attract stone-throwers. And the street had an abundance of cracks, gouges, and tire-eating holes, and there were, of course, rarely enough parking spaces.

A small struggling grocery store anchored one end of the block; a firehouse and a gospel Baptist church sat opposite one another at the other end. On Sunday mornings in the summer, with all the doors of the church wide open, the singing that poured forth usually packed such a wallop that I doubt the firemen were always aware when a call came in.

And the residents? Mostly first- and second-generation immigrant families, from newborns to retirees, with a few college kids in between - running the economic gamut from mired on welfare to upwardly mobile. Taken together, we made a mostly poor-man's mosaic. Still, it was a kind of art.

MY encounters with my neighbors were frequent, although almost always brief. I worked two jobs then, so the opportunities to get to know others were limited. And yet bonds were formed, and they proved on more than one occasion to be remarkably strong and unexpectedly significant.

My landlord's name was Ram. He was from India. Though in tradition and taste we couldn't have been further apart (his everyday attire was a bathing suit and open shirt - summer and winter), in things that mattered, there grew to be something almost familial in our dealings with one another.

When I first set eyes on the apartment, I wasn't exactly taken with the gold lighting fixtures, the gold-painted 3-1/2 foot high radiators, the formica-covered shelves, or the mirrors behind them. But the apartment was so clean and tidy, and the house so well-looked after, that I knew I could learn to live with the rest. And I did. Ram, in turn (though never knowing my dislike at seeing myself virtually everywhere I went in the apartment), accommodated me more than once.

One day I arrived home to find a written announcement that the rent was going up $50 - immediately. I was paying $260 a month, so the jump was enormous. I quickly sat down and began to write Ram a note in protest. But he happened to come by before I'd finished. In a moment he realized my distress - and the cause of it - and without wasting any time, he said in his very precise, rather nasal accent, ``Yes, I see. $25?'' I listened in amazement. ``You know, you should stay,'' he insisted. We never discussed the rent again.

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Another time I came home to find a beautiful new, large, handmade bulletin board hanging on the wall of my dining area - a wall that I had been attaching newspaper photographs to with tape and straight pins for a few weeks. Ram had obviously noticed. And his instincts for protecting his property no doubt caused him to take some action. Still, in moving the photos from the wall to the corkboard, he had almost exactly replicated the arrangement I'd had. And that certainly wasn't a question of mere maintenance. I made a point of finding him to thank him. ``Oh, well, I thought you should like it,'' he said. ``The making of it was veddy easy. Use it, now, as you like.'' I filled it.

About halfway through my tenure on West Concord Street, a mixed-race couple moved in above me. We met on the stairs from time to time, but I mostly got to know them - or know of them - through the fights that increasingly went on at night in their bedroom, which was directly above mine. For days I felt torn about whether or not to do something. This clearly wasn't a matter for Ram to try to settle. But what would I say? I kept listening for some wisdom beyond my own.

Then one night the arguments escalated to a physical level, and I could hear the woman crying. On impulse, I tore up the stairs and rapped hard on the door. (The apartments were horseshoe-shaped, with two entrances - one to the living room and one to the two bedrooms.) The man immediately yanked open the outer bedroom door and, startled to see me, began groping for something to say. I could see his wife in the next room holding her head. She looked up only once.

SEVERAL long seconds passed with not a word exchanged among the three of us. At one point I opened my mouth, but nothing came out. Then after another stretch of silence, the man slowly closed the door. Soon, I could hear the two of them talking. There were no more fights after that.

The couple stayed a few more months, and near the end of that time I found myself, one weekend afternoon, just sitting with them on the front steps - enjoying one of Boston's few temperate summer days. They volunteered much about their lives - past and present. In the light of all they had shared and endured, it was little short of miraculous that they were still together. It was obvious, too, that something had changed since our unexpected meeting that night. They seemed much closer now, and quieter.

I couldn't help caring about them. I knew, too, that we each had needed that encounter more than any of us could have known - I, to lose my fear, and they, not to lose sight of what they really had. We had all been brought to a new place. I would miss them.

Late that next fall, I met another neighbor, a woman whose face still is visible to me. It was a Saturday morning, and I was up and out early to make a rehearsal at the small Cambridge theater company I was working for then. I plopped into the seat of my vintage Corolla, adjusted the rearview mirror, pumped the accelerator, and started to turn the key - when it suddenly registered that I'd just seen a woman's face in the mirror. I turned around, half expecting to find her sitting in the back seat. But she wasn't there. I got out of the car and as I rounded the rear bumper, I found her - sitting on the curb, so drunk that she was almost asleep.

She had known refinement. That much was obvious in her fight to look put together, even as she was coming apart. Her dark features were still interesting, and her eyes, tired though they were, made me realize that underneath all the layers and years of addiction, there was a good mind. She was dressed up, but she could not stand up to save her life. I helped her to her feet and then propped her against me so that we could walk together.

I asked her if she lived on this street, and she either couldn't understand me or didn't want to say. Instead, she pointed where she wanted me to lead her, and slowly we headed up the street in tandem - past one house, two houses, three, four. Then she stopped and motioned for me to turn in at the next walk. Together we struggled up the steps.

After some hesitation, I quietly knocked, hoping she had not led me astray and yet wanting to be heard if someone inside could help. Soon a man came to the door. He was wearing expensive pajamas, a satiny bathrobe, leather slippers. I knew without question that this was her husband. It was clear, also, from the weary expression of relief on his face that he was at once grateful to have her home and very used to this sort of thing happening.

``Thank you,'' was all he said - but the words were so sincere, so graciously spoken that they sounded like a prayer, as though he were really saying: ``Please don't think badly of her. Please don't hold it against us.'' As I headed back to the car, I vowed I would not. I decided not to see what I had seen. Instead, I would remember what I had been shown - the refinement, the struggle for respectability, the kindness, the grace. These would outlive the rest.

My two years in the South End began with what I was told were some pretty naive assumptions about being open to new experiences and different kinds of people. Time proved that my critics, though not always kind, were not always wrong. I did some dumb things. But my stint on West Concord Street ended for me on a note of vindication - with a realization that sometimes naivete isn't a form of foolishness or ignorance. Sometimes it's just untested idealism, an innocence that when tried in the crucible of experience doesn't come up wanting but turns out to be a new form of wisdom.

The truth is, when I left Boston to take up residence in a rather idyllic North Shore town, I was very glad not to leave behind a group of strangers. In some fashion, my neighbors and I had rubbed off on each other. I had tasted what community can be like, seen how many shades family comes in. In a small way, I had found what it really means to be a neighbor. And I liked it.

I still do.

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