"When are the people gonna come?" my four-year-old daughter asked me as we stared out at the empty street. We were sitting on rocking chairs outside on our driveway. I was feeling ridiculous.
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"I don't know if anyone is going to come," I told her. "But we can play here."
Earlier this year, I read about Front Yard People, a movement that aims to bring back the days when neighbours lived their lives in front of their houses instead of behind closed doors. It started with one woman named Kristin Schell, a stay-at-home mum who was feeling a little isolated in her Austin community, so she put a turquoise picnic table on her front lawn, brought out a cup of coffee and her laptop, and waited to see if anyone would stop by to chat. They did, one neighbour after another. The table became a meeting place ("kind of like the old village well," she writes), inspiring her to write a book about the experience called The Turquoise Table: Finding Community and Connection in Your Own Front Yard.
The idea sounded lovely. Since becoming a parent, I've become less mobile and have less time. Friends are scattered in different cities -- we try to meet up when we can, but it takes a string of back-and-forth texts, a search for a three-hour block on the Google calendar, and a drive through traffic. I hate traffic. I kept thinking that we need people here, where we are, where our lives can meld together with minimal effort, where our kids can feel safe and at home. But our neighbourhood was so quiet. I longed for the old village well. I wanted to be a Front Yard Person.
I told my husband and daughter that we were going to hang out in our front yard one night and meet neighbours, but I put off the mission for a while. I realised that in those few hours between the end of the work day and putting my kid to bed, I'm exhausted. I de-bra, decompress, and have zero Ned Flanders chirpiness in me. I'm happy to see friends, but we have to be able to zone out together. Meeting new people sounded hard. Schell acknowledges that it is. She says starting the project can feel like you're back in primary school, when you anxiously wonder, "Will anyone come to my party? Will they like me?" Yet the beauty of being a Front Yard Person is that you don't have to "host" anything or invite people (gasp) inside your home. You simply do what you'd normally do at home at a table in your front yard (or wherever people gather, such as the apartment rooftop) -- eat dinner, do homework, write, have a glass of wine.
So finally, we did it. Yesterday after work, I asked my husband to help me move our picnic table from the backyard to the front yard, but it ended up being too heavy and wouldn't fit through the gate (great planning, me). So we brought out four rocking chairs and a side table and plopped them in the driveway. I remembered that Schell suggests offering a reason to stop -- she sometimes brings out a coffee carafe; a bowl of fresh water for dogs; and some games, footpath chalk and puzzles for kids. I tried to think fast, and then I ran inside and put some popsicles in an ice cooler. I put on some lip gloss and deodorant, too.
And then, my husband, daughter and I sat on the chairs, eating turkey sandwiches. And we waited, and waited. A few cars zipped past us. So did a runner wearing headphones. No one looked our way.
"So ... how long do we have to be out here?" my husband asked.
"Until bath time," I said. That was two-and-a-half hours away.
"I think your popsicles are gonna melt," he replied.
My daughter was getting antsy. "Did you text anyone?" she asked.
"Hmm, I should," I said. I sent a message to the few neighbours with kids that I knew, but they wrote back saying they had soccer practice and other activities. I had figured.
Just live life, I told myself. I brought out some toys that my daughter could play with, and we played. We sat with a bucket of water and watched little spongy dinosaurs hatch out of capsules. She sang Disney princess songs. My husband and I drank wine. A man with two dogs walked past us and said, "Hello! It's a beautiful evening!" We waved and said, "It is!" Whether or not we created lasting neighbourhood bonds, it was.
When it was getting dark and we were about to pack up and go inside, we heard a family walking by. It was our neighbours whom we hadn't seen in a while. "Hi guys!" I squealed with a little too much excitement. I told them about my little social experiment, and offered the kids popsicles (which were a little melted, but still in tact -- phew). They stayed for a while and we chatted. Then they asked if we wanted to take a walk around the block. We did! The kids got on scooters and we turned on our torches. We talked about work and life, and screamed when the kids almost rolled over a dead mouse. It was fun and a nice end to the day, and it wouldn't have happened if we weren't out there. Maybe this is a start.
I started looking wistfully at a dead patch of grass in front of our house. A permanent little table could be nice there.
Schell offers some tips on how to be a Front Yard Person:
Consider the weather and elements. Some days and seasons won't work, so plan ahead based on the weather. Position the table in the shade if you can, and keep a basket of sunscreen and bug spray ready.
If you're just getting started, advertise. Schell recommends letting your friends and neighbours know you're out there by hosting an event. You can even make flyers.
Hang out there regularly. Bring stuff to do, but don't work on something where you'll need total concentration. Here, you want to get interrupted.
Welcome to Retro Week, where we'll be firing up the flux capacitor and bringing you 1950s know-how on everything from casserole-making to fallout-shelter-building to the joys of letting kids relax and play with trash.