Neighbourliness seems to be on the decline, Maclean's magazine reports. With long commutes, stretched work days and more two-career couples, people just don't run into their neighbours as much. That is bad for communities and bad for our health, because humans are social animals.
"The evolving modern definition of a good neighbour is no longer someone who is part of your life, someone you chat with over the fence, a reliable shoulder in good times and bad, but someone who doesn't bother you, either in your enjoyment of your home or by threatening its property value," writes Brian Bethune. More than 30 per cent of Canadians say they feel disconnected from their neighbours.
It isn't so on the street where I live. At least on our short strip of narrow Victorian houses, the neighbours watch cats and clear walks for each other, cross the street to chat with each other and even get together en masse from time to time. But, then, we have an advantage over other neighbourhoods. We have Lars.
Lars Christensen is the adhesive that holds our little world together. He knows everyone. He knows everything. He raises neighbourliness to an art form.
I have lived next door to him for 25 years and I've never had a better neighbour. If you need something repaired in your house, ask Lars.
If you want to know what stupid price that gut job down the street sold for, ask Lars. If you wonder why sirens were screaming in the middle of the night, Lars will know.
Unlike a certain woman up the street who never clears her ice in the winter, he is the sort of neighbour who is up early on a cold morning shoveling not just his walk, but yours. When my daughter comes home from middle school, Lars is there to ask how her day was and offer a spare key if she forgets hers.
It was Lars who organized our little group to buy a collective power washer, passed around from house to house for cleaning decks and cars. It was Lars who e-mailed the local city councillor about the big rigs that defy the "no trucks" sign and trundle up our street, putting neighbourhood kids in danger.
Lars can fix anything. I can scarcely hammer a nail, so when something breaks in our house, we call Lars. And when I say call, I don't mean telephone. I mean call: "Lars!" Our houses are separated by a gap just wide enough to let a medium-sized garbage bin roll through, so it's simpler just to holler.
When our furnace broke down in mid-winter and the furnace guys couldn't figure it out, he came over, blew into a little rubber hose and made it come to life again. We called him the furnace whisperer.
When our Christmas tree stand broke, he used a power drill to make me a new one out of a block of wood. When we suffered through the agony of a renovation, he came by daily to keep an eye on the contractors, who learned to respect his judgment as much as we do.
When my son managed to break both his heels, Lars built a wheelchair ramp up to the front porch that was all ready the day he came home. When Lars built a new deck and a new shed at our cottage, he refused to accept anything more than a case of beer in return.
A former maintenance boss at a sports club and an old-folks home, he has become the go-to handyman for the whole neighbourhood. He built a garden shed for the couple across the street. He fixed the other next-door neighbour's sticky garden gate. He is rebuilding a tumbledown garage in the back lane.
Lars is a better reporter than I'll ever be. He seems to absorb information the way others breathe air. Like Jeeves the butler, he has informants everywhere and knows things before anyone else.
If there is a neighbour lady down the street who I would barely recognize if I passed her on the sidewalk, he can tell you all about her medical condition, her ne'er-do-well husband, her wayward son, when she bought her house and whom she bought it from. In fact, he seems to know the life story of every house on the street going back three decades.
Don't get the wrong impression. Lars is no Ned Flanders. You will never get a "Hi-diddly-ho, neighbourino," from him. Most days after work he can be found on a little bench he set up behind the ivy on his porch, sucking on a cigarette or nursing a cool one while surveying the passing scene and hurling the occasional curse at the hot dogs who gun it up the street. His typical uniform is a T-shirt, an old pair of jeans and a day's growth of grey stubble.
A prankster, he once put a Pesticides-in-Use sign outside the home of city Councillor Gord Perks, a dedicated environmentalist who lives around the corner. He saves mealy apples for those obnoxious teenagers who come around with no costumes on Halloween night holding out garbage bags for candy.
Despite his omniscience, he isn't a busybody or a gossip. He isn't one of those bossy master organizers, either. He is just there, listening, watching, taking an interest in what's goes on around him, and that makes all the difference to our street.
Maclean's is right about the threat to neighbourliness. We are all rushing our kids to classes or cocooning at home with latest TV series, too distracted or time-crunched to lean over the fence or balcony to say hello.
Lars is not rushing anywhere. He takes time for people in the neighbourhood and we, as a result, take a little more time for each other. When he went out of town last week on a job, fixing up a country house for – who else? – another neighbour, the old street seemed a little quiet, a little empty – a little less of a neighbourhood without Lars.