There’s a passage in one of my favorite books, Michael Chabon’s “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh,” in which the narrator confesses to a secret pleasure he indulged in as a child, while walking through the “infinite chain of backyards” on his way home from school:
I would catch glimpses in windows of dining rooms, tables set for supper; of crayon drawings tacked to refrigerators, cartons of milk standing on counters; of feet on low hassocks, framed photographs, and empty sofas, all lit by the bland light of the television; and these quickly shifting tableaux, of strange furniture and the lives and families they divulged, would send me into a trance of curiosity. For a long time, I thought that one became a spy in order to watch the houses of other people, to be confronted by the simple, wondrous fact of other kitchens, other clocks, and ottomans.
I’ve never been seized with the desire to become a spy, but I have definitely fallen under the spell of that “trance of curiosity” about the inside of other people’s homes and the “lives and families they divulged.” I’ve long harbored the same love of other kitchens and ottomans, of seeing tables set for supper and framed photographs of people I don’t know. It’s one of the reasons I became a journalist. And it’s why I can’t get enough of my neighborhood listserv.
While it may not actually let me see their kitchens, the listserv provides a fascinating glimpse into my neighbors’ lives, in all their quirky, sometimes exasperating glory. It’s our digital town crier, hooking me in to the pulse of community life.
Some listservs, I’m told, are pretty banal: ho-hum forums where people exchange plumber recommendations and field requests for info about the school registration process or trash schedules. But ours is not one of those. Instead, it’s an entity so lively that at least one friend stayed subscribed long after she had moved away. And I’m convinced our listserv would make for an utterly compelling reality show.
I first got hopelessly hooked on the listserv during the Trashcan Man episode. In 2008, a neighbor out walking her dog through an alley came across a man who was, well, stuck in a trashcan. With only his head visible above the rim, he was asking for help getting out. She reported the incident to the listserv, and all hell broke loose. As bizarre as the episode was, even more bizarre was the eventual revelation that such incidents had been happening all over Mount Washington…for years. After a fight over the appropriateness of the inevitable Oscar the Grouch joke, Trashcan Man soon became the stuff of legend.
The listserv has its regulars, characters all. There are scolds and comics and cheerleaders, know-it-alls and voices of reason. There are some participants whose names I’ve heard only online, which leads me to conspiratorially wonder if they even exist outside the listserv, and some whose online persona is almost completely unrecognizable from their real-life ones. There was, for many years, even a resident troll, a hilarious fictional character named Ned Dunkleberger who was ultimately outed, in an infamous bit of listserv drama, as the alter ego of my across-the-street neighbor. “Ned” now writes a column for the Mount Washington Improvement Association newsletter.
Of course, the listserv does have a practical function. It’s where you go to find a dermatologist or a window washer. It also serves as a de facto swap meet. I once posted asking where I could buy test tubes for a school science project. In a quintessentially Baltimore moment, my query was
answered by a cell biologist from Hopkins, who gladly donated some. We used the listserv to give away the crib that had served us through two babies, a gift from my parents when our first son was born. A young single dad packed it into his pickup truck on a rainy weekday night and drove off with a sentimental piece of our family’s history. In memorable posts, neighbors have graciously offered up “six stalks of celery,” a “barely used” container of organic milk and, naturally, extra kombucha cultures.
The listserv has its share of warm and fuzzy moments—neighbors once banded together to help pay for the funeral of a baby who died at the local pediatric hospital – but contention is often the coin of the realm. There have been heated, protracted debates about racial profiling, a proposed bike trail and the merits of BGE’s new “smart meter,” among countless others. And then there was the infamous ice cream incident. A neighbor innocently asked whether our community pool could include some low-fat or sugar-free options among its ice cream offerings. Approximately 400,000—ok, it was 24—posts later, you would think someone had asked about storing radioactive waste in their yard.
One friend recently announced on Facebook that he just couldn’t handle the negativity any more and was throwing in the listserv towel. But I just can’t quit, although I do only read the digest version now and then.
It finally dawned on me not long ago that the listserv represents exactly what a community is supposed to be. We’re borrowing a cup of sugar, gossiping, laughing and arguing, just as we might have done a hundred years ago in a dusty community hall or Ladies’ Auxiliary. We may not be raising barns for one another anymore. But in this digital age, we’re doing the next best thing. 9
Jennifer Mendelsohn lives in Mount Washington with her husband and their two boys. Her work has appeared inThe New York Times, People, Slate and,USA Weekend. She also serves as one of Us Weekly’s Fashion Police “Top Cops.”