The lost art of dropping in

Few people are ready for unexpected visitors these days, but the rewards of spontaneity are great.

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I recently ran into a friend I hadn't seen in a long while. Our conversation was animated and full of news from both sides. Before we parted she said, "You'll have to drop in sometime."

I immediately sensed that if I were to simply "drop in" I would be taking my friend by surprise. For a moment I thought of actually giving it a whirl to see what would come of it, but was dissuaded by the image of her standing in her doorway, staring at me, and asking, "Oh, er ... what brings you here?"

Whatever happened to the unannounced, drop-in visit? When I was a boy growing up in New Jersey back in the 1960s, it seemed that people – mostly relatives, but also friends – were always popping in. "We were just in the neighborhood and thought ... " was one way of easing oneself into someone else's home. My parents would dutifully put coffee on, and my mom would find something in the kitchen – pound cake or Stella D'oro cookies – to serve along with it. Then the conversation would begin.

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Quite a cast of characters precipitated in our home. The neighbor lady from down the street who was a worrier and unloaded her woes while my mom quietly listened. The Irish woman next door with a brogue so thick that I remember asking my parents what language she spoke. My Polish relatives arrived in packs, others as solitary migrants to our threshold. But I never heard either of my parents say anything like "We weren't expecting you" or "This isn't a good time." Drop-in visitors had a certain right of way and became Priority 1, relegating all other activities to the back burner.

When I ask, rhetorically, what happened to such visits, I am being wistful, because I know the answer. Times changed. Everybody went to work; everybody got busy. There was no longer a stay-at-home mom to maintain a pot of hot coffee or tea and stand at the ready throughout the day for the surprise guest. And the explosion of malls and so-called big-box stores meant that shopping had graduated from being a necessity or occasional pleasure to a central form of entertainment, a destination that kept people out of the house while they "shopped 'til they dropped."

When I moved to Maine in the 1980s, I was able, due to the slower, more communal pace of life here, to recapture the drop-in experience. On the second day in my new home – a fixer-upper that required constant care – my neighbor Earl, a seasoned, self-made jack-of-all-trades, came to the door and introduced himself. At the time I had a gallon of paint in one hand and a sopping brush in the other. My impulse was to tell Earl how busy I was, but a better angel of my nature whispered to me, and instead I invited him in for a cool drink. In the ensuing hour I learned about him, the neighborhood, who had the best deal on firewood, and how best to paint a ceiling without the paint dripping in my face. I also made a lifelong friend.

I have tried to keep the drop-in tradition alive, but it takes some effort. It's sort of like burning green wood; it can be done, but you have to make sure your fire is hot to begin with. In this light, I think I have succeeded in making it known that if I am home, the unanticipated guest is likely to be welcomed.

Just the other day a former student of mine and his new wife showed up on my doorstep. I had been in the kitchen, fretting over what to prepare for the evening's meal. "I'm sorry for the surprise visit," my student began. "I just wanted to see if you still lived here. We'll only stay a minute."

My response was immediate. "No you won't," I said. "You'll come in, sit, have coffee, and we'll talk."

I had no Stella D'oro cookies, but my guests immediately suggested the answer to my supper dilemma: We ordered pizza.

And we had a lovely visit.

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