We live in an anonymous age. On those rare occasions when I patronize the local mall, I feel vaguely bereft because I know that I'm going to a place where I won't know anybody and nobody will know me. I contrast this with my experience growing up in New Jersey in the 1960s, when the neighborhood was an extension of the family itself, and everyone seemed to have a hand in keeping us kids on the straight and narrow.
Unlike managers at today's malls and warehouse stores, the businesspeople of my boyhood owned their shops, and I knew them by name. There was Mr. Riley's candy store, Vick's deli, Mike the druggist, and Patsy the butcher, among many others. Once, when I was 12, something got into me and I was unkind to a girl standing in front of the candy store. In an instant, Mr. Riley hauled me inside, sat me down at his counter, and commenced his lecture. "I know your father," he glowered. "I have a good mind to call him."
Then he poured me a coke. After drinking it, I made my way home and spent a sleepless night wondering if the phone would ring.
All the neighbors knew me as well. I remember – I must have been 9 years old – buying a soda (I drank too much soda) on my way home from school and throwing the empty can in the street. When I got to the house, my mother was waiting for me in the doorway. "Did you throw a can in the street?" she demanded.
As I got ready to protest my innocence, my mother cut me off. "Don't deny it," she said. "Mrs. Briguglio called and told me she saw you!"
When I recall these memories, it's clear to me why we kids never became felons. We never got the opportunity to do anything remotely dangerous. Even if it had occurred to us to, say, build our own cherry bombs, how could we do it if we couldn't even get away with throwing a can in the street? I'd have to first get the chemicals, which would mean going to the drugstore. And as soon as I asked for one of the chemicals, Mike the druggist would have said, "What do you want that for? Get outta here or I'll tell your parents!" "
And believe me, someone was always telling my parents something.
There was an Italian man across the street, Mr. Musante, who told my parents that I had put a firecracker in an apple that had fallen from his tree. Mrs. Slavin told my parents that I had called her son, Bobby, a name. Mrs. Haller told my parents that I was collecting old newspapers from people's trash and selling them to passersby on the street corner.
Is it any wonder I never became a criminal? It was hard enough to simply misbehave.
But all my experiences with these neighborhood sentinels weren't cautionary or punitive. I was also the recipient of their sympathy.
When I was in the fifth grade, some kids from another neighborhood decided to chase me down. Just as they were upon me, I hopped into Patsy's butcher shop. Patsy knew me, and when he saw those other kids in hot pursuit, he went to the door holding a leg of lamb. "Get outta here or I'll let you have it!" he yelled, waving the meat like a mace.
The kids fled, Patsy called my parents, and all was well.
My New Jersey neighborhood, then, was the village that helped raise this child. Now that I have kids of my own, I watch whenever they leave home and I ask myself, Who knows them? If they get in a fix, who can they ask for help?
This is, as I said at the outset, an anonymous age, one in which fewer and fewer people experience the uplift of being recognized and called by name in public places. I'm a teacher, and I recently asked my students why they like to go to the mall – a place where they are, for all intents, faceless. One young woman spoke for the group when she said, "When I go to the mall, all I'm interested in is the price of the jeans."
I suppose that when I went to Mr. Riley's candy store many years ago, I was only interested in the price of the candy. But I think I may have also realized, however subliminally, that Mr. Riley and all the other neighbors were interested in me and staked claims to my good behavior, if only for their own peace of mind. And I know that, from time to time, they did their part to see me safely home.