Bench

The Bench Network

The old neighbors sit like the three Fates. They appear to be all knowing, spinning yarns about everything and everyone. Three hunched shadows, silhouetted against the street light. The ends of their cigarettes flare and fade. Their conversation murmurs through the block’s open windows like some dull television-sounds in another room.    

The bench is not really a bench, but a collection of chairs scattered around a table set on the lawn in front of the apartment block. There is a bench, but it is incidental to the chairs. Of course the chairs aren’t a single set like you would buy at the store. Rather, each chair is unique, each with its own mysterious origin. Somehow each one just showed up, sprouting around the bench like a bunch of mushrooms.

Center of the universe

Three old ladies serves as the core of the group. Others come and go, but the orbit of the evening belongs to these old women. They are my mother-in-law’s neighbors. The women who watched my wife grow up and now kiss and hug my daughter in the hallway, passing her treats or just bringing up plates of crepes for no reason in the evening.

Gossipers

People often make disparaging comments about old ladies gossiping on benches. In Croatia it seems like every neighborhood has their set of the Fates, their group of neighbors who congregate nightly. They’re considered nosy, judgmental, and the source from which so many rumors spring. “Did you hear about…” “I heard that…” “No, she said he said…”

Land of loneliness

But if you could only envisage the loneliness of the American midwest. If you could feel how easy it is to become lost in our culture of individuals isolation, then I think everyone would appreciate the ladies on the bench.

Once we invented air conditioning we no longer had to go outside to keep cool during the hellish summer months. So we saw our neighbors less and less. And once we invented the TV we no longer needed friends. So, there was no need to see our neighbors at all. Now, to see someone its like you need an excuse to intrude on their solitude.

 Split

But each summer in Split, I know that whenever I come or go, I’ll see the neighbors. I’ll stroll up or park, catching their squints in the flash of the headlights, and even if I don’t want to, I’m drawn to walk over and at least say hi.

We make jokes, I mention propuh, they ask about my daughter. If my wife, daughter and I have been out together then usually my mother-in-law is down there waiting for us with them. Maybe she’ll take my daughter upstairs, with what to feed her occupying her mind, and my wife and I will steal a cigarette and a few minutes with the neighbors.

Value vs. Spirit

Amid the manicured front lawns of America’s McMansions, the long driveways and wide streets, there is no place for a bench, let alone a sordid collection of mismatched, broken lawn chairs. What serves as the center of the community in Split, Croatia would be seen as a property devaluing eyesore in Oklahoma. And that might be the difference between here and there. Property over community, value over spirit. But, after living in Croatia I say let the old ladies talk on the bench. I see that in the end, we’re richer for it.