Shannon Drury, former president of Minnesota NOW, is a writer, at-home parent and community activist. She writes a regular column for the Minnesota Women's Press, blogs at www.theradicalhousewife.com and is a source in MPR News' Public Insight Network.
"Well, I'll be damned," the stranger said, catching my eye as I lifted my head from my unkempt boulevard garden. He was pushing a baby stroller with one hand and pointing across the street with another.
I pulled out my ear buds and asked him to repeat himself (when I'm on weeding duty, or doing any household chore for that matter, I like to blast Madonna as loud as my 40-year-old ears can take). I followed his finger to the sign across the street, the green-and-white lawn sign that read: VOTE YES, Marriage One Man, One Woman.
The stranger's nose crinkled in disapproval. "What's that all about?" he asked.
"I really don't know," I answered, flummoxed by the irony of discussing a serious social issue while a sleazy club jam thumped away on my iPod.
In the literal sense, of course, I knew exactly what the sign was about. It was our block's first public announcement in support of the so-called Minnesota Marriage Protection Amendment, on the ballot this November. I didn't know the neighbor who planted the sign in her front yard, having seen her only in passing glimpses. An elderly white woman, she hadn't attended the National Night Out event I'd organized just a few weeks before, though my kids put a flyer in her mailbox. In fact, I hadn't seen her at a single block event in the nine years I'd lived on the street. I didn't know her any more than I knew the strange stroller-pusher engaging me in conversation.
She didn't know me, either, so she didn't know why I had a bright orange VOTE NO: Don't Limit the Freedom to Marry sign on my front lawn. Had we ever held a conversation, I could have explained to her my reasons for believing that the amendment was a terrible idea.
She wouldn't have learned much from me, but she might have learned something from other neighbors at National Night Out. Neighbors like the gay couple across the alley and the lesbian couple several doors down. Lest she think that all GLBT people in the area are in a mad dash to the altar, she could also have met the singleton known to mingle in Palm Springs at Dinah Shore Weekend.
And these were just the folks who were out; untold others could be B (bisexual), or T (transgender), or part of the rainbow of difference in countless other ways. At our block's annual event last month, there were elderly neighbors, toddler neighbors, surly teenage neighbors, neighbors of color, white neighbors, a neighbor in a wheelchair, a neighbor with multiple disabilities, gluten-free neighbors who avoided the brownies and vegetarian neighbors who avoided the hot dogs.
What things could I learn from the neighbor who stayed inside on that summer's night? Her lawn sign told us that she supported the marriage amendment, but not much else. What experiences and choices brought her to this block in south Minneapolis? Could she and I find common ground over a shared, but secret, loathing of the marinated beet salad brought by the health-conscious neighbor who shamed us into eating it instead of a second helping of Cool Ranch Doritos?
The stranger asked me what I knew about the Vote Yes neighbor. I laughed, because I didn't know him, let alone her. He apologized, introduced himself and explained that he was in Minneapolis visiting his baby niece (that was her in the stroller). He lived with his partner in Burnsville, where, he said, he hadn't seen a single pro-amendment sign. "Everyone there's been really accepting of us," he said.
I mentioned my neighbor's absence at National Night Out. "In fact," I added, "I can't remember the last time I saw her leave her house."
"What a shame," Keith said (since he wasn't a stranger anymore). We agreed that neighbors ought to talk to each other, instead of communicating through lawn signs.
His niece, annoyed at the interruption of her walk, began fussing. Keith wished me luck and went on his way. I popped my ear buds back in, just in time to catch Madonna cooing, on a track from 1986, that "love makes the world go 'round."