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August 29, 2014, 2:02 am

A neighborly act no longer in style

Several weeks ago, I spent hours outside my home with my son and grandson doing what I suspect many of you have done or are in the process of doing. With their help, all of our leaves were gathered into a pile for removal by our township streets department. Even though we had the benefit of a powerful leaf blower, this effort required substantial raking. It was hard, dirty work. After finishing, I thought of my father’s words; words that I would generally hear, as a child after playing on the playground, streets or backyard. He described my physical state as being “filthy dirty.” There was no question that on this day, getting the leaves in order made me comparable to Charlie Brown’s “Pigpen.” Thus, I removed all of my clothing on the first floor before heading upstairs to shower.

In the shower, I noticed a piece of soap about the size of a quarter. I looked in my bathroom cabinet, but no soap. I then went to the hall linen closet, only to come up with the same result. I went to my wife’s bathroom and then downstairs to the powder room. There was no soap anywhere. I even went into our laundry room to see if there was some Fels Naphtha soap; you may recall this brown soap used by our mothers in the past for laundry. There was none! I thought about what we did in the past in such circumstances. One would have put on a robe and gone down the hall or next door to a neighbor and borrowed a bar of soap. Borrowing household items, particularly kitchen items, was something families just did as a matter of fact, back in the day.

I know you do not think I went next door or down the road to borrow soap. If I had, I cannot imagine the reaction. Would I expect a fresh, unopened bar of soap? How would I have reacted if I was given a used bar? I tried to get a co-worker to help me in writing this column by going to one of his neighbors to borrow something. He said, “I don’t think so, I don’t want to be cursed or hit up-side my head.” He said borrowing is not what it was in the past. He, like many people, does not even know his neighbors. Even if we know our neighbors, our relationships are too impersonal to encourage borrowing things. Furthermore, many of us have too much pride to borrow. But our parents and neighbors were from a different era; they clearly had a different mindset and would not hesitate to borrow anything.

Borrowing was not a function of being poor. Quite often, it came as a result of the kind of experience I had when looking for soap to take a shower; it was one of need. The typical situation that required borrowing involved a family being in the midst of preparing breakfast when their tea or coffee was poured and no sugar was in the cupboard. Stories of families borrowing sugar go back over the years. A protocol was involved when borrowing. All requests back then began with, “May I?”

I have been told of situations where heads of households were reluctant to go to neighbors, so they did what many families did; they sent the child to make the request. A friend told me she recalls a little girl ringing her doorbell and asking if her mother could borrow two eggs. She honored the request only to have the child return a few minutes later to ask to borrow two slices of bread. In an attempt to and ensure the borrowing would not become an ongoing habit, my friend sent a message to the mother: “If you wanted an egg sandwich, you should have asked for one when you made your initial request.”

A refrain one hears more often than he or she cares to is “It’s in the Bible.” You know how some people will find a verse in the Bible to justify whatever they believe, right or wrong. Thus, I was referred to Exodus, Chapter 3:22 in the American King James version of the Bible that reads: “But every woman shall borrow of her neighbor, and of her that sojourns in her house, jewels of silver, and jewels of gold, and raiment and you shall put them on your sons, and on your daughters; and you shall spoil the Egyptians.” For those borrowers who refer to this verse to justify their behavior, its interpretation has been taken out of context, with their focus being totally on the word “borrow.” While borrowing things may not have had a Biblical basis, it was a practice that was widespread, back in the day.

Certain items were readily borrowed in the past. Sugar, eggs and bread have been previously mentioned, with sugar at the top of the list. Other items that were regularly borrowed included: flour, butter, milk, coffee, tea bags, salt, pepper, seasonings, salad dressing and syrup. These all can be easily missed until you are ready to use them. In some cases, it was possible to get a child to run to the corner store to purchase whatever was needed. There are no corner stores in many neighborhoods today.

A co-worker, hearing me list the items regularly borrowed in the past, added toilet paper to my list. That stopped me in my tracks. Of course, my question was, “Did the attempt at borrowing toilet paper occur before or after ‘the event’?” I know of people that had to do “number two” and when finished, reached over to get the toilet paper only to find none. This resulted in hopping down the hall to a closet or to another bathroom. I have never had this experience. Therefore, I had to ask my co-worker just what he did in such an emergency. Without blinking, he told me that there was always a newspaper or pages from a Sears Roebuck catalogue in his home.

Even borrowing clothing was not out of the question. It was not unusual for a neighbor to ask to borrow a suit or dress for a special occasion. Not everyone had a suit or dress for an interview. Going to church, a wedding or a funeral quite often dictated the need to borrow. I can recall friends who were going out on a first date who asked to borrow a special article of clothing. The same was true with regard to an automobile. I know a number of you can relate to that. Just think, whose automobile did you drive to your prom, back in the day?

Of all the things one may need to borrow from neighbors, there is nothing more annoying than a request to borrow money. This is particularly true with regard to a neighbor. My advice is, do not ask to borrow money, and if you are asked, do not acquiesce. Many friendships have suffered over borrowed money never being returned. This is true today, just as it was, back in the day.

Borrowing from neighbors has diminished over the years. However, you can still find neighbors borrowing lawn tools, snow blowers, shovels and extension ladders. There seems to be no embarrassment at making such requests. Borrowing such items can pose problems that are not associated with borrowing everyday household items. It is no big deal if your neighbor does not replenish your sugar or replace your eggs. But to ignore returning your chain saw is another matter. In the past, these items were quickly returned; today is another story. Your best bet when you find yourself in such a situation is to simply ask the borrower if he or she has finished with the item. As for those everyday items, you can best avoid borrowing them by doing what is done in my home; we simply leave a notepad on the island counter where items are listed for purchase as the supply diminishes. Obviously, you may never be in a position where you have everything in and around your home whenever you need it. So, I strongly suggest that you start building a warm and cozy relationship with your neighbors just in case you have to borrow something, as our parents and grandparents regularly did, back in the day.


Alonzo Kittrels can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or The Philadelphia Tribune, Back In The Day, 520 S. 16th St., Philadelphia, PA 19146.