The Best of Andy Rooney

(This classic Andy Rooney column was originally published March 15, 1991.)

One night, the sirens wailed and the lights flashed and the police cars and the ambulance stopped in front of a house less than a block from ours. One of the neighbors had committed suicide.

That night, I lay in bed thinking about the neighborhood. We don't really have one anymore. The days of going next door to borrow a cup of sugar are gone. If you run out of sugar, you drive to the 24-hour store and buy five pounds.

I didn't know this neighbor's name. I would not have recognized her if she had knocked on our door. It seemed wrong to me, lying there that night, that we hadn't known she needed help. I don't know what we could have done, but neighbors should know when someone next door or down the street is desperate.

A woman from a small town in Connecticut commented angrily in The New York Times recently about the imminent closing of the local post office. She said, among other things, that a local post office is the one central point in a small town that brings people together.

A daily visit to the post office provides a purpose-filled walk for many people who don't otherwise get out of the house. In addition, those who went to the post office could learn to their sorrow that Mrs. Johnson's cat with one white paw was missing, and they could scan the evil faces of the 10 most-wanted.

The U.S. Postal Service is trying to operate like the big business it is, and sentimentality doesn't enter into the decisions of a big business, so hundreds of post offices in small communities all across the country are being closed.

Every place we go, we're having less personal contact. Bank clerks were always nicer people than bankers and, while the conversations were never long, I used to talk with a clerk at my bank named John at least once a week for 25 years.

"People who used to cash checks for $20 are cashing them for $100 now," he said once, and I stored that away as one of the few pieces of real information I had about our economy.

John was replaced four years ago by a machine into which I insert a plastic card. The machine then belches forth $20 bills at me. It tells me nothing , not even where to get change. There certainly aren't any good movies about bank robbers in Hollywood's future. Bank robbers today don't wear masks; they don't even come into the bank. They steal the money by juggling numbers in some remote office. It's all part of the widespread social estrangement affected every area of our lives.

When I was young, part of my education away from school when I was young was going to Evans Grocery Store. Mr. Evans would get items down off the tall shelves with one of those pincers on a stick. When I handed him the money my mother had given me to pay our bill, he'd tell me a lot of people couldn't pay him because of the Depression. That made me understand the Depression better than anything my fourth-grade teacher said about it.

It was the kind of information you don't get in a supermarket. This morning, the only information presented to me at the store was that BABY WITH TWO HEADS IS TWICE AS SMART!

It was the headline on one of those grocery store newspapers, and I didn't give it any more credence than I gave the headline on the paper next to it saying that Elizabeth Taylor was pregnant at 60.

The gas station used to be another source of special information when the attendant, who filled your tank and washed your windshield, made change. He always knew about the accident on the interstate the night before and was ready with other bits of information not available elsewhere.

I hope no one's working on inventing an automatic hair-cutting machine. Some months, about the only news I get that isn't on television is from Manny, my barber.

The decline and closing of local post offices and grocery stores isn't the only way we're losing personal contact with each other. A hundred windows to our neighbors' world have closed to us in the past 20 years. We've lost touch with them. We peep in on the artificial lives of people in television dramas and see less and less of our neighbors, who are watching the same shows.

We know the problems Bill Cosby's family is having and we know they'll be solved. We don't see the ones next door.

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