Uncommon Common Sense

By Bill Frayer

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The Invisible Hamish LineBill-Frayer-2010


Before we moved to Mexico, we lived in a series of houses in different neighborhoods in Maine. When we were first married and broke, we lived in a tenement-style apartment complex. All the porches looked out on a common driveway so we could see everyone come and go. It was a friendly place; we watched each other’s kids, shared barbecues and beer, and borrowed cups of flour when necessary.  Nobody had much money, but it was friendly and comfortable. 

As our income increased, we were able to live in nicer homes. Our nicest was the last one we lived in before we retired. Nice neighborhood, but we didn’t know many people. I remember one day, during a snowstorm, my wife noticed our next-door neighbor trying to get her car out of her snowy driveway. She went to help her and noticed a middle-aged man, across the lane, snow blowing his driveway never bothering to help our neighbor. In that “nice” neighborhood, people had purchased privacy, but it was rather cold and unfriendly. 

What did our poorer neighborhood have that the more prosperous one lacked? David Brooks, a New York Times columnist, uses a Yiddish word to describe this desirable characteristic: Hamish. It means “ warmth, domesticity and unpretentious conviviality.” 

When we moved from a more modest neighborhood to a more prosperous one, we crossed the Hamish line. Our later neighborhood lacked Hamish. I find this concept interesting because I have observed it in many situations. 

When our son, Eric, had a paper route, I sometimes substituted for him. As I learned the route, he gave me specific instructions.  Some people, often in the working-class neighborhoods, offered him a drink or asked him to stop and chat. Others, in the more suburban areas, were very particular about exactly where he was to leave the paper. He never saw them.

We used to go to a pizza joint/pub where our daughter was a waitress.  We loved it. It was cheap food and beer, but everyone was friendly and we would visit with other customers and joke with the staff. We also liked more upscale restaurants, but they were not friendly, just more elegant. I am sure you can think of examples. 

The principle at work here is simple: the more money we have, and therefore spend, the more we are purchasing exclusivity. We value privacy and having things for our exclusive use, like swimming pools, nice cars, and beautiful homes. It is appealing, because we can have privacy and not have to share the space with others. But, of course, that also brings some degree of isolation.  Having to share common space puts us in closer contact with others. When we live in a situation in which we come into regular contact with people, it can make us feel happy and satisfied.  This may be why very wealthy people often feel isolated and alone. 

Our Mexican neighbors are poor; they live in small homes with lots of others and survive day-to-day. We gringos live in relative luxury and hire Mexican people to clean our houses, tend our gardens, and wait on us in nice restaurants. Are we happier? Perhaps.  But I am not sure. 

It may be wise to remember this when we decide how to spend our money. Buying experiences may be more valuable than buying things.  As Brooks points out, “Sometimes its best to spend carefully so you can stay south of the Haimish Line.”


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