“Why are so many Americans living by themselves?” Nathan Heller asks in “The Disconnect” (New Yorker, April 16, 2012). “Today,” Heller says, “half of U.S. residents are single, and a third of all households have one occupant.” We’re in the world of the sociologist, but while this issue’s “Table of Contents,” titled “Journeys,” promises “How to be alone,” we don’t learn how to live alone: what we get is a review of books about people living alone and why, and why the number of people living alone is increasing, and we are given to reflect on what it might mean to live alone, and how living alone might relate to loneliness, and whether or not living alone really means we are alone.
I find the topic interesting for a number of reasons, but mainly because I have never lived alone. In one sense, living alone might be compared to driving alone. Rarely are we on the road alone; we are surrounded by other cars, usually bumper to bumper, and if there’s a mishap, a flat tire or a blown hose, we soon learn who our neighbors are. Likewise, unless we live alone like Jay Gatsby did, in a giant, empty mansion on acreage twenty miles out of the city, we might be able to say that we have a room of our own, but is having a room of one’s own really living alone?
In South Bay for a time we lived in a one-room studio courtyard apartment. There were six, one story apartments, connected wall to wall down one side of a lawn, shaded by a single, large pepper tree, across from six apartments down the other side of the lawn. On each side, between the lawn and the row of apartments, a small drive led down to the carports. There used to be scads of places like this in South Bay, and they were very popular. They were sometimes advertised as “efficiency apartments,” but were often referred to as “bachelor pads,” and, for a time, we were the only ones in our courtyard sharing one of the apartments.
During most South Bay “solid gold weekends,” if we were home, we might for a little while leave our door open to the courtyard, and our neighbors did, too. One day, everyone in their places with sunshiny faces, the girl in the apartment attached to our north wall let out a peace shattering scream followed by a jet like roar, “Get that thing out of here!” followed by another scream, followed by an apparition at our front door.
Her cat, the situation quickly emerging in ghastly gasps, had carried a live lizard into her apartment. Would I please help her get it out? Susan tried to explain to her that the lizard was a gift, from the cat, but the look she produced at this irrelevant and impotent suggestion quickly gave way to an aggressive look back toward me that said, “Help me, now.” Thus it was that I became for the next half hour or so an alligator wrestler, while in the end it was the cat that wound up carrying the lizard back outside.
Cats can live alone, though Susan’s never had one that would, and the lizard seemed happy enough to be scurrying back up the tree to tell his tale back home, and while I don’t think our neighbor ever left her door open again, I always felt her presence.