Our annual block club party promised to be a slog this year. I suspected it back in March but was sure of it by about June. The biggest problem was that while everybody wanted to keep up the tradition of a day-long summer picnic in the street, the ranks of those willing to put in the work -- the picnic committee -- was shrinking steadily.
Grumbling about the trend had gotten louder at our monthly block club meetings, where attendance had drifted down to a hardy handful. Our block captain, W.G. (who in nine years has never told me what the initials stand for) was getting visibly annoyed by what he said was a disgraceful lack of unity. Truly, he couldn't understand it. Tough as things were these days, neighbors needed to band together. People needed to be jumping at the chance to be involved as something as affirming as the picnic, the block club's signature event. It was also a chance for people to get out from behind their doors and meet other people they didn't know. Our block is pretty closeknit, but no one knows all forty households. W.G. may know half of them, at most. We'd had lots of turnover the last couple of years what with people moving, selling or renting out. And dying. The week before the picnic, one of our neighbors, a woman about my age, succumbed to cancer. She and her family had lived on the block close to twenty years. Her funeral was scheduled the morning of our picnic; not a good omen. I tried to suggest to W.G. at the August meeting that we at least dedicate the event to the neighbor, but he wouldn't hear of it. A terrible shame, but he clearly didn't want to cast a pall over the big event. No use in that. It was just unfortunate timing. The show goes on, etc.
There were omens before that. In the spring, the block club tried to sponsor a casino bus trip, a fundraiser. Twenty dollars a seat to Viejas, and if you didn't care for gambling you could spend the time shopping at the local mall outlet. I'd done this trip before (somewhat reluctantly) and had a good time. But this time, the interest didn't materialize -- maybe it was lingering effects of the recession -- and we only managed to book 15 seats when the bus company needed at least 40 to keep the date. The falling short totally confounded W.G. He had petitioned friends, relatives, church people, but couldn't get any momentum. He was so put out that he didn't really speak about the trip until a month or so after it was canceled. The lack of community spirit was not just irritating, he intoned at a meeting, it had hurt his heart. Got him down in the mouth, hurt his feelings. He indeed looked gloomy, like he thought the universe was conspiring against the block club, maybe trying to teach it a lesson.
The day of the picnic dawned bright, with just enough breeze to ward off bad heat. The barbeque and all the fixings were laid out underneath a row of white tents, and fewer people than I'd ever seen before had come to partake -- minutes shy of the appointed start time, we almost had more dishes than attendees. The funeral procession had come and gone quietly while the food was grilling and balloons were being attached to trees; W.G. had watched and said nothing. Ten minutes passed, fifteen, and then we half an hour past the appointed start time. The crowd, if you could call it that, was a bit bigger but still sparse. W.G. said we might as well go ahead. We joined hands and formed a rough circle in the street, in the shade of a tent, so that W.G. could bless the food and whatever else before we got under way (I didn't like the praying, the praying was the thing that gave me the most pause about the block club and sometimes made my want to quit. But I had made my peace with it).
W.G. started an invocation over the booming mic. He didn't get far. His voice got whispery and then it stuck, like a tire rutted in mud. When he could speak he said he was sorry, but things were overwhelming. Life was fragile, he said, a thought that was striking him with great force today. Everything hung by a thread; so much was uncertain. What you took for granted you couldn't. Things would change on you, disappear. In the midday silence that W.G.'s Texas twang usually filled on picnic day, we all heard this. Then we said amen.
The non-prayer was like a break in bad weather. We started eating, and more people trickled out of doors towards the tents. We never got a critical mass, but we had a core. Children played along the curbs, and somebody sang karaoke -- George Benson -- twice. The deejay put on a club tune that had people up on their feet and line dancing. Another neighbor from down the block walked up in a big straw hat, big wine glass in hand. I remarked that I hadn't ever seen any spirits at the picnic. "Hey, you got to make your own happiness," she said with a big grin, lifting one eyebrow and the glass. She had not known the woman who'd died. Make your own happiness indeed.