The closeness of neighbors

Small gestures and the day-to-day things build and nurture a community

Corey DiMario is a musician and the proprietor of Patio Coffee, at the Hooker-Dunham block, at 139 Main St. in Brattleboro.

BRATTLEBORO-I learned of Byron Stookey's passing on the morning of April 12, just before I opened my pop-up coffee shop at the Hooker-Dunham building, where he and his wife, Lee, have lived for 15 years.

You can read the beautiful obituary that was published in The Commons on April 17 to know the kind of life Byron lived. He was an extraordinary man, and I'm honored to have known him over the past few years. I miss him dearly, and I'm sure I'm one of many who feel this way.

As far I can tell, I was one the of the first people outside his family to get the news, along with one of my work neighbors in the lobby of the Hooker-Dunham Building. We happened to be discussing Byron's wry wit and sense of humor when one of his daughters came out of the apartment to tell us he had passed away that same morning.

It's a moment I'll never forget: one of closeness, of connection, of loss. I felt exposed, vulnerable. I also felt hugely responsible to the family member who broke the news. To be there to receive word of such a loss.

It's a rare thing to be present for, and the gravity of the moment still lingers. Since then I've thought of Byron almost every day in some capacity.

* * *

I started Patio Coffee in the fall of 2019 as a seasonal pop-up on the patio of the Hooker-Dunham building. What began as a fun side hustle to my music career has now blossomed, occupying the patio when it's warm and the lobby when it's cold. A permanent pop-up, so to speak.

As my quirky micro-business has developed into a year-round operation, my role in the building has evolved.

My job description now can easily read as part house barista and part concierge, often signing for packages, directing people to the appropriate office, or simply saying hello to the many people who work and live in the building. It's a role that I enjoy and cherish.

Most mornings for the past 4½ years, Byron would come out to buy coffee to bring back to his first-floor apartment to share with Lee. Once or twice a week, Lee would bring me a fresh-baked muffin or some cut flowers.

Occasionally, Byron would help me set up tables and chairs for my customers on the patio. We'd have short conversations about art or politics or our shared affection for the creaky wood floors of Brown & Roberts Hardware across the street.

Once I helped Byron sort out a small computer problem in his apartment, my expertise being my willingness to simply shut it off and turn it back on.

The Stookeys would always let me know when they were headed out of town so I wouldn't worry, and would always want to know about what my son was up to.

These small, neighborly gestures are the kind that make you feel close with someone - not because you've had long heart-to-heart conversations, but because of the regularity of the mundane day-to-day things.

* * *

When I was a kid, we would travel to New York City to visit my grandmother, my father's mother, at her home in the Bronx. The neighborhood, a mix of Italian, Jewish, and Puerto Rican, felt foreign and far away from my suburban home in central Massachusetts.

I have many memories of her house: the time our car was stolen from the driveway, trips to the Bronx Zoo, the strange elephant bookends on the mantel made of ebony with real ivory tusks, eating homemade pizzelles stored in a Chock Full o' Nuts coffee can.

My grandmother would stand on the front stoop of her home, a duplex typical of the neighborhood, talking to neighbors and passersby. She would speak Italian and they would respond in Spanish, or they would all slip into English, catching up on local gossip and day-to-day happenings.

This is how I picture my grandmother when I think of her: her white hair and slight frame, her glasses, her strong, thin hands gesturing as she talked.

* * *

As I settle into middle age, a divorce behind me, a new home in a new neighborhood, a teenage child coming into his own, I find myself reflecting on community.

I think of my grandmother on her stoop getting the neighborhood news, still in her kitchen apron.

I think of my role at the coffee cart and in the building. I think of Byron Stookey returning the cardboard carrying tray I gave him to more easily transport his two coffees with his shaky hands. I think of restarting computers and setting up folding chairs.

I think of these things - these small, simple, neighborly things - that make the place we live feel like home.

This Voices Essay was submitted to The Commons.

This piece, published in print in the Voices section or as a column in the news sections, represents the opinion of the writer. In the newspaper and on this website, we strive to ensure that opinions are based on fair expression of established fact. In the spirit of transparency and accountability, The Commons is reviewing and developing more precise policies about editing of opinions and our role and our responsibility and standards in fact-checking our own work and the contributions to the newspaper. In the meantime, we heartily encourage civil and productive responses at [email protected].

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