When I moved to Washington, D.C., the first thing I noticed was that the concept of being “neighborly” was foreign to most city dwellers. I once knocked on a neighbor’s door to ask if she could take in my Sunday paper for me while I was away, and was treated as if I’d asked her to transport a car bomb.
This chilly behavior was foreign to me. Growing up out West, strangers waved at you when you drove by and said hello when they passed you on the sidewalk. The idea that someone could live four feet from your front door and treat you like a leper did not make sense to me.
Over time, I adjusted to Washington’s aloof and dismissive culture. I stopped exchanging pleasantries or trying to start conversations in the elevator. You can only be rebuffed so many times before you just give up.
Then, in 2006, I moved into a new building and was taken aback when one of my neighbors, a grey-haired Southern gentleman with a jolly sense of humor and a little white dog named Beth, stopped to say hello every time he saw me. We would chat about the weather, about the neighborhood and about Beth, who was basically community property–loved and adored by everyone in the building. The man, Rhett Leverett, was casually referred to as the Mayor of Penn Quarter, a welcoming committee of one.
This morning, Rhett, whose daily chats were often the only friendly, pleasant conversation I had all day, died after being hit by a car. His beloved Beth wasn’t harmed.
I can’t even fathom that I will never again see him walking Beth on the sidewalk or chatting with another neighbor about the building’s endless plumbing problems. He genuinely cared about all of his neighbors, and was the nicest person I have ever met. Seeing him in the lobby was one of the ways I knew I was home. The building, the neighborhood and the daily commutes of dozens of PQ residents will not be the same without him.
P.S. Just to illustrate how many lives this man touched, my assistant was one of his students at Marymount and says that non-history majors used to sign up for Leverett’s classes just because he was such a great teacher. I don’t think there was anyone who knew him who didn’t think he was one of the nicest people they ever knew.