- The Washington Times - Monday, September 22, 2003

Love thy neighbor and thy neighbor’s dog, too. Neighbors in the Dumont Oaks subdivision of Silver Spring have Alana, Bleu, Sidney and Mango to thank for an international “pauper’s picnic” held Saturday evening by candlelight, and a prized dogwood uprooted by Hurricane Isabel.

This hearth-warming scene may seem familiar to many Washingtonians who found camaraderie with neighbors in cul de sacs, on stoops, in back yards like mine, to weather the aftershocks of Isabel. While the storm left plenty of kindling wood in its path, it rekindled some good, old-fashioned “neighborly love.”

“I always knew I lived in a diverse community, and [the hurricane] really gave us a chance to broaden our contacts and get better acquainted,” said Thomas Hargrave, speaking of the neighbors he sees and waves to on daily doggie walks with his yellow Labrador, Alana.

Mr. Hargrave, his wife, Meredith, and their 22-year-old daughter, Anna, started circulating the idea of hosting an impromptu pot luck dinner after surveying the hurricane’s damage to the busy, tree-lined community where they have lived for nearly 30 years. It was a conversation undoubtedly conducted by others as neighbors all around the Beltway gathered for the cleanup detail that turned into catch-up parties. Mrs. Hargrave mentioned that her neighbors discussed how “George and Marva lost their huge weeping willow tree and the way it fell made for a nice little, secret meditation place.” And how Mr. Hargrave is hoping to save a section of the dogwood he planted for his daughter when she was a baby. This area near White Oak in Montgomery County had been without electricity for almost two days, so Mrs. Hargrave decided that she would put her Girl Scout camping experiences and a brand new, three-shelf gas grill to good use.

“I’m so-o-o-o thankful that the whole time [my daughter] was growing up, she was involved in the Girl Scouts,” Mrs. Hargrave, a consultant and former consumer affairs director, said about “all those years of camping that’s paid off.”

Mrs. Hargrave said her 88-year-old German mother, Ellen Moore, who also lives in the Oak Leaf Drive home, organized “pauper’s picnics” in their Ohio neighborhood when she was a child. Only two rules existed for the meal: It had to be prepared and eaten that day and you couldn’t go to the grocery store. The menu has to come from items already in your pantry and refrigerator.

First, Mrs. Hargrave, who volunteered that hers is “an interracial family,” invited her immediate neighbors, one Indian/Philippine family and a semiretired black couple.

“Then, the rest of the people we’ve met dog walking.” They included “Larry” (of Japanese-American background) who has a Vietnamese girlfriend and a mixed black Labrador named “Sidney.” Then, a white woman and her son, who have a golden retriever named “Mango.” And, a World Bank employee from Congo married to a French woman who have an Australian sheep dog with one blue eye, who is named, appropriately, “Bleu.”

By evening’s end, 16 diners sat around a candlelit table and feasted on a smorgasbord of dishes from six countries, including Greek spanakopita, curry, rice biryani and two kinds of lasagna and, of course, barbecued chicken and hot dogs. Mixed vegetables were steamed in aluminum foil on the grill, Girl Scout style. They also drank red wine from five countries including Romania, Chile and Italy that was leftover from a Hargrave family wedding. Dessert was a huge bucket of ice cream topped with a purple mixture of exotic fruits, compliments of the Philippines.

“I’m a vegetarian, so we had veggie burgers, too,” Mrs. Hargrave said. “We sat around by candlelight talking for hours; it was a lot of fun.” The conversation ranged from storm stories to explanations about their Unitarian religion to Mr. Hargrave’s upcoming novel about Anthony Bowen, the first black leader of a YMCA.

Mr. Hargrave was the director and CEO of the Anthony Bowen YMCA in the District until he retired in 1992 and became a novelist. The couple are long-standing, active members of All Soul’s Unitarian Church in the District. Like many taking the inconvenience of no water, no phone service or no electricity or none of the above (like yours truly) in stride, Mrs. Hargrave said, “This whole thing is something to do with good humor.”

She was not too good-natured about folks she heard complaining about the lack of creature comforts when they lined up to get dry ice only to be turned away. “I’m not complaining about anything,” Mrs. Hargrave said. She has been mindful of her 22-year-old Internet pen pal, Nicholas, who lives in a mud hut in a village near Nairobi, Kenya, where 300 people share one spigot while trying to get an education.

Three important lessons were sparked by her family’s ordeal after Hurricane Isabel: to be appreciative of what we have in this country and to have the willingness to understand when things don’t work; the value of being prepared for emergencies and of having supplies on hand as well as alternative sources of energy like an outdoor grill; and to value community because reaching out and helping people is “what makes it all worthwhile.”

Mrs. Hargrave and her neighbors are taking their lessons and preparing for the future. “We’re already making plans for the next act of nature — we’re planning to pitch in and buy a snow blower.” The Dumont Oaks pauper’s picnic was “put together in just eight hours … and it turned out to be one of the best events we’ve had all year,” Mr. Hargrave said.

“We made a good thing out of a bad situation,” she said. “Even the dogs got into the act.”

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