It all started with a simple birthday gift.
By MARIA MARTIN
Special to The Star
When Bob Chamberlain turned 62, his wife decided that he needed to relax more, so she gave him two benches.
She wanted me to try to imagine what it would be like to be retired, says Chamberlain, who has been retired for many years now.
So hed settle down on his new spot after work, sort through the mail and enjoy the hum of the Armour Fields neighborhood all around him.
It wasnt long before he had company at his home, not far from the heart of Brookside. His neighbor John Berkshire would settle in next to him, and the two would enjoy a drink after a long day. If two is company in this neighborhood, three is certainly not a crowd, nor is four, nor is a dozen or more. Before long, it became a gathering place for neighbors.
In inclement weather, happy hour is inside Chamberlains home, but the neighborhood crowd has outgrown the space around his benches, so the go-to spot in nice weather is a stones throw away, at the home of Chuck and Berit Hunter. Whether the couple are home or not, neighbors are welcome to gather on their patio and talk about everything from good books to the best electricians in town.
In fact, the Hunters remodeled the house to put in the front patio thats so popular with the neighborhood crowd, hoping to create an old-fashioned neighborhood gathering spot.
We count our blessings that we can share this with everyone, Berit Hunter says.
Sometimes its a gathering of only a handful, sometimes its a large crowd. But you can depend on this: The two buddies Berkshire and Chamberlain are almost always there.
We call it Easy Street, Chamberlain says, holding up a novelty license plate with those words and a photo of the two regulars. When he talks about the hard times he has faced over the years most notably his wifes death in 2001 and a recent cancer diagnosis its clear that this neighborhood has helped hold him steady through lifes most difficult blows.
Mary Meysenburg is one of the many neighbors who often stop by for happy hour. The mother of four popped by a recent indoor gathering at Chamberlains home.
We keep an eye out for each other, Meysenburg says. Id tell people in other neighborhoods that it might be hard to make that effort at first, but its really worth it.
Jan Wollard wanders over to greet the group gathered around a buffet table full of food, and the crowd welcomes her.
She and her friends used to walk by us all and call us the winos, Berkshire says with a laugh. It wasnt long before we gave them a glass of wine, and they kept coming back.
Wollard flashes a broad grin and responds, Its like stray cats. You feed us, and we keep coming back.
The first glass is on us, and after that you bring your own, Chamberlain says.
Meysenburg notes that sometimes happy hour lasts 30 minutes, sometimes two hours.
Bobbie Vanice says its the diversity of the crowd that brings power to the hour.
Its wonderful to live in a place where you know this many people and can share so much, even though we may not even share the same politics.
That bond becomes clear when Chamberlain talks about the hours after his diagnosis with bladder cancer.
We call her Sweet Mary, Chamberlain says, pointing across the room at Meysenburg. After I was diagnosed, I came home and sat on the couch, ready to fall apart. Mary came over and sat with me for an hour and convinced me I was going to make it.
Meysenburg brushes off the kind words, gesturing to the crowd and noting that group support is key in the neighborhood, where many have lived for years.
This neighborhood is the opposite of what it was when I grew up (here), says Berkshire. Everyone was very into themselves. This is our social network and its a pipeline; you know right away whats going on, so we can keep an eye out for each other.
Meysenburg says she read an article pointing out that in the happiest places to live in America, people felt a sense of community.
Life can be lonely, especially if your spouse has passed away or your kids have grown up, Meysenburg says. I think we all feel more secure knowing that we can call one another if we need something.