"You can be alone," the man said. It struck me as ironic that he should say that. He wanted to reassure me that the American mania for wanting to be alone could be practiced in the community we were considering moving into.
"You can be alone," he repeated later in the conversation. "No one will bother you, if that's what you want."
I am sure he meant well, but under the circumstances in which he said it, it seemed not only unnecessary but sadly ironic.
You see, I had just expressed my enthusiasm for the friendliness of the community we were considering moving to. I had even said the friendliness was a major reason that we were considering the place. He had lived there for about 10 years and had become active in an association that helped run things.
He opined that, sure enough, if you went to the clubhouse, it would probably not be too long before someone struck up a conversation with you. By golly, the community was just that friendly. It was, indeed, not too difficult to strike up friendships.
But even knowing how important the potential neighborliness of the community was to us, he still hastened to assure me that if you were an inwardly seeking person who wanted nothing to do with other people, you could keep to yourself with ease _ despite others' attempts to be friendly.
Nothing could have better exemplified one of the central dilemmas of America in the '90s than this simple little conversation.
Being alone and being left alone is of paramount importance to many people. Therefore, even those who openly express that they wish to be a good neighbor and have people know who they are and extend themselves to make friends must be assured that "you can be alone."
It is ironic that rugged individualism has been carried to such an extreme in late 20th century America that there is a dirty little secret _ many millions of Americans have no one they can truly call a "friend."
It is further ironic that one needs to be assured of your right to be alone, since all it takes to be alone and be left alone is to be normally anti-social, as so many Americans are every day. If you stay in your home every night, never talk to your neighbors and have no social interaction with those whom you work with, you can very easily be alone.
There is no great trick to this at all. The tougher job, if one wishes to call it that, is to actually extend oneself and attempt to know other people and have them know you.
You will find yourself going upstream many times, and you will suffer many setbacks and disappointments, but finding someone who gives a damn about whether you live or die can actually be worth it.
And those who want to be left alone? Fine. But guess what a psychiatrist said on the radio recently when asked to name the No. 1 leading mental health problem in America?
By all accounts, Greta Garbo, despite her fame, led a melancholy and solitary existence. She seems to have actually lived her famous movie line of wanting "to be alone."
Today, if you're not as famous as Garbo, don't worry, you can be alone _ very alone.
_ Douglas Spangler is a Palm Harbor resident. Guest columnists write their own views on subjects they choose, which are not necessarily the opinions of this newspaper.