Won't You Be My Neighbor?
Neighbors, to me, were the curmudgeonly geezers who lived next door, the ones who would turn off their porch light as soon as they saw you walking up the path on Halloween. They were mute, anonymous; all I knew of them was the tops of their curly heads bobbing behind the hedges, hurrying to hide in their houses when I came outside to wash my dog.
Thus, I came of age believing "neighbors" were quiet little hunched over half-deceased people in housecoats who worked hard to stay out of your business and keep you the hell out of theirs. When I escaped South Florida and headed out into the world, though, I discovered something altogether different -- angry neighbors, backstabbing neighbors, crack-smoking neighbors and sexually confused neighbors, none of whom were bashful or reticent like the ancient street-mates of my youth. Despite living many places next door to many types since I left Florida at age 17, still I haven't mastered the neighbor concept. My persistent stumbling blocks are steadfast: Just who are these people? Why do they live so close to me? And why won't they stop coming over?
Humans, the scientists tell us, are largely pack animals, needing each other for support, nurturing, growth. But I remain confused about that, vacillating hard between wanting to live on a commune where I can get passionately in touch with my inner good neighbor, and wanting to take up residence in the country behind robust security gates. Maybe those little old ladies in Lake Worth really messed me up. Or maybe it was those guys in London in 1986.
My pal Sam and I had been goofing off through a semester abroad. Instead of living in the dorm like all the other white-bread Americans, we selected an apartment building off fashionable Sloane Square, and thankfully our parents were willing to foot the bill. Turns out the neighborhood was fashionable, but the building wasn't. Our upstairs neighbors, we soon discovered, were a raging Israeli and a German who immediately formed a huge disdain for us, and we knew not why. Oh, we could have ignored those guys, if we didn't have to share a bathroom with them. But with that arrangement, it only took a few days until they had called the landlord to complain bitterly about us. The cause? Apparently we were nasty, dirty Americans because, lacking a shower -- crazy us -- we figured the only alternative was to draw a bath and soak in it. The right thing to do, according to Hans and Hyrem, was to sit naked in a tub soaping up then splashing one's body with the faucet.
"You Americans, you soak in your own filth!" one of them shouted at us when it all came to a head one day. Looking crazed with anger, he told us what we were doing was unheard of, simply disgusting and a waste of everyone's time. We sneered. We might have even stuck our tongues out. The next morning, one of them emptied a big bag of stinky garbage at our door. That night, we responded the mature way: by poking loudly at our ceiling/their floor with a broom handle until well past 3. Before the tension really had a chance to ratchet up, though, the building was sold and we all moved out.
Being harrassed for taking a bath by irate Europeans was bad enough, but after college, the neighbor situation became much worse.
It was 1989 in New Orleans and my boyfriend and I decided we were going to move in together. But I being a waitress and him being a cable TV camera man, we couldn't afford much. In a seemingly kind gesture, a coworker of mine told us the townhouse next to hers was available in the old working-class neighborhood called the Irish Channel. We went to see and found it to be the height of luxury: new construction built in an old New Orleans style, a balcony off the master bedroom, high ceilings, a fireplace, washer and dryer. The duplex, we were told, had been built on the site of an old dancehall. We figured that would make for some jovial, happy karma. And the price was right, mainly because the place was situated in the middle of crack alley.
Razzled and dazzled by the architecture, we turned a blind eye to the neighborhood -- thus kicking off my worst neighbor year ever. In a macro sense, the three-block stretch was a terrible ghetto, with up to 100 people loitering in the streets at any given time; in a micro sense, my next-door neighbor, the coworker, turned out to thrive on aggressive back-stabbing. I soon discovered she took great delight in telling the boss she'd seen me milling about healthy as an ox on the days I'd called in sick. Meanwhile, folks had begun to loiter on our door step, periodically opening up our mail slot and screaming into it in the middle of the night. Within a few weeks, I was a nervous wreck, unable to sleep at night, and when I did sleep, I dreamed only of abduction, theft and betrayal.
That fall, I enrolled in a morning class to finish an incomplete I still had on my transcript. Thus my mornings, usually reserved for sleeping in after a night shift, were spent at school. About a week into this, I returned home to hear our alarm wailing. I quickly let myself in the front door and dashed into the kitchen to find the backdoor wide open and a giant switchblade on the floor. The alarm had scared off the marauder, but damn, this was the time when I'd have normally been in bed, with the alarm disengaged. A shudder went through me. I looked at the backdoor lock: my set of keys which normally hung there was gone. We changed the locks, packed our things, and hightailed it to the 'burbs.
A year or two after we broke up, I moved back to the city and my neighbor experience swung in the opposite direction. I chose a cute little one-block street called Picheloup Place as my next address. It seemed bucolic, quiet enough, a good enough place to call home while most of my energy went into my first job in journalism.
But quiet it was not. It only took a day or two for that to become clear. It seemed that Picheloup Place had a rockin' social scene, with the white-hot epicenter right in front of my apartment. Every evening, immediately after dropping their briefcases in their living rooms, my neighbors would stream out of their houses, laughing and carrying on and whooping it up late into the night.
Oh the people were nice enough. There were working class types and professors, old ladies and young families. Starched-shirt guys, and earthy types with long beards and names like "Harley." They were a fine bunch. It's just that at that time, I was in my anal, busy-reporter phase. My every moment was planned; I'd rush home from work and either have to head back out for a workout, for dinner with pals, or I'd have to hunker down in my apartment to finish a story that was late. Plus, after work I just needed to decompress for a spell -- alone. Didn't everyone?
I think I became known as the block snot, managing a weak smile and pushing past them trying to get into my apartment as fast as I could on most nights. One time, a disturbing thought hit me: gosh, had I become the stand-offish South Florida geezer of my youth? But being only 27 at the time, I concluded I was not.
A year later, I landed a good job in Baton Rouge. It might have been the most boring, staid place I ever lived, but it sure brought me some entertaining neighbors.
First there was Tandy and Doug, who lived next door and early on began inviting me over for beers. Drawn to their oddness, I heartily accepted. Tandy was a large jolly gentle woman a little older than me who had a outsized array of plant life, and strings of beads hanging from her bathroom ceiling to make the room sanctuary-like. Doug was an effeminate and wispy-haired artist, the quiet outcast in a family of lumberjacks hailing from Maine. They always had tinkling New Age music on, and had been married for three years.
A few months after I arrived in Baton Rouge, Doug began his "menstrual series," replicating his wife's discarded feminine products in huge paintings. Their apartment was soon filled with big white canvases festooned with giant red smears. The local art gallery shot him down and wouldn't display his art, but Doug was always excited to show them off to anyone who'd come over. I'd try to think of insightful, generous things to say about Tandy's blood stains.
Then one day Tandy and Doug came over all twinkly eyed, wearing pursed lip smiles and emitting intermittent giggles. They sat down.
"We thought it was time we tell you: Doug is a submissive and I'm a dom, or dominatrix," said Tandy, grinning.
"That's really good news," I said, slightly stunned and wholly unable to turn away. I wondered, if she was terrorizing him regularly, why couldn't I hear any of it through the walls? Tandy went on to tell me that Doug was, in essence, her slave and that he got to sleep at the foot of the bed, when he was lucky. She wasn't a real dominatrix, she explained. Tandy, who taught at the community college, didn't dress up in leather too much, and she certainly didn't abuse anybody but Doug. She just affected the role in her married life because that's what Doug wanted. Then Tandy went quiet. There was an uncomfortable pause.
"Look, we know how busy you are. We know you might need some house cleaning, someone to cook, and do other things for you. What we're trying to tell you is that, well, Doug would like to have more than one master. He's decided he would like to serve you, too. In any way you want."
I looked at Doug. He nodded enthusiastically. Tandy smiled wide. My stomach turned.
I politely declined, thanking Tandy and Doug for their generous offer. Was this what neighbors were supposed to do?
Months later, Tandy came by to tell me that Doug's need for either a multitude of masters or a more serious, full-time master had escalated. He had decided to look for a professional dominatrix who would take him in and beat him on a full-time basis. To that end, he was sending out cover letters to doms all over the country, hoping to move in with one soon. Tandy and Doug asked me to proofread the letters. I did.
Tandy was sad, but supportive of Doug's decision. In two months he was gone, leaving Tandy to fuss over her garden much more compulsively than before.
Ben, the guy in the apartment on the other side of mine in Baton Rouge, might have been the closest thing to a real neighbor I've ever had. He was a skinny gay man with protruding teeth and a heavy Southern accent. He got into my good graces by bringing me Theragran-M when, soon after moving in, I contracted a debilitating case of the flu. Ben was snide, witty and lonely, making a regular practice of meeting local men in chat rooms and having them come over for quick sex.
When he wasn't doing that, we'd go out to the lone Indian restaurant in Baton Rouge or we'd stay home and act like 13-year-old girlfriends cutting up after school. One night Ben came over and tried on all of my dresses, then we took pictures of each other pretending to fall down the stairs in various outrageous outfits. Another time, one of my upholstered dining room chairs broke and we took it out into a nearby field, snapping all manner of ironic photos of each other sitting in it and calmly reading. Once in a while, Ben would sing an original composition he called "There's No One as Stupid as Me in This World."
When Ben started coming over too much, I told him so, and he responded by saying, "Ok, bitch," and there were no hard feelings whatsoever. We coalesced really well. Then Ben up and moved to Lafayette. I moved to Washington, D.C., where things have been comparatively calm.
When I visit Marty's folks in the suburbs and see them voluntarily interacting with their neighbors, conviviality and good cheer permeating their faces, I remain puzzled. I still don't get this neighbor thing. For instance, how can you work up the craving to visit people who are always there? And, if you want to avoid them on occasion, how do you do that? What about those times when you look crappy and greasy and you don't want to see anyone but because the neighbors are there, you have to? Is it natural to feel trapped and resentful at those times? What about when they come over unannounced and you just really feel like they're invading your space? What then? And my god, it's all so random -- you could be living next to the biggest jackass on the planet and there's nothing you can do about it.
Marty tells me all these worries will fade. When we buy a house some day and start spitting out kids, he thinks I'll break through my membrane of fear and confusion and I'll metamorphose into the one initiating the block parties and rushing over to the new folks' place with apple brown Betty in hand. But really, that's hard to envision; I don't even know what apple brown Betty is, and I'm not sure I have the building blocks for that kind of behavior. Plus, I'm not sure it's worth the effort.
To me, at this time, the quintessential neighbor is the kind who will dress up in funny outfits with me and roll down the stairs, singing songs of acute self-effacement. Seriously, I doubt I'll ever find that again.
Exit Stage Fright (2/26/2003)
Editor's note: With this installment we bid adieu to Germ Bag.
Cabin Pressure (2/12/2003)
Escape -- you might think it's what you desire. Until you've actually run somewhere.
New Traditionalists (1/8/2003)
It was Christmas Eve morning on Harvard Street. Marty and I sat on the hardwood floor near our...
812 Park Ave.
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