Sunday, January 29, 2012

Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

    Regardless of whether my family lived in Ohio, Kansas, or Georgia, we always had lots of interesting neighbors, mostly good ones. The first neighbors I remember were the Naegels and the Mullers. They lived on opposite sides of us in Cincinnati, and both families became good friends of ours. Tracie Naegel used to babysit Emi and me. If the weather was nice, she'd take us for long walks down Grandin Road, usually to go and visit old Mr. Ernie. Mom, Emi, and I used to visit Mrs. Naegel in the afternoons. I remember she had a special drawer in her kitchen, which she kept filled with windmill cookies, seemingly just for us. Mrs. Naegel smoked, and occasionally, Mom would join her for a cigarette. This was around 1967, when I was in first grade. The famous "Like Father, Like Son" anti-smoking public service announcement, which depicted a father and his young son doing ordinary things together, such as painting their house and washing the family car, had just hit television's airwaves. It began with the aforementioned images of togetherness and the announcer remarking, "Like father, like son." The final scene showed the two of them, sitting beneath a tree. The father lights a cigarette, carelessly tossing the almost full pack onto the ground, next to his son. The little boy reaches for the cigarettes while his father isn't looking. The scene fades out with the child contemplating whether or not to join his father for a smoke, while the announcer queries, "Like father, like son?" This was an extremely successful commercial, which I believe led to legislation making it illegal for tobacco companies to advertise on television. It was also successful in arousing a great deal of panic in me. I was secretly terrified for my mother, who technically was not a smoker. In reality, she might have had a cigarette once every six months, making her more of a social smoker, but this was a concept my five year old mind was not yet capable of grasping. One day, as she was driving me home from school, I implored her to stop smoking with Mrs. Naegel. I must have been very convincing because I don't recall ever seeing her smoke again. In 1970, my family moved to Kansas. Shortly after that, we learned Tracie had gotten killed in a car wreck, making her the first person I ever knew who died.
     The Mullers had two adopted children, Michael and his sister, Marty. Without a doubt, they had the best toys of all the other kids we knew. Michael had push-pedal cars that you could actually sit in, and they also had a Close'n'Play record player on which we'd listen to stories about Mary Baker Eddy. The Mullers were Christian Scientists, and Mrs. Eddy was the 19th century founder of that faith. This was my first exposure to a religion other than Catholicism, and I thought Michael and Marty were lucky to be able to listen to Mass on their record player, instead of having to go to church. Obviously, my understanding of how other people attended to their religious beliefs was still quite primitive in nature. After moving to Kansas, we learned that the Mullers were getting divorced because Mr. Muller was homosexual. I didn't understand that, either, but my parents explained that sometimes, men fall in love with men, instead of women, and then, it made perfect sense.
     We lived in Kansas from 1970 to 1974, and our neighborhood was an international community of state hospital employees, mostly other doctor's families. Emi and I quickly made friends with the Gonzales kids next door. Their daughter, Marcella, was a year younger than me, and she had two older brothers, Ricky and Chucho, the latter of which I had a huge crush on. We used to hang out in their basement to watch Dark Shadows. Ricky and Chucho would hide inside these giant storage crates that doubled as couches, pretending they were Barnabas Collins, asleep in his coffin. This stunt never failed to scare the living crap out of me. One afternoon, Ricky, Emi, and I took some old tomatoes and played tic-tac-toe on the side of the Garcia's house, directly across the street. I'm not sure why we chose to do this in broad daylight. It didn't take long before our parents got wind of what we'd done, and we had to apologize to the Garcias and clean up our mess.
     A couple of years later, Emi and I built a huge fort in a mud pit that was located underneath a willow tree between the Nunez's (noon YEZ) and Zubowicz's (zoo BO vich) houses. We had assembled an impressive stockpile of dirt bombs and makeshift weaponry. My brothers and sisters and I were not permitted to play with toy guns, but somehow, an air gun had come into our possession. Emi and I needed a place for target practice, and since the Nunez's were out of town for the weekend, we figured we could use the far side of their garage, it being the closest facade to our fort. After shooting multiple rounds of mud mixed with a little dog poo, we realized we had a real problem on our hands. We devised an elaborate alibi in which we'd witnessed a bunch of unruly high school kids who had circled the block in their red convertible, stopping off briefly to vandalize the Nunez's house. To our surprise, no one questioned our story, although the Nunez kids, Nerita and Julian, remained highly suspicious.
     Given our prankster propensities, we were fortunate to live in a neighborhood where everyone else had kids who had done something stupid once or twice. No one seemed to hold a grudge. When my big sister, Edina (eh DEEN ah), got married in 1972, our neighbors opened their kitchens and bedrooms, assisting in preparing and storing food for her outdoor reception, and accommodating some of her guests. Mahmoud (MAH mood), my brother-in-law, is Iranian, and we met his family for the first time, just before the wedding. Despite the language barrier, our parents communicated mutual approval of the marriage through a week of ongoing celebration; it was evident to us all that Edina and Mahmoud had cultivated a love and respect for one another that transcended time and culture. They've been married ever since. Although Mahmoud was not a Christian, much less a Catholic, Father Joe allowed him to take Holy Communion with my sister, kicking off the best wedding I've ever attended, with Polish and Persian music, dancing, and feasting that lasted the entire weekend.
     When we moved to Columbus, Georgia in 1974, we were stunned when our new neighbor, a girl named Kibby Taylor, greeted us by saying, "Hey!" In Kansas, we said "hi", instead of "hey", "you guys" instead of "y'all", and "pop" instead of "Coke." To us, "Hey!" sounded confrontational. Kibby and our neighbors across the street both had trampolines, and since none of my siblings had ever jumped on one before, we couldn't wait to get over there. Colonel and Mrs. Taylor were quite a bit older than our parents, and because Kibby had siblings that were much older than her, she was like an only child. She even had her own room. Next door to the Taylors lived a reclusive couple named the Burgesses. Kibby told us that the Burgesses didn't like kids, and this immediately prompted an entire summer of spying on them. We'd wait until it was dark, and then we'd creep into their back yard. We'd prop ourselves up on a slope where we could see Mr. and Mrs. Burgess in their den, watching TV. We made notes of our observations, speculating about their evil intentions. The Burgesses must have been wise to our efforts at espionage because one evening, as we approached their porch to play ring and run, we could see Mrs. Burgess, pressed up against the wall, peering at us through a glass panel next to the front door. After that, we left them alone. A creepy older man who called himself Jesus used to walk his dog down the court we lived on. He actually lived several blocks away. Instead of walking his little poodle, he would carry it in his arms. Jesus wasn't friendly, and there were rumors in the neighborhood that no one who entered his house ever came out. Kibby, Emi, and I tried spying on him, too, but I was so afraid of Jesus that I had to bow out of the mission.
     After I got married, my first husband and I lived in a quadraplex near Emory. Our upstairs neighbor was a nightclub DJ, named Mr. Charles Smooth. Mr. Smooth had a live-in girlfriend and a baby, although I'm not sure if it was his, and Jim and I spent countless nights, intrigued and amused by their noisy love-making. Unfortunately, Mr. Smooth had a terrible temper. One afternoon, we heard his girlfriend screaming and the baby crying, accompanied by violent thumping noises. Mr. Smooth, who appeared to be mocking the woman, was also yelling, "What about me? WHAT ABOUT ME??????" We called the police, and Mr. Smooth was promptly replaced by quieter neighbors.
     In 1988, Jim and I bought our first house. We lived in Clarkston, an Atlanta suburb that is just outside I-285. The neighbor to our right was Mrs. King, who'd lived in her house for over 40 years. We learned that the woman who'd previously owned our house had also lived there for decades, raising six children in a 900 square foot, 2 bedroom house. Mrs. King used to bring us homemade fruitcake, generously soaked in booze, as well as crocheted Kleenex box covers, the kind that have baby doll heads knitted into them. Her daughter, who was our age, developed what appeared to be crush on Jim. We caught her a few times, staring longingly at him from her mom's driveway as she was getting ready to leave for work. Our left-sided neighbors were ghastly. The woman who rented the place was running some sort of day care operation, only her clients came and went all night long, honking incessantly on their horns beginning at three in the morning. I summoned up the nerve to confront a particularly persistent honker one summer morning, but the lady just sat in her car, staring at me while chain-smoking and continuously blasting her horn. We probably should have just called the police. Thankfully, the local authorities took notice of what was really going on inside that house, and that dreadful neighbor was soon evicted.
     When I was accepted into medical school in 1997, Jim, Nick, Rory, and I moved to Macon, Georgia. We lived on a court, and there were lots of kids for the boys to play with. They befriended a mean little red-headed boy named Kevin Pope, whose parents were not shy about expressing their racist views. Kevin was in the same grade as the boys, and they went to the same elementary school. Nick and Rory developed a love-hate relationship with Kevin; they were sort of stuck with him. We didn't know it at the time, but Kevin teased Nick and Rory mercilessly about having cystic fibrosis, calling them "retards." His parents, however, were very nice to the boys. Befitting the general theme of their family, the Popes had an awful mongrel dog named Icky, who was normally corralled in a separate room when the boys came to visit. Kevin decided let Icky out one day, and he immediately bit Nick's hand. Kevin's parents were appropriately apologetic, but looking back, I'm not sure if they were genuinely concerned or whether they were afraid of being sued. We had Nick's hand examined, and since Icky's shots were up to date, we deemed the dog-biting incident a non-issue. Years later, Kevin sent the boys friend requests on Facebook. He is now a born-again Christian; hopefully, he is now emulating Jesus, instead of Icky.
     Four years later, we moved from Macon back to Atlanta. I'd just finished medical school and was beginning my surgical internship at Emory. Our first neighborly encounter was with Terry, the curmudgeonly middle-aged man who lived across the street. As Jim was backing the U-Haul truck into our carport, Terry came rushing out across his manicured lawn; we thought he was coming to welcome us to the neighborhood. He curtly introduced himself to Jim, and Jim reciprocated. Terry then admonished, "Well Jim, just make sure you keep your truck off my grass!" Apparently, our truck had brushed a two inch strip of Terry's prized grass, adjacent to the curb. We soon noticed that Terry mowed his grass every other day, frequently measuring it with a small ruler. It was ridiculous. When school started that fall, Terry began accusing our sons, who were then in the 6th grade, of depositing packages of salad dressing in his mailbox as they passed his house on their way from the bus stop. His allegations were preposterous; Nick and Rory didn't eat salad at school. Both of us were infuriated. One night, Jim and I had a few glasses of wine after the boys were in bed, and got to talking about Terry: his un-neighborliness, his permanent scowl, the constant mowing and measuring of his stupid grass, and his escalating complaints about Nick and Rory. We decided to give him a little taste of his own medicine. Donning black jackets as a disguise, we armed ourselves with a box of rock salt,  hoping to make a few brown spots in Terry's yard by sprinkling handfuls of it, close to the curb where Jim had previously violated his precious grass. The final result was disappointing, but the revenge was still sweet. Terry had crossed the line by making false accusations about our kids, officially making him the worst neighbor ever.
    In his early 20th century poem, Mending Wall, Robert Frost questions his neighbor's ongoing assertion that "good fences make good neighbors." He laments the annual springtime rebuilding of the stone wall which separates their properties, noting that neither of them own roaming livestock, only harmless apple and pine trees:
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,

That wants it down.
     Although I espouse a generalized contempt for most barriers, especially the cultural kind, I must admit that Frost's neighbor was prophetic in his assumption that good fences make good neighbors. Nowadays, we're often too busy to get to know our neighbors; it requires time and effort. Presumably due to this loss of daily interpersonal interaction, we've eroded into an increasingly litigious and paranoid society, preferring to sue our neighbors, instead of using common sense to resolve our differences. For all the brilliant advances we've made in communication technology, it seems we've forgotten how to talk to each other. Obviously, establishing boundaries is an integral part of any relationship. In the "Like Father, Like Son" commercial, we were left hoping that the father would gently discipline his young son about touching his cigarettes, and in doing so, would plant a seed of awareness that his own smoking was cheating both of them out of time spent together. Those were the days, my friends, those were the days. I feel fortunate to have grown up in a time where the crime still fit the punishment, where playing tic-tac-toe with old tomatoes on your neighbor's garage mandated a sincere apology and a thorough clean-up, not a lawsuit. Above all, I feel fortunate to have been raised in a family that embraces diversity, instead of fearing it. Brad and I are moving back to Atlanta next month. Relocating means new neighbors, a chance to be part of a new community, and already, my cautious optimism has me contemplating "where it is we do not need the wall."

Mending Wall by Robert Frost (1914)


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