Mrs. Chatterbox and I live in a townhouse where we’re connected to neighbors on both sides. We’ve never had any trouble: the builder did a great job soundproofing our unit so we haven’t been subjected to loud noise. I never met our neighbors even though we’ve lived here four years. A month ago a POD was left at the curb next door, one of those metal containers you fill with your furniture. Our neighbors were moving, and I’d never bothered to knock on their door to introduce myself.
I have a fantasy about neighbors that comes from living happily in one place for most of my childhood. I remember mothers chatting while hanging wash on backyard clotheslines, borrowing cups of sugar or a few eggs, helping each other with jumper cables when car batteries died. And there were those great TV shows from the Fifties. I remember laughing while watching Lucy and Ethel squabble while fathoming the depths of friendship and neighborliness. I always assumed that neighbors, like sunny days, were an integral part of life. But, for me, this has not been the case. As an adult, I’ve been unlucky with neighbors.
I remember a time shortly after moving to Oregon when a little girl knocked on our door to tell me she was locked out. I happened to be home alone—an illustrator working out of my house—and I was the only adult available. I let her use our phone to call her mother at work, and when she hung up she informed me that her mom told her to stay with me until she came home from work. Aside from the imposition, this mother didn’t know me and had no idea whether or not I was a convicted child molester. (By the way, I’m not.) I expected the mother to drive home immediately to collect her child and thank me, but four hours later I was still playing jacks with this kid (winning by the way). Finally, her older sister arrived five hours later to fetch her home. I had no idea where she’d been all this time. In five years I never met the girls’ parents.
I’ve yet to have an altercation with a neighbor, although I came close when we moved into an older home and were promptly told by our new neighbors, who’d probably been living next door since the attack on Pearl Harbor, that if we knew what was good for us we wouldn’t spray chemicals in our backyard that might harm the precious birds they overfed. As an animal lover I didn’t resent this too much, until I saw these two septuagenarians aiming pellet rifles out of their windows to shoot squirrels too ignorant to realize the food left out wasn’t for them. When I spoke out against this, I was told the pellets didn’t hurt the squirrels and they offered to prove it if I’d move into range, which I refused to do.
Another time we moved next door to a widowed school teacher who was so jazzed about her grandson Jamie that she could work him into any conversation within three seconds. It happened like this:
“Are you enjoying Martin Luther King Day, Mrs. Jenson?”
“Yes. But it won’t be long before Jamie has a holiday named after him!”
Another time at a different location we held a family gathering after Mrs. C’s mother passed away. A neighbor we’d smiled at for years entered our home for the first time and helped herself to the catered food, even though she’d never invited us to her place or even spoken to us. She drove an expensive car and was nicely dressed so I don’t think she couldn’t afford to feed herself. She left without saying a word to us.
I know what you’re thinking: You and Mrs. C. must be doing something to alienate
your neighbors. If so I can’t imagine what it is. We don’t fly a swastika in front of our
house and we don’t have radical bumper stickers plastered on our cars—except for the
fish with evolutionary legs and DARWIN written on it. We tend our yards within reason and don’t live with a vicious attack dog.
But I remain an optimist and refuse to give up on the notion that one day someone will move next door and become my best friend. I think I’ll button up my red Mr. Rogers sweater and walk over to introduce myself to the nice couple unloading the POD next door. It’s a fine day, so join me for a walk through the neighborhood. Sing along with me; I know you want to: Won’t you be my neighbor?
Have you had any interesting experiences with neighbors?