Friday, October 23, 2009

Neighbors


Neighbors
It is 9:40 Friday morning and between work and calls and spaced out internet ramblings it is my self imposed obligation to create before leaving the office, my 2000, more or less, word offering of gratitude for having survived another week on the planet. This hangs over me all week and usually I clip articles or jot down ideas but there are only a few notes about neighbors which might inspire some possibly amusing vignettes but any thread to unify them with anything else that’s salient eludes me. Once I got all bollixed up by starting a piece without clear direction and couldn’t get it into publishable form until Saturday. I told myself it didn’t matter and that the publication time was arbitrary but readers complained so I am trying my best to adhere to the Friday afternoon deadline.

I read two entries on Himself’s blog, one about two of his students and an ill fated romance which reminds me that he is not a total asshole and how tender he can be and how sad it makes me when he is sad. The other is his review of the Yo La Tengo concert we attended in Santa Cruz which is so dead on and precise in describing that and the other pleasures of the weekend that I don’t have to bother now, even though it could pad this out by at least four hundred words. For the second in a row Santa Cruz weekend we fly and due to the stupid travel agency he is manacled to by his employer, we must leave earlier than is convenient and I am concerned about the office. I check the Blackberry while on the tram to the rental car and receive an email that our application for loan modification has been approved.

I have existed since February primarily to implement mortgage modification. Dozens of phone calls and letters. Sheaths of documents whisked off to Fed Ex. Thick legal pads of notes with conflicting information. Madness endured but too mundane and boring and terrifying to write about. Perceivable beneath the enormous relief and thankfulness is a weird emptiness, this having been my raison d’ĂȘtre for so long. I know that our ultimate satisfactory result is due to my many years of experience in business and the free professional advice of banker and real estate friends. There are many who lack the sophistication to play at the deafeningly squeaky wheel level and I wonder how many homes, as unemployment rates rise, will be lost to foreclosure by people lacking our informational resources.

I am up and down these days with eating mindfully but after the last year I think for the rest of my life I will spend money mindfully. I have always hated the Galleria but if there were something not available via mail order, I would often shop at Nordstrom. Instead of frequent flier miles, I get Nordstrom scrip with my credit card and I have amassed a goodly amount. Even with a wallet full of scrip, I just haven’t been able to go to Nordstrom, like the security would sniff that I’m really poor and kick me out. My bras are all stretched out and ratty with mangled hooks and would humiliate me should medical personnel need to slice one off my bloodied body after car crash. Given the good fortune of the loan modification, I decide to break my shopping moratorium and use up my Nordy’s bucks. I park right at the entrance and enter a frighteningly deserted mall. Bored looking salesgirls chat on cellphones in empty shops. Many storefronts are vacant.

I sort of wake up one day and realize that all of my make-up is Neutrogena but when I self define, my brand is MAC. I still have a dozen bottles of MAC polish I hoarded before it was discontinued. It’s been years since I was in a MAC store and the salesgirls and clients have grown very young and they all look like sluts and suddenly I am so Neutrogena and much more comfortable with the Target point of purchase than the swanky/arch shop milieu. I manage to find two nice bras at the Nordstrom, and after bagging my own groceries at warehouse stores and foisting 50 lb sacks of Costco dog kibble for eons, it makes me feel nice when the salesgirl walks around the counter to hand me my bras, wrapped in tissue in a silver shopping bag.

Rover is covered with dust bunnies because the Chihuahua who terrorizes him at the office has now commandeered his bed. Her name is Little Bit but we have abbreviated it to Bitch, trying to keep the “ch” silent if her custodian is in earshot. If Rover is already in his bed, she lies down next to him but if she has arrived first, he will curl up on the linoleum. I walk them together daily, she with her pink polka dot leash and matching poop bags. She is having a fit at someone with the temerity to get out of his car and manages to get her leash tangled with Rover’s and hogties herself. She extricates quickly but just before there is a satisfying splat when the side of her dense little torso smacks the pavement.

The dogs have been berserkly happy with Polish snacks all week. Our office neighbor is a Polish Catholic church, of which there are only a handful in the U.S. We let them use our parking lot. The priest rings the bells and we stand on the roof and film him for a footage job. I bring them chocolate matzoh at Pesach. I cry with the wife when their cat is run over and bring a bag of treats for the replacement cat. They bring me tomatoes from their garden. They borrow the opener to our lot one weekend because they are concerned that a nearby street fair will make it difficult for their parishioners to park. We drive by over the weekend and see that they are using my lot for street fair parking and charging $20 per car. This ends my decade of romanticizing the woebegone little church next door.

Several months later, their bishop is coming and they want again to use our parking lot. I tell them they can but add very firmly that they are not to charge for parking. This is the first they know that I know about the street fair and they are embarrassed. They return the parking lot clicker with a huge box of Polish pastries. They look like sweets but my excavation reveals that they are not filled with fruit or custard or cream cheese but meat. And generic, unidentifiable meat is usually pork. They are gone now and the dogs are back to Milkbone rations but they enjoyed the Polish treats so much that I guess I forgive the church folk for the street fair parking fib.

Two elderly women lived next door to us during my childhood. They wore orthopedic shoes and support stockings and rayon old lady dresses but we almost never saw them. My mom said that they said they were sisters and she said it suspiciously and I never knew what that meant. She also reported that they were Birchers and I knew that was bad and the reason we couldn’t buy Welch’s Grape jelly or Junior Mints or go to Knott’s (Nazi) Berry Farm. I returned once from school to find our house burgled. My mother said years later that it had been one of my sister’s boyfriends but my mother’s veracity was just as suspect as my sister’s taste in boyfriends. Afraid to go inside by myself, I sheepishly knocked on the door of the elderly sisters’ house to call my mom at work and the police. One of the ladies let me in and let me stay until my mom arrived. There were issues of American Opinion on the coffee table. I sobbed that $40.00 I’d saved had been taken with my piggy bank and she promised she’d replace it but she never did. This was the only contact I had with them from the time I was born until I started college, during which time one of them died and the other was sent to a rest home.

We’d had better luck with the neighbors on the other side at Fulton Avenue. The first I remember were Elsie and Howard, an older, childless couple. He had a naval tattoo, the first I had ever seen. They had a dog named Strong Heart who always wore an Elizabethan itch collar. Howard worked at the DMV and my mother would stop by with me often when I was a baby and he would pass me among the other workers. Next to them was the family of the manager of Billy Barty and the King Sisters. The daughter Paula was 6 months to the day older than I and my best friend. When Elsie and Howard moved to a retirement home, the house in the middle was purchased for Paula’s grandma. The whole family broke my heart and moved to Lake Tahoe the following year and another pair of “sisters,” as my mom said sneeringly, moved in. One was a botanist who fussed in the yard incessantly and made my mom nervous about the upkeep of ours. The other was the genuine author of Concepts In Science, the series of books actually used in my school and I was proud to have the association with the celebrity writer.

After college I lived in a number of different places but the only neighbor I recall is from a cute but threadbare court of tiny houses in Studio City. The manager had bleached white blond hair and a deep tan. He was shirtless in stretch pants and slippers most of the time. There was a photo of someone in a coffin taped over his dining table. I lived here with a boyfriend and we were miserable and fought a lot and the place was a total pigsty and we were not favorites of the management. My boyfriend had a huge black dog and instead of walking her, he would just open the front door and let her out until she came back. It was one of those lazy fuck things that people rationalized with some sort of harebrained connection to hippie freedom. Our neighbor in the tiny court was sixties singer Bonnie Bramlett, of Delaney and Bonnie. She later became famous for beating up Elvis Costello when she took offense at his ironic treatise on black American music. She came pounding on our door one morning to complain that my boyfriend’s dog was wantonly shitting all over. I moved out within days.

In a quadraplex near the Rampart police station, I befriended a cineaste neighbor who drove a taxicab. I was in my early twenties. He was interesting but I knew there was something weird about him. In my fifties I have learned now that no one is interesting enough to trump something weird but I was less cautious in those days. I had never lived in a place with shared walls before and our bathrooms were contiguous and I didn’t realize we shared the same water heater. One day I turned on the shower and apparently caused his hot water to turn cold. He called me, absolutely irate and I burst in to tears. Fortunately, he moved out shortly after this, taking with him about a dozen of my film books.

I moved from here to my beloved tiny house on a walk street in Elysian Heights. The neighbor in the house above was George, a Chinese-American man who bred spectacular germaniums and nasturtiums all over the hill. His pink and mint house was like a fairy cottage. He would open his front door on warm evenings, don a flamboyant kimono and sing sopranic arias at the top of his lungs. He vigorously hated dogs, and when ours would bark at him from behind a fence, he would scream and gush tears and pelt them with tiny clods of dirt he scraped from the geranium bed.

The neighbor on the other side was Sam, a Japanese man of remarkable cheapness. He refused to chip in for light bulbs to light our dark path from the street and doggedly failed to grasp the notion of “easement,” threatening to charge us rent for walking down the portion of the walk adjacent to his property. He would return annually to Japan for cut rate dental work but one year he apparently waited too long for a cheap fare and died of gingivitis.

Now there is a Mexican family next door to us. They moved in about 18 years ago, just when we did. They feel awkward speaking English and I feel patronizing subjecting them to my 3rd grade level Spanish so we wave and smile and if there are any issues, we tell the kids. Spuds is close friends with their son and the boys float from his house to ours and we express our neighborly conviviality by sending food back and forth.

The house on the other side was occupied by a number of renters for years, until the Chinese owner and his wife moved in. He was a screamer. He would scream at his wife. He would scream at his dogs. He would scream at our dogs, our kids and us. Once he accused one of our guests of denting his car and called the police who could find no evidence of this. Himself woke up one morning to see him standing smack in the middle of his yard, directly outside of our kitchen window, in his pajamas and holding a door. He stood like this for a very long time.

We returned from a trip and two policemen knocked on the door and asked if they could come in and talk to us. “We were wondering if you know anything about your neighbor,” one began, pointing to the angry man’s house. “Is something wrong?” I asked. “He’s been murdered” was the response. Both of my kids burst into spontaneous applause but luckily the cops didn’t feel that this implicated me. The murder was never solved and the house was purchased by our current hippie neighbors, Paul and Inga. He is a mellow U.C. Santa Cruz grad. She is one of those Soviet Jewish immigrants we all wore wristbands for in the 1970s. American Jewish organizations saw the Soviets as a great way to increase participation but it didn’t pan out that way and very few now have any affiliation with the Jewish community at all. Inga is the one woman neighborhood watch committee and we call her Mrs. Kravitz, after Bewitched which I think she is too young to have seen.

We have good neighbors now at the house I have lived in longer than any other place. I am the mother, as of this week of a driving permitted seventeen year old and his fourteen year old brother. Our bank has adjusted the principal of our mortgage to more accurately reflect the value, since banking malfeasance caused the bottom to drop out of the housing market. After months of doubt, we know now that we will be able to keep our home. My beloved is off for a week in Ireland. We are separated only about once or twice a year and I miss him ridiculously and am thankful that neither of us have jobs that require a lot of travel. I am over my personally imposed word count requirement now and it is starting to dawn on me why the concept of neighbors resonated this week and there is none of my usual political, religious or social issue bombast.

We have good neighbors. We watch out for them and they watch out for us. They are not privy to our sleepless nights and private terrors nor do we know what goes on behind their doors. We live side by side and wave and unload groceries and borrow olive oil and we watch out for each other and everyone seems fine. After seeming fine for many months, now, knowing we are able to keep the only home our children have ever known, the place where we both have lived the longest, suddenly, blessedly, miraculously we truly are fine. Next week I will remind you about upsetting things you should be upset about but for now, I will buy my Friday challah, go home, wave at the neighbors, go inside and shut the door and what has seemed for so long fine from the outside, is fine on the inside too. Shabbat Shalom.

2 comments:

FionnchĂș said...

1) I'm off to Ireland to deliver a paper, as I was last week in Santa Cruz; just to let your readers know I am not out gallivanting on money presumed to have been saved on the loan-mod. My work is reimbursing much of my costs; the only way I could swing this on the cheap. So my wife better not start shopping at Nordie's again.

2) Junior Mints? Why are they suspect? Not that I ate them any more than I went to Knott's (too expensive and too far), but I had no idea they were as forbidden as Welch's (again, not a generic brand, so not purchased). The mints did have that waxy, not-real chocolate coating and the mints were no foil-wrapped refreshingly tingly York Peppermint Patties, but why Junior Mints?

I learn so much from you, twenty-one years after I first walked down that walk street past George's and the dental victim. xxx me

Carolyn said...

Funny coincidence....In a house where I rented a room during my first year of college, the lady who rented it to me was a minor celeb hanger-on type person. One night, she invited Delaney over for cocktails (yes of "Bonnie and Delaney" fame). All was cordial and I went to bed, only to be woken at round midnight by a naked Delaney thinking he'd be welcome to join me in my futon. ARGH! Needless to say he was forcefully evicted from my room and door tightly locked.