Readers Report Back From… Neighborhood

By

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The family in the house behind mine scream at each other. Put down that fucking tennis racket! or Why do you always have to touch things that aren’t yours?  I’ve seen them only once, walking in single file (father, son, daughter, daughter, mother) to the Fourth of July fireworks show at the high school that’s four blocks away. The mother waved to us. “Sorry for all the yelling!” she said and my friends and I waved back, but continued to drink our beer and paint our faces in warrish red-blue streaks and phrases like “America, fuck yeah!” at the picnic table in my backyard.  I felt like I needed to apologize for drinking in front of their kids; I’m not comfortable living in a neighborhood where kids fall off their bikes, build and crush snow forts, frolic naked around in their backyards, yet. I felt their eyes on me as they filed past. We got good and drunk and then we also left to watch the explosions in the sky.

Now with a fresh snowfall we don’t hear them, anymore. At first the falling snow muffled every voice that called and only snow blowers rang out. But after a night or two bitter cold turned everything hard and angular. People have burrowed deeper into their homes—nearly identical duplex or single family American Four squares set almost correctly on modest lots of grass and brick patios—nestled under microfleece blankets. Plasma screen glows spill out onto dead, spikey lawns at night; around dawn, I pump my bicycle to the train station and windows and doors are sealed and dim. One night my roommate and I burn our cardboard recycling with our next door neighbor—who sometimes sells us weed in small bags—in his fire pit, and he smokes a cigarette. Another night, I dump our beer cans and milk bottles into the recycling bin with a satisfying crash; I’m worried about the noise a drum set and two guitars are making in our basement. I expect somebody to call the police, but no one complains. I can’t shake the feeling that our neighbors haven’t realized who we really are, yet.

— Matt Lindeboom

***

I just went to the supermarket to buy some Mallomars. Everybody in the house has deadlines looming, and contrary to the locavore, vegetarian philosophy that we regularly preach, these truly vile treats seemed to be just the thing to pull us through. With no place else to go in our town, and roads pretty well snowed in, we were in serious need of distraction. Something about the little plastic trinkets hanging from a bottle of hair smoother made by Charmed just caught my eye. The bottle was slightly sticky, as though someone else had already dipped into it before a hot date on Saturday night. It was the last one on the shelf, and irresistible for some reason. On the checkout line, two teenagers wearing tight skinny jeans tucked into Uggs and short puffy jackets with furry collars stopped texting for a moment to see what I was buying. I imagined they sent me a sly smile from underneath their long bangs. Apparently, they were the ones who had beat up my daughter in middle school. I worried that they heard me tell the cashier my phone number so that he could activate my discount card. Would they harass me? What was that smile about? And has my life really come to this?

I fled the only contact I had made with the public since shoveling out the driveways of three octogenarians in the houses that surround my own. That was several days ago, and nobody, including the neighbors I helped, seems to understand why I did them that favor. I will never be “local.” Everything I do is looked upon with suspicion. I was not a player here. Like an off-color joke or the use of one of those words that only those they name are allowed to use, my interactions with neighbors are still seen as the work of a stranger.

Fourteen years ago, when I saw my house for the first time, it was nestled in drifts of snow. I imagined kids playing, sledding down the hill, and building snow forts on the dead end street. I didn’t imagine the frozen landscape without any footsteps to my door. At home, I took off my work boots and big, multicolored, hand-knit cap. With one last hope for making myself one of “them,” I massaged smoother through my long, dark hair. “Charmed,” it said. But would it work?

— Ann K. van Buren

***

There is only one house on East Randolph that the kids don’t visit on Halloween. The mound of rotting shingles slumped behind a crooked chain-link fence looks more like a salty old vessel than an eyesore of evil, but don’t ask the neighbors. It seems that investments entitle opinions, and the shared sentiments fester in Pilates classes, day care, and salons fueling an angry mob of yuppie retaliation. The house must go.

In this house—rumored to reek of mildew, feces and the natural odor of pedophilia—lives Curtis. Disabled from years of hard living and a bad back compromised by obesity, Curtis sits on his cluttered porch day in and day out, smoking his Winstons, watching while his neighborhood is resurrected as a playground for the young and privileged. On good days and painkillers, I watch as Curtis tends to his overgrown garden, bent like a cripple. And yet I’m certain I hear a whistle where I’d expected a wheeze as he retreats to his shaded porch, staring into the middle distance.

For weeks I observed this rare humanity, foreign in its simplicity, as he watched the wind blow life’s precious hours past him without urgency or paralysis, and I grew curious. By summertime I began to visit the gentle giant and share his porch, lending an ear to his long-form laments for the neighborhood of yesteryear—a haven of hard knocks, hustlers and billfold blowjobs on the fringes of government housing. Soon I began to find gifts from my new friend. Half-consumed bottles of rum, heirloom tomatoes, oddly shaped cucumbers, dill, rosemary, mint, sage—anything that grew with little skill and lots of love would appear at my backdoor entry.

One morning I heard strange cries and tortured whimpers from the old porch, and I found Curtis covered in a yellowish milky substance, grinning from ear to ear. Huddled in his big arms was a towel of robin hatchlings from a fallen nest, abandoned by the mother. Curtis had been feeding them from a medicine dropper, nursing them to health.

Often when I’d ask about his life, he’d shrug under his big straw hat. “Oh, doom and gloom, you know,” a smile of surrender across his sweat-soaked face, “Lots of doom and gloom.” Then he’d regularly ask me for painkillers, which I regularly reminded him I didn’t have.

But when I’d get my Sunday Times from the 7-11, I’d pick old Curt up a pack of his staple Winston smokes. Every once in a while I’d surprise him with Virginia Lotto scratchoffs, and neither of us would win. We’d sit on his old porch, his picture window to the neighborhood that once accepted him, and we’d scratch away with great anticipation—an unlikely pair of misunderstood misfits, coming to terms with our losses, blowing golden specs into the wind.

— Lindsey Oechsle

***

Market Street is an artery pumping through the neighborhoods of the East Bay flats. From our house, on the other side of the freeway from trendy Temescal, we can bike to Berkeley or Downtown Oakland in fifteen minutes.

Despite the stop sign and elementary school on the corner, our wide street is the best straightaway around. We watch from our porch as polished, spotless cars with big rims idle at the stop, then gun it and roar past us. Expertly maintained motorcycles the size of Smart cars rattle the walls when they cruise by in packs.

Our neighbors to the north are the Warfields, an African-American family who’s lived in the neighborhood for thirty-five years; carloads of grandkids fill their house at Thanksgiving. Gorge, a young Salvadoran guy, lives east of us with his family. Latin house music and strobe lights beckon us across the street to his dance parties, and he comes to ours, where we play top-forty hip hop and feminist pop punk. Upstairs are Amy and Merle, a white couple in the middle of their lives, writers and gardeners who collect cats. South was an old man who died around the time we moved in. Pigeons have broken through the grates that once protected his eaves, and their cooing, sometimes deep, sometimes quick, is constant and erotic outside our bedroom window.

We found out the house was in foreclosure a few weeks after we’d moved in. Two months later, our landlady had disappeared and the house sold at auction, on the front steps of the Oakland courthouse. Two very young, buff white guys in brightly-colored dress shirts knocked on our door, representing the company that bought our house. They came from Walnut Creek, a sparkling suburb over the hills.

“We stabilize homes and then find a new landlord,” they told us. “Nothing changes for you.” That translated to new locks on the doors and weekly walk throughs or inspections by potential buyers. The beefier of the two shirts told us one day, while an elderly white woman in gloves and a hat perused the property, “Neighborhoods like this get better as soon as the over-thirty white crowd moves in.”

I think he was trying to reassure us. Maybe he didn’t notice that we, as a couple, we were not over thirty and white. There weren’t enough roaring motors and moaning pigeons to drown him out, wipe his words away.

— Jessica Langlois