Readers Report Back From… Neighborhood

By

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First there was an enclave in an enclave—a bedroom I shared with my mother, on the third floor of her parents’ modest townhouse at the heart of their modest city neighborhood, four blocks square. A land of tall oaks and summer block parties. A skate-down-the-street, sled-in-the-alley kind of stable, predictable place with lots of other kids.

It was the room in the house in the neighborhood in the city, state, country, continent, hemisphere, planet, galaxy, universe. Just like the Big Blue Marble said. Just like I thought when I looked at World Book maps.

Not longer after I turned eight, my mother rented an apartment, the first floor and basement of another townhouse. Just her and me, with separate bedrooms. One block from my grandparents, on the southern edge of the same neighborhood.

Instead of a street, we now lived on a parkway, our back to the oak-lined enclave. Our front door faced a busy nine-story hospital set back on its lot. Rectangular windows, each a patient room, lined its red-brick face. Gowned figures would appear in the windows sometimes, solitary and dark against the fluorescent backlight. Sometimes, I thought, they were looking at me.

All night, the hospital rooms would go light, then dark, as nurses made their rounds. Ambulances would wail past. Sometimes fire engines would arrive, responding to alarms small and large. Discharged ER patients would knock on the door, looking for bus fare.

On active nights my mother and I would pad around in our nightgowns, deciding which doorbells she should answer, which fire alarms were false and which real.

We had new neighbors on the block, different kinds of neighbors than we’d had before. Single nurses, frat boys, widows. But the gowned patients were our neighbors too. Like them, we looked out windows for answers.

It felt like life on the front line. The night watch. For me, it was a less neighborly neighborhood. For my mother, it was the price of independence.

— Elisabeth Dahl

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I was an integral part of a neighborhood from birth to eighteen years old. It was a typical 1970 to 1980 New England suburban neighborhood. White married families, husbands working, kids in school, surrounded by shrinking farms and woodlands, lots of biking, kickball, and truth-or-dare.

I left when I was eighteen to go away to college. And I moved seven times in the next twenty years. I’ve lived in rough city neighborhoods where concerned families picked trash out of their kept yards while toddlers in diapers played in sand by the curb. I’ve lived in rural villages that went dark, but never quiet, at night—the air filled with wind and rustling. I’ve lived in a progressive hip city in the Pacific Northwest and a shrinking old mill town in the Northeast.

My parents both had mental and emotional issues, and my family unraveled by the time I was fifteen. My father succumbed to his mental illness when I was sixteen.  I continued with the motions of that suburban neighborhood—playing soccer, writing bad adolescent poetry, making out in cars, drinking under trees, and graduating high school. I left college with honors and became a teacher and attended grad school and published literary fiction and mentored youth.

But I’ve never found the same sense of belonging I had when I was ten, running home on a July evening, tan and tired from playing tag and kill-the-man-with-the-ball, ready to eat meatloaf and read a book in my bedroom or watch “Private Benjamin” or “The Greatest American Hero” on television. My house was mostly silent by then, everyone in retreat. Yet the neighborhood streetlights and kitchen windows were seemingly stable and warm outside my own lit room. I fell for that illusion. I had to believe, even as it shredded around me. Although I don’t believe anymore, I still have the longing. For something unchanging and full of sentiment. For something that doesn’t exist.

— Aimee Loiselle

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The summer I left Delaware was the most vivid of my life. It was a summer of waking up and finding out that things don’t last forever, that whatever comfortable days had led up to that point would be gone, and I’d leave and start eighth grade in another school, another state, hundreds of miles from where I grew up.

I saw my street as if for the first time every day: marveling over the immaculately groomed flowerbeds and freshly cut lawns I’d passed thousands of times before, grateful for the blacktop’s reflective warmth, ponderous of the clanking of semis loading and unloading cargo in the middle of the night in the shopping plaza.

The Plaza, as Katie and I called it, was the center of our world that summer. It had been Katie’s stomping ground longer, as she was a year older and, according to my parents, “grew up fast.” That was later translated into “she had a rough life,” always the answer when I’d ask why I couldn’t stay out until 9 p.m. like she did.

During school months, she paired stovepipe JNCO jeans and black sweatshirts with combat boots, pressed herself against the window of the bus and stared out, headphones glued to her head. In the summer, though, Katie was different. She wore clingy, low-cut tops that exposed enormous breasts and short skirts that highlighted her long, milky legs. I had never seen this Katie before, and so I tagged along with her, the invisible, gawky sidekick, always a step behind, always a little out of breath.

Under her guidance, I was introduced to the slew of characters that worked in The Plaza: the boys who worked at Radio Shack and Sweeney’s, and of course, the Dominick’s Boys.

We still have our house in Delaware. And I’ve driven down Cann Road several times on trips “home.” But it still surprises me when I turn onto my old street, expecting to see a fenced-in field to my left with a few horses absently flicking their tails, and instead see a new development of houses for the elderly. And always, I want to drive further, past my house, down past the sharp curve until I reach the two-story, brick and blue house of Katie’s. But in eleven years of return visits, I’ve never done it. I’ll never do it, because I don’t want to find her gone, too.

— Ashley Bethard

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Bus stop on a rainy day in my neighborhood, the Richmond District in San Francisco. A pot-bellied old man in gray is folding a black umbrella and parading toward my husband and me. We are standing in the bus shelter, ducking out of the icy rain, wedged into the area where the pay phone used to be. The man positions himself between us. He is short and balding with a broad red face, and he is smiling so hard my teeth hurt. Though he has an assertive belly, he is actually not all that big. But he is imposing, the kind of person you feel is positioned uncomfortably close to your face, even though he’s not.

“I do not mean to interrupt!” the man booms. He is Russian, expansive, determined—these things I admire. My husband is bemused. I laugh, take a half step back, say “It’s okay.” When confronted with such bluster my nerves disappear; indeed, shyness is rendered unnecessary by such people, there is no room for it. “Okay!” the man says and it sounds like an order. What he means is that this space is big enough for us, was always meant to be big enough, will always be big enough, will, in fact, expand to accommodate us if necessary.

And of course it will! How dare it not?

The man looks down at the bench, spies a half-eaten orange. “This is yours!” he announces. I say no and laugh. It’s cold, the bus is late, my husband is staring at his phone. The Russian man and I stand there grinning.

— Melissa Price

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The “Readers Report Back From…” Series is edited by Susan Clements.

Rumpus original art by Jason Novak.