Sunday, July 15, 2007

fences and neighbors

I don't yet have a toddler who clutches a toy with his whole body screaming “Mine! Mine! Mine!” Maybe because he doesn't have a sibling (mother-in-law: “He's going to grow up ALL ALONE?” me: “ALL ALONE.”)

Still, Isaac understands ownership. He also understands who is part of his community and who is outside of it. The two concepts are related. He flatly refuses to share his cars with a random boy at the park, but when his friend Joshua whom we've been waiting for arrives, he readily hands them over. Or at the beach recently it was “Girls, too! Girls, too!” as I handed him his cheese stick, and so I third it, giving a piece to my friends' twins and to Isaac.

Ownership and our ideas of property have gone wacky these days. “Share!” we tell the kids. And on what model might they grasp that idea, I wonder? Just look at our “communities.” In a past era, fences meant freedom, used to demarcate land ownership. Only free men could own land. There's a jumbled, ironic feel to all of that, but let's move along. These days, fences aren't keeping anybody free. They are the border between us and them.

I'm interested in exploring fences and neighbors. I've had the idea to make it into a radio program for over a year now.

The last radio show I produced for public radio was on elementary school kids' views of libraries closing in their neighborhood. It aired a few days before Isaac was born. Since then, I've done a few interviews with touring writers, but nothing like the time-consuming endeavor of mobile interview, collection of ambient sound, selection of music, writing intro, transitional and closing texts, tunneling through editing programs in the dark of a studio for hours, slicing up and rearranging my victims' sentences and creating narrative. Perhaps oddly, I crave to go back to that work (or at the very least a life that would afford me such time).

I want to interview the person with the two-foot green chainlink number that has four, count them, Beware of Dog signs on it. Huh?

I want to talk to the person who lives behind a crumbling white picket fence leading to a Pepto-Bismol pink house decked out in peace signs.

I need to get into the mind of the person who constructed a concrete block barricade to their rose garden, leaving planter openings at even intervals along the top, only to see whatever lived in them at one time shrivel to brown sticks and now host a flock of empty beer cans.

Those are the old fences. But people are constantly constructing new fences and walls in my neighborhood too.

The McMansions and renovations all seem to call for a second (or third) floor for the view and towering fences. Wood, brick, iron, take your pick.

Some of the McMansions can be described as nothing short of fortresses. Thick adobe-colored walls squaring off cement patios in a dizzying progression that ride higher and higher lest the inner sanctuary be sullied by the outside eye. There is, of course, a Beware of Dog sign posted prominently on these chateaus of welcome, and – centered over my favorite one – a fat, gold crucifix nailed above the door. (We're Christian, goddammit! Stay back!) The only thing missing is the jagged pieces of bottles poking out along the top of the wall.

I would ask questions about whether they considered their fence decorative, functional, other. I'd talk to them about who knows their neighbors. And how far in each direction they can name them.

Recently, a friend who is looking for a place to rent lamented how he'll probably have to deal with neighbors. “You guys lucked out here,” he told me.

At our house, we have few direct neighbors. There is the church I've written about, the 80+ year-old Johnsons I've written about in passing, and screaming children behind us, though we've never seen them. That would be because on the sides and back of the house there is a six foot high wooden fence topped with another two feet of lattice.

There is also our pseudo neighbor on the other side. His house faces the street perpendicular and he has a big yard that touches ours in just one place really, so were it not for the baby raccoon, we may never have crossed paths without going out of our way to introduce ourselves, which, well, people don't often do and which, well, is part of my point in doing a story, and, well, aren't I always whining about community? I still don't get why he didn't see the raccoon across his empty yard over three days. I'm just gonna throw this out there, and it doesn't mean it explains anything, but, well, he drives a Hummer. Anyway.

Recently we visited both families on the east coast in one week-long trip – something we had sworn we would never do again.

The day after we got home was a beautiful sunny Sunday and we were out in the garden reminding ourselves what our yard looked like when I heard a knocking on the fence.

My eighty-year-old neighbor Mrs Johnson was standing on an upturned bucket, peering through the lattice over the six-foot high barricade. “I said to James, I said, 'That woman with the truck has come a few times already, I better go out and see if she has a key. If she has a key,' I said, 'everything's alright.'”

We had really intended to let them know we were going. Really. We just didn't see them outside and knocking on people's door these days...well, it's that direct thing...don't we all hesitate? (e.g. knocking on the fence).

Despite the fence knocking, what is obvious from this exchange is that Mrs Johnson comes from another generation, where maybe neighbors were important. Not to mention another culture (she is from Salzburg, Austria), where maybe neighbors were important.

For the first three months we lived here, Mr Johnson, also from another generation and another culture (he's from Mississippi) addressed me solely as "neighbor." "Hello, Neighbor!" he would call from beside his light blue Mazda pickup (purchased new, don't ya know, in February of 1973). In truth, he couldn't remember my name, but who cares? How cute is it to be called "Neighbor?"

After we straightened out with Mrs Johnson how long we were gone and that the roses had indeed been watered, the conversation turned to more meaningful matters.

Still straining to hang onto the fence with one hand, Mrs Johnson motioned with the other. “Give me a plate, honey, I made cream puffs.”

Neighbors rock.


Anonymous said...

"We're Christian, goddammit! Stay back!"

I love it!


bobbie said...

Neighbors DO rock. Try to make as many as you can. (It's another word for friends)

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