Neighbors and New York City: This is not a love story
Sunday morning I was sitting in the yard drinking coffee when I was suddenly jolted awake by the bone-clattering caterwaul of a power drill. It was the guy next door, the one who’s been in heaps of legal trouble all related to his house (in these here parts we call folks like him a slumlord). In his lifelong pursuit to win America’s ugliest backyard contest, he was constructing some type of low-rent pergola, the kind of thing that looks beautiful in a country garden with vines and flowers or tomatoes growing all over it but looks absolutely ridiculous in urban settings. This pointy unfinished wooden structure had just been fashioned over a huge mound of concrete in the middle of his very narrow yard, a space that currently houses an avalanche of overgrown weeds, a few bricks of unused drywall, and in the past– a broken toilet.
Suddenly, drama unfolds…
“What the fuck are doing back here?” Hark! It is young Juliet on her balcony, calling down to her fair neighbor, the middle-aged slumlord with a power drill in his hand and a dollar sign in his heart.
“I’m minding my business. Why don’t you mind yours?!” He called back to her. Ah! Unrequited love! Heartwrenching.
“Your yard and your house look like shit! You don’t take care of anything back here, and now you’re building this stupid thing. I’m calling my landlord!” She didn’t waste time whispering sweet nothings. She yelled them– a girl who knows what she wants.
“I like it natural! Do you know natural? Do you understand NATURAL?” (I think he likes it natural).
Juliet got flustered and threw her hair over her shoulder before hightailing it off the balcony and back into her apartment. The slumlord continued to drill, muttering “crazy girl, crazy girl” to himself.
These are the people in my neighborhood.
I grew up in a quiet cul-de-sac lined with nice, unattached brick houses, manicured bushes and long driveways. It was a peaceful suburban subdivision where we all knew one another, and if we didn’t, we introduced ourselves so we could become allies, friends, compadres. Texans are a famously friendly people, and ignoring or displaying untoward hostility toward your neighbors is a big no-no. In my home state, it’s considered quite rude to pass your neighbor without a smile and a wave or a cheery, “Mornin’!” In my grandparents’ neighborhood, people who don’t wave back are assumed to be Communists. My father and his wife are best friends with their next-door neighbors; they eat dinner with them three times a week, and our families celebrate Christmas together. My wedding reception was in their backyard.
I have had to adjust to a different attitude regarding neighbors since moving to New York City. First of all, I have so many of them. I live in a three-family house, so I have neighbors on the two other floors. Our house is attached to two other three-family houses, both filled with a revolving door of interesting characters. Those people are my neighbors too. Then there are the houses that flank my next door neighbors’ two houses–people in my direct line of sight when they are perched on their balconies. All these houses are filled with people and technically they are all my neighbors, even if they never say hello back and I wouldn’t ask them for a cup of sugar if my birthday cake depended on it. If I make the choice to do yoga in my backyard wearing nothing but a pair of old boxer shorts, a scuba mask and a purple wig, there are at least 35-40 neighbors who will be able to easily witness this. Moreover, I could don this get-up, do yoga in my backyard, and I still wouldn’t be considered the weird neighbor.
Let’s start with the power drill guy to our right. For years, that house was like Willie Wonka’s chocolate factory– nobody ever came in and nobody ever came out. Then a few years ago, he started doing construction work in there– all without the proper permits and always at the worst possible times of day– Sunday morning, 10:30 pm on a Tuesday– drilling, hammering, pop music blasting through a boombox. He whittled a hideous pergola for his front steps, a ridiculous addition for a Queens row-house and an obvious eyesore from at least two blocks away. People started moving in, but the house was still in pretty wrecked shape. It always looked like it was in the middle of construction.
To make a long story short, I’ll sum up: He divided his three-family house into 9 separate units, rented them out to way more than nine people, took all their money, and ended up on the 7 o’clock news before finally hunkering down in a jail cell for a few months. Inevitably, the house filled with squatters who sometimes smoked cigarettes in the junky backyard but mostly kept a low profile as they lived in a house without a kitchen or electricity. The front door acquired a big note on the front: VACATE IMMEDIATELY: LIVING HERE IS PERILOUS TO LIFE, but that wasn’t a strong enough deterrent. The night two firetrucks and three police cars parked out front and raided the building was one of the most thrilling moments of my life. The most scandalous thing to ever happen in my childhood neighborhood was when someone tagged “The fuck?” on an offbeat sculpture in the Thompson family’s front yard.
Now, to our left: The people in the house to the left are actually very nice; it’s just been really difficult to track who actually lives there because there are about 1,000 people on the front porch at all times. It’s unclear if the residents of this house are legal residents of this country. What I do know is that someone in that house is celebrating a birthday, a graduation, a retirement, or a quincinera every single week. Martha Stewart never threw this many parties, and never this festive. Karaoke, strobe lights, dance contests, pinatas– all regular features. This is a house that left their Christmas decorations up for two years straight, so whenever I would give directions to my apartment I’d tell friends to look for the sun-bleached Santa on a choo-choo train and hook a right. The other night I came home from work at 9pm (*NYC man. Don’t do it. They’ll bleed you dry!), and looked to my left to find a woman sleeping on a blow-up mattress on the front porch. I wasn’t sure if she was doing some end-of-summer camping or if they are finally running out of room at the inn.
And then there is our own house. We’ve rented this spot nine years now, and have seen top-floor dwellers come and go. Almost all of the renters have been couples around our age and we were friendly and chatty with almost all of them, save for a few who didn’t stay too long. Over the past year the two apartments above us have each changed hands twice, and Vin and I are getting tired of the old-song-and-dance/getting-to-know-you routine. I have met and spoken with each of the four other people in this house exactly once apiece, and I get the feeling all of them think that is perfectly adequate. We will not be hosting potlucks, they will not be borrowing sugar. As long as everyone puts their recyclables in the correct bin, I don’t really give a flip anymore what anyone does here. We’re not friends, we’re not allies, we’re not compadres. We will definitely not be spending Christmas together.
Several days ago a mound of soil was scooped out of a flower pot and dumped right in the middle of our front porch, blocking the path to the steps.
“Vinny, did you see the dirt on the front porch? What was that about?”. Little did I know, not only had Vinny seen the dirt, he was actually quite offended by its presence.
“Who makes a mess like that and doesn’t clean up after themselves? Who DOES that?”. On the way into the apartment, Vin kicked the dirt mound to the side of the porch, but refused to sweep it up out of principle.
It’s been five days and the soil is still there. We keep stepping around it, waiting for the offending party to clean up their own damn mess.
Vinny’s face glows red every time he steps in the door, unable to believe humans would behave this way. “Are these people savages? Do they really expect someone else to clean up after them?”.
I’m actually starting to think that the people in our house are innocent in this crime. After all, why would someone plop a mound of dirt on their own front porch? Maybe some precocious teen ran up our steps, scooped dirt out of the flower pot and dumped it on our porch for a silly prank. Maybe it was the mailman, bored or frustrated on a random Tuesday, trying to give himself some tension relief before heading home. Or perhaps it was the pergola-loving slumlord from next door. Maybe he’d confused Juliet on her balcony to his right with the blonde girl in her yard to his left. Maybe he’d dumped the soil on the porch as retribution for the verbal assault he encountered on Sunday. Maybe spilling dirt on a neighbor’s porch was his way of acting out. Or maybe he just really likes it natural. Do you understand natural?