Posts Tagged ‘Neighbors


Philly’s Snow Panic Brings out the Best and Worst

Over the recent weekend, Philadelphia got its second-worst snowfall ever (since they started keeping such records in the early 19th century). If forecasts are correct and we get another foot or more today, we’ll be on track to break a record for annual snowfall.

So, we pull on our boots and dig ourselves out.

With only 14 feet of sidewalk in front of our house, it’s no big deal to shovel and salt our walk and the neighbors’ on either side. On Sunday, half a dozen people on the block took up their shovels and started hacking at our tiny, narrow street. There’s no chance of getting a plow around the corner, so it’s down to us.

There was some real community spirit out there for a few minutes. I didn’t know anyone’s name, and we didn’t even all speak the same language, but we all had a common purpose. Kids were bouncing around like puppies. Neighbors were talking.

There are not many places you can shift two and a half feet of snow. There’s only so much room between the snowed-in cars parked along one side. We were forced to dump a lot of it on the curbs, knowing we’d have to tidy up the sidewalks again.

And then the daisy chain was broken.

Continue reading ‘Philly’s Snow Panic Brings out the Best and Worst’


Defending Territory

What is it about a dog that encourages people with no interest in each other under normal circumstances to interact with each other?

Since I have been dog-sitting these last few days for a traveling friend, I have earned all kinds of attention. Carrying a dog, puts one in an instant spotlight. I am not just the anonymous guy who wants to be left alone on his way around the block. I am A Guy with a Cute Little Dog. People come out of the woodwork to say hi — just not to me.

“You have a beautiful puppy,” a woman said on the sidewalk. Absent the dog, would she have thought to remark about the weather or stop to tell me my zipper is down? Hardly. The dog invites the niceties.

Even my surly neighbor, with her enormous, thuggish boyfriend, crouched down in the elevator on the dog’s first day in the building. “Hey, there,” she said allowing the dog to sniff her hand. When she asked me “What’s her name?” I counted the most words she had said to me in a year.

“Honey,” I said.

“Oh, how cute.”

“Yeah, she’s just visiting,” I said gamely but awkwardly, startled by the excitement I felt, hopeful we might speak more. Maybe she’s nicer than she seems, I thought.

But that was it for three floors.

Conversely, the harmless old guy on the subway had a lot to say as I held Honey on my lap in her stylish polka-dot carrier bag. “Is it a boy or a girl?”

“A girl.”

“She looks tired.”

“Yeah, she’s had a busy day.”

Honey rides in style on the G train. Heh… “Honey on the G Train.” Sounds like the title of an urban porn film.

I realized for the first time the power of talking about yourself through your dog. I should try it more often. Honey’s not coming to work today. Honey doesn’t feel like doing the laundry. What I was really saying was that I was tired and didn’t want to talk. Don’t come closer to pet my dog, and don’t ask me questions about her. I am just minding her for a friend. Apart from her breed and her name, I don’t know much.

“I bet you she’s just going to go right to sleep when you get her home.”

“Hmmm.” With any luck, I thought, I will.

“How old is she?”

“I don’t know,” I said.

“How old do you think she is?”

“I have no idea. Maybe three?”

He directly addressed Honey with various and sundry encouraging affectations, though I couldn’t properly hear him through the rasp in his voice and the din of the wheels on steel.

“May the wind be at your back and God hold you in the palm of his hand. That’s Irish wisdom,” he said to me after downing a tea-colored 50 mL bottle.

About as Irish as that whiskey, I thought.

Usually what I get is a “Mira! Perrito!” from small children as Honey races by on the sidewalk eager to sniff the next clump of weeds at the edge of a neighbor’s lawn.

I felt like a prick when a couple of parents clearly wanted me to stop with the dog, but I merely smiled and continued walking right past them even as they stopped so their stroller-bound child could see her. I just defer to the dog. She doesn’t want to stop, and neither do I. So I let her dictate the next move. Sorry, I’d totally stop, but my dog … well, you know how she can be.

It’s a strange feeling to interact with people while being invisible. A family with two small children was talking about the dog on the train the other day. The kids would wave and make funny faces at Honey while their ice cream cones dripped on the floor. Their parents said encouraging things to them en Español. And every time I looked up, the kids turned away, looking embarrassed, and the adults stopped talking. Turn away, and they burst into action. Look up, and silence.

My cat doesn’t care how big Honey is or what her carrier bag looks like. Her primary concern is the strange new intruder.

She outweighs the dog by at least 50%, and Honey is scared of her. She won’t walk past her. We keep them separated, but Mukau camps out at the doorway of the spare bedroom where we keep the dog, guaranteeing that she stays there.

They get along fine, as long as they stay out of each other’s way, but sometimes out of the clear blue Mukau just gets it into her head to mess with the dog. I was giving the cat some extra attention one day thinking she may be getting resentful of our houseguest, and in the middle of a hearty belly scratch, she leapt to her feet, darted across the floor, and started hissing and batting at poor Honey. It’s like, “Ooh, that’s good. Up a little bit. Up. Yeah, right there… Ohhh… Oh — wait a minute. Sorry, there’s um… this thing… that I, um… forgot to do. Be right back. Won’t take me a minute. Just gotta scratch this dog’s eyes out.”


Dancing Lessons

Considering the years I’ve lived in the very South American section of Jackson Heights, it is embarrassing to admit that I still cannot comprehend the difference between salsa, meringue, mambo, rumba… you name it. But whatever it is I hear at any given moment, there is a lot of it. It is blasted from cars stopped at traffic lights. It pours out of the multitude of bars and clubs peppering Roosevelt Avenue. It comes in pops and beeps from cell phone ring tones in the line at Rite Aid.

It is not an occasional indulgence; it is blended into the fabric of every day life.

Walking home from the subway one night last week, I heard familiar tones and felt familiar beats — even if I can’t name it, it is familiar — coming from … somewhere. A parked car? A stereo speaker in someone’s kitchen window? Looking for the source, I saw families gathered on the sidewalk a block ahead. It was like church had just let out, but it was after 10 p.m.

Kids ran among cars parked at meters. Adults stood around smoking and chatting and laughing. As I neared them, I saw that they were standing outside a beauty shop. And why should I be surprised? Usually when I arrive in my neighborhood after work, most of the shops are locked down and shuttered, but this place was the quintessence of street life.

A flashy LED sign made a sequence of optimistic declarations about fingernails and makeovers and French hairstyles, punctuated by blocky images of blinking eyes and vibrating telephones. The place can’t have been more than 10 feet wide, but it was very deep. The walls were painted a bright orange in sharp contrast to the dull linoleum of the floor, and across the ceiling were scattered bouquets of pink helium balloons tied with white ribbons. It was a beauty shop block party, and it was hopping! People grouped in pairs spun and bobbed, butting up against each other, bouncing literally off of the wall. Others sat in a row of chairs against the other longs walls, old, uncoordinated, or just catching their breath.

Where was the equipment? The chairs, the vanities, the nail tech stations. Where, in other words, was the beauty shop? It didn’t strike me until after I had rounded the corner that the place hadn’t been there the day before. This must have been a grand opening. In my part of town, a grand opening can last a month.

I wondered how keen the neighbors were to have their local hairdressers and a hundred of their best friends livin’ la vida loca outside their bedroom windows. But for all I knew, their windows were closed, because they were down here bumping and grinding with everyone else.

My family is one of those for whom dancing is something that happens after you hit the bar at a wedding. Maybe. Occasionally, it seems appropriate for someone else to do — up on a stage — if someone’s paying them to do it. Dancing for us is not a way of life. It does not happen spontaneously. It is not necessary for social interaction. Indeed, it is not even wanted in most cases. It does not bubble beneath the surface of our skin and jerk us into sudden, joyful animation when three sounds in sequence (a tapping pencil, a squeaky brake pad, a palm against the side of a garbage can) form a rhythm. We are not a people of gyrating hips and deep shoulders and clapping palms. And at times like this, when a neighborhood is brought together in a beauty shop not by a 10% discount on manicures or highlights or hair extensions but by salsa and pink balloons, I desperately wish that we were.


New York Lesson No. 333: Neighbors

New York has a lot to teach me about how to be a good neighbor.

The morning after a rather long night not long ago, I stopped in at the corner bodega near my office for a Diet Red Bull. It’s a disgusting way to wake up, but coffee makes me jittery sometimes.

After having been a customer for two years now, I enjoy a certain a mount of familiarity there. I’m just another regular from the neighborhood, but it’s nice to be recognized. New York is a small town when taken neighborhood by neighborhood. You can feel pretty anonymous on crowded streets of the Manhattan workday, but you’ve got your deli and your cleaners and your coffee shop, and before long, folks in those places start to smile at you for real.

As I entered, I nodded at the cashier.

“Eh, boss,” he said.

I set the can on the counter. “Two dollars?”

He turned to his boss. “Two? Two-fifty?”

The boss looked over at me. “For you,” he said, his face widening into a grin, “two dollars. Because you are the best in the neighborhood.”

It was just silly. Nothing, really. The price probably really is two dollars. But things like this never happened at the suburban grocery stores of my childhood. As an adult, I find I’m often embarrassed by hospitality and friendliness. Sometimes I want to be anonymous.

I was raised a “bad” neighbor. Nothing against my parents; we just didn’t mix much with other the other families people living complete, unannounced lives across the yard and on the other side of the street. It just never came up. They were they; we were we. In the suburbs, our doors may have been unlocked, but our curtains were closed.

My mom occasionally availed herself to the babysitting talents of a few of the other moms when necessary, but even that limited interaction was short-lived. And it involved money. We were aware of the various divorces. (There was a mysterious rash of them in the mid-90s, as if families all through the neighborhood suddenly and simultaneously woke up from a dream.) I myself babysat for a few of the divorcées in the neighborhood. But we never had block parties. We never pooled our garage sales. The kids traveled in packs by day, but they returned to their quiet homes by night.

My world didn’t extend far beyond those kids and whatever life-threatening mischief we could conjure in the woods that surrounded the subdivision. It certainly did not include my friends’ parents. Parents of other kids were, without exception, formidable and utterly foreign. They occasionally drove us places. And if you couldn’t avoid it, they would sometimes talk to you. But one was always quiet and still in their presence. One did not address them directly.

So now I find myself not talking to my neighbors. I see them in the laundry room, in the elevator, on the bus. I may smile or nod. I may hold a door. But do I ever talk to them about so much as the weather? Rarely. Sometimes I feel like I should, and other times I think, what’s the point? We live in the same building — so what? We don’t choose each other. But the people in your neighborhood — the barber, the goofy guys at the bodega, the lady in the bagel shop — there is some choice involved. We make these people part of our lives on purpose. Yet I stumble whenever my barber asks me something besides “How short do you want it?”

On the bus recently a guy standing right next said to a woman just boarding the stairwell, “Sorry, we don’t let opera singers on this bus.” She recognized him and laughed, and they began a conversation — on either side of me — about some show they were rehearsing. I was jealous of their neighborly familiarity. Minutes later, the bus driver accidentally blew past a stop and a little old lady in one of the seats near the front said to him, “Lenny, you forgot me.”

“Oh, sorry, dear,” he said. He stopped at the corner and let her out. The opera singers continued all the way to the last stop. I walked from the bus to the subway and continued my silent journey.


Christmas Toys

Someone in my building got a new TV for Christmas. And by the sound of it, it’s a nice one. I can tell because horrifying sounds of death, horror and destruction sound like they are coming at me simultaneously from below and above and behind me. I bet the DVD is new, too. It’s very generous for my neighbors to share their gift with all of us in this way. Johnny Mathis and Andy Williams and Barbra Streisand are having a devil of a time competing.


Q19 Crazy Lady

When I have the good fortune of making the Q19 bus in time to get to work at a decent hour, there is often a woman there who in equal parts amuses me and embarrasses me.

She always sits in a window seat reading a dog-eared bible. I won’t notice she’s there until she folds back a page of the Good Book and declares to the bus-folk around her, “Mmmmm… o-o-o-h boy!”

A few people turn to look where the noise comes from, including myself. I usually end up standing on this bus, so I can see her clearly. She just looks down at her bible and once or twice more loudly repeats an emphatic “O-o-o-o-oh mmmmmbo-eee!” and follows it by clicking her tongue just as loudly:

“Tck tck tck tck tck tck tck tck tck tck tck!”

It’s the sound an old person might make while digging in her teeth with a toothpick, rocking in a chair on the front porch.

On public transportation, such outbursts are disquieting but widely ignored to the best of our ability. If she knows she is startling half of the passengers around her, she doesn’t let on. If she has any notion that she is making the lady sitting next to her nervous, darting her widened eyes toward her, expecting perhaps a small forest creature to leap out of her chest cavity, she does not let on. She does not seem to realize that anyone has noticed anything at all, let alone that she has made any sort of loud, incongruous, inappropriate and inexplicable noise at all.

She turns another page of her bible and resumes reading silently. We all downshift from orange alert to yellow. And then a few minutes later: “Mmmmmmmm! Mmmmmbo-o-o-o-o-ay! Tck tck tck tck tck tck tck tck!”

She really puts some effort into it, distorting her voice, getting a little raspy, a little throaty. Like she’s out back picking tomatoes off the vine in the blazing sun, and she’s tugging at her collar and pulling her wide-brimmed straw hat back off her neck to mop her forehead with a worn bandana. One almost expects a “Would you just look at that! Hoo… lawd!

Is it something she’s read? Is she regarding the sins of mankind? Has she remembered that she left the coffee maker on back home? Is this what Tourette Syndrom looks like?

Then again: “Mmmmmmmmmbo-o-o-o-o-eeee! Tck tck tck tck tck tck tck!”

She never looks up from the book. She doesn’t shake her head. She doesn’t take notice of anyone or anything around her. She just continues reading her book and making loud exclamations to no one.

She looks so normal. Cute, tightly curled hair arching out in all directions. Flawless, mocha skin. Manicured but unpolished fingernails. Just enough makeup to bring out some contrast in her features. Nice, cool, conservative floral printed skirt and sleeveless sweater: you know… beige, black, salmon.

And, remember: She’s reading a Bible. Totally harmless. I’m not so sure.


With His Tail Between His Legs

Getting home after a quick outing to move Jeff’s Jeep to the Tuesday side of the street, I ran into a situation. Immediately after opening the door from the elevator, I saw my across-the-hall neighbor with her door wide open (where’s her cat? I thought) and a man standing in the hallway, leaning with his hand on the door jamb.

“And why are you sorry?” she asked, every bit the mother, leading her little boy through an apology to the neighbor whose goldfish pond he had just peed in.

“Because I called you a bitch,” he said.

Oh, my. I walked past as quickly as I could, trying to be invisible. I fumbled for the keys. Open the door fast, I thought.

“And why else?” she said, defiant, triumphant.

“Uh… I dunno. What else do you want me to say?”

It’s always best, I think, to conduct your private business on the inside of your doorway rather than the outside — or actually in — your doorway.

Unless, that is, you want to embarrass someone.

I spun through my doorway, avoiding eye contact with my neighbor and closing the door in a flash, shutting out the dirty laundry.

the untallied hours