Won’t You Be…My Neighbor


Growing up, neighbors were an understandable and quantifiable entity.  They were sung about to me daily by Mister Rodgers.  On Halloween they opened their doors and plastic cauldrons to all of the kids.  Sometimes there was cause for gossip, but by and large things were peaceful, amicable, homey and uninteresting.  This is something that I found has all but disappeared since my tenure on Leonora between 1986 and 1998.  The insular feeling of that place has never been replicated.  What amazes me is how often I was welcomed into these people’s homes.  They are permanent memories and childhood fixtures.  Characters in my head playing on 8MM film in my brain.

Van Vanvandervlan: the gray-haired, most likely of Finnish descent man next door.  He lived in a pale blue house with his sometime girlfriend Penelope.  She made chocolate cake and bean dip for parties.  They would have garage sales and I would buy her decorative clothespins for a few quarters.  It was at his house that I watched the only part of The Shining that I have cared to see – the two girls in the hallway purring “Redruuummm….Reeeddruuuummm.”  They were about my age and my size and even though it was light outside they scared the hell out of me.

Van starred in plays produced by the local community college.  I watched him bounce around in tights singing “I Vish I Ver a Vich Man” in his performance in The Fiddler on the Roof.  Being of retirement age, Van had an RV parked outside of his house at all times.  It was a nice one, nicer than ours.  He and Penelope would take cross-country trips and one day he packed up all of stuff, sold the house, and left for good.

Directly across the street lived two different families at two different times.  Before the second family moved in and tore out the trees and remodeled the house, a vaguely white trash family lived hidden under bushes and brown paint.  I never went inside.  The older son once gave me a stolen studio copy of The Little Mermaid on VHS.  Every ten minutes “Party of…illegal copying of this tape is…” would scroll in small white letters underneath Ariel and her magical underwater kingdom full of talking fish and crustaceans.

The mom was a storefront window painter – the kind that filled in words like “Blow Out Sale” and “Look at these Prices” in sherbet-colored neon paint.  One Christmas she offered to paint our sliding glass door with a caricature of Santa and some reindeer.  When she came over to assess the space, she slammed face first into the glass not seeing it was closed.  This seemed strange being as she worked with windows so often.

I was more familiar with the second family that moved into that house.  It was a family of four: the parents and two daughters.  Both girls had changed their more exotic Persian names to ones more graspable for 1990s white suburbia.  The one my age went by Goldie.  Goldie and I hung out often.  I’d sneak out through my window when my mom put me on time-out and hang out in their house of tile floors and white walls.  There was a chicken coop in the backyard.  Goldie’s mom did my hair and makeup the year I was a harem girl for Halloween.  My mom spray-painted a toilet paper roll to put my ponytail through like a dinner napkin ring.

Alas, the bonds of friendship were tarnished on the day I realized a few of my not-so-precious-stones – ones I had so painstakingly hand milled in my little stone grinder back in the garage – were missing.  My suspicion that Goldie was the culprit of this crime was confirmed when I did a little snooping in her bedroom.  She was in the kitchen getting us snacks when I found my rocks on her bookshelf.  I never confronted her and I never hung out with her again.

Down the street, my friend Rachel lived with her mom and brother.  I don’t think they had a dad.  She had translucent skin and dishwater blond hair.  I would imagine she grew up to be quite pretty.  Her family’s house always struck me as being dark and slightly unwelcoming.  Our friendship reminds me of the days when I used to sit on the carpet next to my stereo and play tape-recorded chunks of “I Got 5 on It” and Blackstreet: clips of songs earned by diligently listening to the radio, waiting for my favorite tune, and pressing down on record.  Obsession was so time consuming back then.

I ate dinner there one time and one time only.  The menu was macaroni and wieners – chalky white cheddar macaroni with cut up pieces of hot dogs.  Politely and carefully, I took small bites, chewed slightly, and then hid the food in the recesses of my cheeks.  When I found it appropriate to excuse myself to go home I ran to the street and spat out an entire dish full of pasta into the nearest bush.

There was Mrs. Hostettler who sold us her RV.  And the family that moved in to the same house when she left.  I would babysit for their little boy.  I was terribly young and I imagine they were betting on my mom to hold down the fort if necessary.   Another friend of mine lived across the street in the pretty green and white house with the ivy-covered front yard.  Once I threw up all over their bathroom floor.  I felt badly.  There used to be a schizophrenic that lived above the detached garage.  He made my mom nervous.

We had Robby, the bad kid.  We had Ian, the even worse kid.  Jenny was the older woman whose husband passed away.  His church service was held in an A-Frame church on Burbank, I think.  There were the people on the left of us with the dogs that barked all the time.  Mom would open up her window at night when she couldn’t take another minute and scream “WOULD YOU SHUT THE HELL UP??!!”  This is a problem that follows her to this day.  Her tactics remain the same and similarly ineffectual.

The people I call neighbors now are no more than strangers who I observe on occasion.  We don’t talk, we don’t nod ours heads as we pass by on the street, we don’t have summer bar-b-ques.  I don’t know them and they don’t know me.  The children are so abundant in number in most households it is impossible to tell any of them apart.  The only thing resembling closeness is the physical proximity in which we live.  By definition this means that these people do qualify as neighbors, but they resemble nothing familiar to me.


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