Just Another Neighborly Day in the Beauty Hood

Say, who are the people in your neighborhood,

the people that you see each day?
        —Sesame Street

It was an inopportune time for the water to be shut off. Dirty dishes filled the sink—of course, that was the morning I decided to cook a big breakfast. And two stacks of dirty laundry awaited their turn in the washer.

I tried the faucet one more time: a hiss and a fizzle, then nothing. I clipped the leash onto the dancing little dog. Off we went for our morning walk.

Phyllis was out weeding in her magical garden, with its radiating brick walkways and its wildflowers and bursting colors. In the center, a wise old stone rabbit surveyed the riot of blooms. And Ace, who looks like a smaller, longer-haired version of Lassie, came over, his beautifully coifed mane floating, to stick his regally long snout through the fence slats, sniffing at Greta.

I asked Phyllis if she had water.

No, she said. She’d noticed something going on around the corner on Norwood, and figured the city was doing something with the pipes.

We chatted a moment, inconsequentially, and then I nudged the dog to move on.

“Hey,” Phyllis called after us, her gloved hands deep in mulchy soil, “keep an eye out for poison ivy. It’s everywhere this year!”

We meandered, Greta and I, to the corner of Norwood, where there were cones in the street and a bold orange ‘road closed’ sign. Halfway down the block, workers in lemon-yellow shirts stood around some sort of digging machine which had its munching proboscis deep in the earth beneath the street.

The dog and I both sighed. Missions accomplished, we headed back.

*********

At home, James was up and had discovered, for himself, that water was not running from the pipes. He brushed his teeth with filtered water, and we took a ride over to the nearest dollar store. I was a little leery–I remembered water outages where all the bottled water had quickly disappeared from the store shelves–but there in the entryway was a huge display of shrink-wrapped water bottles. We loaded two twenty-four packs into a cart and went in search of gallon jugs. We added four of those.

The friendly clerk asked if we were going camping, and when we told her her about the water shut-off, she said, “Uh oh.” She lives on Norwood.

Fortunately, she said, no one was home, and maybe, if she was really lucky, the water’d be back on by the time her shift ended.

“Hey–have you had a problem with poison ivy this year?” she asked, handing me the receipt.

********

We lugged the water into the house, a two trip endeavor, and put gallon jugs in the bathrooms. We opened one plastic wrapped package of serving-sized bottles and slid them into the fridge.

“Jeez,” I started. “You’d think they could have warned us! What if we had health problems? What if we were shut-ins and couldn’t get out to get water?”

As I whined, my eye wandered over the hedge to Shirley’s house, and my thoughts wandered to Shirley, who DOES have health problems, and who IS a shut-in. I dialed her number and got her voice mail.

I’m leaving a gallon jug of water on your front step, I told her.

Shirley called later. By then the water was blessedly back on, and I was contemplating things I take for granted, like the never-ending supply of clean fresh water I enjoy, unlike people in, say, Texas, right now, or in many other parts of the world, who do not always enjoy such bounty. Shirley said thanks and told me she was feeling pretty good, all things considered, and asked how I liked retirement. Just before she clicked off, she said, “Oh, honey, I have to tell you. When Merilee was here yesterday, she noticed there’s poison ivy all around under the hedge between the houses.

I went out and looked. Leaves of three: let ’em be. Leaves of five: ‘sakes alive.

***********

That night before dinner I mowed the backyard and Mark, freshly changed into grubby clothes after work, mixed up a batch of weed killer and walked slowly along the hedge that wanders the property line between our house and Shirley’s, decimating the invidious poison ivy. After a thorough scrub down, we grilled our supper and then took an evening walk.

We passed Jeff, the serious young pastor down the street, walking with his two children. Jeff’s little guy is about two; he was struggling along on a tiny bicycle with training wheels. His face was scarlet with exertion, but he refused to get off and walk. He chattered, every sentence beginning with “DAD!” His thoughtful sister, aged four, maybe, was much quieter. She held tight to her dad’s hand, slogging along in knee-high rubber boots paisley-patterned in pink and yellow. A glittery green cape whooshed gently behind her; every moment or so, she tugged at its knots as they tugged at her neck. When she spoke, Jeff leaned down to catch every word.

We smiled and waved (“A little quiet time for the mama?” Mark suggested), and we waved, too, to the tiny woman, sun-browned and jaw-jutting, mowing the yard at the little house down the hill. She and her teen-aged daughter are the newest neighbors.

***********

I took my tea out to the patio just as the light began to wane; I opened my book, but didn’t read. I listened to the birds, and to the trilling of the cicadas, and then Sandy slipped through the passageway from next store with a seriously lumpy gift bag in her hand.

It was a collection of Avon stuff–lotions and powders and potions and blushing colors–with a woman of a certain age and of a certain retired status in mind. (Sandy’s daughter works at Avon and gets a nice discount, so now I luxuriate in scents and unguents I would never, being fervently frugal, buy for myself.)

We talked about Sandy’s recent foot surgery; she is NOT, by her own admission, a compliant patient, and she was out in the yard, watering, the day she came home from the hospital. Two weeks off my feet? Bah, she scoffed, although she allowed, ruefully, that her doctor was not too happy with her. And she was worried about mobility; she and her boyfriend are embarking on a cruise in just a couple of weeks and she wants to hike and dance and  explore.

We talked about getting the neighborhood together for a picnic, and we talked about the best colors to paint houses, and about what flowers the darned deer will leave alone. And, when the bugs started biting, we both reluctantly got up, stretching, to head inside.

“Oh,” said Sandy, “you might not have noticed. There’s poison ivy all through the hostas on your side of the line.

***********

The next day, Mark came home from work and mixed up more plant poison. While I chatted with Becky across the street, and played peekaboo with her pretty niece-baby, Eleanor, Mark trudged up and down the property line on the Sandy-side, spraying for poison ivy.

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During the law school years back in Ada, we lived in a mobile home court, our trailer on the very edge, bounded by the street, an unending corn field, and one neighboring trailer. I remember, one night, taking a book about modern life out on the little patio we created in front, and reading about the dearth of neighborhood interaction. It used to be, that author (his name, and the title of the book, long-forgotten) opined, that people new to an area gathered their information from their neighbors.

Where to shop? Which dentist to see? The most patient teacher for a reluctant-to-learn third grader? Once moms would glean that information from other moms who lived nearby, or dads, as they grilled hit dogs or tossed a ball to young Bubba, would transfer knowledge. Nowadays, said the book, people do not talk to their neighbors, do not interact beyond perfunctory hellos. They often don’t even know each other’s names. Work has become the new neighborhood, the place where people socialize, and exercise, and answer the questions, and share the wisdom, of every day life.

I thought ruefully that the author might have a point, and lifted my head from the book to see one of the neighbor families out for a walk—mom, dad, the four step-stoned little ones, three boys with close blond crew cuts, one fragile little girl with long platinum hair. They all waved and said hello, the children exquisitely mannered. They went to our church on Sundays. Then they were dressed to the nines in buttoned-up shirts and little bow ties–Dad, too–and mom and the tiny girl in flouncy dresses.

On nightly walks, though, the kids wore shorts and slapped along in flipflops, and Dad, who was a tattoo artist and shaved his head to show off the art on his scud, often had his pet boa constrictor wrapped around his noggin.

That night, the snake was there. I waved, relieved they declined to stop and talk, and laid the book down to contemplate the neighborhoods we’d lived in. I remember thinking about how lucky–how blessed–we had been. Our neighbors had been unique–funny and empathetic, traditional and wacky, young and old and in-between, and ethnically diverse and distinctly and differently abled–but they had always been people who knew our names and shared our worries and celebrated our joys. We’d lived in many neighborhoods; we had always felt surrounded by people who cared, people who would drop everything to help in emergency times.

We’ve lived in two neighborhoods since the law school days, and I continue to be warmed by the knowledge that those who live near to us are people we know, people who share, people who laugh and nudge in the good times, and who pitch in to help in the trying ones.

We just never know when we move into a new neighborhood who we’re going to meet. The ages, the family situations, the economic habits, the spiritual beliefs and political values, the lawn-mowing habits–all these things may be vastly foreign to ours. What ties us is the land beneath our feet, the air we breathe, and the proximity we have to each other.

It’s joyful, in these new retirement days, to renew and strengthen those everyday ties, to realize, as Mr. Rogers’ and Sesame Street’s words wove so firmly into our social consciousnesses, just how important are the people we see each day.

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Mark hacks down bushes and overgrown shrubs, getting ready for the painters to come, creating access to house walls and clearing serene clear spaces in the yard. He totes the rambling cuttings in the new wheelbarrow, dumping them into the parking area behind the garage.

When he is done, when that space is filled, Buddy, from the house behind us, comes out to see him.

Every neighborhood has a ‘mayor’; Buddy is ours. A single fellow, not employed, he keeps an eye on things. He is helpful and observant. He talks with everyone.

Now he talks with Mark. What, Buddy asks, does Mark plan to do with all those rangy cuttings? The two men hunker, examining the five-foot deep pile that extends two car lengths.

Mark talks of chopping, bundling, packaging and mulching, saving some large pieces of woody growth and some small pieces to dry out–kindling, maybe.

 

Nah. Buddy disagrees. I got a friend, he says–my friend Curtis–he’ll come in his pickup truck and take the whole thing away. Give him, maybe, twenty bucks a trip; he’ll take it out to his place in the country, chip it up for mulch.

Two trips, you figure? says Mark, and Buddy says yeah, two trips ought to do it.

That evening, Curtis comes in his truck, hauls away the brush. Buddy comes back over, stands with Mark, and they survey the newly clean parking place.

It’s good, they agree.

Buddy asks about the painters; he approves of the folks we hired, discusses with Mark the garage, which we will paint ourselves. What about the garage door? Buddy asks. Same color or contrasting?

Mark tells him what we have planned. Buddy contemplates, then offers his opinions.

They shake hands, finally, and Mark turns. He’s envisioning a fire in the fire pit; he’s thinking of two fingers of that nice single malt–iced, maybe–that comes from the village in Scotland where my mama’s family lived. And then Buddy calls him back.

“Looks,” he says to Mark, pointing, “like you got p’ison ivy climbing up that pole. Best get on ‘er.”

Mark looks, and sure enough. He sighs and trudges off, off to mix more plant poison, to work to quell that scourge, to dampen the eternal pop-up of that dangerously itchy plant, to insure we’re not promoting the spread of something harmful to the people who live around us.

It’s what you do, after all, for your neighbors.

 

*****

Some names have been changed to protect the unsuspecting…