The neighbors have not mowed their lawn in two weeks, thank God. Many people do not like neighbors who are not fastidious about their house and lawn. I do. Let me explain.
The pretty red house next to us has gone through three owners in the five years we have lived on our block. I do not have even a vague memory of the people in it when we arrived. The next couple’s names have escaped me, and all I can say about the last guy is that his name was Joe. Or Jeff. Or something with a “J.” All of them were youngish, good-looking, professional people without any children and with lots of disposable income. They may well have been nice people. They may still be nice people. They were, however, rotten neighbors.
It’s not that they mistreated their house or held wild parties. Their parties were mild affairs in the backyard or in the house with tastefully hip music. And their care of the house was such that I wished we had the disposable income to pay them to care for and manage our property. Whenever we saw them they were outside mowing, scraping, raking, building, fixing or otherwise improving the quality of their house. Jeff-or-something usually mowed his lawn twice before I got to mine once. He could have been in one of those house-and-garden magazines.
But the fact is that if we occasionally talked to them, we rarely if ever talked with them. Their parties always involved people driving in from all over the city and beyond. They never came over to say hello. They never borrowed sugar or had a beer with us. Even when Jeff-or-something mowed his lawn, he wore a surgical mask. Perhaps it is cruel to use such a fact against him. Maybe he had allergies. Yet it seemed a fitting symbol of his relationship to what he was tending: careful, antiseptic, sterile—afraid that its life would get inside him and change him. He and the others had a property, not a home. They lived in a real estate zone, not a neighborhood. It showed in the fact that as soon as they had finished fixing up their home to a higher notch, they all moved somewhere else.
I have noticed this about our neighborhood. There are those who work on their properties, and there are those who live in their homes. Those who work on their properties think of them as investments, no more mystical than a 401(k) or a mutual fund. They live their lives somewhere else—at work, at the gym, at restaurants, perhaps at somebody else’s home. Ultimately they are ghosts from the moment they move in, all their precious fixer-upping no more human than the clanking of chains and moving of furniture of purgatorial spirits biding time until their release into heaven.
Those who live in their homes think of them as their castles or, quite often, as a sort of sacred shrine or holy place. They clean and fix, paint and repair, decorate and all the rest. But they inhabit their homes not as ghosts but as flesh-and-blood creatures. They awake each morning to walls filled with the angelic scrawl of crayon. Their carpets have dark red swirls from wine spilled in fits of laughter. Their lawns and gardens may be beautiful or a mess, but they never taste of the glossy and unreal perfection of those depicted in real estate brochures.
The dwellers of homes both charm and annoy their neighbors, because living in the close quarters of a neighborhood breeds familiarity, and familiarity generally breeds contempt at some point. “Ha! That guy always parks two feet from the curb” quickly becomes, “Will that idiot ever quit parking in the middle of the street?” “Those cute kids are always running through the sprinkler” becomes, “Can’t they keep those damn kids out of my tulips?” “He’s really friendly” becomes, “Does he ever stop talking?”
But charm and annoyance are part of the dance of any form of common life. And that is what home dwellers have—a common life. They give small children hand-me-downs. Their snowblowers clear whole blocks of sidewalk for those who are near them. They tease each other when they stop to say hello. They stand and talk and comfort each other as if they were the best of friends when the ambulance comes for one of the others. They even enjoy gossip. Not just bad gossip but good. For they take interest in the mystery of those strange yet familiar beings near them and wish both a deeper share in that mystery and the reputation for having a deeper share. That is why they bring hot dishes and frozen lasagnas when a new baby has come home and why their sunny Sunday evenings are occasions not only for tennis at the park but visits to the hospital and sometimes the funeral home.
When a worker of properties is gone, we usually do not know for months, maybe a year, for they were never really there in the first place. Their names and their features fade from our memories like vague late-morning dreams, unfocused and unyielding to any close scrutiny. We wish them well but feel no desire that they return.
When a home dweller moves away or dies, though, a hole, palpable like a wound, opens up in the neighborhood and the quiet psalms of backyard gossip are heard alternating praise of the “old man” or the kindness of “the sweet young couple” and lament over their quirks (“That parking was the damnedest thing”) and, most of all, the loss of their figure walking dogs, smoking cigars or pausing to bask in the autumn sunshine as they rake the first of the fallen leaves. Finally, petition is raised for someone worthy to take up dominion in the old place, bringing the neighborhood back to wholeness.
What we want from the house next door is not an immaculate lawn or a beautifully painted fence or lovely flower boxes—and certainly not varnished wood floors and tasteful décor. The old saying is often taken too literally. Good fences do not make good neighbors, though good neighbors may indeed make good fences. What we want beyond the fences and in those houses is the people inside. They do not have to be our best friends. They do not even have to be particularly friendly. They may even be something of a nemesis to us. But they have to be real. While every house, no matter how well cared for, eventually ends in dust, a home echoes not only in the lifelong memories of the neighbors, but into eternity.