Friends and Neighbors
It has been said that people can pick their friends but that they are unfortunately irrevocably stuck with their relatives. The potentially worst category of relative is that often dreaded surrogate phenomenon known as the “in-law” which can be one of the more insidious downsides of the “till death do we part” contract.
Some married couples would probably stand an even better chance of actually making it all the way to death together if they could first just kill off one or more disruptive, intrusive or nosy in-laws.
That is why one possible best scenario for a happy life would be for a person to marry his or her best friend as long as he or she also happens to be an orphan. Another relatively safe option would be to marry someone whose parents and relatives live half a world away, such as Australia, except for the fact that one then has to deal with exceptionally long stays when the in-laws do come to visit.
Ask some people who have been married for a long time to the wrong person and they would qualify all these statements by adding the opinion that a perfect spouse might be a deaf-mute as well. Better yet, a deaf-mute-orphan who doesn’t understand either English or sign language.
This point is illustrated by the case of a male patient in his early seventies who came to the office for a first visit accompanied by his wife. Every time I asked him a question about his history and symptoms she answered for him while he vigorously shook his head yes or no to affirm whatever fact was ostensibly on the table. When I then took him into the exam room by himself I started to ask a few ancillary quires, to which he replied:
Wait a minute, doc. I can’ hear a word you’re saying. Let me turn on my hearing aids.
- Do you mean to tell me you didn’t hear one thing I asked you when I was taking your history?
- No. And trust me .doc, it isn’t you. It’s her. I haven’t heard a single thing she’s said for the past five years. See, I found out a long time ago if I just turn off my hearing aids and nod my head all day, we get along great. And if you blow my cover I’m going to fire you and get another doctor.
Then as if the spouse and the in-laws were not enough to deal with mix into your life that special character and fatalistically selected crapshoot persona we all fondly refer to as “our next door neighbor.” In this case proximity, but not familiarity, usually sows the seeds of contempt.
The kinds of things that can lead to really disastrous consequences are, for example, living in an apartment above or below a group of Puerto Ricans in Spanish Harlem who play loud mariachi music, then sing, yell, dance and shout especially after 2 a.m., or living in the suburbs next to a house where the dog barks all night.
However even living on a 1000-acre parcel with a house set dead in its center would not even ensure good neighborly relationships; as was illustrated by my second great grandfather in Texas who was killed in the 1800s by his next door neighbor in a gunfight that erupted over a water hole that was situated on their boundary lines. It was the only water available for miles around, yet for some reason they simply could not come to terms with sharing it.
Then there is the potential “trade for the devil that you don’t for the one you do” phenomenon when one neighbor you might hate moves out and another one moves in.
Monique, a woman who once lived next to me, let her dogs out every morning at which time they would promptly come over and shit all over my yard. They had an uncanny sense of exactly where the unfenced property line was and never once defecated in their own yard.
I complained nicely about it to her twice, but when the behavior did not stop I retaliated by scooping up the turds and putting them on her door stoop. When that tactic failed I packed them into little zip-lock bags and left them in her mailbox. Even that didn’t work. She finally got the hint when she found them floating in her swimming pool.
She was subsequently bankrupted in the housing downdraft of 1988 by overextending herself by building too many speculation homes. In fact, the last financial straw for her occurred when she took a personal note on the house she had built next to mine. The tenants royally scammed her by spending one glorious summer in the Hamptons and then walked away from the mortgage by moving back to Italy.
But the man who subsequently then bought this house in a bank auction was even worse. The house fronted the water on a flag lot, so in determining that he wanted complete privacy he proceeded to build a berm on top of an extension of the driveway that went past his house and then down to the water. Unfortunately, the driveway extension was a community easement designated to allow the 26 other homeowners in our association access to the beach. After that he then proceeded to fence in his yard with ugly green turkey wire, and then planted spotlights all over it, some of which were beamed directly into my bedroom.
He said the lights and the fencing were designed so that deer would stay out; but I read it more as revenge for my having rallied the neighbors to protest the berm; which I had explained to them would significantly lower the value of their homes if they could no longer add “beach access” to any potential sales pitch. Prior to that none of them had seemed too interested, but money and potential personal profit and was something that at least finally got them motivated to litigate it.
Getting rid of the spotlights that kept me awake all night was easy. I used a sledgehammer. The cops came and I sat on my deck waving “Hello” as they filled out a vandalism report.
But the berm issue percolated in the court system for years finally ending in the compromise of his being required to leave a footpath next to it for its originally intended purpose. He agreed to that as long as he could ID anyone walking on it, to which we basically responded by telling him where he could shove his own identity papers. He knew when he bought the property that the easement was there and then tried to close it off so that no one could use the beach in front of his house, thereby making his property exclusively water front while at the same time reducing the value of everyone else’s properties in the neighborhood.
It reminded me of the people who had bought land next to the North Sea public dump, then complained about its smell and tried to get it relocated. It was an action similar to those people who buy houses next to airports only to then complain about the noise of jet engines, after which they demand curfews on night time landings.
In stark contrast to that, in North White Plains where we lived in the winter, our next-door neighbor was a gem. Artie, a building contractor of Italian extraction, was one of those earthy characters who would hand you the shirt off his back. Maybe that was why his wife married him because she was the kind of person who must have realized when they dated that she could just take all of his shorts too.
They were a very incongruous pair. He wore suspender denim coveralls coming home every day covered with sawdust, dirt and grease under his nails, while she came home with a perm, a manicure, fake fingernails and a new outfit from Bloomingdales.
She epitomized the fact that Jews should not be the only ones allowed to have proprietary reign on the category of the so called Jewish American Princess, the JAP, because Italians have more than their fair share or princesses too. And although theoretically it would therefore be abbreviated as IAP, my suggestion would be to have that changed to YAP, because besides being spoiled rotten and overly demanding, the typical IAP tends to be relatively undereducated, functionally illiterate and also tends to prattle excessively.
When my brother and I spotted the IAPS out at the bars we ridiculed their poufy bouffant hair sprayed hairdos by generically referred to them as “hitters.” This was ac doe word for their secondary agendas: find a rich young guy or one with good potential, hit on him, marry him and then retire to Bloomingdales.
On one occasion we actually tried to strike up a conversation.
- Hi girls. Where are you from?
- We two ah from the Noath Shoah. So where ah youz two from?
- I’m Alan from Earth and he’s Tan from the Sun.
- Wow. Really? Hey youz guys are really funny!
- Yeah. Pleased to meetcha. So ya wanna come over to our beach house and blow some dope?
- You have a beach house? Shit yeah. You betcha.
This of course only resulted in them wanting to scope out the place first, us “twos” not necessarily getting laid, followed by the inevitable request for more of a commitment, breakfast the next day and a second date. This meant that even though they were not the most intelligent of creatures, those North Shore girls were at least smart enough to know never give it up on the first date to a couple of randy, drunken, doped up jackasses.
On one such occasion, at about 4 a.m., I became so bored by the silly game and being so tired that all I wanted to do was go to sleep, I felt compelled to end the date by literally dragging one of them down the back stairs and carrying her out to her car. Even then because she wouldn’t stop whining as she clung and clutched at the back step banister rail, her behavior forced me to resort to mild harmless tactics in order to get her to release her death grip by bopping her on the head with the rubber bulb on the end of an old fashioned Model-T car honker horn. Even that didn’t faze her.
Her pleas were interspersed with staccato horn beeps.
- But I don’t’ wanna-(beep)-leave. I wanna-(beep)-stay. I just wanna-(beep)- taulk sommoha. I don’t wanna-(beep)-go home yet.
I finally got her into the car where several hours later I found her sleeping it off in the back seat and was very careful not to wake her up as I headed off to work.
Artie beeped too. It was a stuttering speech impediment or possibly even a Tourette’s variant, which to his wife’s credit was never criticized or ridiculed by her. When he stammered he would start a sentence by repeating the phrase:
- What, even so.
He summed it up succinctly one day when he was complaining about the household “to do” list his wife had handed him while she went off shopping.
- What even so, what even so. I, I used to be a happy kid. What even so, I, I used to dance. I, I used to sing. I, I, I, used to run home from school and, and whistle. I, I, I, even used to sing. What even so, and, and, and…and then I met her. And if, if, if, I live to be a hundred I, I, I, what even so, I’ll never finish all the things she wants me to do around here.
He never did finish the list of home improvement chores, because at the age of fifty he dropped dead after ignoring those funny little palpitations in his chest. My mother said he did it on purpose just to get away from his wife, not to mention the fact that chain smoking might have played a small hand in it as well.
In Southampton after one of our very pleasant, very quiet next-door neighbors sold his house, he was replaced another incongruous couple.
Dick, a telephone company lineman, was essentially a good natured alcoholic slob. But his wife Bea was a “know it all” chain smoking Registered Nurse of Portuguese extraction who put on airs that included a tenacious tendency to cling to a phony sophisticated Boston accent; and perfect diction.
She also had the peculiar habit of wearing flip-flops that she seemed to intentionally make loudly click against her soles when she walked around her house or yard. If nothing else the obnoxious noise she made with her shoes helped us to zero in on her location so we could run the other way when we heard her coming. Clicking silence usually meant that she was lying in the sun in an effort to bake her already hyper-pigmented skin into the color of charcoal.
My mother alternatively called her the Click Beatle or the Witch; but my father said she should stop calling names. My mother said:
- You don’t have to deal with it every day; or you would do the same.
Years later, as if by a weird prescience about the second epithet, an ugly large black iron witch’s cauldron supported by twenty-foot tripod iron poles, being something they had dragged home from a trip to New England, suddenly appeared in their back yard as supposedly being some abstruse form of unique nouvelle art-work; lawn decoration. My mother said:
- See. I was right.
All that would have been fine except for the fact that Bea made it a point to go around the neighborhood maliciously polarizing the housewives one against the other with such nasty fabricated gossip mongering, that because of it one day she had brought my otherwise tough, thick skinned mother to absolute tears.
Bea also made it a point to be sure to let people know she was really better than she actually was by bragging about her personal pedigree. This was a fact that no one paid attention to or really cared about because even if it were true, she had obviously married well below her station; making her nothing more than a pathetic example of the new pseudo-social climbing, self promoting, self-excusing, self aggrandizing and classless middle class.
- You know, at one time we were the pillars of Rhode Island society.
- Yes. And I see that you have kept the lineage alive and well by marrying into the AT&T’s.
It was far more likely that the pillars were the Doric columns her immigrant stonemason grandfather had crafted for the Vanderbilt’s mansion at The Breakers.
She was also one of those people who bragged so incessantly about her son, Ricky’s, academic achievements and because the poor kid was basically just an uncoordinated spastic egghead, this only made my diabetic friend Bobby delight in verbally taunting him or beating him up at every potential opportunity. Eventually this habit stopped when Bea and Bobby’s mother, Lisa, finally settled it in a bona fide maternal bitch cat fight out near the bulkhead in earshot of the entire neighborhood. Lisa was not to be trifled with and won the bout hands down. No punches. It became a battle of who could win the “Most four letter word Contest,” with perfect diction thrown to the wind.
After that Ricky was kept indoors to pursue his academics and to study the finer strategies Chess games. In referring to any necessity to be sure that factual academic information was correct, Bea’s mantra to her child and one that eventually spread throughout the neighborhood as the definitive local pre Google gag joke was:
- We never guess. We always look it up.
Unfortunately, the self-centered importance even rubbed off on her husband who could never have a normal conversation without bragging about some aspect of either his own or his child’s life; their boat, their fishing trips; their vacations; their square dancing and so on and so forth.
For example, I made the mistake of walking into his garage one day, spotted a map of the world pinned to the wall, made the fatal error of asking about the colored tacks stuck into numerous worldwide locations. I was then stuck like one of those tacks myself for an hour or so having to listen to his recounting every boring detail about every boring trip he and his wife had ever taken anywhere; trips that had all been memorialized by the little tacks themselves.
This diatribe was followed by a long tedious cast by cast description of a Tarpon sport fishing trip he had taken with his son, including an encyclopedic dissertation on anything and everything about the fish itself as well as every aspect of the light tackle reeling techniques he had used. He spoke as though I lived in some sort of vacuum, did not know anything about the subject, and never even bothered to ask me if I had ever fished for one myself.
- There we were catching hundred pound Tarpons on eight-pound test line. And boy do you know just how long it takes just to reel in one of those things like that? You have to play the drag with a lot of skill. Why Ricky must have spent four hours just on his fish alone. And then after all that you really can’t even eat them and you have to let them go… yuk, yuk, yuk. I didn’t know you couldn’t even eat ‘em, did you?
I thought myself:
- In fact, I did, you jackass. But the reeling-in time is probably not quite as long as it’s taking you to tell me about it. And you can bite my inedible ass instead of your dumb inedible fish.
He was one of those ultra self centered individuals who even if I tried to get a word in edgewise would pretend he didn’t hear me and like so many other gas-bag vacuous people who just like to hear themselves talk, I’m surprised he didn’t float to the ceiling like a human dirigible.
When my father, who saw me go in the garage but never come out, asked me later what we had been talking about for so long, I told him:
- I, I, me, me, my, my, we, we, us, us, us. And Tarpons.
- Oh those stupid things. You can’t even eat them.
- Yes. I know that. They taste like shit. I caught one once in the Caribbean. Deep-sea rod and reel. Took five minutes to land it. Shark came up and bit it in half at the transom. We had to throw the other half to the birds.
These neighbors were so ridiculous in their attempts to be intellectually abstruse that they even named their 15-foot motor boat an obscure and bizarre Latin or Portuguese name, like Trincus Expidinkus. This of course automatically roped everyone who saw it to query: “Hey. What does that mean?” at which point in knowing the bait was taken, they would then launch into the exact meaning as well as the laboriously reported history of the purported subject.
That was when I decided to name my bland little innocuous motor boat: Boat, otherwise fondly referred to as “Little Boaty,” the sad little orphan skiff with no history or legacy to call his own.
Then again so as not to be entirely outdone by my neighbors, I named my solid orange colored Hobie Cat sailboat; Le Grande Orange, a boat that clearly derived its name from my famous French ancestral aristocrat himself: Le Buffoon d’ Orange.
Years later when Ricky, who became a PhD in chemistry specializing in beer brewing techniques, was temporarily unemployed, his father spun it this way:
- Why do you know he is such an expert that he says he is interviewing the companies who have his resume and not the other way around?
I thought how hard it must be for someone who is unemployed being forced to personally weigh such dramatic hiring choices when he was out of work, yet still so very much in demand.
- Yeah. I got plenty of offers. But I think I’ll wait a year or two until the salary levels come up to my price range and the job description is perfectly suited exactly to the correct situation for me.
I also thought that the beer angle was interesting because I literally never saw Dick without one, even to the point that there was one in his hand first thing every morning when he went out to get his newspaper. Like father, like son as well, when I looked out the window one day to witness a very large, grown up Ricky along with his dad Dicky, playing horseshoes. Ricky had become so large that he was actually able to park his beer on top of his beer belly as if it were little tray table, making him a man who was truly surrounding himself by, and literally becoming immersed in his work.
Bea hated the fact I became a doctor because for years until I actually got the degree she had been the leading medical expert in the neighborhood, dispensing the usual partially correct interpretation of medical facts and advice that nurses are wont to do. I finally had it out with her when she tinkered with the postoperative management of one of my open-heart patients who lived on our street. I told her if she didn’t stop I would report her to the State for practicing medicine without a license.
Her personality was so blatantly domineering that she even had an electronic bell installed in Dick’s garage workshop/erstwhile amateur weather station to which he responded like a Pavlov’s dog any time it went off by dropping everything he was doing to run inside.
The way he bolted my brother and I used to think she must be calling him into the house for sex. Ding-dong: time to screw.
Reporting the weather was yet one additional boring aspect of living next door to Dick. Not predicting the weather; just reporting it, often sometimes just a pathetic fallacy.
Dick had a weather vane, an anemometer, a thermometer, a barometer, a hygrometer and a rain gauge and kept logs of how the day was going. His entire persona was wrapped around the weather.
- Hey Dick. How are you doing today?
- 76 degrees, wind from south to southwest, humidity 72%, barometer 30.6 and holding and no rain. And how are you?
- 98.6 degrees. Mild hangover and just a bit more downwind on the southeast side.
- Sorry to hear that. Sounds like a storm brewing.
- More like it was already brewed.
A similar response to usual friendly banter happened years later at a cocktail party when I saw a casual acquaintance and asked him how he was doing. Most people respond by telling you they are fine but do not link their state of being to their golf score.
- Hi. Haven’t seen you in a while. How are you?
- Two under. I’m two under
- My foursome is two under par today in a two-day charity tournament we’re playing at Shinnecock.
- Hey great. Let me know when you’re six under then. Preferably feet.
My brother used to wonder what Dick and Bea saw each other until I told him about the day I had gone over to their house at around dinner time to bring them a bottle of wine for them having done some personal favor. Because the side screen door was open and they did not answer my knock, I surprised them by walking in while they were in the living room eating dinner on tray tables. They were on opposite sides of the room and Bea was wearing a miniskirt, but without underwear. She was trying to get Dick’s attention by playing with genitals as she kept flashing beaver shots to him under her tray table. I guess it was going to be Bea for dinner and the beaver for dessert.
I had innocently stumbled into the evening show; Bea with her little beaver playing to a drunken audience of one, who hardly seemed to notice, which forced me to make a quick fawning fumbling exit as I dropped off the wine and pretended I hadn’t seen anything.
I told my brother later that the mutual attraction had to be a highly charged or possibly a slightly perverted sex life and told him that the only instrument lacking in Dick’s weather analyzing inventory then must have been a Fockalomometer.
- What the hell is that?
- It’s a thing you stick in your wife’s vagina to see of she’s warmed up enough and ready to get laid.
- You are really fucked in the head.
- I know.
Eventually their little Latin/Portuguese boat fell into disuse and disrepair. The same thing happened to Bea’s pseudo-aristocratic lungs as she smoked them to a terminally oxygen dependent emphysema while Dick continued to work hard on a liver that became cirrhotic. One day, suddenly out of nowhere, the last living hepatic cells gave out and blew up his abdomen with alcoholic ascites.
I never sent Dick a condolence card when Bea died of cigarette induced COPD,because she had made my mother so miserable, but equally because I had nothing against him, paid him a courtesy call when he was laid up in the hospital. He asked me what was wrong with him and when I told him in general terms it was the booze; he dismissed me out of hand stating that it could not possibly be true because he had been drinking for his entire life and that this was the first time anything lie that had ever happened to him. What do I know anyway? I’m just a doctor.
Because he wasn’t my patient, I just walked away and wished him good luck. Sometimes not only can you not fix stupid, but it is also far less aggravating to even try to argue or to reason with it.
- Gee doc, I smoked 3 packs of cigarettes for 40 years, but this is the first time I got Emphysema. Do you think it will go away if I cut down a little?
At least Ricky was smart enough to drive out from New Jersey to load up a small dumpster with the contents of his father’s liquor cabinet before his father was discharged and could dive back into the bottle again. I watched the emphatic booze heaving ceremony with the same feeling the farmer must have had when he closed the barn door after the horse had already escaped.
Soon after he recovered, Dick sold his house and moved away. The people who bought it were quiet, peaceable neighbors who kept largely to themselves. But they put so much renovation work into the house, including a privet hedge to separate our yards and to ensure mutual personal privacy or peeping Tom antics, that the result was to indirectly cause additionally harmful unintended consequences. These land hold improvements, along with others in the neighborhood, caused reassessments that doubled my father’s property tax rates; a fact that completely discounted Robert Frost’s originally stated poetic theory about how good fences make good neighbors.
The only thing that a fence really does is to let your dog have a good idea about the artificial boundary between your homes, which he chooses to completely ignore anyway. It essentially tells him where to burrow a hole underneath, so he can go over to the neighbor’s yard and won’t be forced to shit anywhere near where he eats.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it, And spills the upper boulders in the sun, And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.