The strangeness of neighbors

Just because we live next-door to someone doesn’t mean we have to be besties.. Here are some examples of why that’s a bad idea.

There’s an old joke in Los Angeles: Neighbors only meet each other after earthquakes, or when one of them is taken away in an ambulance or police car. There’s definitely some truth to it, at least in more recent times, when families living in suburbs and exurbs are pretty much socially isolated from those of us in more urban neighborhoods or pseudo suburbs that have far more renters than owners, a younger demographic, and far fewer children than the average.
Being a kid who grew up in one of those exurbs that was socially isolated from the more urban parts of the city, there was one fact of life: Neighbors were all up in each other’s business all the time. Oh, not necessarily in a bad way. I think of it as P.E. Class theory.

I didn’t realize until years later that some of the people I was closest to were the ones standing around me when they first lined us up and arranged our P.E. Classes in 7th grade. They had us organize alphabetically by last name, A to Z, and in rows of a certain length. Because of this, I had a guy on each side whose last name was right before and after mine in the alphabet, as well as one behind me who was a set number of people ahead. I think they’d hit “G” by that point.

It actually extended to two guys on either side and two behind. Since my last name starts with “B,” I was in the front row, so wasn’t behind anyone.

But during the preliminary week when they were obviously observing to decide who wound up with which coach, these were our mini support groups through the process. We were quickly classified as jocks, nerds, and dweebs, and sent off accordingly, but that first week was a bonding experience that was completely accidental but permanent.

Exurban neighbors were exactly the same thing. When you moved into a neighborhood, your new best friends were whoever lived to the left and right of your house and maybe an extra to either side, plus across the street and one on either side. Depending on how high the walls were, you might also pick up a back fence neighbor or two.

Sometimes, this could make for great and lasting friendships that continued on after one set of neighbors moved out. Others, it could just lead to… weird. And there was also that odd identifying factor, missed by the kids, since it was a tract neighborhood with about four different floor plans doubled by creating mirrored images.

There was one two-story plan in two mirror versions and this was the deluxe house for the people with a little more money; Tier IV to use medical insurance terms. More square footage, bigger living space downstairs, fancier kitchen and backyard. Upstairs, master suite with its own bath, plus three or four smaller bedrooms, at least one with its own bath. With double the floor space, this one was easily a cool 5,000 square feet.

Tier III was a design with a more modern open floorplan, four bedrooms, a den/office with (for the time) very novel and fancy pocket doors, and a bit wider, shallower footprint than the others to allow for more back or front yard space and a detached garage. I’m just assuming that it cost a little more than ours, but I could be totally wrong, and it was probably geared toward the youngest professionals who would appreciate the modern design and pay more for it. Overall, it probably covered about 2,500 square feet.

Tier II was the three bedroom, one and a half bath with den, dining room, living room, and attached garage in a 1,500 square foot ell footprint. Nothing fancy but a nice starter. This was the place my parents owned — perfect for a young couple with one kid but working on another. (Narrator Voice: “But that ‘another’ never happened.”)

Finally, Tier I was a very compact two-bedroom place probably designed either for a couple only planning to have one child, or a young couple and mother-in-law. It was pretty much a square connected to a garage, with the house part being maybe 1,000 square feet tops, although 900 would not have surprised me. I don’t remember ever actually going into one of these units.

The Tier I units I do remember from the old neighborhood seemed to be home to either single mothers with one kid or retirees. Or, as I note below, this floorplan was the developer’s nod to low-cost housing requirements imposed by the city or county. They were clearly the shitboxes of the tract, after all, and nobody needed to paint that in neon colors for it to be obvious.

So I grew up in a Tier II with a Tier III to our north and Tier IV to our south. Across the street from north to south were another Tier IV, mirror to the one on our immediate south; a Tier III like ours but, again, mirrored, and a Tier II, likewise mirrored.

There were very few Tier I places, actually, and they seemed to be scattered in as punctuation. As noted above, I have to wonder whether they weren’t some legal requirement placed on the developer to provide a certain percentage of affordable homes within the development, which is why they didn’t seem to get special attention.

Hm. That sounds familiar, but this would have been applied to a tract built at a time in the area when land was abundant and literally dirt cheap. But let’s get back to the humans.

Our first neighbors to the north in the Tier III house were a couple that I think were older than my parents. Actually, they were older than my mom but same age as my dad, and I know this because not long ago their son found me on social media.

They were one of the first families to move into the neighborhood, while my parents were the second owners of their house. For years, I thought that the family name was only two syllables. Not using any real names here, let’s just say that I grew up thinking that the family name was Besrow because that’s how my parents always said it, but their son, who was an old friend of my late oldest half brother informed me that it was actually Bessarow.

Mom was never great with foreign names or words.

On the south side were the Gustafsons, a nice family made up of Danish immigrant parents and their two native-born children. Since their son Nils was only a year younger than me, we became friends. My parents also stayed friends with them for a long time, and invited them to family events long after they’d left the neighborhood — the father died of a heart attack when he was fairly young. I was about fifteen at the time, and since he got taken out in an ambulance, everyone got to meet. This was probably incentive for his wife, a fairly young widow with children, to sell off, downsize, and take advantage of whatever benefits and insurance he’d left her. But, again, the Gustafsons were basically part of our extended family forever.

Across the street were the Friedmans, with a daughter about my age, and I know that their mom and mine had that weird suburban fantasy that the two of us would grow up, fall in love, get married and make them grandchildren. They never said it, but we sensed it — doubly weird because it was basically a Catholic Mom and a Jewish Mom playing yentas.

But the Friedmans moved away long before the end of elementary school, and last I’d heard, their daughter Rebekah was diabetic — like in elementary school — and already blind and in a wheelchair while missing a foot or two before middle school. All of which made me wonder, because we all had great health insurance through our working parents in those days, “Why?”

I don’t remember a lot about the Bessarows because their son moved out pretty much right around the time I was born and the parents moved out when I was around nine years old, which led to the next family, which I might as well call the Corleones, because the father acted like that was his name.

Whether he was mafia or not, who knew. If he was, though, he would have been a made man, like Tom Hagen, because despite having a last name that is commonly assumed to be Italian it’s not. It’s actually Irish as hell.

If you know the history of Irish names and the Spanish Armada, you already know what it is. If you don’t, then you probably don’t know who’s on first.

I was right between the ages of their two sons so, again, instant friends, and my mom and their mom got along. Their dad, not so much, largely because of his mafia pretensions. He constantly claimed that he had been cast to play Mario Lanza in a big Hollywood film that never happened, and seemed to spend a lot of time at home hanging out in a very elegant quilted bathrobe with an associate referred to as “Uncle Billy” (he was not their uncle, the kids told me) showing up from time to time in a black Cadillac with tinted windows.

My friendship with the kids continued until one night — I don’t remember exactly when — that we were all woken up way after midnight by a knock on the door. What I do remember is that it was when my parents were looking to sell the house, so were doing some improvements, which included painting the bedrooms. At the time, I was using a sleeping bag in the living room, which faced the front door. This was also how we found out during a storm that the roof leaked, so one more thing to fix.

This probably puts the story in winter, though, or early spring at the latest. Anyway, someone knocks on the door, waking me up. My dad, robe and slippers thrown on over his pajamas comes down the hall pissed and answers. It’s our neighbor, Mr. Mafia, and the first thing he asks is whether dad has any liquor in the house.

I’m kind of listening from the darkness to all of this, but the gist I get is that his wife fell down and hurt herself and he doesn’t know what to do. I think my dad gave him some open fifth of booze just to get rid of him after convincing him that he should call an ambulance, which my dad did for him after he insisted that he was too upset to do it.

Things I missed as a kid — and because I was in the living room — probably any argument or fight the two of them had before the rest of it happened that my parents probably heard clearly; probably that he was already drunk off his ass; probably that asking for liquor when your first priority should be your wife who “fell” and is injured is just weird.

Anyway, the ambulance showed up, along with the police, which is absolutely standard procedure in any case that might appear to be domestic abuse. I have no idea to this day whether my dad told the dispatcher that he and my mom had heard something or not, but that didn’t change anything.

Mr. Mafia just assumed that my dad had called the cops on him but, absolute flaming pussy that he really was, he didn’t go after my dad for it. Why would he? My dad could clearly have kicked his ass fifteen ways from Tuesday. No. Instead, he turned his kids against me. Just like that, they were now my mortal enemies and bullies, and it led to a few years of hell.

His wife, meanwhile, confided to my mom that yes, he had beat her on that night, but she was staying because of the kids. Being a survivor of domestic abuse in a previous marriage herself, I’m sure that my mom had something to say about that, but Mrs. Mafia was having none of it. The family moved out around the time middle school started, but we heard not long after that Mr. Mafia had beaten his wife to death and got arrested for it.

I saw their oldest son at a middle school dance the day after she died, seeming completely unaffected. But, by that point, their power over me was broken and they never bullied me again.

Cue the next weird family to move in. Although, to be honest, I don’t think that they moved in right away. I remember a period when the house was occupied by a bunch of young people who were up at all hours, and there was many a morning I was woken up at five a.m. and glanced out my bedroom window to see a bunch of nude men and topless women swimming in the pool and using the jacuzzi.

I think that they may have actually been renovating the place on behalf of someone who was flipping it, and by the time the next family moved in, there had been substantial changes and upgrades to both the backend of the house and the backyard, including replacing the concrete with brick and building a rather nice wrought iron and brick fence and gate around the pool.

For all I knew, it could have been the new family behind it, since he was an electoral contractor who may have used connections to have the work done. The solution to this mystery was never revealed.

But at least the next bunch, the Sullivans, were weird in a good way. She had been married to the grandson of a famous boxer, with whom she had two kids, then married her second husband, who I think was older than her, and they had a daughter together who was a baby at the time they moved in.

The wife, Martha, was probably about my mom’s age, and the two of them got along really well, probably because of the lapsed Irish Catholic connection. However, Martha had a rather raunchy sense of humor that I think my mother enjoyed even while feigning embarrassment to assuage her own Catholic guilt, and Martha felt no reason to hold back just because I was in the room.

Since I was probably about thirteen or fourteen at the time, I actually appreciated it because she was constantly adding to my dirty joke repertoire, which gained me cred with the kids at school. I actually was closer to the parents than their kids, since their son was nine years younger than me and the other two were daughters.

The Mom gave me dirty jokes. The Dad gave me my first high school job and my first beer while I was on that job.

They were still living there when I went off to college, but I think moved out while I was gone.

For the most part, the rest of the neighbors were pretty normal, although the rich banker and family who lived in the Tier IV across and to the north clearly raised their two sons with no boundaries or limits. I was friends with both of them and same age as their oldest, and definitely got involved in some shenanigans because of this. most of which involved nudity. Because of course they did.

Meanwhile, to the north of the house to our immediate north, which was one of the Tier I places, there was an old, blind widow on disability who lived with her very adult son. He was probably in his late 20s, a retrograde hippy who didn’t seem to work but just loved to hang out with his friends to get stoned and party.
The thing I remember most about this guy was the time that he and his friends were partying at their next-door neighbors’ house, which had a pool. He climbed up onto the garage, dove for the water and… missed.

He was in a half-body cast with the stereotypical metal arm support and head restraints for at least half a year, but I’m pretty sure that it also went down below his hips and stopped somewhere around the thighs. He was kind of an idiot. Entertaining, but an idiot.

Basically, though, 90% of these entries are just proof that the old L.A. joke is actually a hint at the truth. Why would you want to meet your neighbors, much less invite them into your lives, when you’re all thrown together at random?
Sure, you can make friendships and I have, but those came from random encounters on things like dog walks or in the laundry room, and long conversations to determine that A) the other one is not insane, and B) we have a lot in common. And most of these were not among my immediate neighbors, but rather from people within the block or general community.

As for immediate neighbors, though… my upstairs neighbor is batshit insane and somewhere back in November she decided that it was a good idea to start stomping all over the floor in her place. Note the “upstairs” part. And this is stomping with intent — one routine involves deliberate steps in what sound like wooden clogs on an elephant from her living room to her bedroom and back. Since we have the same floor plan, it’s the same route.

Or, worse, there’s version two when it sounds like she’s either trying to do choreography or her best impression of an upset baby having a tantrum and stamping its feet because its ice cream fell off the cone.

Sometimes, she does this shit way too early in the morning, and I’m in the process of dealing with management to get it to stop. I do know that they’ve escalated it beyond our local office, probably to the regional property managers, because in any case that might lead to evictions for lease violations (which this is) they have to cross all the T’s and dot the I’s. I really don’t want to get her evicted, but if they could see to it that they move her to a first-floor unit or even a free-standing bungalow at the same rent, that would work.

After all, I do know that she’s pretty old, so this could be a mental issue and hence a protected disability — but, honestly, I shouldn’t have to suffer for her issues. Just like no neighbor should have to suffer.

Too often in the big city, though, “Being neighborly” really means, “Oh, you’re going to suffer.” Screw that.

Image: Paul Sableman, (CC BY 2.0), via Wikimedia Commons

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