Tuesday, March 02, 2004

Won't you be my neighbor?

Good fences supposedly make good neighbors. Yet you’re supposed to love your neighbor as well, according to the robed one. I can unequivocally state that I love my neighbors; I adore my neighbors. I must have moved into Beaver Cleaver’s old neighborhood, because the kids say “please and thank you” and the adults look out for each other’s homes and well-being. My old neighborhood was a swell second; I had steadfast friends to the left of me, and seasoned parents to the right of me who were ripe with good advice and helping hands. (I knew we were kindred spirits when they brought my vacation mail to me in a cardboard Miller Lite box.) Sure, our tiny crammed-together houses were identical save the house paint, but it was a good neighborhood nonetheless.

Apparently the good neighbor vibe mostly applies to home-dwellers with little grassy patches of buffer zone. I always made a point of being polite to my neighbors back in the “apartment days,” but the paradigm changes somewhat in the face of population density and lack of soundproofing. My husband and I chose “Pinegate” to be our first apartments of wedded bliss. We moved into a one-bedroom apartment, our ferrets Barney and Scooter in tow, and proceeded to live a compact yet comfortable life. We never expected our neighbor across the breezeway to be a part of that life, and yet he was, with knife and liquor bottle in hand.

Our first encounters with Dan were nothing more than mumbled exchanges of “hi” as we opened or closed our respective apartment doors. As time progressed, his greetings evolved to the point of “how you doing-”, or “how’s it going?”. They evolved to the extent that we noticed his slurred speech, his flamingo-pink bloodshot eyes and cloud of alcohol vapor that seemed to surround his person. Yet Dan was a nice guy. We obviously learned his first name, he learned ours, and we began to knock on each other’s doors if we got locked out and needed a phone, or needed jumper cables, or whatever.

One day Dan knocked on the door as my husband and I were hunkering down to dinner in front of the TV. “What’s that you guys eatin?”, he inquired with hungry eyes. “African Fire Pork Stew,” I remarked sheepishly, feeling somehow embarrassed being a white girl eating food from the homeland of my African-American neighbor. “Is it good?” he inquired. “Try some—” I replied, the little Samaritan in me feeling good that I could feed our tawny scrawny neighbor. He was headed out, he said, so I fixed him a bowl and told him to refrigerate it and eat it later. Same time, next day there was a knock on the door. Dan stood there with a hefty woman to his left, empty bowl in hand. “What’s this stuff again?” “It’s good! ” “Can we get some more?

And so we were introduced to Dan’s girlfriend, R., and began a bizarre relationship based mostly on them coming over to eat our food, or “borrowing” beers. (Yes, looking back, it probably wasn’t prudent to give an alcoholic his fuel, but we were poor at the time so we didn’t have much to share anyway...) A story in itself would be the night we were invited to Dan’s party, where I met “Zeke the m.f’ing freak”. He slurringly threatened to kill me within the first five minutes I arrived, and ended up dancing to the “Gap Band” with me before it was all over. But I digress.

The days with Dan were without incident for the most part, so I didn’t have a second thought when my big brother suggested he’d come over one Saturday for a visit. Which is the exact day that Dan went berserk and my brother decided his sister was insane for living in a crack world. It started with the typical knock on the door. Only it was a pounding; I should have paid attention to the pounding. But I opened the door like a dimwit, and R. barreled past me in a sweaty shove, saying “Dan gone crazy!” “Dan got a knife and he gone crazy!” Oh crap.

I agreed to let her use the phone as I locked the door with chain, deadbolt and knob lock. I didn’t know she was going to call Dan. My heart went into my stomach as I heard her taunt, “You better let him get his money!” “No, I ain’t telling you where I am!” “You can’t do nothing to me!”. It turned out Dan owed R’s “little” brother some money, and now had cut the young man with a knife in lieu of payment. As I peered out the peep-hole, I saw a streak of blood on Dan’s door. “Go get him, baby!” I heard R. scream, as I saw to my horror that she had moved to my outdoor balcony. She was encouraging her brother, who had returned from his car with a crowbar. So much for the secret of her location.

The crowbar gashes on Dan’s door and the dripping of blood on the stairs and second-floor landing created a graphic symphony of sights for my brother, who pulled into the driveway as the police led Dan away in handcuffs. (R. and little brother took possession of his apartment like feudal lords.) I give my brother credit for not shrieking in horror and driving away—instead he gave me a casual, “Sis, what gives?”, and walked to my apartment amidst drops of blood and door paint flakes. I lamely came up with a watered-down version of the story, and we went about our day as if nothing ever happened. But I couldn’t help staring at the metal slashes and scrapes on the door across from ours, even when Dan quietly moved out the next week. They never fixed that door, and we never got to know our new neighbor well enough to explain what had happened to it.