Monday, November 10th, 2008 • No Comments on The People Next Door
When I was in my early twenties, my favorite show was thirtysomething. Chalk it up to a dysfunctional childhood or spending nine months of my first year of marriage living alone in a new state thanks to the Navy, but there was something in that angsty drama about self-conscious suburbia that appealed to me. I wanted to be Hope! I wanted an SUV in the garage, a chubby-cheeked cherub in the nursery, a white picket fence around my rose bushes and women friends in the neighborhood.
Of course, real life is not like thirtysomething and I pretty much picked up on that before I was even thirtysomething myself. City people seem to live isolated lives, millions of islands-unto-themselves surrounded by strangers whose only commonality is geography. The city is supposed to be about shoes and sex, power and corruption, crime and murder. The belief is that the suburbs are the antithesis of that—block parties and nanny sharing and gossiping, backstabbing (but always there to loan you a cup of sugar) desperate housewives.
Neither image—city or suburb—is really accurate. People create communities in cities. Coworkers and friends network at parties into the wee hours, people cohabit and marry and have cherubic city babies, families carve out space for themselves among skyscrapers and subways and city streets bustling with humanity. City people may be less trusting of their fellow man and less likely to return a stranger’s smile, but they do find a way to create the webs of support for themselves. Meanwhile, suburb people, with their middle-class accouterments of big yards and bigger minivans can find ways of avoiding all humanity with the click of a garage-door button. Who needs to be friends with the neighbors when you have three kids under six and in-laws who live ten minutes away?
I know there are suburban neighborhoods that are much like my beloved thirtysomething. I realize I have a bit of an anti-social streak perhaps more suitable for city dwelling. I am the ubiquitous neighbor who always says hello (of neither the suicidal nor serial killer variety), but I would be hard pressed to tell you the names of all but three or four of the people who live in my subdivision of sixty-four houses. I know them by their dogs who escape the confines of their fence sometimes, I know them by their politics thanks to the yard signs that spring up like mushrooms every four years, I know them by their holiday decorations, tacky or tasteful. I know the ages of their children based on what they come to my door to sell or whether they trick-or-treat anymore or if they are now (frighteningly) driving.
Truthfully, I prefer it this way—my own private island in suburbia. I like my privacy and I do not like uninvited, unexpected visitors unless they are of the four-legged variety (and even that can be inconvenient, at times). With the click of my garage door opener, I keep a comfortable distance between myself and the people who live around me. They are far enough away that I don’t know their business, close enough that if I screamed in the middle of the night at least a couple would come running (with guns). If I see one of them jogging through the neighborhood or pushing the kiddies in a stroller, I wave and smile. I don’t ask what running shoes they’re wearing or whether little Molly has said her first word. They are neighbors, but they are strangers.
After Hurricane Isabel in 2003, my neighborhood came together (with chainsaws blazing) to help each other out. People waved a little harder, smiled a little bigger and shared empathetic, doleful glances at fallen trees while they talked loudly over the rumble of generators. It was nice. It was also nice when things returned to normal, comfortable distance a week or so after power had been restored. There really was nothing left for us to talk about, these strangers who live around me.
A couple of weeks ago, Jay pointed out that our next door neighbors appeared to be moving. It was hard to tell, really. There was a white-paneled truck in the driveway and the family’s SUV backed up to the house with the hatch open. I never actually saw my neighbors carry anything out—just those vehicles, like overburdened suburban pack mules waiting to carry their belongings away. It was a bit of a disconcerting mystery, really. Of course, the fact that we don’t have that kind of relationship with our neighbors—the kind that would allow us to walk over with a beer in hand and say, “Howdy, neighbor! You moving out?”—only added to the puzzle. We didn’t know what was going on and it didn’t seem polite to ask.
Day after day, the little moving truck and the SUV were filled up with the family’s possessions and driven away. This went on for days and I am not exaggerating when I say I never actually saw our neighbors through the entire process. One night when we came home from eating out, the blinds were open and the lights were on, but the vehicles were gone. Jay said there was nothing in the living room and the walls were bare. I walked by the house, nosy and snooping, and saw that he was right. Perhaps they were painting? I noticed their teenage son’s room still had the walls plastered with posters and banners. Surely they weren’t moving if their son’s room was untouched.
Days went by, a week. Clearly, they weren’t painting as I saw a stack of boxes and a laundry basket bulging from the back of the wife’s SUV. Divorce, perhaps? But that didn’t explain why everything was gone from the downstairs rooms (no one’s divorce attorney is that good). The vehicles came and went during the day, but were parked in the driveway at night, negating the moving theory. One night, however, the only vehicle in the driveway was the old Mustang that I don’t think runs anymore. Yet, their bedroom light was on, as was a stairway light, as they often were in the evenings. It was as if they had moved out and forgotten to tell the house they weren’t coming back. Yet, there was no telltale realtor sign in the front yard, no “For Rent” banner swinging among the swirling fall leaves.
They were there again this morning. The vehicles, I mean. I still have not seen my neighbors in nearly two weeks, since all of this began. It’s a mystery, a little suburban puzzle that would only be solved by asking someone. As it happened, I ran into my other next door neighbors while I was food shopping this afternoon. They commented that they see more of me at the grocery store (most often buying bananas for the always hungry raccoons) than they do in the neighborhood. It isn’t an exaggeration. We chatted about work and school and whether they might get another dog (their beloved pup died two years ago) and I couldn’t resist. I had to know. I asked. Were our other neighbors moving?
The husband gave me a look. It was an awkward moment. Yes, they were moving. No, the house isn’t on the market. The way he phrased it was, “It’s out of their hands.”
Out of their hands. Foreclosure. My stomach dropped.
These are not people I really know, much less know well. Yet, they are not the nameless, faceless numbers I’ve heard about on the news shows and in the papers in the past couple of months as the economy has crumbled. They are not the Smith family in Arizona or the Rodriquez family in upstate New York or the young family in Atlanta or the retirement age couple in Florida. These are my neighbors. My middle class, suburban neighbors who had over fifteen years invested in this neighborhood.
I cannot imagine what it is like to have your home taken away from you. No matter how long you might live somewhere—and this family has been in the neighborhood nearly twice as long as my eight years—when you put down roots and sign your name to a mortgage, you believe you are buying a piece of security along with a brick and wood home. You are buying your future, your children’s future, your happiness, your memories. You are building a family, a life, a dream. You are home when you buy a house. To have that taken away… it defies comprehension.
I have no idea of their financial situation or how long it has been bad or how quickly it took for it to get to this point, with their belongings stuffed into bags and boxes and baskets and crammed into vehicles. I have no idea what was going on up in that bedroom where the television often flickered late into the night. I have no idea what their teenage son thought or felt as the downstairs was stripped bare while his posters remained defiantly on his walls until the last possible day. I have no idea… but I can imagine.
I didn’t really know the people next door and I was okay with that. I knew enough to know we had vastly different lifestyles, opinions and politics despite a similar taste in suburban neighborhoods with semi-wooded yards. I didn’t know them or what they were going through or even where they are moving to. We will watch and wait to see what happens next, who will benefit from their misfortune, who will take their place in the neighborhood. I didn’t know them and I don’t know that I will make a tremendous effort to know the people who move into their abandoned home filled with so many of their memories. I still like my privacy, I am not keen on swapping stories over the back fence and I will always grumble when the doorbell rings unexpectedly. But I’ll smile a little bigger and wave a little harder and hope that the next family who moves into our neighborhood will be able to hang on to their dream.