Thursday, April 10, 2008

Growing Pains

I don't know how many times over the past couple of years I've wondered: How did it come to this?

I've had a variety of unusual neighbors over the years. When I was a child, we moved fairly frequently, and usually across oceans. So I never really had a chance to get to know my neighbors, until our final move back to the States. And then our neighbors were a strange lot - we had a hippie couple on one side, and the wife tried to seduce my father once. Which is a whole OTHER tale, for another time. One the other side was an elderly Latvian couple who spoke limited English, and would peer curiously at our family of mixed-race crazies as we ran around like spastic lunatics.

[Quick anecdote: When I was in high school I did a mess of drugs. One day, when a friend and I were waaaaaay high on LSD, we saw them puttering about in their garden. My friend froze in fear, and urgently said to me, "Omigawd... your neighbors! They can see us!" To which I hissed, "QUIET! They're Latvian!" Cut to us desperately running away.]

OK, so you kinda had to be there.


I've lived in cities, in suburbs, in apartment buildings, dormitories, cockroach-infested studios, row-homes, you name it. I lived in safe communities and in... less safe ones. I've lived in concrete jungles and beach-side apartments. I've had every imaginable kind of neighbor.

So why am I so befuddled by the ones I have now?

The truth is, we have moved to a marvel of small-town living. We live on a dead-end street, at the end of which is a delightful town forest with hiking trails and a summer camp. The neighbors gaily wave hello to each other when taking out their trash. We talk to each other over breaks between raking leaves and mowing lawns (frequent topics of discussion: types of lawnmowers, good contractors we know, elementary schools and dogs). Girl scouts knock on our door when they're doing charity drives. I've never seen a police car. I've never heard any loud music (save my own). There are a remarkable number of minivans and SUV's.

In short, it is the Twilight Zone. Because the truth is, for all of the different places I have lived, all of the myriad neighbors I have had, I've never experienced anything like this. And it puzzles me. At first, we were actually suspicious - as if some day, this Mayberry-like facade would be torn away to display a Stepford-like cult, or perhaps we'd go over to a neighbors house, only to discover a giant hive in their basement, from where they and the rest of the Pod-people on our bucolic little street were hatched, where they polish their ray-guns and wait to take over the Earth.

It is particularly startling for a couple such as us - we are first time homeowners, the youngest adults on the street, and the only childless household. I tend to drive down the street with either hip-hop or hardcore music blaring from my windows. Our barbecues are not the tidy, cheery affairs that our neighbors have - instead it's 15-20 20- and30-somethings playing drunken Wiffleball, listening to Blackalicious and getting high in the garden shed. We are the black sheep. In fact, if one of my neighbors were to write for this blog, I suspect they would write about us!

Except that it doesn't work that way for the Pod People of Mayberry, MA. Because despite all of our decidedly un-Mayberry-like quirks, they still seem to like us (or perhaps it's just Mrs. TK that they like). They bring us vegetables from their garden, and offer to watch our pets when we're away. This is particularly jarring for me, because I am, and always have been, extremely uncomfortable around people who are outside of my bubble of companions.

But what is most disconcerting are the children. Our street is lousy with kids. They play in groups with each other, running up and down the sidewalks playing Tag, throwing acorns and playing basketball. They squeal with glee when the ice cream truck comes. And of course, the only thing that makes me more anxious than people? Children.

Because in truth, children completely befuddle me. I have no idea how to talk to them, or relate to them in general. I find myself speaking to them as if they were dogs - "good boy!" and making that kissing noise when I want them to come to me and "Fetch!" I am completely flummoxed at how to deal with them. Babies frequently start to cry when I hold them, and small children seem to fear me. I don't know if it's my size or demeanor or tone of voice or what, but all of these things combined make me even more anxious. And when I get anxious, I get irritated. And when I get irritated I get... well, sometimes unpleasant.

So. All of this leads me to three particular neighbors. Andrew (12), Francis (9) and Philip (7). Three brothers who live up the street, who are completely fascinated by me and Mrs. TK. Perhaps because we are younger than the other grown-ups, perhaps because our lifestyle is more rock 'n' roll than that of their parents. What initially brought us to their attention was our animals - as many know, Mrs. TK is a veterinarian and we are a traveling menagerie - three cats, two dogs and a guinea pig, and they are endlessly amused by our pets and her tales of animal chicanery.

So now they have become staples of our weekends. They come over and ring the doorbell and ask in their cute little-boy voices if their dog can play with our dog. Because we're also the only house on the street with a fenced-in yard. So we let them in, and they roll around and wrestle and generally make a ruckus with their puppy and our doggies. It's so goddamn adorable it makes me want to vomit. But what I really don't get is why they keep coming back. I mean, I'm completely un-fun with them. One time when they saw me throwing my dogshit over the fence, they stammered, "but... but we play back there sometimes." To which I deadpanned, "Well, watch your step kid." Another time I yelled at them for having acorn fights on my driveway since I'd just cleaned it off. I find myself being more gruff than usual with them, because I get frustrated that I don't know how to communicate with them. This makes me even more annoyed, because it leads me to the inevitable question: What's it going to be like when I have kids? These things keep me up at night.

But what's even more fascinating is that despite all my coarse language, my grouchy looks, my reprimands and my dour demeanor... they keep coming back. In fact, they've even gone so far as to play pranks on me, the little bastards. For a long time, I just didn't get it. My friends laughed at the fact that I'd become the grumpy old man, yelling at the kids to "git off mah damn property!". But then I eventually realized something... for whatever reason, these little whippersnappers like me, perhaps even because of my personality, and not in spite of it. And that, in turn, has made me start to like them.

I'm getting used to this quiet suburban existence. I'm getting used to the quiet nights and the banal conversations and the "oh-my-God-the-ICE-CREAM-MAN-IS-HERE!" squeals of joy. I'm getting used to mowing my lawn and raking my leaves and... God help me,I guess my neighbors, young and old, are helping me get used to growing up.

But I'll be damned if I'm turning my music down.


Manny said...

Great story. I have a feeling we're going to be the "black sheep" in our neighborhood, what with having an orange haired dog, kids that quote The Office, and me playing in a dodgeball league.

Girl With Curious Hair said...

It's so cute that the neighborhood kids trust you enough to play pranks on you, knowing they'll try to come back at some point for a puppy date.

Jayne said...

you remind me of Hugh Grant in "About a Boy," who keeps letting the kid come in but is completely baffled as to why he keeps coming back.