Monday, November 19, 2007

N is for neighbors

For an explanation of this alphabet theme, see my first NaBloPoMo post.

When I bought my house, obviously I had no idea what I'd draw in the neighbor lottery. As it turns out, I did OK. Sure, there's that one certifiable psychopath kitty-corner across the alley, but last I heard she was still locked up in a state-run loony bin for an undetermined amount of time, so things are pretty peaceful on my block.

My neighbors across the street are a kind middle-aged couple with two small children. The wife is from France and enjoys gardening. She dug up the grass on the strip of boulevard in front of their house and planted flowers in its place. A little metal and plastic community lives there among the flowers, complete with a miniature Eiffel Tower with a tiny King Kong climbing it. I don't even know the woman, but I like her. I appreciate her sense of whimsy. The husband waves to me whenever he sees me outside, and I feel terrible because he always shouts, "Hi Stefanie!" and I have no idea whatsoever what his name is. In the beginning, I could have asked--could have said, "I'm sorry; I don't think we've formally met yet. Your wife must have told you my name." Now, however, I've lived here for four years. It's too late to ask for clarification. A "Hello to you, too," sans name, is all I can offer.

Next door to the north is a nice old couple who've lived in their home since 1958. They're retired, of course, which means they are home a lot, and while I like to think they mind their own business and have no idea what I'm doing with my time, I secretly hope they are keeping an eye on me like good-hearted nosy elderly folks. They aren't judging when I come and go, but maybe they'll call the police if they see anything suspect while I'm out of town.

A few years ago, I went on a date with a guy who, one block from the restaurant, realized he'd forgotten his wallet. Since I barely knew the guy, I might have thought it was a line, a lame-ass way of getting out of footing the bill, but it was obvious he felt terrible about it. The next day, he sent flowers to my house, and because I wasn't there to receive them, the delivery guy left them with my elderly neighbors. When I saw the note, I walked over, and as soon as they opened the door, I could see the couple beaming with excitement. "Who are the flowers from? Must be your boyfriend, right?" I told them I didn't have a boyfriend. Then I looked at the card, laughed, and explained the story. "I went on a date with this guy last night, and he forgot his wallet." That was all I needed to say. My 80-something-year-old neighbor, a frail and withering old man nearly disappearing into his armchair, took his hand off of his oxygen tank and slapped it against his forehead. He closed his eyes and shook his head slowly side to side. He didn't even have to say anything. His whole body said, "Stupid, stupid boy." Incidentally, that boy was the semicolon stealer, so I guess maybe my neighbor was right.

In the two houses behind me across the alley are two same-sex couples about my age. We've chatted on occasion, when they're outside with their dogs and I'm doing yard work or taking out the trash. I've even invited them to a couple of parties, and at least one representative from each couple has shown up each time. They have never returned the favor, however, which really is quite a shame, because they all seem delightful. Besides that, between the four of them, I could possibly score cheap haircuts, free theater tickets, informal psychiatric advice, and... um, I'm not really sure what the second half of the lesbian half of this neighbor quartet does, actually, but I'm sure it's equally useful. I'm not strictly an opportunist, of course. I'd bring them benefits, too! Surely my witty banter would be a fine addition to the fabulous get-togethers I'm convinced they're having without me. They probably have great dinner parties and uproarious game nights. I bet they even play Balderdash (a game I love but can no longer convince any of my friends to play with me). I just need to convince them that there is room for a straight girl in their troop. Liz got in the club somehow; surely I could do the same. (What do you say, Liz? Any tips on getting in good with lesbians?)

The neighbor I see the most, though (for better or worse, it seems) is the one next door to the south. He has a somewhat uncommon name, and he's extremely web-savvy, so for the sake of this story, I'm going to call him Reed. I've written about Reed before... he's the entrepreneur who was lauded in a national magazine for starting a million-dollar business before he was 25. He's also the very nice man who snowblows my driveway when we have a blizzard. And in case you're wondering, no he's not single. But he is extremely handy and helpful.

Usually I appreciate having Reed around. He's happily helped me carry heavy things into my house. He has a seemingly magical garage from which he can produce any tool known to man (and often, in my case, unknown to woman). He has climbed up on my roof to secure stray pieces of siding. He's offered advice on painting and planting and nearly everything else he's seen me attempt. And usually, his advice is warranted and welcome. It's also, however, given me a bit of an inferiority complex.

As a homeowner with little expendable cash to pay someone else to do things, I've often taken sort of a Rosy the Riveter attitude about maintenance and repairs. "I can DO it," I think optimistically. "How hard can it be?" It doesn't matter that I've shown no evidence of any aptitude in this area, that I've had no experience or training at all. Some people learn these sorts of things from their parents. My dad is an insurance agent who much favors paperwork and the indoors. I did not pick up any useful home-related life skills from him. In fact, the only time I recall him using tools was the summer he decided to build us a tree house. It had eight sides, all unequal in length and none matching up at the edges. Frankly I'm still more than shocked my mother ever let us climb up there.

Since I know I have no skills in this area, sometimes I Google tasks before I take them on. I'm hesitant to charge right into something, throwing caution to the wind, if it's going to end badly and with an audience. A few weeks ago, I decided to trim a large shrub in my back yard, and as I grabbed branches seemingly at random, cutting at any place and angle that was convenient, I thought to myself, "Is there a right and a wrong way to do this? Should I have looked this up?" I wondered if Reed was going to wander out at any moment and ask, "Do you have any idea what you're doing?" To which my reply, in my best Homer Simpson voice of indignation, would have been, "I think it's pretty obvious that I don't!"

Luckily, Reed wasn't home that day. I noticed later that his truck was not out front. Not that it really matters. He's already well aware that I'm marginally inept. I can't even start my lawn mower, after all. It's been an ongoing source of frustration for quite some time. Trust me; I know how to start a lawn mower. Really, honestly, I do. My lawn mower, unfortunately, hates me. It does, however, like Reed. I can fight with the pull cord for a half hour or more, wondering if I should prime it some more or if I've primed it too much. Reed will take sideways glances over at me from his yard, eventually come over, give it one tug, and start it up.

My mower is sexist. I'm convinced it's not just me. Like I said, though, it's bruised my confidence--made me second guess myself constantly.

Now whatever I do, I imagine Reed is watching from his window, maybe even calling his wife over to enjoy the show. "Look what she's trying to do now! Should I go tell her what she's doing wrong?" I suspect I'm a fine source of amusement for him. I've even asked him, "Do you ever just look at me and think, 'Why didn't that girl buy a condo?'" He smiled and said "No," but he definitely paused a bit too long before answering.

Someone whose name I don't recall once said, "If you can't be a good example, perhaps you can serve as a horrible warning." I sort of feel that me buying a house serves exactly that purpose to other unskilled would-be homeowners. But I'll keep trying, anyway. And when I don't succeed, I will swallow my pride and rely on kind, marginally smug neighbors for some help.


Aaron said...

I can't stop humming "these are the people in your neighborhood, in your neighborhood, in your neigh-bor-hood". Sometimes I wonder if Sesame Street helped me or if it fried my brain.

Anonymous said...

I would definitely not rely on my neighbors for anything. Actually, I don't know any of their names, even, but I DO know that three of the middle aged men have formed some sort of club to admire my car, which is weird. And also includes my landlord, which is even weirder.

Anyway, I will totally play Balderdash with you. I love that game and no one will ever agree to play it with me!

lizgwiz said...

Well, I've found the best way to get in good with the lesbian set is to repeatedly (and unintentionally) say things that make them think you're a lesbian, too. ;)

I have that same sort of "I can do it myself" mindset, with no appreciable skills to back it up. And I'm a renter! I could just call the landlord! (Well, I can NOW, the last one was useless.) But for some reason (I hate to be a bother? I like pretending to be self-sufficient?) I always try to solve the problem myself first. The internet does help, though--if you'll recall, it helped me fix my refrigerator. :)

-R- said...

I hate doing yard work because I am afraid my neighbors are watching and thinking that I am an idiot because I have no idea what I am doing. This is why I the hedges in front of our house are overgrown and ugly. Also because I am afraid I will accidentally kill them if I cut them wrong.

Jess said...

This is not at all related to this specific post, but when I was in Germany I saw a little toy German license plate for sale that said "Stefanie." I thought of you, obviously.

Anonymous said...

I never knew any of my neighbors in Manhattan. Now, I feel like I know my current ones too well. They are handy in a pinch, I guess.

L Sass said...

I know no neighbors in my current building. My last building was chock full of young people, which was great when you wanted to have a party, but not so good for meeting the wide variety of people you live near.

Anonymous said...

I have been a solo homeowner for 7 years now. Of the 5 houses that are nearest to me, I know just two of the names of owners. It's sad.

One of them is a Reed-like guy who also snow-blows my driveway. However he's had moments of significant creepiness. You are lucky that Reed is next door.

3carnations said...

When I became a single homeowner, I was so determined that I could do things on my own that I became a little miss fix-it. So much so that the first Christmas that hubby and I dated, one of his gifts to me was a tool belt. And I loved it. We still have a bit of a power struggle when it comes to home improvement projects, though I am learning to let go. :)

Anonymous said...

Ha - I like your imagined conversation between Reed and his wife. Too funny. Also: BlogHer '08: you, me, NPW, and Balderdash. It's ON.

Anonymous said...

Love this post- sounds like you live in a delightful neighborhood. Shovel for me and I will love you forever. Viva Reed!

Stefanie said...

Aaron--And as soon as you said that, I couldn't stop singing it in my head either. Thanks for that.

NPW--At least you have a car worth admiring. No one covets my Saturn.

Liz--Does that advice work on gay boys, too? Because I'd like to get in good with the other couple as well. We've already complained about George Bush together; I figured that was a good start.

R--Hee. I am glad it is not just me.

Jess--I think the "f" spelling is more common in Germany. I've known lots of Germans, and most of them have no trouble spelling my name.

Noelle--Yes... after all, they catch bats for you, don't they? That's extremely handy, I say.

L Sass--You mean because you invited them to parties or because they didn't care about the noise if you had parties? I'm just wondering if you were lucky enough to live in one of those buildings where people actually became friends. Are you living in Melrose Place or Singles??

Pam--Reed is not creepy. Just occasionally a wee bit smug. But he means well.

3Cs--I had that determination for a while, but eventually laziness got the better of me. Now I just let things fall into disrepair. (I'm kidding. Mostly.)

Lara--Yay; Balderdash! (We don't know where BlogHer '08 is yet, do we? Can we just organize our own?)

Monkey--I know; I'm always worried he will move and someone as useless as me will move in. ;-)

Anonymous said...

I worked one summer as a Maintenance Person at an apartment complex. Seriously. So I am fairly handy, but people always look at me like I'm crazy. The thing I hate most is going to home improvement stores and having them look at me skeptically, as though I'm about to cause a nuclear explosion by using a screwdriver.