Tuesday, November 1, 2005

Good fences, good neighbors

Robert Frost once said that good fences make good neighbors (probably because he used to live in my old neighborhood). In the past, I might have been inclined to agree, but where I live now, I’m fortunate to have neighbors who are both quiet and helpful.

It wasn’t always that way, though. Over the years, I have had some real doozies for neighbors.

Back when I was a teenager, there was a woman who lived next door who not only was pretty, let’s just say that from the waist up, she made Dolly Parton look like a 12-year-old boy. This neighbor was in the habit of wearing a low-cut latex leotard and doing calisthenics out in her back yard.

Believe me, her jumping jacks were the reason why every man in my neighborhood had a flat nose…from pressing it against the windowpane. To this day, I still don’t know how many boys walked me home from school because they actually liked me…or because they wanted to see “Mrs. Bouncy” doing her exercises.

After I got married and moved out to the country, we had a neighbor who spoke only French. Even worse, she didn’t understand a word of English, so the only way I could communicate with her was to use charades.

One day, for example, I was in the middle of making a cake when I ran short of milk by a mere quarter of a cup. I went next door to see if the French woman could lend me some milk. She, of course, had no idea what I was talking about.

Desperate, I held up my fingers to simulate a cow’s udders and proceeded to “milk” them with my other hand, to show her that I needed milk. She nodded, disappeared into the kitchen…and returned with a pair of those big yellow Playtex rubber gloves.

This same woman also happened to have three little children whose main objective in life was to make the Guinness Book of World Records for unrelenting brattiness. Every time I looked out at my yard, there they were, tossing rocks at my shutters, hanging from my clothesline, or trying to skewer my cat on the end of a stick.

Their mother did try to discipline them…by shouting every French curse word in history (and even a few she probably invented) at them. I’ll never forget the day I asked my father, who spoke fluent French, “Dad, what do these French words mean?” and then proceeded to spew every word my neighbor had shouted at her kids.

My father’s mouth dropped open and his eyes widened to the size of saucers. “Where on earth did you learn words like that?” he asked.

I suddenly had the feeling that my neighbor probably hadn’t been shouting, “Please behave yourselves, my little darlings!” at her children.

After the French woman moved away, there seemed to be someone new moving in and out of that place every two years or so.

One night, at about midnight, there was a knock at my door. I thought nothing of opening the door at that hour back then (but believe me, I’d never do it now). Anyway, there on my doorstep stood a young woman about 20. She looked as if she’d been crying.

“I’m moving in next door,” she said, “and I locked myself out. Can I use your phone to call someone to bring me a key? It’s a local call.”

I let her in and directed her to the phone. Not wanting to appear nosey, I pretended to have something to do in another room so she could talk privately. Every night thereafter, she asked to use my phone because hers hadn’t been installed yet. And every night, I let her use it.

When my phone bill arrived a couple weeks later and I saw the 10 calls to California on it, to the tune of $115, I stormed next door.

“I fully intend to repay you for the calls,” the girl explained. “When I get my food stamps, I’ll give them to you.”

I just stared at her. “Food stamps? How can I pay a phone bill with food stamps?”

“The money you save on food, you can put toward the phone bill.”

She moved away only eight days later. Maybe it was because her landlord wouldn’t accept food stamps as payment for her rent.

Nowadays, our neighborhood is very quiet. In fact, the majority of the residents are couples with grown children.

It sure is boring.


TURTLE UPDATE: For those of you who have been asking about whether I found a home for my snapping turtle, Snippy, the answer is yes! A reader, Edith Bailat, told me about a woman, Mary Doane, who runs a turtle rescue in Deerfield. I contacted Mary and she referred me to Chris Bogard in Epping, who specializes in rehabilitating snapping turtles to prepare them for release in the wild. Chris now is rehabilitating Snippy to “un-sissify” him and make him a big, mean, fearless snapper, so he can be set free in a pond next year. So I want to say “thank you” to everyone who helped Snippy find a new home! (I sure do miss the big lug, though!)