Articles

How to get along with your neighbors

ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN October 15 1954
Articles

How to get along with your neighbors

ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN October 15 1954

How to get along with your neighbors

ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN TELLS

A WRITER’S life is apt to be a restless one. At least mine has been. My wife and I figured out once that we’d averaged more than one move a year since we got married. I’m not particularly proud of this, and I don’t recommend it to anyone. But I’ll say one thing for it. It taught me something about neighbors.

I’ve had plenty. I’ve lived beside professors of astronomy, electric-guitar players, Okies, cowboys and bank managers. I’ve lived beside a professional contest-enterer with an Oxford accent, long hair and a 1923 Rolls-Royce, and people with short hair and 1954 Studebakers who were sometimes the queerest of them all. And I’ve learned a few tricks.

One thing I learned early was always to address my neighbor as “mister.” Often he didn’t like it. “Look, just call me Harry,” he’d say. “I’m just an ordinary guy. How about dropping over for a beer when you get your stove connected? Where do you get that ‘mister’ stuff?”

Where I got it was moving in beside guys who asked me to call them Harry. The last neighbor I called by his first name was a tall casual young calculating-machine salesman with a slow boyish grin. He greeted me as I came up the walk just ahead of the furniture movers, told me to call him George, asked my wife’s name, put a brotherly arm around her and said, “Okay, Helen, you and Irma just make yourselves comfortable out by our barbecue pit while Bob and I whip up some roast wieners.” He asked my wife if she’d mind bringing a wiener fork as they’d lost theirs, put on a chef’s cap with “Dig In” lettered on it, and stopped speaking to me for a year and a half.

He didn’t stop speaking to me that night, of course. It was the next night. He liked to park his car in our mutual driveway. Each time I wanted in or out of my garage I had to work my way between two ornamental bushes of thorns, knock at his door, get him off his couch and explain to him that I had to go to the store for some more curtain rings. He’d whip his car out like a parking-lot attendant, and just about as cheerily, let mine in, follow me so closely he looked as if

with your neighbors

After ten moves in ten years Bob offers his own system for staying sane in the suburbs. First lesson is to call your neighbor “mister”

he were pushing me, park in the middle of the driveway again, and go in the house, obviously thinking, “I give this guy a big welcome with wieners; now he’s trying to make it tough for me to own a car.’

Every time he came to the door in his slippers and a dressing gown, he was a bit more distant, until he was finally looking at me as if I were selling enlargements for baby pictures, an expression he held, as I say, for a year and a half; no, that is not quite accurate. He varied it twice: once when he put his head through our milk box and said, “Here’s your wiener fork,” and another time, the following Twenty-Fourth of May, when he looked haughtily over the top of my hat and asked me if I’d mind having my children clean the firecrackers off his lawn.

Calling a neighbor “mister” might sound like advice from a stuffed shirt, and maybe it is. But little conventions like that keep the seams all nice and snug. You never hear anyone say, “If there’s one guy I’d like to strangle it’s that Mister Meadows.” It’s only when you can call a guy George that you can really get, homicidal.

There’s another strange bit of psychology at work when you call someone “mister.” In this world there’s nothing as good as looking forward to getting there, and nothing as disappointing as arriving. When you call a person “mister” you have a mild and pleasant desire to get to know him better. If you keep it in check it s a sound relationship and can go on for years. But once you start calling someone by his first name the next interesting step is to get sore at him.

Whenever I hear someone say, “Harry and Gert carne over last night for a beer, then we went to their place to watch wrestling, then they came back to our place for lobster-paste sandwiches,” I know that it’s only a matter of time till Gert and Harry are out in the kitchen watching their new-found friends through a crack in the door, whispering between drawn lips that it’s about time they bought their own television, especially now he got that raise.

Seeing too much of anyone can often result 1n little things building up until one apparently trivial incident can act like an extra

degree of heat on a pressure cooker, when that little black ring blows out and covers the ceiling with stew. I knew one guy who was nearly up for manslaughter because every time he offered a visiting neighbor a chocolate the neighbor took the whole top layer, saying, “Don’t mind if I take a few home for Sonny, do you?” Sonny already weighed as much as an air conditioner and was always tormenting this guy’s cat.

Don’t get the idea from all this that I disapprove of friendliness. I’m just the opposite. But I’ve found that slightly formal friendships last the longest. One of the best neighbors 1 ever had was a quiet Englishman 1 used to see over the back fence in the evening. We called one another “mister” for three years. During all that time we never got more personal than to ask each other when we were going on holidays. By tacit agreement we both pretended we had no families, no first names and that we lived out beside our tomato plants. It worked fine. We developed a really warm, shy friendship.

Intimate neighborhood friendships are dangerous at best* An ordinary acquaintance can be dropped for awhile when something starts to simmer and picked up again when it cools off. A quarrel with a neighbor is apt to simmer along polite, repressed and almost unnoticed for months and then suddenly explode like the morning of El Alamein.

One gentle little woman I once lived beside appeared one day in the middle of our kitchen, fifteen minutes after she’d been showing my wife how to make a new kind of pie crust, pointed a trembling finger at her, and shrieked, “If this doesn’t stop We~ go tocourt! burst into tears and fled, and made my wife drop a jar of pickles on our cat.

It turned out that night, when I went in to see her husband, that she thought she saw me one day twist a drain-pipe from my house until it spouted water right into her prize peony bed. Actually what I’d been doing was finding the north star for making a sundial, but every time I went out into the yard at night she thought I was giving the pipe another twist and she’d sit there Continued on page 44

Continued on page 44

How to Get Along With Your Neighbors

CONTINUED FROM PAGE 31

at her kitchen window, thoughtfully chewing her supper, and watching her peony bed wash away. She’d been smoldering about it ever since planting time. As this was picking time, she had reached the temperature required for Mexican dills.

The thing to do, of course, when these grievances come up, is to go to your neighbor and talk it over. Few people do anything from sheer wanton nastiness. Everybody does things for the best possible reasons, and often all you need do to stop him measuring your mutual driveway by moonlight is to ask him what’s wrong. Hardly anybody ever thinks of doing this. I know one bitter feud that went on for three years because one man thought he owned an old wooden garage which his neighbor used for his car. Incidentally, he didn’t. But a quaint little old lady two doors up, who gilded weeds for Christmas gifts, told him one night there was a law that if you let someone use a building for three years without contesting it, it was his. “All you need to do to keep your title in order is use it some way once a year, even if it’s just to take a board off it for firewood,” she said happily, hurrying off to her weeds and leaving the guy biting his lips thoughtfully.

One bitter cold Sunday afternoon he walked out, tore a board out of the side of the garage and went in and burned it. His neighbor, of course, figured he was something that had slipped through a net and phoned the police, who stood around with little icicles on the ends of their noses trying to figure out what had happened and ready to hammer anyone who moved.

Another dangerous practice, I’ve

found, is just dropping in on neighbors for a few minutes. A lot of things cg« happen in a few minutes, and they ofte happen when someone drops in. I’vj had a neighbor drop in while I wd having one of the worst fights I’ve evd had with my wife, just after I’d askej her in a demented voice exactly ta/iyj man should have to work all his life ti support a woman and her two daughj ters. While we sat there deathly palj and glassy-eyed, pretending we werj listening, this woman told us a lot oj gossip about her family, whom W( didn’t know, chiefly concerning hei sister Elly who had married a guy whij wouldn’t support her and she’d alwayi told Elly she was marrying a bum.

I’ve had people drop in while I was in the middle of a fight with anothej neighbor; while someone was reading a will that didn’t even mention me; during a family reunion; when a regenerate Uncle was on his knees swearing he’d never touch another drop, and while a psychic friend of my mother’s was getting strong messages from an Aunt who was snapping something from the Other Side about apples;

A Scheme to Quit Smoking

Most homes are precariously balanced on a few normal periods between partial nervous breakdowns, and for a complete stranger to guess the right times is a mathematical impossibility. I’ve had a neighbor drop in just as I was sinking into a bath with a book on How to Outwit My Nerves, and have had to get up and let about $3.50 worth of boiling water go down the drain, get dressed without properly drying myself and come out looking as if I’d been caught in a summer shower. Just then the neighbor got up and went home, inviting me to drop in on him someday.

Another guy used to drop in on me in the morning during a period when I was trying a new scheme to quit smoking without giving up cigarettes. I’d ar-

rived at a system of putting off my first cigarette and morning coffee until tenthirty. I was fine if no one spoke to mo or touched me, and I didn’t have to move around too much. My family simply avoided me.

This guy, who had hips wider than his shoulders, was hard enough to take even when you were smoking and leaning on a hoe. He talked in ellipses. If you said, “It’s a nice day,” he’d say something like, “It can’t all the time,” and look at you through a crack between his glasses and his nose as if you shared some mystery, which indeed you

did. If you saw him coming home in the daytime and said, “You on night shift now?” he’d look at you knowingly and answer something like “Buses don’t run for nothing.”

If you said you thought there was something wrong with the rear end of your car, he’d look at you and say solemnly, “Give me your keys.”

You’d look at him in surprise.

“Give—me you)—keys,” he’d repeat patiently, his tone implying that he had been in charge of tuning up motors for the Maquis during the war or was a squad-car mechanic from

Scotland Yard, incognito at least.

Actually he sold lamps, but the point is I’ll never forget those mad, midmorning conversations as long as I live, him talking in spirals, bursting out into hysterical laughter, and me trying to see him without cigarettes, trying to remember his name and track down his remarks.

Another thing that’s essential is to watch what you say to new neighbors until you’re sure whom you’re talking to. This is particularly important if the talk leads to anything in the nature of enthusiasms or confidences. I re-

member one neighbor and his straightforward wife whom I told the first daÿ that I loved the ballet, Jelly Roll Morton, very light beer, Schopenhauer, Mexican cigarettes, Mugsy Spanier, old alley cats, Jane Russell, prize fights and I’d like to try marijuana some day. I noticed them both looking at me as if they’d seen a flying saucer. I found later that they both belonged to something called the Seven-Square Way of Life, based on the seven points of complete disapproval of smoking, drinking, dancing, movies, laughing, reading and love.

Remember, all eccentrics don’t have wild eyes and long hair. This man looked like maybe the manager of a softball team or your favorite cousin, or an advertisement for a new bungalow development.

I’ve learned never to go by first impressions of my neighbors. I’ve lived beside a powerful, red-headed woman named Muskeg Mary who everybody in town warned me was the town drunk and its most determined sinner, and who turned out to be one of the most genuinely Christian people I’ve ever met. If I got stuck in a drift in my driveway at three in the morning at thirty below, Mary would appear, cursing and chuckling juicily, her curlers gleaming in the moonlight, and nearly lift my car up onto her shoulders. She kept two cows, against village ordinances, and used to spread manure on our garden that made it grow so fast we had to step lively past the pumpkin vines. She was always on the job when I needed a friend, and we still exchange Christmas cards. She presses leaves and things in hers.

Yet in the same village, I lived next door to a member of the Chamber of Commerce, Board of Control and Chairman of the League of Loving Brotherhood who used to go to work every morning clutching a briefcase, kicking kids, cats and dogs out of his way without ever looking around to see where they landed, and who used to report me to the humane society, the police, the child welfare department and the department of Lands and Forests every Monday morning.

Another thing, I’ve found it’s dangerous for neighbors to do one another favors. I’ve noticed that when anyone gives me that bluff, hearty, “What’s a neighbor for, if it isn’t to lend a hand?” and does something for me, he begins getting sore at me right away for not appreciating it. I’ve found that people get so mad when they do something unselfish that they can’t stop twitching till they tell somebody off. Any way,j doing favors for neighbors is a delicate business.

1 remember a woman who was always doing the young mothers on our street the favor of stopping their babies crying. She was a middle-aged woman and she used to spend the afternoons going around shaking all the babies in their carriages on the front porches and saying, “Doesn’t your mother love you, you little jewel? Will your mother let ’urns cry out here all day in the boiling sun without taking any notice of ’urns?”

All the mothers stood at their

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sink windows biting their unties and crying angrily into their î>reft. By the time the husbands got home all the wives said that if they didn’t go over and tell her to leave their babies alone they would sue her. They’d all go over and talk to this woman’s husband, a timid little man in a grey cardigan who spent all his time staring into the smoke of burning leaves seeing God knows what visions of chasing elk. He’d stand there in the middle of the crowd looking as if he were running a crown-and-anchor game.

Another man I knew got himself into one of the fiercest feuds on our street by doing what he thought was a favor.

He was a tall, erect veteran of the Boer War named Weldon and he was always catching fire. He would burn leaves every fall and set his house on fire. He had some of the most spectacular fires I’ve ever seen. His three stalwart sons would call the fire department then run out to put their father out. Fall to me still means the scream of fire sirens and the smell of old Weldy burning.

This guy never spoke, or hardly ever. The only thing he ever said to me was the way to win a war was to “Charge through them, wheel, and charge back.” But one day something possessed him and he moved a whole shipment of furniture off an absent neighbor’s veranda out onto his lawn.

He said something afterward about “Bats were at it,” but it resulted in a load of wallboard and an expensive floor lamp and a chesterfield getting soaked by rain. When the owner came home from his cottage he threatened to decapitate Weldy then and there.

“Just trying to be neighborly,” said Weldy huffily, walking away from about $385 worth of damages. They didn’t speak for the two years I was there, and I don’t imagine they do yet.

Six Inches of Driveway

I’ve found that, in either building or renting, a thing to avoid is anything mutual, especially mutual driveways, of which each neighbor owns half hut has the right-of-way over the other neighbor’s half, a complicated enough situation that gets even worse when one guy is trying to prove it by rubbing cinders in the other’s hair. Any odd little strips of land between houses are apt to cause trouble. I lived next door to one guy who was one of the unhappiest men I’ve ever seen. He had a high pink worried forehead that always looked sunburned, and wore a permanent blush under a dark skin. He used to count his shrubs every night before he went to bed, and every morning before he went to work.

One day he discovered that he owned six inches of the driveway between our j houses, up against his house, and he started standing on it occasionally to establish his claim, smoking a cigarette. He’d stand flat against the wall as if he were in front of a firing squad, and we’d have to explain him to our guests.

He was the only man I know who could spend half a Sunday morning on six inches of cinders. A sort of suburban yogi.

I’ve seen another pair of new-neighborhood cronies build a mutual fence, working at it together, taking about two beers to a post-hole and having a wonderful time, and end up threatening to sue one another for every slat.

Just one more thing: Beware of children. They break up a lot of neighborhood friendships. Children live in a world of make-believe, and if nothing exciting is happening down on earth, they just retreat into a pink cloud full of candy, monkey bars and peculiar games concerning you.

One time when I lived in the country

I lived next to a little girl about a foot high who used to come around every day, scratch on our screen door and ask, “Have you got any lamb chops?”

Suddenly she stopped coming and a week later her father shot over my head with a twenty-two rifle, told me he thought he saw a groundhog up a tree and started going into the house every time he saw me.

It wasn’t until a year later, one day when I was out pruning a tree, that 1 found what was wrong. The little girl wandered over and said, “What-areyou - doing - mister - allen - I - told -

my - daddy - that - you - said - I -hate - you - and - your - father - and -mother - are - poor - people - and - you -hit - me - over - the - head - with - a -beer - bottle - and - made - your - cat -scratch - me - what - are - you - doing -mister - allen - have - you - got - any -lamb - chops?”

All in all, the way to get along with neighbors is to study them and take it nice and easy. Don’t make the mistake of saying, “Oh, if I could just have two acres in the country with no one around me for miles.” This is a bit like trying to imagine infinite space. It can’t be

done. Somewhere at the edge there has to be something. It will be a neighbor, and he’ll probably have a high, leafy laugh. And don’t start that stuff of pointing your neighbor out to your guests and saying, “There he is now. You’d think he was normal, wouldn’t you? Wait until I tell you about him boring holes in our tree and stuffing it with Epsom Salts.”

He probably is as normal as any of us ever get, and thinks you purposely put the tree there to keep his roses in the shade. The thing to do is to make a friend of him—a distant friend, ic