We have one of those neighbors who I’m sure makes the crotchety old people snicker and gossip—you know, the ones whose yards look like the 18th hole at Augusta and who get the paper in their robes early each morning as an excuse to scope out the less kept yards on the block (i.e. mine).
Bob is the kind of guy who ruffles their feathers, I imagine, but just the kind of guy I want living next door to me. He’s probably in his 60s or 70s, a little saskwatch-like in his hairiness, and likes to cut his grass about once a month, without a shirt. He doesn’t seem to be concerned with keeping up appearances, as his back yard has a fallen oak in it, a canoe, a busted fence, a motorcycle that may or may not run, and a brick-kiln oven that has never to my knowledge been fired up. He had a dog once, but then it just kind of disappeared.
He keeps odd hours (maybe even nocturnal), doesn’t really say much, but will give you his tools if he sees you need them. And I love having Bob as a neighbor because he shares his tips with me about yards and dogs and lawnmowers.
That and his property takes the microscope off of mine. I may have forgotten to mow the grass this week or left toys strewn about the back patio, and it may look like I need a combine instead of a Craftsman to take on my wheat field, but Bob’s dandelion patch/salvage yard still takes home the blue ribbon. I feel like it’s a mutual bond we share, Bob and I, the two unintentional lawn-killers. We’ve always got each other’s back, and I like that (I also swore I saw Bob on Hoarders once, but can’t be sure since I don’t actually know his last name and haven’t yet sifted through his mail to find out).
But for all that, we share that good old-fashioned neighborly acquaintanceship—the one where you try not to make eye contact, speak only when spoken to, or wait to go outside or cross your landscape until the other neighbor has exited the scene. Horrid, but so modern suburban American. Some people do it in elevators, this avoidance dance, while others execute it in the check out line at the grocery store. But we all do it.
That’s where my kids come in. I’m not really sure why but they love Bob and they’re not exactly afraid to give him a shout out. Like really, to shout at him. There Bob is, unsuspecting, piddling around in his trash heap while we do the customary avoidance dance, when Benjamin yells, “Hey, Bob! Hey Bob, I’m talking to you! Look at me!”
“Uh, hey there.” Hermit Bob, meet unsocialized child-of-mine who hasn’t met a stranger. “Bob, watcha doin? I’m diggin in my sandpit, Bob. Playin with my trucks. Why don’t you got a shirt on Bob? Sometimes I don’t where shirts or pants either, Bob.”
And then just like that, the warm conversation opens up. That’s what’s so great about kids—even the most hardened people seem to light up and put down their shields when you put a kid in front of them. So I guess the moral of the story is something like this: if you have a strange neighbor who is probably a hoarder hermit combo, sick your kid on him and initiate a conversation that way, because nobody can resist a child’s charm even when he’s being rude. Or something like that.
So I suck at being a neighbor, but I’m learning to get better because, as my son is teaching me, sometimes you just have to be a little forward and self-forgetful enough to say (or shout) hello. Neighbor like a child; it’s just better that way.