on being a neighbor

Posted: January 9, 2016 in Uncategorized

As G headed for the shower a little after 3 this morning and I sat up in bed, turning on the laptop to enjoy a little writing, I was distracted by noise from the neighbor upstairs.  It’s not that he was being loud, it’s just that at 3 AM, the world is eerily quiet, and even small noises are amplified, and I was awake and being still, so I could hear.  He’s got a toddler and I think he was showing him videos to quiet him back to sleep.  It was sufficient distraction to keep me from being able to write, though.  But this was a problem easily addressed – I just plugged my headphones in and put on some music that works for my mental processing.

Visitors to our home have sometimes looked alarmed at the sounds of our neighbor, shaking their heads and saying that they couldn’t tolerate that.  Though it’s a familiar conversation, it’s always a little surprising to me.  Really?  You couldn’t live with the sound of other human beings…being?  I don’t love every second of it – sharing a space intimately enough to overhear angry arguments, for instance, always feels like getting something wrong – thankfully, not much of that happens upstairs.  But footsteps on the stairs or the vague and distant noise of maybe a TV running don’t bother me.

While some of it is surely about variety of innate sensitivity levels, I think a lot of it comes down to what you are used to.  I was raised in only single family dwellings.  When that is what you’re used to, the notion of overhearing another person or family doing life is alien.  I remember my transition, and I have to confess that I was kind of a blundering elephant as I made it.  The notion that I need to consider the noise I am making and be thoughtful to others in the next dwelling sort of dawned on me very slowly; in the meanwhile, it seems likely that my neighbors might have wanted to throttle me on many occasions.

Even now that I’m aware, it presents challenges.  For instance, almost every morning these days, my breakfast is made in a blender.  I felt like I needed to issue a daily written apology for a long time, each morning as the thing screamed along.  I’ve been relieved to notice that the neighbor is up maybe even earlier than we are – so at least we’re not waking him.

I’ve lived in a lot of shared spaces in my life.

There were the foreign upstairs neighbors when I was in college – they were nearly silent almost always, while I was downstairs playing loud music and getting in loud fights on regular basis.  My husband was a fisherman; when he’d clean a mess of fish and leave the bucket of cleanings by the back door, it would disappear for awhile.  Later, it would be returned to the same spot, clean, and then a vile smell would waft down from the upstairs apartment.  And I’d complain – not to the neighbors, but certainly to lots of other people.  Looking back, I roll my eyes.  Not once in the 3 years we lived there did anyone from upstairs ever try to get me to live a little more quietly and thoughtfully – I reckon the occasional smelly fish guts dish odor was quite a bit less hardship on me than what I subjected them to.   Meanwhile, our rent was a tidy $195 per month, thanks to the sharing of the space.  Workable even for college students with a baby.

There was the tiny duplex that had previously been low-income housing, with the problematic bathtub drain and paper thin walls, through which we’d nightly hear the grandma next door struggling to get her two granddaughters to sleep, complete with all the resistant gusto children will offer.  To me, that was just the noise of family and it didn’t bother me.  Besides, that grandma never complained to me about the noise I’m sure she heard from our apartment, as my son and his friends across the block went in and out his bedroom window at all hours.  However, the neighbor in the next duplex over across the yard who would hold middle-of-the night parties when I was working 3 jobs?  I scared them into killing parties more than once by stalking into the middle of the fun in my pajamas and bed head on weeknights at 2 AM, commenting that some of us have to work in the morning and need to sleep.  I was always amazed at how fast everyone got into cars and left – but my son assured me that he and other people with working “smellers” could detect the drugs being used there pretty much always.  I don’t suppose they wanted police attention.

That little bunch of duplexes was a colorful place to live.  There was the old burnout dude who delivered newspapers for a living and grew pot in his apartment and stopped by one day to work on asking me out, letting it slip as he shared his story that he had been a suspect in a local murder years before.  There was the large Mexican family who somehow stuffed themselves into a small apartment who seemed to work almost all the hours of most days, and then sat in the back of their truck listening to Mexican music on Sundays, quietly enjoying beverages.  There were those sweet little girls next door, who would fly down the sidewalk shrieking with joy when I pulled into my parking spot, rushing in for the hug.  And then there was us – we started out as just me and my son, and eventually we took on two extra teenage boys and had to move to make it work.

The duplex with garages between the two residences that we moved to next had 4 big bedrooms – we fit just fine, even with all the friends who hung out enough to seem like residents there.  It was almost like living in a separate dwelling from the other duplex dwellers, other than the occasional overnight drunkfest over there.  Happily, they didn’t do that often.  We lived an easy peace at that place, with only the occasional glitch of visitors (both ours and theirs) who didn’t understand to park on the correct side of the driveway.

Twice I’ve lived in old renovated hotels – both at JPUSA and at the old Davenport hotel.  THAT is some sweet shared living; with old hotels being made of firebrick, you don’t hear through the walls or floors, and you only hear through the ceiling when someone upstairs drops something heavy.  The only noise issue in that kind of building is the door to the common hallway.  At JPUSA I loved it, as it meant I woke on Saturday morning to the jubilant noise of kids playing in the hall, which is – again – just a family noise to me.  I actually looked forward to waking to that sound.  At the Davenport it could be more problematic, since it was located in a bar district and populated by folks who liked to drink – many a night I’d be awakened at closing time by the loud conversation and laughter of the intoxicated in the hall just outside my door, and/or by loud fights in the streets below my windows.  But it wasn’t bad enough to be a deal-breaker – I’m plenty able to roll over and go back to sleep.   At JPUSA I never once locked my door; at the Davenport, I never once left it unlocked.  I loved both places, though.

Living in our friends’ spare room was a joyous way to share space.  Life with only one room to maintain is inexpensive and pretty darn carefree, and we got the bonus of shared meals with our friends, as well as waking on weekend mornings to the happy sound of dad, boys and dog playing rowdily in the living room.  I’d have brought that noise to this house if it could have somehow been carried along – it always made my heart dance.

My son and his wife share rent on a vast old house with a couple other roommates, but they are not divided into separate apartments.  There are enough bedrooms for everyone, but they all share the one bathroom, the tiny kitchen, and all other living space.  That roommate situation looks challenging to me, but I’ve always enjoyed visiting, even back when the house was just 3 bachelors with the various girlfriends coming and going.  They make it work, and the bonus they get from it is living in a quiet, tree-lined neighborhood with a great big yard.

Shared living pushes us to learn to play well together – it is a teacher of tolerance, or else it is a source of bitterness.  When we moved into this place, the rule was that the upstairs and downstairs tenants were to take turns mowing.   The landlord warned us when we first moved in:  the single mom of 2 upstairs who worked nights wasn’t very good about pulling her weight on mowing.  Since I’m so yard-and-garden obsessed, we just changed the rule – we do all the mowing.  What upstairs tenant wants to mow a yard, honestly?  This arrangement works great for us.

Snow removal, on the other hand, has recently challenged my ability to play nicely.  When the single mom was up there, we were more than happy to just clear all the snow all the time, in service to her.  Having been a single mom, I’ve got some pretty strong negative opinions about neighbors who don’t help out the single moms in their neighborhoods.  I liked being part of the solution for her struggle.  When the next family came, it was a pregnant couple.  We were happy to do all the snow removal, in support of them during such a challenging passage.  I thought often how much I wouldn’t want to live in an upstairs apartment as a pregnant woman.  When they split and he stayed, with the kid visiting occasionally, we were happy to do all the snow removal – he works all the time and how is one supposed to go out and shovel with a baby upstairs?

Here’s what derailed me:  he got a snow blower, for making extra money with side jobs.  I got all kinds of excited, assuming that the snow blower would also be used here at this location.  Then it snowed, and the snow blower went down the street with him for the side jobs – without clearing the snow first.  Hmm.  We shoveled, but I was feeling pretty frowny about it.  Then it snowed again, and he was home but didn’t come down to clear the snow.  I don’t know.  Maybe he had his son that day.  Gary happily went out and cleared all the snow.  I was a little grumbly.  After the driveway was nicely clear, the City plow came by and did what they do, pushing a big column of heavy, wet snow across the end of the driveway.  We had to leave for the day right after that.

When we came home, it was apparent that the neighbor had used his nice big snow blower to clear the end of his own side of the driveway – it was spotless.  Our side, however…hadn’t been touched.  And it was now frozen hard.  My classy words to my husband?  “That guy is an asshole.”

I stayed annoyed for days, and doubly so each time I had to back the car out around the giant hump of snow at our end of the driveway.  I knew for sure I was wrong in that.  All the time G and I had been shoveling, it had been a free gift, since we have no use for doing nice things for people in order to make them “owe” something in return.  The neighbor didn’t owe us.  Still, I was mad.

So this all came to a head two days ago, when I for whatever reason was obsessing over it.   I had been fantasizing all day about passive aggressive bullshit things I’d like to say to the neighbor (who, for the record, I’ve always liked), and every time I’d imagine again, I’d apologize to God again, knowing my attitude sucked.  Here’s the super-cool thing that happened:  when I got home, the neighbor was just getting home too.  As we both got out of our cars, I swear God must have just taken possession of my body or something, because with no thought or plan to do so, I walked over to him with a big, genuine smile.  “I have a question.”  He smiled and waited.  “Would you like to teach my husband how to use that new snow blower of yours, so that the driveway will always be done?”

Relief washed over his face, and he grinned.  “Yes, I would!”  And in an instant, I wasn’t mad at the guy anymore.

This is just one more testimony that proves to me how much I need Jesus.  On my own, I am a passive aggressive, codependent jerk who feels like people owe me stuff.  A little Holy Spirit infusion, and I know how to play nicely and keep real peace.

God is good, which is really good, because I am generally not.  Glad He’s on my side, as I navigate the business of being a neighbor.





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