UNITED STATES—Katy is the neighbor with the junky porch and lots of cats. Lotte was the 96-year-old German neighbor with incontinence and an aversion toward bathing that manifest near the end of a long rich life.
The foul scent of Lotte’s dried urine and unbathed body was sharp, I might even say tangy. The smell reached out all the way to the walkway that divides the little houses. Those who lived next to Lotte knew the source of the stench, though we didn’t talk or fuss about it. I developed the habit of breathing through my mouth when dropped by to say ‘hi’ and so could still appreciate her smile and cheer.
Anyhow, a third neighbor reported the neighbor with the cats and junky porch to the city. All the stuff was a fire hazard, the cats a menace. This had unintended consequences. The authorities came and cited Katy. They blamed the cats for the vile stench. Katy got fined $300 she could ill afford. And a wooden fence soon went up in front of the junky but intriguing old curiosity shop of her porch.
What a shame: the place was full of old paperbacks and gongs and chandeliers. The fence came and I was afraid it would cut down on the number of neighborly encounters we’d be having alomg the cottage court walkway. It has been a trend on the last few years to put up fences between the front of the houses and the central walkway. The fences go up and it’s too easy to avoid people. Yes, we love people and sometimes we want to leave them. Something we don’t readily admit, so it was very refreshing to hear the British novelist Graham Greene say in an interview:
“I very much enjoy my friends in London. And then the time come when I must go to the airport. I have to get a ticket and go… This may explain, in part, all the travel in my life…”
Maybe it was the way I was raised, to be very distrustful about people, and sometimes when I am freed of an obligation to deal with one, there’s still a kind of palpable relief.
Nevertheless, so much of the richness of life owes to friction and harmony on dealing with others. Back before all the fences, I had a wonderful neighbor who always read and smoked cigarettes he’d roll himself on his porch and there we often drank wine.
When I’d pass his house along the walkway, it became a time to pause and talk, about books, about politics, about the ways to motivate people. Is monetary punishment (i.e. a parking ticket) the way to motivate people. In the end we came to agreement that it was. Then this neighbor put up a fence, and it was very convenient to walk past and get to whatever important thing waited at my home.
Then after the passage of time, I’d meet this neighbor again, and would realize how impoverished my life had been after these porch encounters ceased, I was the poorer for it. And with the fences going up, there is this tendency for people to isolate. Thank heaven Katy had been a stalwart neighbor with or without the fence, but it still shuts off something.
Graydon Miller is the author of “Later Bloomer: Tales from Darkest Hollywood” (on Amazon).