SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
April 7, 2019

The Good Neighbor

 

“Hey, how’s it goin’ there, Jim?”

            I was heading back to the stoop to have a smoke after dumping some trash in the cans out front when I heard the slightly nasal, rapid-fire voice.

            “Oh, doing fine, Ed. How about yourself?”

            I’m doin’ good. Hey, let me ask you something.”

            I felt my jaw tighten slightly but doubted he’d notice. I knew what was coming. Not the specifics maybe, but the nature of what always followed Ed’s perennial intro. “Sure,” I said.

            Ed, who lived in the house next door, was a fairly short man in his seventies, balding, with a white beard and a carefully manicured handlebar mustache. He’d grown up in Wyoming, moved to New York in the Eighties, and had been living in that house with his wife Edith ever since. He was by all accounts a very good neighbor. The house, from the outside, was very well-kept. He was among the first out there shoveling whenever it snowed, the back yard was neat and trim, he always said hello.

            That was the impression I got ten years ago when I first moved in. Nice guy who wanted to keep the block looking nice and wanted people to behave nicely. When our original downstairs neighbors moved out in 2015, he’d even made it clear he wanted Morgan and me to take over the ground floor apartment, because he said that way he’d know he was getting nice neighbors down there.

            “So have you or Morgan been throwing bird seed out your kitchen window onto the roof?” He asked with a bit of feigned incredulity, as if he couldn’t really believe we’d ever do anything that monstrous.

            The simple answer to his question was yes, of course we have. The back yard, which we can’t access but can see through the kitchen window, is teeming with unexpected wildlife, from squirrels, possums, feral cats and raccoons to over a dozen species of birds. We have crows, jays, cardinals, robins, mockingbirds, gulls, finches, rock doves, sparrows, hawks, lord knows what the hell else. On warm afternoons the bird racket can be deafening. I don’t much care myself, but Morgan loves animals, loves birds, and so yeah, she tosses bird seed out there on the roof of the first floor addition not only to feed them, but to get the chance to see them up close.

            “So what’s the trouble?” I asked Ed, wondering what noodgie direction this was gonna take.

            “Well, I was out on my roof a couple days ago, and I saw all these little things all over. Then I looked over at your roof and saw a pile of it. It was these little black sesame seeds, and they were up on my roof and down in my yard. I cleaned it all up, and checked the next day, and there was another big pile outside your window. I figured they must be blowing over from that, but I wasn’t sure how they could’ve gotten onto your roof. Then I saw there was a big pile of it, just a whole ton of it, in your yard at the bottom of the downspout.”

            In short he was asking me, in his own passive-aggressive way, to tell my wife to stop feeding the birds, a very simple thing that brings her a good deal of joy, because some had ended up in Ed’s yard. I wanted to point out that we weren’t talking about styrofoam peanuts or empty beer cans, that they were, y’know, seeds, and what the birds didn’t eat the squirrels would. And anything that wasn’t eaten would blow away. Even if it didn’t, it was biodegradable. I knew bringing any of this up was pointless.

            “Now you got Pete down there,” he rolled on. “Real nice guy. But he throws all that bird seed in his front yard for the pigeons.”

            Pete, half a dozen doors down, was the block’s St. Francis of Assisi. Along with feeding the pigeons, he has a houseful of animals of all sorts, many of whom he’d nursed back to health after finding them injured on the street.

            “Thing about Pete,” I countered, “is that he keeps all the pigeons centralized at his place. They know where to go and don’t bother anyone else.”

            “Yeah, but he just throws bags of birdseed out there. You could scoop up big handfuls of it,” Ed said, clearly unimpressed by my point. “And the pigeons poop all over. I can tell you the neighbors on both sides hate him. They complain and he doesn’t care. He just keeps doing what he wants.”

            With that, he was driving his point home by illustrating how a Bad Neighbor behaves. Christ, he was a living mental hygiene film. He’s such a fucking little noodge. Nevertheless, as much as I wanted to upend him in one of the sparkling trash cans he dutifully hoses out and scrubs every week, I told him I’d mention something to Morgan about the bird seed.

            Later that afternoon I ran into Mary, who rents a room on the second floor of Ed’s house. “Did he bring up the bird seed yet?” she asked. There was a hint of a disbelieving chuckle in her voice.

            “Yup. So he’s been bitching to you about it too?”

            “Yeah,” she said. “It’s been eating at him for days. He’s such an asshole. You know, when I came home after my mother’s funeral, I was carrying her dog with me.”

            (For the record, the dog in question is a tiny, elderly thing who not only doesn’t bark, but can’t bark thanks to some kind of jaw disease.)

            “I’d been gone for three weeks making all the arrangements,” Mary told me, “I’d promised her before she died I’d take care of the dog. I walked in the front door, and the first thing he says—I was just back after my mother died, and the first thing he said to me was, ‘I wish you’d asked us first before bringing a dog in this house.’ It’s like living upstairs from my father, except my father was more reasonable.”

            (Also for the record, Ed and Edith had owned dogs in the past.)

            In spite of my initial good impression, it later occurred to me Ed was the one who, not long after I arrived on our block, introduced me to the art and science of passive-aggressive block shaming.

            Ed, see, has some very clear and strict notions about proper behavior among his neighbors. In a way I can almost—almost—appreciate it, if only he wasn’t such a fascist about it. If someone doesn’t keep their courtyard or sidewalk as neat as he does, or their back yard as tidy as his, or if their general demeanor or behavior runs counter to his own, he feels it necessary to take steps to correct these flagrant indiscretions. In short, to paraphrase William Burroughs, he’s a shit, who finds it impossible to mind his own business and let others do the same.

            That night when I told Morgan about my encounter with Ed earlier in the day, passing along his request that she refrain from feeding the birds, a whole slew of Ed the Noodge stories began coming back to us.

            I remember dragging the trash cans out to the curb one evening a few winters back. Being unable to see what I was doing, I apparently inadvertently left our building’s trash cans a little too close to his trash cans. That night he took it upon himself to not only move our cans, but to move them to a spot where the garbage men would never see them.

            When our former downstairs neighbors planted what Ed considered an invasive species of flower in their garden, he hopped over the low wall separating the two yards and ripped them out of the ground. A few months later, when it was clear these same downstairs neighbors weren’t going to do anything to prevent the army of feral cats they’d cultivated from pissing on Ed’s lawn, he had his entire lawn ripped out and replaced with bricks.

            To take things one step further, his new, clean, sterile brick back yard was decorated with a few small planters. To ensure the feral cats wouldn’t piss in those, he surrounded the plants with mothballs. Now, mothballs do nothing to repel cats. What they do instead is inflict immediate and irreparable liver damage on cats. I suspect he was well aware of this when he picked up the mothballs.

            Knowing I can’t see, he’s nevertheless criticized the thoroughness of my snow shoveling efforts, but never offered to help. He’s chastised me (in his patented passive-aggressive manner) for dropping cigarette butts in front of the house. More recently, he’s stomped down into the back yard at two in the morning in his bathrobe to yell at our present neighbors, who were having a small party in our back yard. He also yelled at our previous first floor neighbors for letting their pit bulls run around the back yard.

            Afterwards he inevitably complains to me about these people and their unconscionable behavior, expecting me to empathize. Thinking back over the past decade, it seems all of the extended conversations I’ve had with Ed involved him complaining about a neighbor’s behavior. He always seemed flummoxed when people didn’t act like him.

            The irony of his obsession with his back yard is that he’s never out there save for one day a year. On the Fourth of July he always has a small group of friends and family over, and roasts an entire lamb on his enormous grill for the occasion. It’s a process that begins around seven in the morning and continues all day, and the thick, oily smoke inevitably flows straight into our apartment windows. We’ve never complained, but have learned to close the windows and pray for rain whenever we see him setting up the grill again.

            A few weeks ago he told me he and Edith—who is quiet and extremely nice—had put their house on the market. They were getting up there in years, and couldn’t handle the upkeep anymore.

            “I’m sorry to hear that,” I lied. Then I lied again when I said, “We’ll miss you.”

            “Yeah, there’s a video walk-through of the whole house on the realtor’s website,” he said. “So let me ask you, how much can you still see?”

            I don’t mind blindo questions in general, but hate that one. “Um, not a whole lot. Videos are way beyond me now. Can’t even see the screen.”

            “I’m asking because when you were living in the basement, I saw you through the window and you were sitting real close to the TV screen.”

            “Well, that was ten years ago. Back then I could still discern a little motion on the screen if I got close enough, but things have gotten much worse. Nature of the disease.”

            “Maybe you could have Morgan look at it, then.”

            “Sure.”

            It took me a second to register he’d just told me he’d been peeking through my window to see what I was up to. Thing is, the way the apartment was set up and the way those windows were positioned, he would have had to put in a Herculean effort to spy on what I was up to, which he apparently did. What the fuck? What kind of creepy asshole was this? And now he’s the one asking us to stop feeding a few goddamn birds? My immediate impulse was to grab the bag of bird seed and dump the remaining few pounds all over his front stoop.

            Yeah, we’ll be glad to see that fucker go. But now my lingering question is, why did people—and we aren’t the only ones—continue to do what he asked? Maybe we were just trying to be neighborly.

 

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