So your special lady is pregnant. Congratulations! Your life is about to change forever, in ways you can’t even imagine. Let’s start with your address. That’s right, a 400 square-foot studio on the sixth floor of a walk-up will be woefully inadequate once the nesting instinct kicks in. Say goodbye to the after-hours clubs, the siren parades, and the early morning garbage man practicing for his Blue Man Group audition. Say hello to the suburbs: You’re headed to the land of lawns and privacy fences.
You’re not the first to make this pilgrimage. The trail is well worn by those who came before. You’ll meet some of them when the moving van pulls up to the Craftsman bungalow you outbid five other hungry, vicious, pregnant couples and one congenitally wealthy artist type to occupy; others you’ll encounter in the days and months later. But before that happens, here’s a quick rundown of those you’ll meet.
She’d like to know which church you attend, who your people are, where you went to high school, where your children go to school, what time you leave for work, your license plate number, and your blood type (for emergencies). She knows which husband is sleeping on the couch, which kids curse and sneak cigarettes, and whose bills are past due. When she’s not peeking through the front curtains, she’s consulting NextDoor and her police scanner for reports of suspicious characters.
When you move in, The Busybody may come over with a fruitcake or a Jello mold to welcome you. Like the witch’s apple in Snow White, The Busybody’s gift is poisoned, an ingratiating diversionary tactic. While you exclaim over the fruitcake’s unusual colors, her eyes wander over your possessions, evaluating your station in life, judging your taste in cookware, furniture, reading material — anything she can observe without getting a search warrant.
Long before you’ve unpacked, the entire neighborhood will know the position of your bed in the bedroom, the names of your pets, and your salary. The Busybody thrives on information, and she can be bested by taking advantage of her gluttony. Launch a disinformation campaign by leaving scandalous objects — a copy of The Communist Manifesto, a knock-off Kitchen Aid mixer, a Miami Dolphins jersey — in plain sight. When you exit the house, shout, “I know you are but what am I?!” over your shoulder as you slam the door. Dig the hole for your new maple tree in the middle of the night. With any luck, you’ll throw out so much noise, she’ll never be able to tune into the signal.
Polar opposite and natural enemy of The Busybody, Boo suffers from social anxiety. Or maybe he’s lived on the block for so many years that he’s exhausted all possible topics of conversation and now simply wants to be left alone to construct scale models of Mordor in his basement. You can fill in any specifics you like because you’ll never learn the actual specifics — since you’ll never meet Boo.
For the first three months you live on his block, you’ll be convinced that Boo’s house is vacant. Then one evening in December you’ll arrive home after work and see that the string of Christmas lights hanging from Boo’s gutter are twinkling bright. You noticed them, mute and sad, months ago when you moved in, and you considered them further evidence of a derelict property. Now, a Christmas miracle! But by whose hand? You’ll never know.
You’ll never see Boo on the front porch or standing at the kitchen window. He’ll never appear near his mailbox or sitting in a lawn chair in his backyard. You might not even be able to see his backyard. We once lived across the street from a Boo Radley type, whose lawn had been returned to a primeval state of forested wilderness. A driveway revealed the existence of a house, but nothing else was discernible. We were only sure a person lived there after he died, when his relatives clear-cut the property. We never had a better neighbor.
Perhaps they are a group of grad students. Perhaps they are operating an unlicensed boarding house. Perhaps they are drug dealers. Perhaps they are gravitating toward the same beautifully photographed Airbnb. For whatever reason, the house they occupy is a blur of to-ing and fro-ing. The front door is forever banging open and slamming closed. The driveway is overfull, vomiting its vehicular contents onto the lawn and the street. The couch-surfers who take up residence maintain an extensive and robust network of like-minded friends, who are invited at any hour of the day to drop in for a visit or a move-in. Any night of the week is the right night for a house party and their keggers outdraw Browns home games.
Like a fungus, the organism that is the group home lacks a brain. Like a fungus, the organism that is the group home is very hard to kill.
When I was young, we lived across from a house like this. I remember waking up several times in the night, confused and frightened by the goings on out my bedroom window. I’d sit awake, peering through the glass, listening to the shrieking and yelling. Eventually, my mom would call the cops and things would quiet down — but not for long. Within a few days, another raucous party would spring from nothing, like toadstools rising after a long rain. I learned that in the end, a crowd is unconquerable and inescapable. It will move only when it chooses to, taking to the wind like so many spores, searching for a new neighborhood to infect. Woe unto the flippers who buy its remains.
Slice open this man, and his guts bleed apple pie and American flags. His bushes are cubed, his leaves are raked into perfectly portioned bags. His lawn remains green all year, each blade of grass two-and-a-half inches tall. His flower beds are free of weeds, his roses bloom boldly. The Groundskeeper’s property stands in silent rebuke to everyone else on the block — the other lawns sprouting dandelions, flowerbeds choked with ivy, ragged bushes waving in the breeze. The Groundskeeper need never say a disparaging word. The plants he maintains speak for him.
We used to live next to an elderly man like this. He was incredibly nice to us — always happy to chat with the kids, never cross when they scampered onto his lawn. He knew he’d be able to put things right. He had supreme confidence in his abilities. Every three days, no matter how blazing hot it was, he’d mow his lawn. The rows were precise and even. The edging along the sidewalk straighter than a yardstick. He’d water in the dryest months, a soft pendulum of spray cascading back and forth across the deepest green. Sometimes, he’d sit in the carport and gaze at the proof of his mastery.
Once, a summer storm tore down a few large limbs from the tree in our front yard. After the rain quit, I went out with a handsaw to do my neighborly duty, to put my property in order, to best the chaos of nature. My elderly neighbor appeared at my shoulder holding a chainsaw. He stepped in front of me, sectioning the limb into two-foot logs. It took about five minutes. I thanked him. Then he walked back to his house. He never said a word. He was just doing his job.
The Lah Dee Dahs
A few Fridays ago, a notice appeared in our mailbox. A sheet of paper, creased in half lengthways. It was printed in Comic Sans. The text begged the pardon of the neighborhood for an impending weekend’s worth of home renovation noises. The authors had hired contractors, and the schedule required the overtime. The authors expressed dismay at the nuisance, but it really couldn’t be helped. The subtext was clear: excuse us, we’ve decided to spend the average yearly salary of the American worker to refashion our home so that yours appears plainer by comparison.
We get it. You’re rich. Lah Dee Dah.
This is only one example. The Humblebrags might instead invite you for a Sunday cruise on their yacht or a holiday weekend at their mountain estate. They might display the spoils of world travels in their living room and bicker about which year of vintage Merlot to bring up from the cellar. No matter the occasion or the conversation, The Humblebrags have an anecdote or a material good that outshines all others on offer. They are living their best life, an existence you will never know, but they don’t want to bore you with all the details, it’s no big deal.
There is no keeping up with these Joneses. Their cars will always be shinier, their televisions will always be larger, their lives will always be more glamorous. Until the zombie apocalypse. That’s when you loot their beautiful house and watch the global carnage on their giant TV.
The man and wife are unfailingly kind to each other and to their neighbors. They never display their wealth, pry into other peoples’ business, or break noise ordinances. Their children rake leaves and shovel sidewalks for elderly residents because it’s the right thing to do. They raise money for hurricane victims and renovations to the old library down the street. Their Fourth of July cookouts are tasteful, well attended without being too crowded and free of spoiled potato salad. Their home is spotless and uncluttered. Their cats shit in the toilet and never shed. Their dogs have forgotten how to bark and would never consider begging at the table.
Their daughter leads the high school debate team. She volunteers to teach ESL classes on the weekends. Their son has invited you to his gallery opening next week. He tried to get the date changed, he explains, because it conflicts with his fifth grade field day.
They exercise regularly, serve on nonprofit boards, attend opening galas for the opera and the ballet. His record collection is impeccable. She hasn’t touched the violin in years, but when she’s urged to bring it out at a dinner party, everyone is moved to tears by her playing. In their house, shabby chic actually looks good.
Everyone in the neighborhood detests them. They’ll be the first ones fed to the zombies.
If you haven’t recognized yourself so far, it probably means you’re one of us.
We forget to buy Halloween candy until the afternoon of the 31st, and we let the paint peel off the front porch. When we buy a new car, it’s something gray, safe, and sensible. We coach kids’ soccer teams and fall asleep watching college football. We’re pudgy and wrinkled, and our kids mostly ignore us — especially when they should be getting back on defense instead of ball watching. We’ll wave at you even though we can’t remember your name. Our houses are cluttered and lived-in and would never be featured on a home tour. Sometimes we talk about throwing a party, but it would be a lot of work to clean up. We meant to go to that “Save the Library” thing, but then we forgot about it. Sometime before Memorial Day we’ll rake the leaves.
We have a million work and family obligations floating around our minds on any given day, and we probably won’t get around to inviting you over until next year. Don’t worry, we’ll bake brownies. No nuts, though. Didn’t you say you’re allergic to nuts? Maybe that was someone else. Anyway, welcome to the neighborhood!