Pushing Thirty

and shedding pretentions

A Scarry Neighborhood

I like to read travel essays. So much so that a certain yearly anthology of great travel essays finds its way into my Christmas stocking each year as a perennially delightful gift (thanks mom, dad, sybs, and wifey-poo). My absolute favorite essay to date– having perused three or four anthologies, and a few subscriptions to “those kinds” of magazines– is an essay by Dave Eggers called Hitchhiking Through Cuba. The climax of the essay comes when he gives a provincial character (a dental assistant, if memory serves) a ride because she had lent out her bicycle. Not long after, he sees her again, now waving and riding her recovered bicycle. Eggers comments on this portrait of affable happenstance: Cuba has become a giant Richard Scarry Neighborhood.

I had a similar experience today at my apartment complex. Apartment living should feel more like community than it usually does. With so many people sharing the same parking lots and breezeways, and walking along the same footpaths to the mailboxes and apartment office, you’d think you’d have tons of cheery interaction. But it’s not like that. People are more wary than welcoming of other people in an apartment complex. I think we all wish we were living with at least a quarter acre of space between one another, and not just a single wall or ceiling.

But this evening was different. Bran and I, after a dip in the pool, stopped in the office just before closing and had a few pleasant words with the office staff. They reminded us of the pool party they were planning for tomorrow and personally invited us (I think I’ll go; they seemed to take pride in the fact that they hired a DJ and were giving away prizes), and I’m sure it was because we had our towels draped on our necks and were leaving soggy footprints everywhere. We slogged our way back up to our apartment to prepare for date night.

After a shower, I slathered my face with shaving cream and walked out to mention something to Bran. I noticed that our hanging gardens (a few window boxes mounted on our concrete porch) needed pruning. So I threw on an Italian muscle t-shirt and stepped out onto my balcony with a face full of shaving cream and began snipping basil. At that moment, the most delightful transaction occurred.

I looked down and saw Joe, my neighbor below, sitting on the curb in his wheel chair.

“Are you going to the pool party tomorrow?” I said.

“Well I might just make a showing, but I probably won’t get in the water,” he said.

“I think that’s all I’ll do,” I said, “because I have to be somewhere.” Joe has lived in the apartments for 6 years and he has a speech impediment that makes him talk extremely slowly. But he’s not the least self-conscious. I think he used to be a schoolteacher, and he carries a dignity that comes from having made a significant civic contribution. I think he’s proud to have been a teacher. I’ve never asked him why he’s in a wheel chair.

“Can you believe that in the 6 years I’ve been here I’ve only been in the hot tub one time?” he said, slowly. “I just never saw what the big deal was.”

“I can believe it,” I said. “Every time I get in a hot tub I get out feeling awful. I say, now why did I do that? All I did was make myself too hot. Now when my wife and I lived in Utah, we had a membership as resort workers to a spa on the top floor of a hotel. We’d go there all the time at ten at night when all of our guests were sleeping, and we’d sit in the hot tub in the 30-degree cold with a great view of the stars and the snow-capped mountains. That was great.”

“That sounds nice,” He said. Just then, Diana Gonzalez, the general manager of the apartments, walked by. That’s clearly her married name because she looks like she must be Irish, with Nordic-blonde hair, pale skin, and light eyes. She looked up at me as I was pruning and foaming.

“Hey, we left the workout room open for you. I think the carpet is dry now.”

“Thanks! I appreciate it!” I said. And I meant it; that was a sweet gesture, even though I had no plans to work out and wasn’t really sure why she thought that I had that in mind.

“Are you coming to the pool party tomorrow? We’re going to have a DJ, and we’re giving away prizes. We’d love to see you guys there.”

“I think we might.” Now, from the same direction Diana had come, came a lanky Latino youth who I’ve seen around the office, but whose name I’ve not yet learned.

“What’s up, Santa Clause,” he said in a shrill cartoon voice.

“Hey buddy,” I said, and smiled. I wondered if he was her son, or maybe her brother-in-law. Diana looked at Joe.

“Any big plans tonight?” she said.

“When my ride comes I’m off to a potluck, and then we’re going to play a little bingo for prizes. It’s at the church, and we’re playing for prizes, not for money. Do you have any big plans?”

“My plan now is to get out of these shoes. My feet are swollen and I’m glad it’s Friday.”

“Well, you have a good evening.”

“Have a good night, Diana,” I said. She said the same and smiled and waved. Joe’s ride pulled up just at that moment, and so we waved to him and each other and then dispersed. I went back inside and gloried in the whole exchange, my own little Richard Scarry Neighborhood. Here, we all came from different places and had separate lives, but we lived in community. And we were all essential characters in one another’s story, our own pleasant evenings: the retiree in the wheel chair (who’s cheerfulness disarms your pity); the Apartment Manger whose Spanish last name and Latino son (probably) who represents productivity and cultural multiplicity (we’re all just people on God’s Big Green Earth); and me, the upstairs neighbor who mixes prosaic tasks like shaving and balcony-gardening, suggesting that both ought to be relished as a rich components of personal life in community. And we’re all having a beautiful evening after a hard but rewarding day at work, and tomorrow we’ll meet at the pool party to enjoy our community to the tunes of the DJ, and I hope we win some prizes because we don’t play for money, only for prizes.

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August 22, 2008 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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