We live in an old neighborhood, about a 15-minute drive from downtown. It’s full of bungalows and “four squares” from the 1910’s through 1930’s, plus a few filled-in brick ranch houses from the following decades. The houses are in widely-varying states of repair. Some are beautifully kept-up with extensive landscaping. A few are abandoned and have yards full of poison ivy that creeps out onto the sidewalk. Most are somewhere in between. It’s one of the few racially integrated neighborhoods in our very segregated city, which is one of the reasons that we picked it. We also loved the big yards and the old oak trees and the fact that it is relatively safe. There are also lots of queer families here, which was a definite plus.
There have been a few concerning incidents, including a neighbor who was mugged when walking home at 2am and a shooting a few blocks away on the main street. But most of the time we feel a bit like we live in Mayberry or in Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. Tad knows our mail carrier and greets him by name. On summer evenings, folks sit out on their porches waiting for the ice cream truck. Early in the morning on the first Christmas after we moved in, we heard a bizarre loud creaking and squealing sound. We poked our heads out the window to see two kids from a house up the street hopping up and down the street on their brand new pogo sticks, “creak-squeak, creak-squeak, creak-squeak.”
One of the best things about our neighborhood is the relationships we have formed with our neighbors. As soon as Tadpole could walk, we began making frequent pilgrimages down the hill to the main street at the far end of our block to watch the traffic (or “car-truck-go,” as Tad called it). We now know most of the folks who live in all of the houses between ours and this main street, and they are an interesting mix of folks. But our most interesting and complex relationship is with the couple who live across the street from us, who I’ll call Dee and Johnny.
They are an African-American couple, probably in their 50s. We have always been polite but it seemed clear that we were coming from very different places. During the first few years we lived here, Dee ran a home daycare. The kids were cute and she did some neat activities with them. But one day Roo saw her including the kids in the activities of daily life by having them help her spray pesticide on her plants. Another day they were learning about dinosaurs so her group of preschoolers watched Jurassic Park. We were glad that Dee retired from her daycare before Tadpole was born so we didn’t have to come up with a polite explanation about why we would never in a million years send our kid there.
One day when I was pregnant and just starting to show, I ran into Dee as I was leaving for work. She called from across the street, “are you pregnant?” I told her I was. She called back, “how’d that happen?!” I told her that I would be happy to talk with her about it another time, when we weren’t calling across the street. We’ve never had that follow-up conversation, and I suspect that Dee and Johnny are still perplexed about Tadpole’s origins.
So we had a polite relationship, but I think each couple was a mystery to the other. Then Tadpole arrived. He was born just before Christmas, and that Christmas Day was a hellish one for Roo and me. Tadpole alternately screamed for hours and slept for hours (which the books all told us he wasn’t supposed to do). We tried over and over to get him to eat, with almost no success. We called a lactation consultant at the hospital who was completely unhelpful, and most other offices we would have called were closed for the holiday. In the midst of this, Dee knocked on our door with plates piled high with food from her family’s Christmas dinner. She knew we were vegetarians, so she hadn’t put any meat on the plates, though she had included some veggies seasoned with bacon because she was unsure whether vegetarians would eat such a thing. Her thoughtfulness and care in the midst of our fear and exhaustion still makes me tear up.
Tadpole and Dee and Johnny have been smitten with each other since that day. Years ago he began recognizing their cars and keeping track of whether they were home or not. If we run into them, he does a little dance of excitement and calls out to them. They scold us when they don’t think Tadpole is wearing enough layers. They call him their adopted grandchild and bring him presents for his birthday and Christmas. When they notice a sale at Wal-Mart (a store Roo and I generally boycott) they buy clothes for him and give them to us.
This kind of relationship is one of the reasons we love living in this neighborhood. It’s good for all three of us to have regular contact with people who are very different from us, folks we wouldn’t necessarily meet at our church or workplaces. We are perplexed by many of the choices that Dee and Johnny make and I am sure we are equally puzzling to them. But we find ways to build a relationship despite this.