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8. Isn’t it a wonderful life?

October 18, 2011

I have a neighbor who piles junk outside of her house– or so it seems. Every few weeks something new appears. It sits for a while, and then, usually, mysteriously, eventually disappears: torn boxes of newspapers, broken Ikea furniture, the empty frame of a 1960s- era television. It has tapered wooden legs and I almost took it home.

Ours is an in-between street. One block away and down the hill, restaurants, bars and beauty salons squish in besides Safeway and Big Lots.  That street, traditionally Latino, shows signs of gentrifying but slowly. Up the hill, gentrification has come. Here we have the library, the health food store, the butcher that sells only locally sourced meat, and the gym that caters to both dogs and their people. On my street, in-between, a beautifully restored Edwardian cottage sits next to its former twin, now clad in faded pink aluminum siding – and this contrast feels normal.

Our is also a fabulous street. I have never lived anywhere, including the house I grew up in, where I have known so many of my neighbors. Many of us have kids around the same age, and we share birthdays and childcare and rides. On the rare day I wash my car out front, invariably a group congregates around my stoop, chatting and idly pulling weeds from the planter. It’s like living in Bedford Falls.

Honestly, I love it. But living in a small-not-so-small town has drawbacks. The gossip, for one thing, can be viscous. And sometimes I wonder – who are these people anyway? People I know from geography and nothing else? Yesterday, a new development: A large cardboard sign appeared tied to the tree outside the junk-piling house.  It reads, in big block letters: “Do not pile junk here. We, the neighbors, are sick and tired of it. If we catch you we will call the police. We are watching.”

The pronouns in this note provoke so many questions. First, who is the implicit but unstated “you, the dumper”?  Is “you” the resident of the junk-house? Or did that resident write the note themselves? Is the resident the “we,” directing the note to people coming from outside the neighborhood? Has this house somehow become a designated citywide dumping spot? Does the neighborhood have nefarious invaders? Maybe it’s more sinister then that. Is there a secret dumper among us? I imagine one of my chatty neighbors, dragging rolls of fraying carpet down the street at two in the morning: drop, look both ways, scurry home.

More – I want to know – who, precisely is the “we” and are they watching me too? The note was unsigned. I, the anonymous author of this blog, don’t like anonymous notes – especially accusatory ones. I kind of already feel like I’m in trouble. Or  maybe I, as someone who has occasionally experienced irritation at the junk, am part of the “we”.” Have I been called out as one of the police-calling watchers? Am I an unknowing agent of the ideological anti-junk enforcement squad? This begs the question, whose side am I on? Do I have to choose?

In the case that there are outside-dumpers – I’m ok with this. I can be part of the Us that represents people who actually live in the neighborhood vs the Them – the barbarians who do not. And if someone around here is sneaking garbage out in front of someone else’s house – well, I can’t condone that. I guess that makes me part of the We who abide by the conventions of an ethics I can get behind (as opposed to the You who is a sneak).  But if this note is directed at the junk house resident, who – in my imagination – has never been directly approached by the anonymous letter writer, who has never been simply asked up front, not to put their junk on the street – then I get squirmy. Even if the junk bothered me (which it really doesn’t most of the time), still – isn’t a direct approach better? I like to think that if my dog is barking, or I’ve blocked a driveway, someone is going to come to me and tell me.  Harder, but equally important – if someone else’s behaviors are disturbing me, isn’t it up to me to politely inform them of that fact? Believe me – I get it. This is hard – maybe one of the hardest things I can contemplate doing. I hate conflict! I hate risk! I would rather be righteous and sulk and write anonymous notes myself.  But shouldn’t I try to work with others– embracing all the messiness that entails? Shouldn’t I try to build intimate and healthy relationships with others in this small community – whether that community is comprised of my street, this city, this world? Idealistic? Absolutely. Easy to put into daily practice? No way. Essential? To me…. yes. Isn’t this precisely the work I have been put here to do?

Saying that, I kind of actually liked the note and the conversation in my head it has engendered. It’s good for me to see other people getting righteous and angry and not behaving perfectly with others. It helps me be more forgiving of myself for my own multiple flaws. After all, Bedford Falls – the iconic small town – is a cinematic fantasy, a literally black-and-white world, where the existence of one totally bad guy allowed for the existence of one totally good guy. Let me be clear – yes, according to the movie, George Bailey’s very existence, the titular wonderful life, is a condition of Bedford Falls’ possibility. Without George, the utopia of Bedford Falls, becomes the dystopia of Pottersville. But what I’m pointing out is that the evil slum lord, Henry F. Potter is equally necessary. Potter gives George shape, just as George does Potter. Of course in real life – specifically in my real life Bedfordpotterfallsville – the good and the bad becomes much more blurry – the “you” and the “we” and the “us” and the “them” are hard to distinguish – especially on those old tv sets with beautifully tapered legs.



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