Thy Neighbor, Thyself: You Never Really Know Everything About Your Neighborhood


I met a neighbor yesterday who I've known for the last seven years.

I've known him ever since I got my first dog and started walking it and started seeing this man regularly in the morning, sometimes late afternoon, sitting on the steps at the end of his walkway. We'd nod and speak, but I never knew his name, or he mine. It didn't feel really necessary; we had an instant, easy familiarity that black people tend to have with each other whether they are neighbors or not, a familiarity that allows conversations to go on for years without names ever entering into them.

I didn't ask the man his name yesterday. I stopped as usual with my dogs to say hello. He was sitting in his spot on the steps and the edge of the sidewalk. He nodded at the dogs and smiled, as usual, and then he said, "Do you know what happened to that young couple down the block? They used to be out a lot. I been wondering where they went."

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He meant my friends who'd moved out a few months ago after suffering through dangerously bad relations with their own next-door neighbor. I wrote about this some time ago. This couple had moved to Inglewood a couple of years ago with every intention of staying. They were always out on the block, talking to people, walking their own three dogs, fixing up their small house. They were Latinos in a sea of black folk, but that hardly seemed to matter. It may have had nothing to do with their leaving. But their next-door neighbors were hostile, a hostility that started out small over things like street parking and culminated in a shooting at the neighbors' house --nothing directed at the couple, but when they reported the shooting to police, the hostility next door increased tenfold. Things got cold and tense, and the specter of the shooting loomed daily. Finally my friends left, very reluctantly, but convinced that they couldn't live comfortably on the block of their dreams. The whole affair angered and saddened me.

When I told all this to the man whose name I didn't know, he nodded in a kind of confirmation. He figured that, he said. He'd been on this block for going on 30 years and knew the troubled neighbors very well. It had a history of gang problems. The family's two sons had died violently in the last ten years, one a block or so away -- he gestured to the elementary school to the east -- the other right on the front porch of the house. The man said his own son had grown up with the boys, gone to school with them. The gang problems persisted after that, hung around. The daughter who still lived in the house had a boyfriend with gang ties, the man said. He was sure of it. Yet the boyfriend was polite and friendly, scrupulous about saying "yes, sir" and "no, sir." But all the same he was in a gang. The man shrugged.

I was still reeling to hear about the dead boys, boys that this man had known. Boys that everybody in the community must have known. But the man betrayed no feeling about the incidents except a kind of relief. Turns out the whole block had been distraught about the gang-troubled neighbors years before the young couple came and went. Years before I came the block had a petition going to get the family out, to get rid of the trouble that was like a cancer. And then the shootings happened. The petition lost momentum. "When those boys started dying out, didn't really need it no more," the man said matter-of-factly.

The man's son had gone to college. When the neighbor boy he had grown up with went a different way and got involved with gangs, he'd called his father and said, "Don't talk to him. We don't know him anymore." That was fine by the father. He's a Vietnam vet with PTSD, and the last thing he wanted was any drama, he told me, especially any shooting. He made that clear to the troubled family, his longtime neighbors. Then he kind of put the whole thing away as best he could.

I thought, coping is all anybody can seem to do. All of us coping by getting rid of the trouble, either through a petition or through moving away or by looking another way. Also by looking at people another way: if you demonize somebody, they are not your neighbor or friend next door, but something less. A threat. A cancer. But their humanity, who they are underneath the cancer -- that is still there. That humanity is the irreducible part of the fraction, and fracturedness, that black communities have become. We can only divide ourselves to a certain point. In math, that division is infinite; in life, it is not. Certainly not in the life of my neighborhood.

Too bad about that couple, the man repeated. They seemed real nice. Just what we needed around here. As I gathered up my dogs on the sidewalk where they had been lying, taking it easy, he told me his name. "Nice to meet you," he said, smiling. "Finally."

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