Monday, January 30, 2006

Neighborhood Watch

I have become Gladys Kravitz. Like the nosy "Bewitched" denizen who was always poking into Samantha's business, I have taken to spying on the guy across the street.

He has an illegal construction dumpster in front of his house. He is not remodeling, he’s pulling a scam on the city. I watch a parade of pick-up trucks pull alongside throughout the day, coming from goodness knows where, as workmen pitch concrete blocks and shovel gravel from their flat beds into the dumpster. Each toss ends with a thud that echoes throughout my house.

When the dumpster is filled to capacity, a semi comes to haul it away and swap in a fresh substitute. The process takes close to a half-hour, with much “Beep, Beeping” accompanying each shift into reverse as the truck maneuvers our narrow street.

I peer out the front window, shooting darts of anger at our unscrupulous neighbor. I see him standing on the sidewalk, preening like a new father as the semi positions the replacement dumpster. I would love to confront the guy in person, but rumor has it that he’s either a former gang banger or ex-con or possibly both. I picture him torching our condo building or having me “silenced,” so I anonymously flip him the finger from behind our blinds.

But he doesn’t have me completely cowed. I’ve started to keep a log of the pick-up truck deposits and have reported the situation to the city’s 3-1-1 line, which followed up with the Department of Streets & Sanitation. (I am not alone in my mania. Both L. and H., who live upstairs, have contacted the Alderman’s office.) They’ve sent an inspector and I’m waiting for the report. I am certain that if anyone can out muscle a low-rent thug, it’s the Streets & San Man.

It’s not just the noise that aggravates me or the fact that the dumpster is taking up precious parking space, although feuds certainly have been fought over far less. It’s that I don’t like living on the same block with the sort of person who could be described as a goon. I don’t like this hint of criminality invading my personal space. I don’t like this metal bin reminding me that my home is not nearly the refuge I want it to be.

We can paint the walls Cucumber and Tucson Red, fill our rooms with Crate & Barrel and Room & Board (OK, we do have those shelves from IKEA) and surround ourselves with books and music and photos of the people we love. But we can not keep the outside from creeping in.

Outside there are rats. Little kids pee on the sides of buildings. Pigeon shit covers the sidewalk. Broken glass litters the curbside. Once, Dave and I decided to stage our own personal Earth Day. Broom and garbage bags in hand, we swept up the garbage on the street. The beer bottles and food wrappers were expected, the dirty diapers were not.

I want a Gap around the corner. Instead, there’s a store that sells phone cards to misspelled countries and a car stereo shop that tests out new installations at impossibly loud decibels. Perfectly charming restaurants, boutiques, a bookstore and movie theater are just a 15-minute walk away, but mentally they seem a world apart.

We moved to this area four years ago when we were priced off the charming tree-lined street where I gladly would have spent the rest of my life. Our building houses a number of similarly situated refugees, who sacrificed external comforts and conveniences for square footage. It's as if an airline were to put first-class seating in the cargo hold. As much as I think it's cool that the local market caters equally to its Bosnian and Latino clients and that on Saturdays you see huge extended families picnicking in the park (playing volleyball with a soccer ball), the neighborhood has never felt familiar. Never quite home.

The dumpster unsettles me, mocks me even. Perhaps whether it ultimately stays or goes will tell me which one of us belongs.


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