Glimpses Through Glass
By Pam Munter
I am that nosy neighbor parodied in popular fiction. As a writer, I work at home and take lots of breaks, so the easy walk to the front window offers a welcome escape from whatever is lashing me to the computer. Like most in that disparaged class of snoops, I’m a curmudgeonly introvert, not looking to schmooze on a regular basis. Gazing out the window is usually enough for me.
I’ve lived here almost 15 years. The Orchard is an ungated, dead-ended development off a busy street in Palm Desert, California. It’s a series of four cul-de-sacs with ample land for its 100 or so single family homes, all designed by the same architect. The individuation is provided primarily by the landscaping. Some homes welcome visitors with dazzling green lawns while others have erected short stone walls around the front of the house, providing only reluctant access to those who dare trespass.
My house is surrounded by tropical plantings, representing my serious state of denial in this arid desert climate. But the varieties of palms, roses and hibiscus seem to thrive here, as do I. Like most of the other dwellings, the house was designed to be three bedrooms. The previous owners added a fourth, which I use as a gym. The master bedroom, the gym, the kitchen area and the family room overlook a peaceful azure pool with a Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired mini waterfall, one of the many reasons I love this house. Flowers and trees bloom all year round. Sometimes, the osmotic smell of citrus in the air is almost intoxicating. It’s heaven.
The day has come and gone when friendship among neighbors is expected out of mere contiguity. When I grew up in the 1950s, our suburban Los Angeles street was populated by families with stay-at-home housewives, some of whom grouped together in the mornings for coffee. I babysat their kids, cut their lawns, cleaned their houses. We all knew each other.
The people living around me now are strangers for the most part but, like most of us, we often reveal more than we realize.
Across the street, for instance, lives a woman who seems to be on her second (or third, hard to know) live-in. Like so many snowbirds, the couple comes down from Canada each season. Their house is always under development. While I can’t see many changes from my window, service people come and go all the time, followed by the sounds of banging and drilling. Last year, they replaced the grass with that fake plastic stuff that looks like a putting green and added white rock. A new black Mercedes appears in the driveway each year and I have wondered why they never park it in the garage. Then one morning as I was walking around the neighborhood, I spied their garage door half open. Inside I could see a tattered and faded couch pushed against the garage wall and two people perched on it, cigarette smoke billowing from under the door. Why would they choose to spend time in a cluttered garage when they likely have a beautifully decorated house? Each of her companions appears to smoke with her. Couldn’t they seal off one of the rooms if they didn’t want the whole house to stink? And why would they endure the discomfort rather than, oh, say, quit? She came over asking for a recommendation for a pool service once but that’s the only direct conversation we’ve ever had. I didn’t ask about the garage retreat. Or her visitors.
Next door to me there’s a food entrepreneur and his physician wife. When they moved in six or seven years ago, they were childless but now they have three daughters. They seem to be pleasant, affable people. If I run into the guy on my way to the mailbox, he’ll call out, “Staying out of trouble?” one of those clichés that sounds like an invitation to engage but isn’t. There are always two or three cars parked at the curb, and two new cars that live in the garage. A Toyota is lodged at the curb all night so I assume they have help for the kids. But where do these people sleep? It looks like a three-bedroom house, since it has a similar configuration as the others in the neighborhood. There’s one bedroom for the parents, one for the live-in. So do the girls all share a bedroom? I know the guy has invested in restaurants and vineyards and she’s a doctor, so why aren’t they living in a bigger house? I know. None of my business.
A few years after moving in, I answered the door to see a pale, skeletal man standing there, nervously holding a box in front of him.
“Do you eat sugar? I can’t eat it because I have an eating disorder and somebody gave me this and I can’t eat it. I want to but I can’t. I really do. Do you want it? Please take it.” This was all in one rushed breath.
“Oh, my God, of course,” I gushed as I opened the box. Who would turn down a chocolate cheesecake from The Cheesecake Factory? I put out my hand.
“I’m Pam. And you are – ?”
“Lawrence. I live across the street.” He pointed to his house, the one with a perfectly-manicured lawn. I had remembered seeing the Christmas decorations go up on his door in late October. We thanked each other with equally robust sincerity. As he left, he kept looking at the box over his shoulder. I felt sorry for him. Well, not really.
After that, whenever I ran into Lawrence at the mailbox, he would carry on as if we were friends. It didn’t take long to realize my affinity for him had faded with the last bite of that cheesecake, especially since his mailbox diatribes included racist comments and inappropriate disclosures about his various medical conditions. During one mailbox encounter, he casually announced he spent most of his days on the internet, trolling for very young men from developing countries.
“I found one last week. He’s coming from Laos on Tuesday. I’ll put him through school and he’ll come to live with me.”
What’s the socially correct response to this?
“Oh.” I nodded. “You just met him online, huh?” I already knew Lawrence was gay from one of his earlier unsolicited monologues. That wasn’t the part that bothered me.
I watched the comings and goings of Lawrence’s intermittent imports over the years. None of them stayed very long, which didn’t surprise me at all. I wondered if he had paid for the round trip.
Just down the block lives a woman I have come to call The Neighborhood Nazi. She’s the wife of a retired military officer and I could easily imagine her ordering the other Marine wives into daily formation. The day I moved in, she delivered a list of the CC&Rs for the development and outlined the “requirements,” pointing to each as she explained them. I’ve never remembered what those letters stand for and it’s not important, anyway. This isn’t a community with a homeowner’s association that monitors any rules, in writing or not. There is no organization at all. Except hers.
Each year, she tapes a flyer to the mailboxes, announcing a meeting at her house “to bring you up to date on what’s happening in The Orchard.” I go, mostly out of curiosity, maybe pick up some good gossip. Besides, it’s the only time I see most of these people. The NN has handouts, contact info for the neighbors (including “Block Captains,” whatever they are; do we salute them?), leads the meeting and assigns tasks.
“Mitchell, you need to call the city to make sure that light is replaced on your street.” Mitchell nods and looks away but I wonder if he’s sufficiently cowed to do it.
Her signature accomplishment came as the result of her rounds on poop patrol. She has a small dog (“Sarge”) that she walks every morning. It goes without saying that it’s an accepted civic responsibility to clean up after one’s pet and I’m sure she does that. But there was one neighbor who had been caught walking away from a heaping pile and more than once. Someone reported it to the NN. At one of our chance encounters on the street, she eagerly waved me over and proudly told me she had collected all the dog droppings from around the neighborhood over several days and just that morning anonymously deposited them on the alleged violator’s doorstep.
“They won’t do that again,” she smirked.
“No, I’m sure they won’t.” Who would do something like that?
But she was right. I saw no more mounds of unattended dog poop. Ever. Cross her at your peril.
The NN is friends with the couple that throws a Derby Day party each year. I was invited for a couple years, probably because I brought a nice bottle of wine to the gatherings. Everyone bets on a horse, schmoozes in the backyard while awaiting the race, then roots on their favorite. I’ve always disliked any activity that seems to use and abuse animals so my appearance at these gatherings felt like a command performance. To be issued the printed invitation was coveted, though, and not granted to everyone in The Orchard so I went – flattered, I suppose. I stopped coming after the year one horse fell in the stretch and was put down. It took me a long time to get that out of my head.
Some days I miss running into Leon, the self-proclaimed Mayor of The Orchard. He was always full of juicy gossip, sort of like the women in my childhood neighborhood. Everyone seemed to like Leon, but we knew little about him, an anomaly in a yenta. About a half dozen of us from the neighborhood went to his memorial service at a local Catholic church but we didn’t know him any better after it was over.
Now we have Nextdoor, an amorphous website that appeared unbidden one day on my computer. Initially, I wanted to know who or what this was, since its origins and motivations were difficult to uncover. Is this some marketing Trojan horse, worming its way into our daily routines? Almost once a week or so, I get an email from Nextdoor announcing the name of someone who has moved into The Orchard. It’s inevitably followed by a raft of responses, often from the same people. “Welcome aboard, Jerry.” Or “So glad you’re here.” It’s as if the neighborhood has become a fun-loving cruise ship where everyone is one big, happy family awaiting a reunion.
Did I mention there is now an annual “block party”? The first one was last year, an outdoor cocktail party with strangers. The only draw for me was that someone had arranged a little show of antique cars, parked in the cul-de-sac. I came early, said hello to the organizers, checked out the beautifully restored cars and returned home. It didn’t seem to be well attended but it doesn’t matter. Those who seek cohesion where there is none, persist. There’s another one next month.
All of this is oddly quaint. The sense of community is now created online, not on the block. It’s far easier to find people with whom I have something in common on Facebook than with who might be living next door. In my 15 years here, I’ve never had anything resembling a substantive conversation with any of my neighbors. I admit I enjoy smiling and waving to them in passing. It makes me feel safe and accepted which I don’t always sense in other places. But, other than the salutation and the quick greeting, I don’t need much more. The observations – OK, the snooping – from my living room window are more than enough.
Pam Munter has authored several books including When Teens Were Keen: Freddie Stewart and The Teen Agers of Monogram. She’s a retired clinical psychologist and former performer. Her essays and short stories have appeared in The Rumpus, The Manifest-Station, The Coachella Review, Lady Literary Review, NoiseMedium, The Creative Truth, Adelaide, Litro, Angels Flight—Literary West, TreeHouse Arts, Persephone’s Daughters, Better After 50, Canyon Voices, Open Thought Vortex, Fourth & Sycamore, Nixes Mate, Scarlet Leaf Review, Cold Creek Review, Communicators League, I Come From The World, Switchback, The Legendary and others.