I grew up in my grandmother’s house. She died when I was three and my family moved in shortly after the house was remodeled. At that time the neighborhood population was predominately well over the age of retirement. Looking any direction from the front porch you could see a different home belonging to a different senior, each one just waiting to be carted off to the nursing home, or the pearly gates depending on the length of the grass in their lawn. There was Dorothy, who lived directly across the street, Phyllis and Elliott, our neighbors to the left, Mike and Lily, who were Dorothy’s next-door neighbors, and Dub, the old man who owned the house on our right, but lived in the trailer parked in the stretch of dead grass between our houses.
The women wore plastic bags on their heads when it rained, the men wore elastic sock garters with shorts and pressed white undershirts. They all had spotty brown hands and faint, thin plum colored lines descending their shins like a network of rivers on a map. Their bedrooms smelled like menthol and camphor, their fixtures and appliances were outdated and all a matching burnt orange and brown plastic. Faded and smoke-stained paper patterned with seashells lined their bathroom walls and spread down to glittery linoleum flooring. Undoubtedly somewhere within a cabinet lay a powder puff, long unused and aging in a bed of stale talc.
These were people who still remembered what it meant to be a neighbor. They waved from behind their screen doors in the morning when my father would drive down the block to take me to school, they volunteered their adult children to watch over our house should we decide to take a weekend trip to Lake Texoma or the port, they gave cookies and well-wishes freely. I remember Dorothy padding her slipper-clad feet across the street to hand deliver a Jell-O mold in the shape of a bundt cake, the kind made with twice the gelatin and half the water, allowing it to stand upright and firm, shining and sweating in the heat, green syrup trickling down the rounded ridges and onto the thin white plate stenciled with pink and yellow paisley. Of course no one touched the Jell-O, if I remember correctly it had canned, peeled grape halves or something equally repulsive floating around in it, the kind of thing only the elderly can appreciate. The sentiment, however, was far from lost on my family. We loved our neighbors with their geriatric Chihuahuas and garden gnomes. Visiting grandchildren provided me with enough socialization before I began grade school, and in their absence I had the neighborhood to myself. Before the age of four, I had grown accustomed a lifestyle similar to that of a retirement community, a Floridian oasis in the middle of Dallas, Texas. By the time I reached the first grade, most of my neighbors were dead.
One by one the pieces of our community broke off and disintegrated, eventually to be replaced by people my mother would come to know as “total shitheads.” Jehovah’s Witnesses moved into Dorothy’s house after she was hospitalized for a blood clot in her leg. Dub was gone one day and a clan of obese hoarders had replaced him the next, bringing with them tall pillars of newspapers and filling his old trailer with long tubes of vinyl drawer liner and rusty traps you use to catch stray cats and opossums.
Around the time I began middle school, Mike and Lily were both dead and their little red brick two bedroom had become home to a family of nine with a penchant for repairing cars in their front yard. I use the term “Family” generously, the only familial resemblance these people held with one another was the sort Sister Sledge was singing about. To these people, “We Are Family,” is true only in the sense that they shared a single-family dwelling and a complete lack of respect for those around them. Five adult men, two adult women, and two infants. I remember finding photographs crudely taken at waist-height by my mother in an attempt to get the family in trouble with the city for illegally running a business out of their home. Photos of amateur mechanics wedged awkwardly beneath cars in various states of disrepair, parts lined up across the sprawl of broken turf and concrete that had once been a lawn and a driveway. My mother had taken the pictures in secret, she didn’t want to face any repercussions for ratting out our new neighbors, she just wanted to get them the hell out of there. I had caught her once in the act. Staking around the front yard with a water hose in one hand, a camera in the other down at her side, frantically collecting evidence of their malfeasance, all the while pretending to be doing something innocent.
“Oh, don’t mind me, I’m just standing here, watering my lawn with a hose that’s completely detached from the spigot, which also happens to be completely turned off. Don’t mind this camera, I have a photography class immediately after I finish fake watering.”
After a few minutes she came back into the house and clicked through the images on the screen of the camera, sure of her imminent victory.
“They know they’re not supposed to do that! They’re gonna be sorry Alex, just you hide and watch.”
“It’s ‘wait and see’ mom, not hide and watch.”
“Just you hide and watch, you’ll see.” My mother paused for a moment and shifted her gaze away from the camera and out the front window. “That man just threw a used diaper into the street! Goddamnit, these people are animals!”
My mother soon found that in order to gain enough evidence for her case against our neighbors she would need to spend much more time in our front yard. Fake watering only takes so long, and so began the planting. One afternoon I came home from school to find bags of mulch and pallets full of violets and pansies waiting on our porch, my mother standing over them, fresh soil caked on her hands, she smoked a cigarette and stood barefoot in the dirt.
“Shitheads went inside when I got home.” She glared across the street and absentmindedly wiped her cheek, leaving behind a smear of earth. “Bastards.” She said to no one in particular.
Despite her numerous attempts, my mother’s complaints continually fell upon deaf ears. Our neighborhood in particular was low on the police radar due to the fact that it stood adjacent to a neighborhood consisting mostly of meth labs and “massage parlors.” It wasn’t until I was in high school when the police finally paid the neighbors a visit, after the night one of the men drunkenly drove his silver Toyota over our curb and into the holly bushes lining our house. The police found him in a tree across the street in what used to be Dorothy’s yard, his car abandoned and still running, parked in our lawn. For their remaining months on our block, the family was silent, business was closed, or relocated, and my mother was finally getting the vindication she so handsomely deserved.Eventually we came to realize the group of them had moved on to another neighborhood, one free from prying eyes, free of my mother’s own under the radar brand of vigilante justice.
I think in the end what had upset my mother the most was not that these people were breaking the law, but that they had not been suitable replacements for our former neighbors. Old fashioned friendliness and courtesy had been replaced with indifference and disregard for a once well-established sense of community. A new breed of family, a breed that didn’t wave, didn’t make eye contact, had surrounded us. Where was their consideration, their hospitality? Where had the old days gone? Where was our motherfucking Jell-O mold?
As an adult, I usually only go back to my old house for the holidays, special occasions. When I do, I make a point to spend a little time in the yard. I understand a new set of families has moved into the neighborhood, people my father tells me are harmless, some of whom even say hello when he’s out walking the dogs in the morning. But since my mother’s death, I feel the need to patrol the neighborhood in her absence each time I return. Checking driveways and alleys for evidence of any funny business, any blatant slap in the face of consideration. I crouch barefoot in the grass, half obscured by the crepe myrtles at the perimeter of my father’s driveway, scanning the street with knowing eyes. It’s not a glamorous task, but its performance is necessary. It’s only a matter of time until another overstuffed gypsy wagon rolls down that street, bringing with it a family of bagpipe musicians, amateur welders, people who think they can run a doggy day care out
of their house, and I’ll eventually have to come around and turn them all in, to remind them what it means to be a neighbor, just you hide and watch.