I don't know when it happened exactly, but it happened. I have become a cranky old man, closed and rigid and fixed in my ways, despite the fact that in my youth I’d resolved never to grow up, never to become like all the grown ups who lived in my world when I was growing up. My high school yearbook was penned with messages, “Don't ever change,” and “Peter Pan forever!” So that was my life-long goal. Teaching junior high school may have helped keep me younger longer than my non-teacher contemporaries who worked at IBM and made millions on Wall Street. I actually managed to be Peter Pan well into my forties, though many of my friends and both my ex-wives said I was just immature.
Inevitably, somewhere around fifty, my resolve dissolved – along with my waistline and my hair. What hair remained was gray. My 20/20 eyesight slipped to what the doctor termed “blind in one eye and unable to see from the other.” My knees clicked when I walked and my back hurt. Everything made me cranky. At fifty-five, amid bitter divorce proceedings my soon-to-be-ex-wife #2 cursed me: “You should die alone – on New Year's Eve, just like your grandfather, you miserable bastard!” before signed the papers and left me alone on December 29th.
Lillith got everything including the two kids, the good car and the “marital residence” that she promptly sold because I couldn't afford to buy it from her, and moved in with her divorce attorney who had been sleeping with her, it turned out, long before the divorce was final. My kids never called. They even stopped using my last name, and took the attorney's instead. “Because,” Lillith explained, “it will open doors for them, give them opportunities for success in their lives, and get them into Ivy League colleges,” for which, it turned out from the papers I'd signed, I would have to pay half the tuition.
After retirement I became a recluse. Most of my friends moved to warmer climates, those that didn't were dead. When I did venture out of doors it was usually to fight with my neighbors who played music I didn't like, always too loud and always too long into the night. I grew more and more paranoid, peering through my curtained windows at all hours to monitor passers by, keeping track of the cars parked on the street and paying close attention to the dog walkers to see who wasn't scooping poop. I removed my front doorbell and never opened my door to sign political petitions, order Girl Scout cookies or help people in distress, and I always kept my house dark on Halloween to discourage Trick-or-Treaters. Whenever the neighbor kids on their bicycles used my driveway for a turn-around, I rolled out the garden hose, even in the winter, and washed down the blacktop. I had become old man Lotito; “Mr. Hell” all of us kids called him, a tight and nasty man who sat in a wicker rocker on his Brooklyn porch, moving off it only to gather the Spaldeens that landed in his front garden during stickball games. Mr. Hell kept all of them, except for the ones he cut in half with the pocketknife he carried and threw back into the street.
I hadn't yet started confiscating any Spaldeens, but that was only because the neighbor kids didn't play stickball. They didn't play any ball, except maybe basketball, at the curb with an expensive portable metal pole and basket that my neighbor Ed rolled out every morning for his kids and their loud friends to bunch up around in the street close to my driveway and bounce their balls all day. All that bouncing and bunching made it difficult for me to pull my car in and out of my garage, which I needed to do with great regularity whenever the kids were thus engaged. At night neighbor Ed rolled everything back into his garage and restarted the whole process the following days. Then one night he stopped roll it back and the pole and hoop remained at the curb, a hulking, ten-foot sentinel rooted to the street forever.
I didn't complain. Instead I waited until after the waning days of summer and the onset of fall. I waited for when the daylight was too short and it was too cold to play, when the novelty of basketball had worn off and the neighbor kids had turned their attentions elsewhere. That was when I set my alarm clock and acted. Had anyone seen me at 3:15 AM, they might have thought, dressed all in black, I was a moving shadow or a lost Ninja. Had they waited they might have mistaken me for a solitary Marine raising the flag on Iwo Jima, but in reverse. That was how I looked holding the pole and hoop on my shoulder and dropping it with enough force to bend the basket and shatter the backboard. I was back inside my house and in bed before the noise had dissipated.
In the morning when Ed discovered the damaged-beyond-repair apparatus, I was standing there close by his side, hands on hips, shaking my head. “Damn vandals,” I said. “Destructive teenagers. Or maybe a drunk driver.”
“Probably one of Ms Scarlet of the Letter A's boyfriends,” Ed nodded toward the house across the street, “making a beer run in the dead of night.”
It was true, Hanna Scarlet, a recent divorcee who seemed intent on making up for all that lost married time, entertained a line of gentlemen callers, strangers, who came and went through her place at all hours like she had a revolving door and a “Now serving number–” bakery counter.
“You hear anything last night?” Ed asked me.
“Nope,” I said rubbing my chin in thought, “not a sound.”
The basketball set was never replaced.
Encouraged by that success, I expanded my involvement in neighborhood affairs, focusing next on the “Doggie Duty Detail” when I found myself stepping on a fresh turds in the grass strip along the front of my house. At first I considered setting up a hunting blind on my porch and waiting with my pellet gun in hopes of dropping the turd dropper in the act, but I reconsidered the legal ramifications, and instead I bought industrial sized containers of powered cayenne and course ground black pepper at a restaurant supply warehouse that I sprinkled liberally in the grass. Then I posted a number of hand-drawn skull and crossbones with the word “TOXIC!” on stiff cardboard attached to the plastic stakes landscapers used after they sprayed chemicals. I stuck them at intervals in my grass along the curb. The mixture turned the vegetation Chernobyl orange, but it worked so well dog walkers avoided my house completely. Any unleashed dog foolish enough to take a sniff never came back for seconds. It also killed most of my grass.
Once when I saw a woman with a yappy Chihuahua squatting across the street, the dog, I mean, not the woman, I burst through my front door like a lunatic. “You better pick that up, lady!” I shouted. “It's the law. And I know where you live!” She picked up the dog and ran and I never saw either of them again.
My dog problem escalated when my new around-the-corner neighbor moved in with a young Doberman that he left alone in his yard all day. The dog barked incessantly, a brain numbing, “WOOF… WOOF… WOOF… WOOF-WOOF!” that never varied in volume, tone or cadence. So I began documenting the days, times and durations of each offense and, with right on my side and armed with my statistics, I called 9-1-1 from my pay-as-you-go cell phone to avoid identification.
“Sir,” the emergency operator asked sarcastically, “don't you think the police have more important matters to deal with than barking dogs? And don't you have better things to do with your time than bother us with your petty problems?” So much for official channels.
The barking got longer and louder as the dog got bigger though the “WOOF… WOOF… WOOF… WOOF-WOOF!” never varied, and I took matters into my own hands.
I began by leaving anonymous block printed notes on the man's door and his truck windshield. Nothing. Then I bought a dog whistle and blew it whenever the Doberman barked with no results. Finally I ordered a Coast Guard approved, compressed-air-powered boat horn that I blasted through my open window in long and short bursts, “WANH… WANH… WANH… WANH-WANHHHHH!” The effects were instantaneous. The barks turned into howls and then pitiful whimpers before they stopped completely. A few times, in the middle of the night, when the neighborhood was quiet, I stole to the back of my yard and hunched behind the stockade fence among the cicadas and mosquitoes. Just for good measure I aimed the horn at the back of my neighbor's darkened house and sent a few quick blasts, “WANH… WANH… WANH!” hoping to generate the same spasms in the owner.
Necessity next forced me to turn my attention to escalating problem of Hanna Scarlet directly across the street, who seemed intent on setting a new world sex record with assorted felons, addicts and motorcycle gang members. I had no moral qualms about her casual sexuality, and I was not above stealing glimpses of her naked body whenever she walked past her lighted window at night or sunbathed in her yard, even if I had to stand on a chair and use binoculars to do so. My issue was with her poor choice in suitors. Some got into drunken brawls, others revved their Harleys in the middle of the night. The ones that were barely house broken relieved themselves in Scarlet’s bushes and left empty beer bottles, cigarette butts and crumpled empty packs of Marlboro Red and Kools at the curb. An unwrapped condom in the middle of my sidewalk indicated they might be practicing safe sex, but unfamiliar cars overlapping my driveway blocking access to my garage was proof of her suitors' careless parking. That was the last straw.
I solved the problem with a single well-written letter addressed to my neighbor.
“Dear Mrs. Scarlet, The Federal Privacy Acts of 1974 and 1986,” I thought the dates added weight to the authenticity of the letter’s contents, “prevent the New York State Department of Health from identifying any individual or individuals, but confidential reports received by our office indicate that you may have been exposed to one or more sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and may be at serious health risk. STDs ranging from Chlamydia to HIV/AIDS are spread by irresponsible, intimate sexual contact with one or more infected partners. While the Health Department makes no moral judgment about your sexual conduct, it is bound by New York State law to require that you make an appointment with your primary care physician or local health clinic immediately for a thorough examination and tests and, if necessary, that you obtain treatment for any STDs. Even if no STDs are detected, you are required by law and bound by conscience to notify every person with whom you have had sexual contact within the past three years, and you must advise them in turn to contact each of their sexual partners. Everyone must seek diagnosis and any treatment that is warranted. Until you have been cleared by a medical doctor or licensed medical practitioner, it is absolutely essential that you refrain from all sexual activities with other people and with yourself. Sincerely, Lillith C. Page, First Assistant to the Commissioner, New York State Department of Health.” I used my ex-wife's new married name.
It looked very official with The New York State Department of Health official seal, letterhead and logo I had downloaded from the Internet. For an authentic postmark, I sent the letter with the correct postage affixed in a sealed manila envelope to a friend who lives up in Albany and asked him to drop it off at an Albany Post Office.
By the end of the week traffic on my street thinned considerably and I had full access to my garage.
With matters close to home under control, I began to expand my jurisdiction. In good weather I roamed the neighborhood mentally noting the addresses of barking dogs, cars parked over night where overnight parking was prohibited, cars parked facing the wrong way on streets or obstructing pedestrian passage on sidewalks. I also focused on under-aged teenagers driving unregistered, un-insured, noisy ATVs through Stop signs on public streets without helmets. My rounds became a routine, a mission, a three-mile walking tour of the neighborhood. It got me off the couch, into the fresh air and trimmed some of the adipose tissue that had been accumulating around my waist. For me it was a win-win! On rainy days I filled out the numerous appropriate complaint forms. I’d obtained one from the Code Enforcement Bureau that I scanned and printed by the dozens so I wouldn’t run out. Then, one by one, I filed each via the U.S. Postal Service and waited for Code Enforcement to correct those breaches of the peace.
But it was the privet hedges bordering the corner house just a block from mine that brought matters to a head. Neglected since the previous fall and unattended all summer, the hedges had grown to over six feet. The unchecked hedges had become entwined with maple saplings, tangled with weeds and woven with wild rose vine tendrils that had proliferated and expanded outward blocking the sidewalk, forcing me and every other citizen-pedestrian to move into the street or risk losing an eye. I noted the house address – #38.
I wasn't going to waste more time with a formal complaint that could take months to work its way through official channels before any action might be taken. By then the overgrown hedges would be covered in a layer of unshoveled snow and ice. I decided to address this matter head on and cut out the middleman. At home I pulled a Code Enforcement Bureau form from the stack I kept in my desk drawer and photocopied just the front page that called for details of the complaint to be investigated. The back of the page that asked for the name, address and telephone number of the complainant I left blank. I filled out the form, checked the box for “Obstructed walk” and printed in careful, nondescript block letters “NEGLECTED AND OVERGROWN HEDGES” in the space provided. Then I rubber-stamped the word “COPY” in red ink on the bottom of the form to lend credibility that the original complaint labeled “ORIGINAL” was on file somewhere. It also helped to obscure the small print on the bottom of the page that said, “Continued on back.” I reproduced the Code Enforcement Bureau address and logo in the corner of the business envelope and addressed it to “Property Owners” at #38. Later that day I dropped it into the mailbox at the Post Office in town.
The very next Saturday while on my self-appointed rounds, I noted as I approached with great pleasure that the sidewalk was unobstructed. The overgrown hedges were no more! They had been hewn down to size and tamed into a low four-foot high green wall with the top of the hedge as straight as if done with a level. I smiled to myself and turned the corner. The street was clogged with cars and the front yard of #38 was filled with running kids and somber adults. I approached a group of men in jackets and ties standing together off the stone walk smoking cigarettes in the shade of a large maple.
“What's going on?” I asked.
“Are you a friend of Bill's?” one man replied and I thought I might have stumbled into an AA meeting that allowed kids.
“I, um, live up the block,” I hesitated, “in the little green house.” I indicated vaguely with my head.
“Then come on in and pay your respects,” he said. “There's plenty of food and drinks in the kitchen. Soda, beer, a box of wine if you want.” He flipped his lit cigarette expertly to the curb with a flick of his fingers. It arced in the air like a missile and exploded with sparks in the street when it landed. The man held the door open for me. “Fran and the boys are in the living room with the women. All of them are still pretty much in shock.”
“What happened?” I asked.
“Bill died,” the man said. “The funeral was this morning and after he was buried in St. Charles.”
“Died? How'd it happen? An accident?” I asked stepping into the house.
Family and friends filled the rooms. People on the periphery made way for me to enter. The dining room table was laid out with cold cuts, salads, covered dishes and desserts. Seated on a worn recliner in the living room sat the tearful widow consoled by other women, surrounded by her children, three boys from ten to teens. The youngest was leaning on his mother. The other two were behind her wrestling and punching one another on the arm.
“Fran,” the man said touching her arm, “this is a friend of Bill’s from the green house up the street.”
She sighed and barely saw me when I approached. Fran was youngish, in her forties, I guessed, and a little overweight which birthing three kids might do to a woman. Still, I thought, even under these dire circumstances she was almost pretty. If she lost twenty pounds, got a little sleep and added some make up, I calculated, she should be able to find another husband easy enough. I nodded to the others with a fixed expression of grief on my face.
“Heart attack,” the man was saying in answer to my previous question. He offered me a beer that I declined, so he opened it for himself. “Happened just like that.” He snapped his nicotine-yellowed fingers. “Alive one minute, and dead the next. Right out there on the lawn,” he pointed, “in front of Fran and the boys who were waiting for him to come in and eat pizza. Fran called the EMTs, but by the time they arrived it was too late. I'm surprised you didn't hear the commotion at your house. Poor Bill dropped like a sack of bricks right after he'd spent the entire hot, humid afternoon trimming those hedges.” He pointed out the window.
I let out an audible moan that turned the heads of everyone who heard it. The man put down his beer and patted me on my shoulder. “There there,” he said. “The good thing is, Bill probably didn’t suffer much.”
“Oh,” one of the women whispered, “he must have been a really close friend. Poor man. So deeply affected. Look how he’s crying.”
And I was.
© 2013 Joseph E. Scalia from "Different Other Different Stories." Joseph E. Scalia was born and raised in Boro Park, Brooklyn. He taught high school English and Creative Writing on LI for 33 years. He has published 6 books, and more recently discovered watercolors.