Every night around 6 o’clock, the cul-de-sac across from my house fills with cars.
They’re not just any cars. I’m talking about THOSE cars, the kinds with the glass pack mufflers that sound like an orchestra of rusty chainsaws every time they start up.
I have no idea at what point sounding like a toy airplane became an attractive feature on an automobile, but I somehow feel like it’s Paul Walker’s fault.
Each night for the last 9 weeks of quarantine, when the cul-de-sac starts sounding like Pit Row at Talledega, Melinda and I peer out the window and grumble like vice presidents of the neighborhood watch.
“Seven. Seven cars full of people,” I’ll report to Melinda. “And not one of them wearing a mask. Just who the hell do they think they are over there?”
It’d be fine if they only messed around during the day, but sometimes, when I’m up at 2 or 3 feeding the baby, I’ll see them still out there, their headlights shining into my living room, their tailpipes popping like cherry bombs.
Part of me wants to call the cops and tattle on them, complaining about the noise. But then I think back to how shitty of a neighbor I was my 20s, living in Rockville, Maryland with five dudes next to a family with a newborn. I’d consistently throw parties that went well into the night—we had a hot tub and a grill on the back deck—and though my neighbors would shoot me dirty looks when we found ourselves in our driveways at the same time, they never once complained.
Neighborly karma, it seems, is quite the bitch.
What perplexes me most about this group of gentlemen trying to live their Tokyo Drift dreams is though my family moved into our house almost 3 years ago, it’s only recently I even noticed they existed. Their cute little Honda Civics didn’t register until I was locked in my house with an infant and a fear of contracting a deadly virus.
Before the quarantine, I knew about the spinsters next door with the barking dog and the house across the street with the Christmas lights up all year round. The only way I really saw my neighborhood was through a windshield, on my way to work, or to the store, or anywhere but here.
When schools shut down and I was relegated to my house for the rest of my life, I began taking walks in the afternoon, if not just for an excuse to put on something other than sweatpants. Melinda had our new baby in April, and once she ran out of Percocets, she started joining me.
It’s now become the routine that most days, we’ll pack a few beers in the stroller and take a walk. We call it happy hour.
On our walks, we’ve found secret paths through the woods to both the elementary and middle schools. We’ve discovered neighborhoods and dead ends we didn’t know existed, and seen a couple of things we probably shouldn’t have.
Like the gaggle of kids we came upon the other day, taking turns climbing onto the roof of their dad’s Ford SuperDuty and jumping onto the lawn. When the youngest boy, about 3, froze before taking the leap, his 6 year-old brother cajoled him from the lawn below.
“Don’t be a pussy, Connor!” the boy yelled.
Connor collected his dignity and jumped, landing on the ground with a thud I felt from across the street.
Or last week, when Melinda and I witnessed a couple who’d just started an argument as we approached, the woman’s face turning scarlet.
“What’s the problem?” she yelled at her husband, a slob with a shitty weed whacker idling in his hands. “The problem is that you kicked up a rock and dented the fucking car!” She gestured to the rear left fender of their Ford Explorer. “Don’t you see it?”
“I don’t know why you’re mad at me,” the guy replied. “It’s not like I did it on purpose.”
The couple suddenly sensed our presence on the sidewalk and got sheepish, their eyes falling to their half-cut lawn.
Over the last 2 months, we’ve had a woman explain to us why she was staring at her lawn and pecking at it like a bird looking for a worm. “Those English ivy tendrils are a real bear,” she said. We’ve also had a Swedish mom tell us she’s seen us pass her house two or three times and wondered if she could join us with her 3 month-old son next time.
“Sure!” Melinda and I responded simultaneously, knowing next time, we’d probably skip this block.
Most times, I’m happy to indulge the interaction, if not just to be polite.
“How you doing?” asked a man unloading cleaning equipment from the back of a box truck.
“Getting by one day at a time,” I said.
The man chuckled. “That’s all we can do, isn’t it?” he said.
“You guys are best friends,” Melinda said once we were out of earshot. That’s what she always says, best friends, as though me saying hello to someone is some pledge of lifelong friendship.
“You’re just jealous because you don’t have a good set of neighbor one-liners like I do,” I said.
“That must be it,” Melinda said.
“Seriously, you need to work on your chops. When someone asks you how you’re doing, you need to be able to pull one quick. Something like ‘why, today’s my day,’ or ‘every day a holiday, every meal a banquet.’ Here, you try. Hello there neighbor, how you doing today?”
“I’m not playing this game,” Melinda said.
I tried to give her a taste of her own medicine later in the week, when she waved at a pair of ladies passing us in the other direction.
“Best friends,” I said.
“Not best friends,” she replied.
“But you waved.”
“It’s common human decency,” she said. But anything past that was over the line.
Melinda told me she was a private person and didn’t feel compelled to volunteer all kinds of personal information to strangers.
Ironic I thought, considering her father has overshared with everyone he’s ever met.
“See, I’m down here in Virginia helping out my daughter,” I once heard him tell a cashier at WalMart. “She just divorced from her husband and started dating this guy here.” He gestured toward me. “Of course, with the two kids, it’s tough, and now we’re just trying to make the best of it, you know what I mean?”
The WalMart clerk nodded in the polite way all retail associates must nod when a customer ends a sentence with you know what I mean?
“But these people aren’t strangers,” I said. “They’re our neighbors.”
“Please,” Melinda replied. “We’ll never see these people again.”
A few minutes later, a man walking what I assume was a dog but could’ve been a large rat craned his neck to get a look at the baby in our stroller.
“Oh, he’s a tiny guy,” he said. “Congratulations.”
“Thanks so much,” I replied.
“Best friends,” Melinda whispered.
It was humble and a little bit shabby, but it stood out because its concrete stairs were decorated with red, white, and blue flowers. We’d noted this house before because its walkway was always decorated for whatever holiday was next: little flags for 4th of July; candy canes for Christmas; blue and green globes for Earth Day. I mean, I’m all for holiday decorations, but this stairway forever seemed a little bit extra.
On this particular day, an old man ambled down the decorated steps, and he pointed to our stroller.
“Won’t be too long before that one’s in charge,” he said.
“Are you kidding me?” I replied. “He’s already in charge.”
“Best friends,” Melinda said, once we were out of earshot.
Two minutes later, a pickup with handicap plates tooted its horn at us as it passed, and the driver waved.
“Who was that?” Melinda asked.
“My best friend,” I said. “The old man with the sidewalk decorations.”
As we walked up our own driveway to cap off our walk and begin our journey toward dinner and bed, Melinda turned to me.
“You know, it’s weird,” she said. “Before, we never really looked at the houses and people around us like we have. It’s like now that we’re isolated, we’ve realized how isolated we were before. Is that a weird thought? Is that something a stoner says?”
I said it wasn’t, because if this time alone has taught me anything, it’s that life is all around me. Whether it’s a wave or sidewalk decorations or the buzzsaw rev of a souped up Mitsubishi at 2 M.M., they’re all signs of the same thing:
I don’t think I’ll ever be best friends with the Vin Diesel wannabes across the street, but thinking about it this way has at least made me hate them a little less. And maybe, if they ever look up from the hypnotic spin of their aluminum rims or the severe angles of their fluorescent spoilers, they might even see me wave.