This essay first appeared in the the inaugural print issue (#1, Winter 2005) of MeThree, a new Brooklyn-based literary journal. You can buy it online at their site.

Neighbor

by Tyler C. Gore

What is it about the word neighbor that fills us with such moral ambivalence? (Ah, the age-old dilemma: love thy neighbor or drunkenly urinate on his doorstep at three in the morning?) In the abstract, we use the word “neighbor” as if it refers to something more than the stranger who happens to live near us. It’s the neighborly thing to do we say of our good deeds, as if moral virtue bubbles forth wherever random human beings happen to eat, sleep and shit in rough proximity. A neighbor is not a relative or a friend, but neighbors are commonly thought to inspire a warm and fuzzy camaraderie — as in Mr. Roger’s creepy invitation, Won’t you be my neighbor?

illustration of woman standing over mail table holding radio-controlled buzzer

illustration: Brad Gore

On the other hand, the word neighbor is also invested with peculiar paranoia, as in What will the neighbors think? I heard this a lot as a child because we had a lot to hide. It was a function of the social geometry of the suburbs — the inside of the house is for us; the outside is for them, The Neighbors. The Neighbors got the washed car, the mowed lawn, the friendly wave from across the street. We got the crusty unwashed dishes, the overflowing stacks of ancient newspapers, the dingy underwear strewn across the furniture. The Neighbors got my father leaving for work in a three-piece suit and tie, his face neatly shaven, his car-keys swinging smartly in his hand as he approached the gleaming car. We got the early morning performance of my father raging through the house in nothing but a pair of sagging jockey briefs and a single black sock, shouting violent and obscene threats against the other black sock (the missing sock, the stupid goddamn cocksucking sock) as my mother followed in his wake, hissing Lower your voice — The Neighbors!

 

Who were they, really, The Neighbors? They watched like the eye of God, silent, patient, anonymous, ready to expose us all to scandal and ruin; they kept the primordial fury and squalor of our house sealed up tightly behind the orderly façade of lawn and car. But who exactly were they, these Neighbors? I knew most of the people who lived near us — crazy Mrs. Coogan, who collected antiques and stray cats; the compulsively neat Borowitz family, whose son actually ironed his blue jeans; the red-headed Metzger family with their ugly twin daughters — but surely these halfwits and incompetents, the subjects of much derision under my roof, weren’t The Neighbors, that mythical entity talked about but unseen.

At times, the oppressive force The Neighbors exerted upon us seemed so darkly malevolent, so otherworldly, that I felt I compelled to launch a formal inquiry into the matter – which is to say, I spent some time sneaking around at night, spying into people’s windows, conducting investigations of the burning-bag-on-the-doorstep variety — but all I could ascertain of the secret lives of the families around us was that they ate, watched television, and raged at each other in hushed and strained voices. They lived as we did — in a private universe of shame. On weekends, they made enormous efforts to impress one another, they mowed their lawns and bragged about their children. Between fighting and lawn maintenance, when did anyone have time to get together and discuss the shortcomings of my own family?

But then it came to me one day, standing by our chain link fence as my mother chatted with Mrs. Radeki (who lived next door) and the subject turned to Mrs. Coogan (who also lived next door, but on the other side of our house). In hushed tones, they systematically maligned every facet of Mrs. Coogan’s existence — her cats and antiques, her delinquent son, her slutty daughter, her absent husband, her wretched taste in clothing, her fly-infested compost heap. Though I was a child, I could see that this character assassination infused my mother and Mrs. Radecki with a pleasure almost sexual; they practically rubbed their hands with glee. And I knew then what I should have known all along, that we were The Neighbors, that all of us who lived on that street were The Neighbors, that the only relief for the secret humiliations of family life lay in publicly heaping shame upon the other families, and that this network of furtive malice was, in fact, what made us a Neighborhood.