"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, February 24, 2012

Neighborhood Games

“Would you like to come in and have a look around the house?”, asked Joan Taylor perkily.  She and her husband Jack had just remodeled.  There were still bits and pieces of shingling, cedar wood, and gutter copper by the back steps.  “No thanks”, I said, not wanted yet another traipse through bumped out dining rooms, over varnished parquet floors, invited to gaze admiringly at bathroom skylights which had to have been installed to give more natural light to read when you shat, because there was already plenty of brightness from track lighting.  I had nodded appreciatively at shiny new Crane sinks, specially molded in pink faux-Carrera marble; or at five speed Moet showerheads, designed to caress or stimulate like gym jets. 

I had been towed down to refinished basements, up to new third-floor offices, through butcher-block kitchens with new Viking stoves as big as a dumpster, floor-to-ceiling refrigerator-freezers roomy enough to store moose meat; sewing rooms, dens, workrooms with complete sets of Craftsman tools in neat rows above the workbench.  I had even been given a tour of the plumbing and electrical systems.  I was sick of it.  Yet I knew once the words had left my mouth, I had committed the worst faux pas of the Spring Park neighborhood. You don’t say no to house tours.

Our neighborhood was uniformly professional.  “No boat trailers on the lawns here”, said one real estate agent after we entered this corner of the Washington upper middle class  and left the much more modestly priced bungalows in the bottom lands by the River.  Justice Department lawyers, World Bank technicians, Capitol Hill aides – all socially liberal, inclined to conservatism in certain matters like reducing the onerous tax rate of DC, but Democratic, community- and family-minded, and reasonably well-off. 

A world of difference, however, separated us from the residents of Park Hill across the avenue where lived ambassadors, Senators, inherited wealth from the old families of Washington, members of the Cosmos Club and the Society of the Cincinnati, “an organization in the United States and France founded in 1783 to preserve the ideals and fellowship of the Revolutionary War officers who fought for American independence”, but really the last redoubt of WASP culture in the area.  We were country cousins compared to them.  Our houses, the value of which was inflated each year even in down times thanks to the incessant in inexorable expansion of government, was still half that of theirs.  Most of our children went to the local public school while all theirs went to private.  Their cars were newer, more expensive.  I am not envious, just admiring.  My favorite walk for thirty years has been called the Park Hill Walk, meandering as it did past elegant Georgian mansions, manicured lawns, professional landscaping, and quiet, leafy streets.  The rich know how to take care of their property.

For a fleeting moment, I had almost accepted Joan Taylor’s offer.  Could it be that the coquettish Reverend’s wife was giving me a veiled invitation not to see her bathroom fixtures but her bedroom?

Joan was the wife of the priest of the local Episcopalian Church.  “Why don’t they just shut up and admit they’re Catholics”, my mother had said; and it’s true that ceremonies of the High Church are very much Rome with its vestments, acolytes, communion,and ashes at the beginning of Lent; but old money always seemed to be Episcopalian, and there was the difference.  In any case, Jack Taylor ruled the roost at St. Paul’s; but in his blue jeans and work shirt in the alleys of our neighborhood, he seemed like just another liberal professional.  He was never sanctimonious – only Baptists and Methodists are ever guilty of that – and always pleasant and gregarious, all important in a ministry.  What bothered me was that he was so ordinary. 

Venal may be too strong a word, but Jack Taylor certainly approached it in his constant references to his remodeled house, new Saab, and successful children.  I don’t know what I was expecting.  I guess the Vicar of Christ label for Catholic priests – there was supposedly a direct line from Christ to Peter to the Pope and down the line to the parish priest – must have gotten a toehold early and kept its grip; for I always believed that a man of God was supposed to always be a man of God, not nattering on about mortgage rates, trash pickup, and New England prep schools.  In a weird way I wished that Jack Taylor was a fire-breathing Southern Baptist preacher rather than a bowl of oatmeal.

Joan Taylor may have wished for some fire-breathing as well, for there was an obvious and evident diffidence in her relationship with her husband.  She was pleasant enough to him – Episcopalians are not supposed to yell and scream like penitent Catholics or take chunks out flesh out of each other like George and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf – but she saved her coquettish behavior for other men.  She was never sexy.  She was too strait-laced to be so overt; but she sure did a great Park Spring version of batting her eyelashes at her male guests.  I was never sure how serious she was – the eyelash-batting was too universal.  She never singled anyone out with particular attentions.

One day Joan and Jack invited us to join them and a few other neighbors in their hot tub; and I thought that would be the perfect place to discover her attentions.  I had recently come back from India where ‘hot tub’ to me meant the heated swimming pool of Brad Langley in Madras where guests stoked up on hash brownies, shed their clothes, and churned the water to froth.

When I arrived at the Taylors, they and another couple were already in the tub.  They were fully clothed and were sipping from plastic glasses.  It was all very tacky.  The view from the tub was the Anchor fence and the trash bins in the alley.  The Taylors had not bothered to clean the yard of all the construction debris, and you had to pick your way through lengths of PVC pipe and window casings.  “Come on in” said the Taylors in unison, and then the Barkley’s. 

It was the most thuddingly boring evening I have ever spent.  Not only was everyone fully clothed, but the women wore full-body one-piece bathing suits – just in case, I guessed, an errant hand might drift to supple, exposed flesh.  The arrangement was boy-girl-boy-girl, but the distance between each was even farther than at the dining room table.  Worst of all was the discussion which labored over taxes, the school board, the idiot in the White House, and potholes in the street.  Such a discussion would have been intolerably boring inside and dry, but out here in the alley, hearing the toilets flush from the neighbors’ houses and the greasy smell of hamburgers lingering on their grills, it was the pits.

I was a slow learner in those day, especially when it came to women – or should I say women from a particular milieu, and in very particular Park Spring.  I thought I might be able to meet some of the young mothers who took their kids to the local park.  I was half a stay-at-home dad, half-travelling consultant; and when in Washington, I had plenty of time to take my own children to the park.  They were both independent and happy and required little attention.  I actually hated the park, especially the endless pushing on the swings.  “Don’t stop, Daddy. Don’t stop.  Higher…higher!”, but I loved being with my kids.

Actually I was a more engaged father than most who only came to the park on the weekends, exiled there by their wives who both wanted them out of the house and who insisted that they at least do this little bit for them (their children) and for her (the real reason).  These distant fathers pushed the swings while reading the Wall Street Journal, oblivious to the shouts of glee and the real happiness of flying upwards towards the treetops. 

The worst case of father-at-the-park-on-Saturday was two lawyers, cigars jammed in the corners of their mouths, yakking on about codicils and precedents, all the while dropping ashes on their tightly-wound infants, asleep in their Snugglies.  These fathers had only one thing on their mind – getting the hell out of the park and on the golf course or back to the office.  During the week the atmosphere was very different.  All women, for one thing; but what I thought would be open season for adventure was nothing of the kind.  The women banded together like hens in a coop while the fox prowled around outside.  It was worse, even, than a military perimeter, outside of which lurked the sapper or the invader. It was the early 80s and a stand-alone father was suspect – an oddity, a gender peculiarity.

Eventually I learned the ways of the community, stopped any intent to poach, invade, or disrupt.  The last neighborhood invitation I accepted was to the house of a couple who had just returned from a trip through South Asia.  What I thought might be an interesting evening sharing impressions of India, Sri Lanka, and Nepal was no more than a paralyzing two hours of family slides. Margie sitting on the stone Ganesh in Bombay.  Bob standing before the Golden Temple.  Margie ‘holding up’ the high minaret of the Qutb Minar.  There is nothing worse than listening to other people’s dreams, the old adage goes, and absolutely nothing more painful than hours of family photographs regardless of the exotic setting in which they were taken.

My kids grew up and the temptation of the park dissipated and disappeared.  I stuck to my own kind – old friends, some from the neighborhood, who were international professionals, writers, and teachers – retreated into the comfort of the familiar while still being stimulated by what was said.  In the final tally, the neighborhood, after 34 years living there, is home.

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