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

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Good Fences Make Good Neighbors – The Fallacy Of Social Harmony

Brighton Beech lived in a leafy suburb of Washington, DC and felt fortunate that he had good next-door neighbors.  They were both two-parent families, professionals, and as far as he could tell, affable and socially-minded. He enjoyed the sound of young children bouncing on the trampoline on one side, and the chatter of upper-middle class intellectuals on the other.  What could be better, he thought, than to be between two American ideals – a nuclear family with happy children; and an academic couple for whom Kant, Hobbes, and Kierkegaard were as familiar as the Redskins.



“We’re lucky”, said Brighton to his wife. “It could have been a lot worse”, and the horror stories of their friends and colleagues came to mind. The Horsts, for example, who ended up with commuted jail sentences and thousands of dollars in fines and legal costs because of a dispute with their neighbors.

The Hammonds, an older couple in their early 70s, had lived next to the Peases for well over ten years.  Both families had respected the unwritten parking laws of the neighborhood – no parking beyond the property line; no parking in shoveled-out spaces; and no ‘taking the temperature’ (too close to the back bumper) of cars parked within property limits.

Bob Hammond, a newcomer to the neighborhood, thought these rules insanely bourgeois, and refused to play by them.  He parked his Camry well into the Peases’ perimeter, parked as close to their Volvo as space would permit, and on occasion pulled smack-dab in front of their walk.

One one occasion, Hammond found a handwritten note on his windshield. “Good neighbors do not park where they do not belong”, in effect shooing them  from the Peases’ prescribed spot on Brandywine Street.

“Well, fuck them”, Hammond thought, and the next day parked both the Camry and his Corolla bumper-to-bumper, back-to-front against the Peases’ Volvo, trapping it and them indefinitely.

The spite-shit dogfight continued for months. Pease retaliated by stuffing Anjou pears in Hammond’s tailpipe, causing carbon monoxide backup and engine overload and failure. Pease waited by his bedroom window for an hour until he saw Greg Hammond leave the house, pick up the New York Times and open the door to the Volvo. The engine cranked, labored, but did not turn over.  Greg tried again; but the engine only groaned and protested.  On the third try, all the built-up gases and oxygen exploded, forcing the Anjou pear out of the blocked tailpipe with the force of a howitzer and onto the petunias of the Turkish neighbors across the street.

Image result for images anjou pears

“Ahhh”, said Hammond. “That’ll serve him right. Sturm und Drang and a tune up.

Pease, of course, could not let the incident pass and proceeded to let the air out of the tires of the Camry, pour molasses into the gas tank, and lock in Hammond’s cars so tightly that only an industrial wedge could separate them.

This was nothing compared to the dispute between two neighbors across the street. The Glovers and the Pinks had always been the best of friends.  Their children had gone to the same private schools.  Henry Glover and Brian Pink had been colleagues at the World Bank; and the wives had both volunteered at St. Barnabas Church. No one could ever have expected any friction, let alone disagreement between the neighbors.  They were as perfectly  aligned socially, politically, and economically as any in Marshall Park.

Yet one day the Glovers decided to build a fence between their property and the Pinks’. The neighbors discussed the project to assure that both parties would benefit from the new, seasoned maple semi-stockade- increased privacy, no obstruction of the southern sun, and all-in-all a welcome improvement to both properties.

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The Pinks, however, had not counted on the radical transformation of common borders. The contractors, asserting that they were authorized to ‘clear the property line’ and rebuild ‘according to code’, slashed and burned the tall skip laurels and mulberry bushes to the ground.

“They will grow back”, said Marjorie Glover when the Pinks went to complain. The neutral, well-hedged, and very green line between the two properties had been razed; and while the Glovers had hewed to the letter of the law, a social contract had been abrogated.

Looking over the new fence into the Glovers’ yard was an insult and a grievance.  The Pinks could now see the inflatable blue pool, the disassembled croquet set, and the remnants of last Saturday’s barbecue.

Herbert Pink quickly hired a contractor to build a 10’ chain-link fence beyond the half-stockade of the Hammonds’.  He selected from the most institutional and penitentiary that Long Fence, Inc. had to offer, complete with barbed wire steel ‘corollaries’. 

Image result for images chain link barbed wire fences prisons

He calculated the height geometrically so that any view from the Hammonds’ deck would have to look at the maximum security wired fence at the back of their property.  Any cachet afforded by the seasoned wood fence would be lost within the context of the Lorton/Angola-style guardrails.

The Pinks’ neighbors, two doors down, had bought an Australian Shepherd, a family-friendly dog which, because of its inbred herding instincts, was a barker.  Anytime ‘Mars’ saw schoolchildren pass on the street, he barked and strained at the leash until they had passed.  He only wanted to corral them into his protective perimeter and keep them safe; but because he was restrained and contained within the property, he could only bark.  Their next-door neighbors hated dogs and were extremely sensitive to noise. 

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The usual commotion of a neighborhood – passing cars, construction, UPS pick-up, and late-afternoon whiffle-ball – was an intrusion and a grating offense.  They had moved into the neighborhood in their late 40s, but old-age had taken its toll, and the Grimes could no longer support any violation of what they considered ‘their’ space, and the dog was the last straw,.

Washington Grimes was not one to take either old age or assaults on his privacy lightly; and he decided to poison the neighbor’s dog. Taking a page out of an Agatha Christie murder mystery, he administered the poison slowly but surely; and by the time the dog died there was no way to conclusively determine foul play.

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Agatha Christie as a girl, www.en.wikipedia,.org

The owners of the poisoned dog, however, knew without a doubt who had poisoned him.  Because the poisoning neighbors had no animals at pets, revenge would have to be metaphorical,.  Lance Parrott worked with the federal agency responsible for toxic waste cleanup in Spring Valley, the upscale neighborhood of Washington which had been contaminated by the remains of mustard gas and other noxious elements of chemical warfare stockpiled for use against the Germans in WWI; and it was not difficult for him to secrete small amounts from protected sites. One night, Parrott introduced this highly toxic material in the gardens where his neighbor’s prized geraniums, chrysanthemums, and phlox were planted.  Within 24 hours all plants were dead, dry, drooping, and wilted.

None of the upper middle-class residents of Brushwood Park would ever have admitted to such vengeful, retributive acts. At most they would have justified their actions as moral quid pro quo; a modern-day, innocuous eye-for-an-eye payback; but none of them would have ever considered themselves anti-social or anti-Christian.

As a matter of fact, the Pinks, Hammonds, Beeches, and Grimes greeted each other quite affably as though nothing out-of-the-ordinary was underway. “How’s Cole enjoying his first year at Oberlin?”; or “Have you seen the Folger’s Cymbeline ?” All these niceties while they were poisoning, building spite firewalls, and pear-stocking engines.

The moral of the story is that everybody wants to get along unless social, personal, or legal perimeters have been breached.  Most people want to be left alone.  They want to choose their friends and acquaintances and to keep out The Other. Because everyone is like this – socially introverted and suspicious if not defiant when it comes to random connections – it is no surprise that even the best-suited neighbors squabble and fight,.

Most importantly we are all hardwired for territorial integrity. Human nature dictates that we protect the perimeter, expand it where possible, defend against interlopers and intruders, guard our children like she-bears, and build fences. Squabbles, fights, blood feuds, and spiteful pissing matches are par for the course.

Fights between neighbors are no different than those between children.  “He got more than I did”; or “Why does she get to go?” are fighting words, gantlets laid down, territory marked. 

Marriage is a contract not a love affair; and both husband and wife are sensitive to issues of equality, fairness, and respect.  Most marital splits are over breach of contract whether economic, financial, or sexual. Fights are common, most serious enough to require mediation.

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     Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf www.theartofpsychology.wordpress.com

I personally have had enough, and am about to move to uncharted waters of the Chesapeake Bay – a small creek off the Rappahannock River where I can build a house on enough acres to be virtually isolated.  Money hath its privilege, and there is no privilege like untethering oneself from neighbors. Especially at the end of one’s years when the affairs of John from Homeland Security, Mary from the Justice Department; or Pierre from the World Bank have no interest or importance whatsoever.

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“Hell is other people”, wrote Sartre in No Exit. No truer words have ever been spoken.

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