Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Won't You Be My Neighbor?

This weekend I stood in the backyard with a hose over our back wall and watered the neighbor’s trees. I’ve been doing it faithfully for about two months, ever since we realized the neighbors were gone and weren’t returning.

As you know, the mortgage crisis hit Las Vegas hard, and the telltale sign of a foreclosed house is not the For Sale sign in the yard - it’s the brown landscaping. After all, nothing grows in Vegas unless you have a sprinkler hooked up to it, so of course when the water is shut off, the yard of a foreclosed house is the one brown rectangle in a street of green.

We never really knew our neighbors. Their backyard borders ours along a six-foot-tall back wall, and since their house’s entrance is on another street we never really had a chance to talk. Sure, I wish I could have known them – or any of our neighbors. I mean, I’m from the Midwest, where it’s ingrained to take a batch of cookies or a freshly baked pie to your neighbors so you can get acquainted. But I’ve never done that since my first try several years ago, when the couple next door to our first house looked confused when I showed up with a banana nut bread. People in Vegas seem to prefer their compartmentalized lives in their walled-in homes.

In spite of never actually meeting the family behind us, we did feel that we knew them. Every morning and every evening when we’d open or close our upstairs bedroom’s curtains we had a perfect view of their yard – of the pool and the little tiki bar they put in the corner, the potted plants that sat in the shade. We weren’t voyeuristic; we just noticed them as they lived their lives, in those brief daily glimpses.

On the weekends the husband worked out in the yard and slowly installed a stone patio by the back door while his wife sat in a lounge chair by the pool. Later he added a retractable shade awning and a small TV on a wall-mounted stand. After a few months of living behind us, a man appeared at their patio table every morning with coffee, cigarette, and a newspaper. We decided he was the in-law who came to live with them. He was there too long for just a visit. And he always sat alone.

Our favorite member of the family was their son, a little blond kid who was about three or four when we first saw him. He splashed in the pool with his dad or while the mom sat in her chair, unmoved. But mostly he was alone in the yard, amusing himself by playing superhero while wearing nothing but his underwear and a towel tied around his neck as a cape. He walked around the yard whacking plants with a plastic sword, and he and a big plastic Godzilla protected the world from evil, right there in view of our upstairs window.

Right now, the retractable awning is gone, Godzilla is lying on his side in the debris by their muddy pool, and all the plants are brown, except for the three trees I water every day. They are taller than our trees, so losing them would take away the privacy and shade they give our yard. And why should the trees suffer, just because the people moved on?

Watering their trees is the neighborly thing to do.

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