My impending trip back to the Elysian fields of my idyllic childhood has made me nostalgic again. Not that it takes much to make me nostalgic. The mere sight of a pack of Juicy Fruit in the checkout line will usually suffice for a 15 minute reverie. As I alluded to in yesterday’s post, the neighbors could fill a few chapters in a book. (Hmm… there’s an idea…) Growing up on Prospect, my folks were always cordial with our neighbors. Something that is necessary when the homes are built 20 feet apart. Yet despite the occasional nod, and smile, they never socialized with them. Of course, the kids in the neighborhood all ran together in packs like feral dogs, as kids are wont to do, but the Mom’s and Dad’s and Little Old Ladies stayed up on their own porches and pretended not to notice each other as best they could.
So it struck me as strange when I met Mrs. 20 Prospect, and learned that her family actually invited their neighbors over to their house from time to time. Seriously. Of course, I was always a shy child, so it never really occurred to me that social interaction was something to be sought out. Particularly with your neighbors. That’s like holding hands during the Our Father at Mass. Something that surely would look good on the resume when you’re interviewed by St. Peter, but nothing you’d actually want to practice.
Perhaps part of our problem with befriending the neighbors had something to do with the transient nature of residents that lived in the house next door. When we first moved to Prospect Avenue, the houses on both sides were owned by little old ladies. They were relics from an earlier generation, a time of doilies and fringed lamp shade, and both of them had long since buried their husbands. Hopefully not in their basements, at least as far as we knew. The houses were tidy, and well kept, and both of these sweet old ladies must have cringed at the thought of a family full of white trash moving in next door. Still, if they did feel that way, they always managed to hide it which is what we in Minnesota call “being nice”.
However, by the time I was old enough to go to school, the little old lady to our left had sold her home and moved into the senior apartment high rise that had just opened on East Main. (I believe it has 8 stories, which qualifies as a “high rise” in Batavia). Like most single family homes that sold in the during the rust belt great depression of the 70’s and 80’s, the buyer was not a new family, but a local slumlord.
The first family to rent the place was a large family of slightly delinquent children. I don’t remember much about them, except that my Dad was convinced they were trying to burn down our barn. There was an old chicken coop in their back yard, which served as a great little clubhouse, but within a few months it mysteriously burned to the ground. They left shortly thereafter, leaving behind a significant amount of garbage in their wake.
The next family of renters was a professor from the local community college, and his 2nd wife, who moved in along with his 3 kids. The kids were right about my age, so I was thrilled at the possibility of having more kids to fill out the endless baseball and football games. However, like all new kids on the block, they were subjected to a hazing process by the ringleaders of the neighborhood gang. It did not help their cause that their folks were younger “hippie” types, and that the kids had long hair, and strange taste in clothes. Let’s just say that they never did assimilate into the clique. However, being a lonely little mop haired freak myself, I still befriended them. What they may have lacked in athletic ability, they made up for in weirdness. Even at that tender young age, I was drawn to the freaks and misfits.
We played many games of hide and seek, and kick the can, and other neighborhood classics; Spud, Red Rover, Freeze Tag, etc. in our yards. Their backyard had the unfortunate happenstance of being the lowest point on the street, so it was prone to turning into a pond during heavy rains. That is until the landlord stopped by a construction site up the street, where a crew was digging the foundation for the last house to ever be built on Prospect Avenue. He cut a deal with the crew, and they backed their dump truck into the yard, and filled it with dirt and rocks. We assumed at the time that he would pay someone to bring in some topsoil, and grade it out, but he never did get around to it. So the backyard of the house began to resemble the surface of the moon. It did fix the flooding problem though.
As I began to get closer to the hippie kids next door, and played games of Astronaut in their moonscape yard, I came to understand that their parents were a little… off. Their dad and step mom used to argue, and fight quite a bit, which usually ended with their dad taking off in the car, and a strange thumping sound coming from inside of the house. When I finally asked what the pounding noise was, they informed me it was their step mom pounding her head against the wall. I considered this for a few moments, and decided that while it wasn’t exactly normal behavior, it was still better than the Mom on the other side of 20 Prospect, who pounded her son’s head against the wall when she was upset. But that’s a story for another time…
Eventually, their step mom moved out, and not too long afterward, they did as well. The house sat empty for a few months as we watched the weeds in the backyard grow, and flower. Finally one day we saw a moving van pull up, and begin unloading. Multiculturalism had come to Prospect Avenue! I was never sure exactly how many kids lived in the house, but they ranged in age from the late 20’s, down to the boy my age. I got to know him, and he explained the reason his parents had accents was that they were from Puerto Rico. I had just assumed they were Sicilians. So I consulted my puzzle map of the United States to figure out where exactly Puerto Rico was located. Come to find out, it was not on the South Side of Batavia.
For the most part, this family kept to themselves. As I said, there were so many people coming and going from the place that I couldn’t keep track of who was who. They planted a garden out back, and began to mow the moonscape, so from Dad’s perspective, things were looking up. At least until the morning when we were awoken at 5 am by a rooster crowing. At first I thought I had dreamed it, but when it happened again the next day, Dad mentioned it at the dinner table. The chicken coop had been long gone by now, just its stone foundation was left out back, so we speculated about where exactly the crowing was coming from. Finally, I asked the boy next door, and he explained that his Dad was keeping them in the attic. Apparently, they were in training for the welterweight cockfighting championships of Genesee County. The aviary only lasted a few days before someone turned them in. Not too long after the roosters disappeared, the neighbors did too, leaving behind an impressive collection of cast off furniture in the garage, which by now had become home to a family of squirrels.
After that, the landlord decided to double his income earning potential by dividing the house into 2 apartments. So commenced a winter of banging noises from next door, this time presumably coming from a hammer, and not someone’s head. By Spring we had 2 new sets of neighbors. The couple downstairs was married, and in their 30’s. They didn’t have any kids, but they seemed like decent folks. They eventually became the closest things my parents had to friends on the street before they moved out. However, the upstairs apartment became a revolving door of renters. Mostly single men, or women. Finally, a girl rented the place, and seemed as if she was going to stick around. Months passed. Eventually, her boyfriend and his German Sheppard moved in with her. More months passed, and we only saw the dog leave the house once or twice. Eventually the downstairs neighbors began to complain of the smell. When the dog had a litter puppies, it stopped coming outside all together. Finally the landlord let himself into the place and discovered the entire upstairs covered with a layer of dog excrement. He offered the downstairs renters a few months free rent if they cleaned the place, and they surprisingly took him up on the offer. Perhaps they had seen his efforts at landscaping in the backyard, and figured it was better to do it themselves than wake up to a dump truck filling in the upstairs of the house.
More renters followed, and eventually the house went on the market. By that time cable TV had come to Prospect Avenue, and we were no longer reliant on the neighbors for nightly entertainment. A few years later I was moving out to go to college, and see the world. Mom and Dad stayed behind for another ten years before we ourselves became another of the long list of former residents of Prospect Avenue. As for the house next door, the people that bought the place in the 80’s, still own it today, and so I will politely refrain from telling their story. At least until they move.