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The Perfect Neighborhood...A Short Story...Part 1
Enshrined within the Declaration of Independence, are the words “Pursuit of Life, Liberty, and Happiness.” An earlier draft of Thomas Jefferson’s famous document actually read, “Pursuit of Life, Liberty, and Property.” To our third president the two words, happiness and property, were synonymous. Indeed, they were virtually indistinguishable to the 18th-Century Jeffersonian mindset of our forbearers. Important information for when playing Jeopardy or buying property. Subsequent case law, court decisions, tax codes, and legislation further lodged the concept of property into the American psyche. The possibility of using Aunt Peggy’s inheritance to parlay Baltic Avenue into Boardwalk has fueled the growth of a cottage-industry known as regentrification. The newcomers fix the area up; clean up the unsavory aspects of poverty while at the same time enjoying the benefits of rising property values. It’s a slow progression designed to chip away at urban blight as individual capitalism reclaims inner city townhomes one at a time.
As a rule everybody agrees that it is better to buy along the “edge” of a war zone rather than right in the thick of things. In picking the wrong neighborhood, the hapless investor could easily end up lying sprawled across their newly laid Bermuda sod with a randomly fired drive-by bullet lodged deep within their skull. The negotiated free annual aeration clause that accompanied their sod purchase would appear a rather hollow victory in light of such circumstances. Additionally, due diligence is advised when buying the house. After escrow closes is not the time to discover that leaky roof or cracked foundation. Such surprises will have you swinging from the rafters long before you’re swinging with your fellow real estate moguls at the country club.
Far from being a war zone; Angus McGriffin’s borough wouldn’t even warrant the designation of a police action by United Nation standards. He saw things differently. Every untended yard, ripped screen, or strewn trash pile was a clarion call to battle in his mind. Every used syringe that turned up in his alley; an enemy’s bayonet to his throat. The amorphous movement of the region’s homeless through his dominions excited a need to circle the wagons and rise to DEFCON Level Five. Like an inexperienced general on his first battlefield, he confused small skirmishes with major battles, rather than the killing fields of Verdun, the neighborhood was just old and tired as were many of her citizens.
Despite his mental disconnect, or rather because of it, for protection of home and hearth, he had a plan. He diligently conducted daily patrols of the neighborhood noting the collection of empty beer bottles here and the abandoned television set there. A mental note was taken of the refrigerator sitting on the neighbor’s porch and he quickly calculated that if it was still there on Monday morning he would call the city. An overgrown lawn a block down from his house seemed to warrant an immediate call to city officials. With trepidation he monitored the various vacant lots for large scale dumping of washers and dryers, as well as, for the congregation of undesirables bent on, he was sure, criminality of all different types of sorts. He hated vacant lots.
Two emotions constantly warred within him; superiority and anger towards most of the people around him. Through hard work, perseverance, and dedication he has shown the neighborhood the template for urban renewal and it angered him that his model of perfectionism is not emulated by those around him. As such, his visage of the neighborhood was clouded and his sour disposition turned his daily walks into a dark journey across Snoopy’s barren and war-torn French countryside following a lucky shot fired from the Red Baron’s bright red Fokker Tri-plane.
The reality of the neighborhood was tree-lined streets and narrow crooked alleys which zigzag back and forth over a roughly eight by ten block radius of Nevada’s second largest city. The houses, stoutly built brick affairs, many with large deep porches that peer out over small sun-baked front yards, teem with activity from being repeatedly subdivided by greedy landlords and cost-conscious tenants. These are interspersed amongst cheap apartment buildings that have served the needs of seniors, college students, and single mothers through subsidized housing since at least the 1970s. With ownership tending toward absenteeism; renters predominate throughout the region where, recently paroled drug offenders lurk within the requisite 500-feet of their court-appointed halfway houses, and sex offenders quietly register with law enforcement prior to commencing their distasteful daily tasks. Locals have affectionately dubbed the area “The Corridor.” Like an old pair of slippers the Corridor is comfortable, familiar, and smells slightly off in hot weather.
On one such hot day, in mid-July, a number of the local denizens found themselves playing host to an out-of-town visitor and congregating in the shade of their spacious porch mulling entertainment options for that summer evening. Lack of money limits options. The joint being passed around further seems to stymie creative thought with the only voiced option eliciting a desultory response from the group each time it is brought up. Rephrasing the same option has been the only thing keeping the “What should we do tonight?” conversation alive for the previous ten minutes. A Modest Mouse song could be heard wafting out through the open windows and door.
“Why not walk down by the river and go to Arttown?” came the latest repackaged offering. Each option effectively became a suggestion for a new route to the same festival. As such, the proposal was met with grunts of apathy and indecision sat like an uninvited party guest amongst the gathering on the porch.
“Hey, did you hear about the radioactive rabbit?” asked one.
“Is that a club?” A perk of interest.
“Um, no but that would be a great name for a club, huh? No, it’s an actual rabbit that they trapped out in Jackpot, or some such place. The rabbit drank radioactive crap from some radioactive place and now they are looking for radioactive rabbit poop.”
“Get random much?” inquired one.
“Say radioactive much?” needled another good naturedly.
“Yeah well, I’m just saying. Can you imagine? Looking for radioactive rabbit poop for a living?” replied the first as he passed his opinion along with the joint.
“It is nice to hear about a job that sounds like it sucks worse than mine,” noted the out- of-town visitor while others nod in agreement.
“That’s all I’m saying,” said the first defensively.
They all sit in companionable silence, sipping on beers while finishing the joint. Mellowness joins the festivities and takes a seat opposite indecision in the still summer air. An extraordinarily old and skinny cat suddenly wakes up with a start and looks at the group balefully before dismissing them with a lavish swish of her long tail and walks slowly into the house. Those of the smoking persuasion light cigarettes as the joint is extinguished.
The group occupies an eclectic polyglot of differing furniture; garden, camp, beach, an exiled couch, and several upended milk crates serve the seating needs on the porch. The poor unfortunates on the milk crates frequently shift position as plastic edges threaten to press permanent indentions into, both, suspecting and unsuspecting buttocks. To escape that assault, one of the locals surrendered her Spanish-Inquisition inspired perch and moved down the stairs while rubbing her butt. It was then that she noted Angus McGriffin’s approach from up the block.
“Greg,” she whispered falsetto, “The Thimble’s coming!!” The warning immediately occasions mellowness’ tumultuous exit from the festivities as indecision, abandoning all pretence of dignity, leaps over the porch railing to skulk about in the shadows of the shrubbery. Greg explodes into action by throwing his cigarette in one direction while hitting the ground in the other. He begins army crawling into the house on his belly. The cat, which had previously halted to lick herself inside the doorway, screeched her protest at this affront and quickly runs under a table. The others stash their beer bottles out of sight; hoping that the listless late afternoon wind has sufficiently dispersed the pungent smell of chronic marijuana from the immediate vicinity of the porch.
“What the hell??” Laughs the out-of-towner in surprise.
“It’s the Thimble!” several point out simultaneously under their breath.
“Every time he runs into Greg,” whispers the sharp-eyed sentry whose sore butt had served as the Burgarello alarm, “He buys the house he lives in and evicts everybody. It’s already happened twice. Can you believe that shit? The first time he said it was for insurance reasons or something and the next time he didn’t say anything, he just knocked on the door after buying the place and told them all to leave! He’s already bought like six houses on this street!” she finished, laughing in disbelief.
“Damn. What does he do for money?” asked the newcomer.
“Fellatio!” Greg’s disembodied voice floats out from inside the house.
“Fellatio,” deadpanned the alert sentry.
“He must be very good at it,” deadpanned the visitor back.
“Oh, no one disputes his skills,” she agreed, nodding her head sagaciously.
The group falls silent as McGriffin comes abreast of the porch. Expecting to see the guy from the Monopoly box the newcomer was disappointed. He was taller of course and didn’t sport a monocle but, really, who did anymore? The black tuxedo has been shed in favor of sensible overalls which cover a dull red t-shirt while heavy work boots replace elegant Kenneth Coles. A blue and white stripped train engineer’s hat occupies the spot where the Monopoly guy’s bowler traditionally sits with a matching neckerchief slung about his throat. He plods determinedly past them without looking up or acknowledging the group on the porch in any way, a tool belt is cinched tightly about his waist. The newcomer decides that he closer resembles a disheveled Clydesdale than the sophisticated Monopoly man as he clumped his way past them and moves down the block.
The all clear is signaled and Greg returns to the group as beers are retrieved from hastily found hiding places. Mellowness sheepishly creeps back in and sits in the corner as if embarrassed by its earlier outburst of panic. The CD has changed to reggae. In the excitement the alert sentry stole Greg’s relatively comfortable beach chair and he took over her perch upon the milk crate. He squirms uncomfortably. The visitor addressed his questions to him.
“From the monopoly game, you know the piece you move around the board?”
“I would have thought you would have gone with the shoe,” pointed out the visitor after a moment of thought, “since he likes to boot people out, you know?”
“That was actually discussed, however, at the end of the day a thimble is a finger condom and if anything needs a condom it’s that human organ.” explains Greg in a serious matter-of-fact tone.
“How terribly nuanced,” replied the impressed out-of-towner, “And H.I.V. aware.”
“Yeah, well, you know,” Greg snorts, doing his best Barney Fife impression. It wasn’t great but it wasn’t bad either. One could almost visualize the single bullet safely secured in his buttoned down shirt pocket, had he been wearing a shirt.
“And why does this guy have a hard-on for you? Did you get his daughter pregnant? Run over his cat? Get his cat pregnant? Run over his daughter? Who does he rent to after you people leave? Family members? Old retired clean-cut Republican types?”
“No, and that’s just it,” interrupts Greg, “He kicks everyone out, fixes up the place, and never rents or sells it. Every now and again a “For Rent” sign will go up for a few days and then it’s replaced by a dump truck and guys doing some kind of work. You can totally see which houses are his. And that big-assed castle mother-fucker about mid-block? Yeah that’s his too and he’s been building that thing for like ten years. As for the pregnant cat, I don’t know that anyone really knows whose cat that was.” He finished cryptically while pointing down the street.
Sure enough, now that it was pointed out, the visitor noted the superior condition of about a half a dozen or so houses strewn up and down the street while mid-block an impressive structure already loomed large above its neighbors and appeared only a third built. Each of the vacant houses supported fresh paint, new landscaping, shining glass, and surreally green grass considering they lived in a desert. The houses tended to put their neighbors to shame and the neighbors tended to help by not putting up much of a fight.
“So he just buys up houses and sits on them until property values go through the roof?” queries the curious newcomer.
“Maybe,” replied one doubtfully. “Mainly, he just seems to like to buy them and fix them up. And, evict Greg of course.”
“And evict Greg,” they chorused.
“WTF?” asks Greg philosophically.
“That’s weak sauce,” the newcomer commiserates.
“Now, mind you,” says the alert sentry conspiratorially, “It’s not like we don’t screw with him when we can.” A collective giggle roils the group as another joint gets started about the porch. Mellowness relaxes a little and edges closer to the assembly while one of their numbers goes into the house to replenish spent beer bottles.
Another adds, “Well not just us.”
“Yeah the whole neighborhood joins in,” a third takes up the story, “There is a drummer who lives down the street who always collects empties from all the gigs he plays and throws them about his various properties. And then there’s a little Mexican dude down the alley who tags everything the Thimble paints. No, shit. No sooner does the Thimble paint his garage, or whatever, and as soon as it’s dry--BAM-- this Mexican guy’s spray painting some kind of crap over it. Two days later, the Thimble is painting over that and on and on. Ok. Well, I suppose two guys aren’t actually the whole neighborhood but it’s the start of a wave.” He assured the visitor.
“And what do you guys do?” asks the intrigued visitor smiling.
“Well,” picks up Greg, “We don’t really go in for the littering and graffiti, but, we do have fun with him. For awhile last summer we parked a tore-back huptee around his house.” Greg laughs.
“What do you mean?”
“We had an old purple colored Bronco with broken windows, a missing dashboard, and a missing rear door that we filled up with all kinds of crap so it looked like the Beverly Hillbillies ride, with boards and such sticking out at all crazy angles, and we parked it right in front of his house. Now the cool thing is as long as it runs, has inflated tires and valid tags, there’s nothing the cops can do for like seventy-two hours,” Greg explains, “So after like seventy hours we’d move it fifteen or twenty feet and let it sit there for another three days or so. Can you imagine the mind fuck that had to have had on that anal son-of-a-bitch?” The group chuckles appreciatively at the memory.
“So why did you stop?”
“Eh, the tags expired and it was really not worth the cost just to screw with the Thimble. Still, it was good times.”
“Now,” continued another, “we like to take broken exercise equipment and leave it at that house there.” They indicated a home directly across the street that was obviously the Thimble’s, albeit; perhaps a more recent acquisition as it seemed still in need of work.
“Why that house specifically and why broken exercise equipment?”
“That house specifically because we like to watch him trying to get the stuff down from wherever we are able to hang it. Broken exercise equipment because why would we give him perfectly good exercise equipment?”
“Um, true, that.”
“So far,” one laughs, “We have gotten a treadmill onto his roof, a glide master on his porch, and a weight bench hanging from that tree over in the corner. It took him about two days to even notice that, which is pretty slow for him because normally he’s on it. Anyway, one night we were trying to wedge half of a nautilus machine onto his back stairs when we noticed his back door was open so we wedged it in an upstairs’ bathroom shower instead.”
“No one’s ever home?”
“Like we said, all those houses are straight up empty and have been since he served the eviction notices. It’s kind of creepy, really, all those meticulously maintained and completely empty ghost houses.”
“It does make it easier to dump broken exercise equipment I suppose,” surmised the out-of-towner.
“Right, right, right, right, right…” Several in the group began chanting, sounding not unlike, the Penguin from the old Batman television series.
The group began breaking up as two had to get ready for work while another had to finish, and by finish, of course, she meant start, a term paper for a summer history class she was taking. Greg left, determined to finish breaking a perfectly good Stairmaster for later use at the house across the street. The rest of the gathering decided to go down to Arttown via the river walk. It was generally agreed that it would be cooler by that route and the wind down by the water would be a refreshing change, for as someone pointed out, “The Corridor smelled a bit off this evening.”
(End of Part 1) (Part 2)