Thursday, May 17, 2007

Good Fences Make Good Neighbors; or No Good Deed

. . . goes unpunished.

I have just received considerable punishment intention-wise, but it's absolutely not over yet. The votes are not in yet. I am sitting in the family room, looking out the window, waiting for the neighbors--whose "Samaritan" my widely celebrated son supposedly is--to come home and see what a terrible thing I've done on his behalf.

Now, to make a short story unconscionably long . . . and it is long, so set aside some time to get through it, as I did the actual event in real-life time.

We live at the end of a small private street inhabited, except for us, by retired people and industrious professional couples who work hard and do not have kids and are hardly ever home. About three houses down the hill is a very elderly couple--I'll call them Horace and Harriet H [henceforth the Hs]. Horace is 96 and cannot see except for some shadow vision, but he is somewhat ambulatory with a cane, has excellent hearing, is very socially engaging and loves to talk any audience's ears off. Horace fairly lives for an audience. This is one reason many neighbors avoid him. His wife Harriet is a spring chicken in her late 80s who cannot hear and uses a walker, but whose vision is fine. Still plays bridge weekly and even invited me once when one of her ladies was having a medical problem. She loves to wander out of the house and dig in the flower beds to plant impatiens, bending over in a shocking gardening way many spring chickens of 35 no longer consider possible.

Neither of the Hs can do anything without the sensorially complementary mate.

Last year, Mr. and Mrs. H asked my younger kid, Tyke, if he would be their official Garbage Boy. So now when he gets home from school on Thursdays, it's his job to run down the hill to the Hs' house, use the key to open the garage, put the garbage barrels and recycling bin on a cart, and tote it down the hilly driveway to the street. Then he rolls the cart back up and locks the garage again. On Friday when he gets home from school, he takes the barrels back in.

This being Thursday, it was Tyke's work day. But because he got into a special inter-school advanced band, this time of year he has to stay for practice late on Thursday. He didn't get home till 5:30; then he had to eat, change his clothes, and head directly off to baseball practice as well as play a game in treacherous weather. Big brother couldn't do the job, either, because he had already left to attend a concert.

We expected another storm this afternoon, and just after Tyke left for his game, the rain began. I realized that Mr. and Mrs. H might go to bed early and would probably be shocked to hear the garage door going up after 9:00 p.m. So I decided I would go down and do the garbage myself. (Let me say that it is never our habit to call first. We would either scare them or get trapped on the phone. It's just understood that regardless of which one of our family members does it, the barrel job simply gets done.) I grabbed the key and rushed down the hill as the rain pummeled harder and harder.

When I got to the correct, "garbage side" of the double garage door, I tried to insert the key, but it did not fit. At all. Hmm. Without thinking to look further, I turned the twist-handle and popped the latch. Just as I began to twist, I realized that these ancient doors are like our ancient doors (only we never use the handle): if you twist the handle, it's only an emergency measure for when automatic door opener isn't working and requires a manual override. Oh, by the way, somewhere in the part of the back of my mind that wasn't operating at the time, I know you only turn that handle from INSIDE the door if and when you have to pull the emergency "rip cord" inside the garage. In addition, I noticed in my mistaken action that the key seemed much too new to work with this ancient lock, and that the REAL, current lock was installed on the door frame on the pillar between the two doors. Too late. Cr@p!

When I then tried the correct lock, the key was hunky-dory and the door started to open automatically. Momentary hope. So Mr. and Mrs. H actually had a lock that worked like an external keypad. You turned that key and the door went up automatically. I'd never seen such a thing. Way more modern than the near-zero access options on my own garage. Too high tech. No wonder I didn't know how to use it.

So immediately I knew I'd bungled big-time. Because I'd turned the manual handle, the automatic unlock activated with the correct key couldn't raise the door; it turned on the motor and the light, but didn't open the door because I'd effectively disabled the chain drive or relocked the inside of the door. Double, unopenable whammy.

Here I was in the rain, trying to do something good for some old people and compensating for my son, the completely reliable little helper whom they lavish love upon. It wasn't his fault I'd blown their garage door. They had probably wondered why Tyke hadn't taken out the trash earlier, and they were, maybe and probably, in the house wondering why the garage door was making kooky noises. They couldn't run out to figure out what was happening. Was it a burglar? If I were 96, that's what I'd think.

I ran to the front door and rang the bell, but no one answered. If I were in my late 80s, I might not hear the doorbell. If I were 96 and blind, I'd be worried if someone rang the bell unexpectedly, too, and going to a window would be no good. I didn't want to scare them. I waited a long time. I figured Mrs. H couldn't hear it. I figured Mr. H couldn't see to get downstairs, and, in any case, neither one could get to the door quickly. I rang and waited. And waited some more.


It could have been that they weren't there, but I know they don't drive anymore, even though they still have a Mercedes that the family rolls out every once in a while to keep it functional. I tried to look in the side garage window to see if there was a car, but the light had timed out. So I ran with wet hair, looking like a bag person, straight across the driveway to the home of Bill, the neighborhood's megamoney IBM early retiree. Bill is the Hs' brief former Garbage Guy. Bill can't do the job anymore because he spends most of his time at a second home on Martha's Vineyard. I figured he'd know if there were any tricks with the doors, or might at least have phone numbers of the Hs' family members.

First, I had to sheepishly endure the inevitable, "You did WHAT? Say that again?" and a further, "You did WHAT??" followed by the wordless but unmistakable "you idiot" facial expression. Very painful.

Bill phoned the H house and got the answering machine. He concluded that Harriet and Horace had been taken out to dinner by their elegant, compassionate and thoughtful local-dwelling daughter, P, who's close to 60. Heck, goin' out past 7:30 p.m., the lot of them party hardier than I ever have at any stage of my life. But I digress.

Bill followed me to the garage door to assess my damage. It was official: the twist-blunder I suspected I'd wreaked had indeed occurred, and there was no way to fix it except to look from inside the garage. We went to the front door again, but as before there was no response.

Bill said, "Well, I do have a key for emergencies, but in this situation I'm not sure that's wise."

I replied, "Right. That's going too far. This doesn't require drastic measures, as it might in a health situation. As when Harriet calls the Fire Department when she has a nose bleed. You know, roughly twice a month."

"Yep. Okay. You run back up to your house, and I'll leave a note about what's going on and stick it on the garage door so that when P rolls up the driveway either she'll see it and know what to do, or Horace will amble out and find it. I'll tell 'em to call you at your number. I'll be in the front room of my house, and I'll notice when a car drives up or the lights go on over there, and after that I'll call you."


As I ran up the hill, I started shivering in my boots. Because two possible things are certain anytime you get talking to either of the Hs on the phone: either he will detain you for two hours talking your ear off about what it was like in our little town in 1950 (and you will never be able to get your point across although you are genuinely enjoying the history and would love to set aside another time to hear about it), or she will ask entirely pertinent, direct questions that you can barely understand but upon understanding earnestly want to answer, but you will never be able to get her to hear the answers. She'll just keep asking and saying, "What? I need you to come to bridge. What? Did you say you can play bridge? What? Did you say you can't play?"

It's devastating, really; any communication encounter with either of them that does not directly involve the written word, the Pony Express, a guiding hand, signing or Braille is an event to be avoided at all cost. Imagine how it was without telephones or incandescent light. We have such high expectations.

but then, as I was writing this--

Oh, excuse me. My phone rang. "Mrs. --? Horace H here. How are you this evening? We have just come up our driveway. We found a note that said to call you."

Oh, God! Now I was going to have to explain what happened, and he would either 1) talk right through me, or 2) not understand my explanation, or 3) start off on a never-ending tangent , or 4) pass the phone to Harriet.

"Yes, Mr. H! I'm so sorry, but Tyke couldn't take out your garbage today. I decided I'd do it myself while it was still light before the big storm, and I believe I accidentally did something bad to your garage door."

As predicted, he is thinking something else while I'm talking and replying to his own idea, and he doesn't comprehend me. I try to explain precisely what I did, but he doesn't buy it. He's a jack of all concepts, master of none.

"It's just the door. Sometimes it does that."

"Mr. H, I'm pretty sure I turned the handle and that disabled it. I locked it up somehow. It's my fault. But I know there's some latch on the inside of the door that will fix it."

In the background, I heard P say, "Daddy, the door's not going up." (Shudder on my end of phone. My fault.)

See. I had done it.

I gave up trying to tell Mr. H what happened. He was beyond hearing about it. Instead, I shifted my focus to the action item.

"Mr. H, someone has to go into the garage from inside the house to fix the door. There's a latch in there. I'm very sorry I screwed it up."

"That's all right, Mrs. --. " I looked out the window and saw that someone had turned on the lights to go through the house. "I think we've got it now. P took the barrels out. It's okay." (Humiliation mine.)

Five minutes later, Bill called.

"Hey, they're home. They put the car in the other side." Not helpful information. I wanted the other shoe to drop. This minimal Bill info did not tell me that the Hs or their resourceful daughter had figured out what happened to the door and fixed it. It just let me know that they'd been able to open the other side, which they always could have done with their remote control anyway. No more than a 50% chance of progress made on the blunder front.

See? No matter what moms do with best intentions, they're wrong.

Now I get to wait and see how my family will ridicule and verbally abuse me when they all get home. No one will thank me for taking out our own family's garbage and recycling (the kids' job which they weren't frigging here to do and haven't done properly despite direct specific instructions for the past five years), or for also trying valiantly to take out the Hs' garbage in the rain in order to save the reputation of the stunning baseball kid who the whole neighborhood thinks is a hero. They will just be universally mean and think it was funny that they got away without doing it and I got soaked and my hair looks idiotic and wild. Ha, ha, ha.

I hate boys. When I'm 80 something and finally decide to get a tattoo, that's what it will be. I hate boys, with a heart turned upside down and protected with a chain-link fence. And you'd better believe I'll carry a big, heavy cane and wear kick-ass boots. To thrash boys with.

On a nearly different subject--and this one's enjoyable--there's nothing quite like the satisfaction of being in cahoots with other neighbors who don't even like you and have never opened their door to you, and whom you don't particularly like, but who are entirely willing to engage in a phone-and-key-and-spying cabal on the brink of breaking in, in order to benefit someone special on your street whom you all commonly respect and care about.

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