My husband and I have a friend that recently moved into an apartment complex. He presented several unique (and hilarious) stories about his neighbors that started turning my wheels. I grew up on a back road with farmland so there was not close proximity for strange and unusual neighbor encounters. There were some neighbor kids that could play with us and Amish kids that weren’t allowed to. There was a neighbor across the field that would pile trash and leaves taller than his own 6’2” height, pour gas all over it, (more lavishly than a priest with holy water) then toss a match while long-legging it out of danger. I think the factor that made this spectacle more entertaining was that he was also our preacher. We had an elderly lady that we would trekk over to visit about once a week. She wasn’t the happiest person and I now wonder if that awful chihuahua of hers was outwardly expressing her inner thoughts. Conclusively, I don’t give my past and present neighbors enough credit for the impact they have made in my life. They have entertained me for the last few decades in a steady procession of strangeness and deserve some recognition. I have learned so much from my neighbors over the years! Enter a sample collection of stranger-neighbors…

  The things we can’t unsee…

When I lived in a housing development I remember noticing when the “very religious” woman across the circle began, I assumed to be an affair. I would guiltily look out the window to see the husband leave, boyfriend arrive, boyfriend leave, husband return. It felt like I was in the cookie jar, a part of something that I shouldn’t have been. When I’d meet the husband perchance at the mailbox I felt like a true traitor, and it was at the 07 July 2016 175mailbox one day the wife herself chided me for something (maybe playing loud music in my car?). I subtly dropped a few hints about finger-pointing and after that she didn’t interact with me anymore, even at the mailbox. (Her friend also stopped coming around immediately, just sayin’.)  

So mailboxes seem to be a point of congregation for neighbors. There is a recurring pattern of interesting neighborly interaction in my life that stems from mailbox meetings. Where neighbors used to share plates of cookies, they now run in to one another at the mailbox. After all, it really is a good time to catch someone outside and say hello. It is also usually the end of a day, work or otherwise, so people are taking a minute to breathe and get their mail before starting supper and carting kids around. It is a welcome break and a way to gain a second-wind propelling us all towards evening hours.

The misunderstoods…

My favorite stranger-neighbor that lived in the same circle was an agoraphobic (my completely unprofessional medical diagnosis) woman. She never left her house and never spoke to anyone that I saw, outside of family. All of her shopping appeared to be done online, and it appeared that she liked to shop. I could hear her yelling and directing her husband and daughter on a regular basis but I never heard them respond in anger or even match her volume. They proved to be better people than I would have been under the same circumstances. My favorite memory of this woman was one summer afternoon when a storm was moving in. The clouds were dark and moving quickly overhead. Everyone rushed to move indoors and people hurriedly walked their pets before the storm landed.  I heard barking and turned to find my neighbor commanding her forces. She was standing on the front porch, her invisible fence line, yelling and pointing at the plants in the yard and around the mailbox she wanted watered. Her husband and daughter were frantically running around with watering pails trying to get to everything while she urged them to hurry before the rain started. The fact that they were in a such huge rush to water all of the outdoor flowers before the rain came has perplexed me for years.

The Groaners…

After I moved, at first I found the noises of stranger-neighbors in my apartment building comforting. I didn’t feel isolated but I still had personal space. I quickly found there was a clear limit to the level of comfort noise could bring. The first morning in the apartment I bounced around getting ready for work when I heard moaning and groaning on the other side of my wall. I froze, initially, wondering if there was some sort of Beetlejuice-ghost scene happening. It sounded just like it. Determining I was flick free, I tuned in a little more, and more. At this point I may or may not have utilized the whole “ear-against-the-cup-against-the-wall” trick. (…in the spirit of full disclosure I most definitely did.) The groaning and moaning continued and it was like a wailing, awful death or something. I was scared and clueless all at the same time unsure if I should check on my stranger-neighbor or let him alone. The groan sessions repeated for half an hour everysinglemorning. After being troubled for a few weeks I managed to coordinate my morning exit to get a glimpse of said groaner. His appearance didn’t give away anything, he was a middle-aged, single, business man. I imagined by seeing his casual business attire and briefcase that he was likely an IT tech. (An assumption with no further basis whatsoever.) The man seemed perfectly normal and I had a hard time imagining his quiet nodding self making the noises that he made! I never asked my stranger-neighbor about the groaning and he never seemed embarrassed in the least when he saw me. I was embarrassed for him though, I assure you!  No one had to tell me when he moved, I knew by the blissful sound of silence.

The Intimates…

No one really prepared me for the inevitable intimacy that happens in apartment complexes. I do wish someone had tried, or at least been a little more concise in their descriptions. When people allude to the intrusive noise of neighbors my mind immediately thinks: fighting, yelling, stomping, slamming, banging, etc. But one night at 2am, I went into the bathroom and thought I heard water trickling overhead.  I assumed maybe there was a leak, but looking up I saw no water. I listened intently for another

222381_315889091860617_1891459405_nfew seconds and then I heard the one sound that could never be mistaken for something else – the toilet flushing. My stranger-neighbor was peeing over my head! It was a complete abomination to the stranger-stranger relationship! I bet the man’s own mother didn’t have to hear that past his tenth year of age! In the following years I found myself using the toilet at the same time as my upstairs stranger-neighbors countless times and each time felt no less strange. Why or how this is different than using a public restroom I cannot say, but somehow, at least to me, peeing with the neighbor above your head at 2am is an intimacy that one should not share with a stranger-neighbor. And while we are at it neither is hearing stranger-neighbors enjoying each other at ANY time. In short, through my neighbors I have learned things that can not be unlearned and heard things that cannot be unheard!

 The creepers (maybe it is you?)…

There was a gang of kids that played and ran around the complex together. They found an object of interest in me and would meet me as I stepped out of my car to ask questions about my missing leg. Each day I told them a different story.  Shark, bear, chihuahua, snake, bus, magic, robbery, etc. The next day they would meet me all over again and present questions about the previous story. I would always laugh and tell them that they misunderstood me because the “true story is ___”.  Eventually, when I mastered the art of slipping past them they began ringing my buzzer and the whole horde of eight or ten kids would march in and plop themselves around my living room for an awkward adult/child stranger-neighbor visit. I was not quite sure if I wanted to welcome this company or not, but remembering the grumpy old neighbor lady and her nasty chihuahua, I bought cookies and candy and kept them stocked. It took a few weeks before the thought occurred that it probably wasn’t wise for kids to visit strangers in their closed-door apartments without parental permission. It probably wasn’t wise for me to bribe them with cookies and candy, either.

The intimates…

Laundry is another area of contention with stranger-neighbors. There was one lovely time when I ended up with a pair of men’s boxers and sweatpants in my laundry. Presumably someone put them in the wrong washer or dryer, though I have only recently thought of that. At the time I had no idea how it could have happened. No amount of explaining would convince my grandmother (who was visiting right when I was folding that specific load of laundry) that I knew nothing about a man’s underwear in my laundry. The more I explained, the more I was embarrassed; the more I was embarrassed, the redder I turned. My guilt was sealed in her eyes! For all the trouble that incident cost me I trashed the boxers and kept the pants as reparation – which were surprisingly comfortable. (Besides, how do you just show up at your stranger-neighbor’s doorstep and hand them their underwear?)

Other awkward laundry situations arose when I would need a washer or dryer but the stranger-neighbors had not taken their own clothes out for a length of time. I would have to remove their clothes and place them on the folding table for retrieval. It felt so rude doing that – like I was pushing them out or overstepping personal boundaries, so I would always try to figure out if it would be less-rude to fold them. Of course the answer was a resounding no, but it still ate at away at me as I ducked back to my own apartment as quickly as I could to avoid being caught with someone else’s garments. Once again, I was unprepared for the awkward intimacy of handling a stranger-neighbor’s underwear and then keeping a straight face when passing them in the stairwell!  Emperor’s new clothes, anyone?

The Plungers…

For awhile I would leave for work in the dark and come home in the dark. There was a man that wore a snazzy military uniform that would often be outside the time I was coming home. He would flirt with me and compliment me; I would laugh and walk away. His name was Ken, and Ken was in the National Guard. In a previous life he had been a preacher but his wife ran off with an elder so he changed careers. He was living with his girlfriend and they had a baby. A far cry from a preacher, but who was I to judge. I avoided Ken’s advances (for obvious reasons) without coming right out to reject him, but he just assumed I wasn’t catching what he was throwing down. One 851_315888831860643_855541356_nnight when I came home he met me outside of my car and was particularly insistent. I was tired and annoyed, not sure why the man couldn’t seem to take a hint. I tried to walk past him but he got in front of me twice, blocking my path to the door. Exasperated, I leveled with him and asked, “What do you want, Ken?” He launched into a barely decipherable tirade, “I wait for you every day…I think you are pretty and your leg don’t matter to me…I don’t think you understand what I been trying to say…If you would just give me a chance…let me take you out for a drink…some men will care about the leg issue but I won’t care…Here…take this letter I wrote you with my number on it…rent a soldier I’m up for rent…”

As I stood there grasping at straws to get away I heard a building door bang open behind me and a loud, low voice bellow out, “KENNETH!!!!!” I turned to see a woman in her mid-thirties with a baby in one arm, and the (heavy!) firedoor pushed all the way back to the wall with the other. She was very unkempt and I could see that this was one lady I didn’t want to to be caught in crossfire with! I took my cue to bolt around “KENNETH!” and made my escape.

Once in my apartment I read the letter before trashing it and settled in to make supper.  Just then there was loud and frantic banging on my apartment door. Loud (meaning): far beyond knocking, no pause or stopping!  Right away I knew it was her. I didn’t know how she got into my building since each building had its own key, but I knew it was her. I froze and the banging did not stop. She knew I was there and I couldn’t run. My heart was pounding and I had no idea what to do or how to act. Having been no party in this whole charade I didn’t feel that I should be put in the middle. I angrily shoved the letter to the bottom of the trash, out of sight, and resolved myself to face the woman and hope for the best. I opened the door and she stood there with her shirt riding high and skin hanging out, shorts with holes, food stains on her face, and the baby still in one arm. She was beet red in the face and droplets sweat had formed on her forehead. Completely out of breath and almost bent over from the exertion she looked up at me and roared, “You gotta toilet plunger?!  We need a plunger!! BAAAAD!! I’ll bring it right back!!!”

The relief I felt as I busted out laughing could never be matched again! She laughed too, having no idea what we were really laughing about. I assured her she could keep the plunger and sent her on her way. A few weeks later the police arrived and stormed Kenneth’s apartment but he was gone. Apparently not reporting for duty is a crime. I remember thinking with a chuckle:  Who would want to rent a delinquent soldier, anyway?

The closeters…

My grandmother, a battle hardened, wounded, tough veteran of close-proximity living warned me that when living in close quarters to not befriend the neighbors. It was fantastic advice but also advice that I did not keep very well for the first several years.  One morning, wearing that pair of reparation sweatpants, I watched out the window as the sweatpants guy moved out from above me. Another guy moved in that was covered completely in tattoos (head, scalp, face, every inch of skin that I saw). When he first introduced himself to me he challenged me to name an object, any object, and he was sure he had that as a tattoo. I named “milk carton”, and lo and behold he presented a milk carton tattoo right above his left elbow. He would leave little things on my door occasionally: doodles of one-legged “wonderwoman”, PEZ candy dispensers, and other things. He claimed that when he and his former wife had kids she had changed from a shaved head, punk-rock chick, to a “mom”. Apparently that was a bad thing. It intimidated me enough to heed my Nan’s advice and keep my distance. I learned later that he had a fetish for domination and dominatrix, which explained some of the odd sights and sounds I was unfortunate enough to endure. I moved out before the whole “fifty shades” era but am sure it boosted female interest in him so I’m glad I didn’t have to bear witness to any of that. I guess we really don’t know what happens behind closed doors. A groaner in one closet, a dominatrix in another, a weed plant in yet another, eh, to each his own.

              *                    *                     *

Back to the mailbox thread, getting the mail for me was always an hour ordeal with all the mailboxes in one location. It seemed like every time I walked out the door people saw me from their windows and rushed out to see me, the “one legged wonder” of the world. The mailbox shed became a real hopping place (pun intended). I was interviewed each time I went about my disability (and ability), status, and “story”, whatever that meant. I think that mailboxes are to neighbors what water coolers are in an office. They are what watering holes and wells were in ancient times. However you want to look at it is fine by me. Stranger-neighbors would congregate there for hours and share who was cheatin’ who, who was bein’ true, and who’s dog was barking at the door. When I didn’t care anymore I just stopped getting the mail for weeks at a time! (Alan Jackson had a great country song “Who’s Cheatin’ Who” that I felt like I stepped directly into whenever I approached the mailbox shed.)

The bangers…

I remember laying in bed wondering sometimes what the stranger-neighbors upstairs could possibly be doing to make certain noises. I would sometimes even visit stranger-neighbors that lived above me on a sort of spy-mission to see if they were extremely clumsy fools, dropping things all the time or what the heck was wrong with them to make such a ruckus. There was one apartment that seemed to be housing the human equivalent of Bigfoot, or maybe the Green Giant. Fee Fi Foe Fum…what could they have poss-ibly done?! The bangs and the stomps were so intense that a neighbor and I decided to do a little stake-out to lay eyes on what we could only conclude was a relative of the Yeti. The true culprit: a 4’9” woman in her forties. WHAT?! I guess size doesn’t matter after all.

The desperates…

While size may not matter, I found out the hard way in complex living that appearances do matter to stranger-neighbors. Stranger-neighbors see everything. They also fill in the blanks with their own ideas, like one of those optical illusions. Previously I never thought that I should care what other people assumed or deducted from my circumstances as long as I hadn’t done anything wrong. It never occurred to me that my carelessness would give impressions that could put me in danger. So I had a few guy friends that would occasionally crash on my couch and head out in the morning. It was safer that 316015_113657748750420_1547295306_nway, I thought, especially if they had drank alcohol. It sent the message, however, to a stranger-neighbor that I must be “loose” (his word not mine). He was a heavy weekend drinker and much older than me. He started to corner me in the stairwell and just like with stranger-neighbor Kenneth, I was able to weasel away from him until my luck ran out.  I forgot to lock my apartment door and came out of my bedroom to find the stranger-neighbor standing in front of it (also blocking my only exit). He was babbling and insisting that he was no different than the other “fools” in and out of my apartment and that he “needed this”, whatever this was. It was then that I realized that this man had a completely wrong impression of me and that it was my fault!  There were several Friday nights after that when I would hear someone messing with the lock on my door and jiggling the knob. The peephole revealed my intoxicated stranger-neighbor trying to surprise me. I added a deadbolt, changed my locks, and talked to the landlord who recommended I call the police. I didn’t do that, but looking back I definitely should have.

The potentials…

My Grandmother sold her house at some point and moved across the way from me. Her window faced my apartment and having her constant, watchful gaze brought on mixed emotions. That concern wasn’t unfounded, I understood, when I saw a pair of binoculars sitting on her windowsill. Overall, I enjoyed having her close by to share meals and visits with. She could not count as a stranger-neighbor, of course, but I felt like I had someone on my team. One evening I got a call, “Ashly, there is a man trying to look in your windows! Do you know him? He keeps strutting in front of your apartment with his chest all puffed out like some cocky rooster! Do you know him? Should I go down and give him hell?!” (My seventy-something, 4’11” Nan would have, too!) I looked out and saw a guy that had given me a ride back to my apartment when I needed it – a year before. He lived in the same complex and I had asked him to take me home and then told him to “take this $10 so we both know there are no strings attached to you giving me a ride”. I hadn’t spoken to him since then and I most certainly did not expect him to be parading himself and pacing in front of my window. I finally walked out to beat my Nan to the punch and said hello. He asked if I wanted to hang out sometime and seemed so genuine that I agreed.  I broke my stranger-neighbor-don’t-date-’er rule but didn’t regret it.  A year later we got married.

The stories still forming…

When we bought a house off a major road we found our life and work (including lack thereof) was on display to the world passing by. There was sixty acres of fields on one side of the house, woods and a farm behind it, and to the left was a line of about 10 other homes. While we were in the middle of nowhere, completely rural, but we were in the middle of nowhere  together with 10 other houses and occupants. Lots of stranger-neighbor experiences to be had there because everyone was even more observant with nothing else around to observe! Thankfully it wasn’t quite as intimate as the complex, because for one thing, there was no need to handle stranger-neighbor undergarments.

It was here that I took heed of my grandmother’s advice alas, and did not make friends with my neighbors. I maintained that with all except one. An older man that lived towards the back end of my property in a trailer. He was considered by my husband to 540078_279258695523657_102423237_nbe my “girlfriend” because he showed up weekly with the newspaper, latest tabloid gossip (even though I didn’t know half the people he told me about), and neighborhood updates. We shared a little, “just between us girls” time and gabbed about current events. His favorite phrase was “times are changing, everything is changing”, and he said that no less than once every six sentences. I was out in the far back of my yard planting an asparagus patch one sunny afternoon when I glanced up and saw both he and his wife enjoying their life – naked!  I thought I had escaped crazy stranger-neighbor experiences but apparently I was wrong. After scuffling away (before being labeled a Peeping Thomasina) I made a mental note that instead of sending a plate of Christmas cookies that year, a gift certificate to the Blinds Outlet would be more appropriate.

              *                    *                     *

Privacy invasion is collateral damage in communities. One day as I was about to get a shower a little boy walked into the bathroom to visit.  I’ve woken up on Christmas morning to find pajama-clad children on the front porch looking in the windows (escaping parent’s watchful eyes). An older boy that drove his mower around for entertainment day and night was found sitting on my couch with my dog one time. Pets and children wandered around and we had one set of neighbors a few houses down that were true vampires – only coming alive at night. When we had foster children one time I could hear the woman next door yelling at her four kids so I asked her to yell a little louder so mine would listen too! (I gladly returned the favor!)

Communities are always an eclectic bunch but together we weathered rabid-racoon drama, frantic child-search texts, book exchanges, stray dogs, fireworks in the middle of the night (woke me up and scared me to death), dog bites, car accidents, and stranger-danger. I witnessed the little sweet columbian stranger-neighbor and my grandmother have a verbal altercation about just how much spanish was needed before one could be considered bilingual and my 82 yr old great-uncle lived a few houses down and would ride his four-wheeler all around our woods “scoping out the land”, I’ve not the slightest clue what that meant. There was one elderly woman that would not even say hello or wave to us (when we moved in and went to introduce ourselves she claimed that speaking to neighbors was never a good thing and then just stared until we left).

Heading out to get the mail I would always come across a different stranger-neighbor and even got a little fellowship from the kids that would come barreling over, unable to contain whatever beans they needed to spill. I was told about every dog that was hit, ghost that haunted, mouse caught, fight that happened, and the cause of any problems in the tiny community.  No amount of redirection would have convinced those kids to put the spilled beans back in their cans! Stranger-neighbor kids just tell it all…and not always correctly, either! 

The sweethearts…

Neighbors really shape and impact our lives and I had forgotten so many of these stories until recently.  Humanity is fascinating to me and I wish that I had previously written down more stories for further analysis. Of course the crazy stories make for the best reading here, but there are also a lot of completely normal “share a cup of sugar” memories. There have been kind-hearted stranger-neighbors, meals waiting for me after a long day at work, stranger-neighbors shoveling snow from around my car, garden produce hanging on the door, a helping hand to carry groceries, and a hug when it was most needed. Most of those relationships started at the mailbox with a wave and hello. So in the end, I don’t think I would trade having stranger-neighbors for anything…not even for a PO Box!

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