Saturday, January 15, 2011

My First Neighbor

The first neighbor I can remember living next to wasn't the lady who took me to the Moose Lodge with her and (later on) tried to convince me why I didn't really want to go up into the attic we shared but she alone controlled access to.

My first neighbor - the one who seems to have been living in the apartment right next to ours when we moved in some two years before the Cuban Missile Crisis - was a man.

I can't recall ever seeing him myself.

But my mother did.


And she seems to have regretted it for the rest of her life.

He was a single guy who kept to himself.

In fact, he seems to have avoided going out entirely except at night.

And those furtive nocturnal excursions were generally limited to our common back porch.

It was an old wooden porch, painted grey. Grey roof, grey floors, grey side panels, grey posts. It faced north, so its greyness was never intruded upon by the sun. All the same, it *was* a porch, and I eventually learned to enjoy standing on it and pondering the extent and nature of the alley behind my home. But this pondering of mine never, ever happened at night.

A short common back hallway led from our apartment's back door and our neighbor's to this porch, which ran most of the width of the building. The east end of the porch was open and stopped just short of one of our bedroom windows, allowing us to enjoy some light even on the darkest days. An enclosed stairwell at the northwest corner cast our neighbor's bedroom window in perpetual gloom.

Anyone on the porch could easily approach and stare into either apartment's bathroom window despite its relative smallness and height if that is how they wanted to spend their time.

Of course this arrangement also made it easy for anyone inside an apartment to stare out at anyone on the porch.

Which is what my mother decided to do one night when she heard our mysterious neighbor creep out his back door (the mirror image of ours) and then down the short hallway.

My mother had to climb into our ancient claw-footed bathtub and carefully part the plastic curtains to get a glimpse, but she was young then and agile enough to engage in such undertakings without too much risk to life or limb.

What she seems to have seen was a relatively young man smoking a cigarette.

And staring off into the night, pondering.

It was only when he unexpectedly turned that she noticed his hideous deformity.

The story - as I eventually heard it - was that he'd once had a job spray-painting autos and trucks. The spray had somehow gotten into his eye. The eye had turned cancerous. Apparently there wasn't much that could be done for such things back then. Perhaps there isn't much that can be done now. In any case, the disease and/or the treatment had left an eye and at least half his face freakishly deformed - a modern-day Elephant Man trapped in a world becoming more and more enamoured with beauty and glamour.

Had my mother had even an ounce of imagination in her or ever been inclined to tease, I would have long ago dismissed this story as sheer invention - the sort of thing mischievous old uncles use to torment youngsters who will live so much longer than they will.

Alas, my mother had nothing of the mischievous uncle about her. On the very rare occasions when she told this story, it was obvious that she was first and foremost tormenting herself.

This First Neighbor of mine doesn't seem to have stayed long.

But the impression one stolen glimpse of him made on my mother turned out to be more or less permanent.

I guess the fact that I'm writing this some 50 years later means that that glimpse made a more or less permanent impression on me, too....

We just never know who's living next to us until we find out, do we?

And I guess sometimes it's a good thing that we never do.


  1. Wait... it was at night, and his area of the porch was poorly lit? You know what they say about eyewitnesses... is it possible that after all that, perhaps she only perceived a hideous monstrosity, when in fact, it was just a trick of the light?

    Well, just wishful thinking, perhaps. While this neighbor may have looked like a monster, but acted normally, other neighbors in other places may look normal, but act like monsters. Life sho ain't fair.

  2. The story sounds like a Boo Radley Scout Report.

    And it seems to break a pattern that you don't cite your research into eye-cancer treatments of the late fifties and early sixties.