When we lived in the duplex, we were surrounded by a mix of lifers and renters. Our then-next door neighbor had skin the color and consistency of ripe fruit. He liked to lay out in the sun naked, tiger-stripped briefs balled at his waist like a clown nose. He drove a company van, he had a wife with a limp, he had feral grandchildren. Lifer.
And then there was a carousal of college students with different-but-same antics. Once a bunch of day drinkers spent all afternoon standing in the street, playing catch with a guy in the attic window. Once a kid went out to pee in the bushes, only to wake up the next morning in the wrong house. Renters.
Before that I lived next to a creaky old place with a steady stream of visitors. Regardless of if they were meth or Mary Kay dealers, they should have been able to afford better dental care. But that's another story.
Now that we have a permanent address. A communal flower garden, a roving pack of deer who bravely roam the neighborhood like a gang of smart ass teenagers. A shared alley where every day a mini van cruises through, honking in warning. I'm told we'll have trillions of trick or treaters, and that holiday decorations are a competitive sport on this block. My house is on the dog-walk route for various friends. I like to think of it all as being embedded in a sociological experiment.
We live next door to an 80 year old, an original gangster in the most West Duluthy sense of the term. I busted out a "Frank sent me" with favorable results when I had to get my brakes fixed. I think he was here the day the neighborhood started. I know he could beat me in a foot race. Sometimes he mows our lawn, and I don't even feel badly about it. I'm more like, "Impressive, old man. Now how about busting out the weed whacker and addressing our fence line."
Another neighbor has five cars and one driveway. He spends the equivalent of a work shift playing automotive Tetris. Juggling Grand Ams, a utility vehicle, and a classic car. He refuses to make eye contact with me. Actually looked pissed off to learn I had a name. He would be voted most likely to growl "Hey, kid. Get off my lawn" to a Brownie. I suspect that my 15 minutes of fame will come when NBC Nightly News puts a microphone in my face, and I tell the nation: "No, sir. I'm not surprised at all to hear (insert typical headline grabbing behavioral hiccup of a neighborhood sociopath here)."
Then there are the triplets. They are about 4-years-old, two blondes and a strawberry blonde. One morning they paraded down the front steps in a princess dress, the long, drab gown of a pioneer woman, and one in a ragged robe and pajama pants. It goes without saying which one is my favorite.
There is a single mom next door. Four kids ranging in age from legal voter to "where's my binkie." They are the gems of the block, oozing with intrigue. When the legal voter had a chaste, albeit coed party this summer I overheard a conversation about season two of Highlander, and knew their collective virginity was in good hands. There's a teenaged girl who seems to be considering all the irreparable bad decisions she can make before "Pomp and Circumstance." She spent the summer under the street light with boys, or playing Truth or Truth in the back yard. As far as I can tell, the tot is vehemently opposed to his mother leaving the room, and is best friends with a dog.
I've enjoyed the energy of the preteen boy, who always leaves the house either running or on wheels, and whom, unlike his older brother, has never given a very serious gaming tutorial to a classmate that ended with an awkward handshake. (It was a transaction that made me wonder why a certain population of high school boys will always walk like they aren't quite sure about why they have been burdened with arms). I paid the preteen $12 to mow our lawn, and he left just a few mohawks in the yard.
I came into the conversation mid-stream. A crakey woman with frizzy hair and a scratchy baritone was talking to legal voting age on the front steps. A young girl sat on the sidewalk, tugging at the grass, and a rusted white beater was idling, parked the wrong direction at the curb.
"He's not here," Highlander told the woman. "My mom is looking for him, too."
"Well, if you find him, have him call me immediately," she said. She turned to walk back to her car.
"Oh," she added as an after thought. "Does your mom know that (preteen) got caught shoplifting at K-Mart?"
"Yeah," Highlander said.
"And he smokes," the little girl piped up.
"And he smokes," the older woman echoed.
For some reason this made me like the preteen even more. Until I started considering all the damage the neighborhood's primo juvenile delinquent could do with a bic and sticky fingers. I pictured him using the $12 I gave him for Marlboro Reds and a Vikings lighter.
For the rest of the day, everyone seemed to be looking for the preteen. They busted out flashlights when it got dark. No one issued an Amber Alert, so I'm assuming they found him. Or maybe they believed he was better off at the quarry, with his canned goods, a pup tent, some firecrackers and a copy of "Tom Sawyer."
Chuck was driving to work after midnight and saw movement in the communal garden and was pretty sure it was the runaways. Until last night, when he saw two kids emerge from the flowery plot in the boulevard. They were wrapped in a blanket.
"Make out spot," Chuck texted me.