I’m not good at having neighbors.

I’m not implying that I’m a bad neighbor. Nor am I confessing a dislike for my neighbors. They’re great people! They’re fun to be around. I’m saying I’m not good at adjusting to people living in close proximity.

I grew up in a house completely isolated from neighbors. We didn’t have a house less than half a mile from us in any direction. We never had a neighbor over for dinner. Never had a neighbor’s dog drop shits on the driveway. Never had to toss the neighbor’s Frisbee out of the backyard. It was a life devoid of neighborly interaction.

Some might call that a sad developmental deprivation, but quite frankly I enjoyed the lack of interruptions. I never worried about my playtime disturbing Old Man Scratchington or losing my Wiffle ball to the neighbor’s rottweiler. My home became my Fortress of Solitude where I could count on events occurring in an orderly, predictable fashion. No impromptu barbecues. No neighbor kids popping by uninvited. No late night parties from the high school drop outs down the street. Ahhh.

Living in a college dormitory proved to be a kind of hell for me. Suddenly, my cherished peace was regulated by unchecked pre-adults living on their own for the very first time – basically escaped zoo animals. I soon gained a reputation for snobbery and seclusion. But I never had to live with strangers before! In a dormitory, you make a social pact that delicately balances basic courtesy with  a significant degree of inconsideration. I was unpracticed in living this way.

But I lived in a dormitory for four years, and eventually I gained a basic menu of neighbor skills. Still, living in a host of inexpensive apartments in Memphis after graduation didn’t exactly nurture my new abilities. In fact,I pretty much regressed immediately because cheap apartment neighbors aren’t exactly looking to foster lasting relationships. Mostly, they come by for a free can of beer and to case out your joint for electronics.

Later, I learned that home ownership changes the neighborly game.  The stakes are higher. One bad neighbor can create a seismic shift in property values. There is more pressure to maintain your lawn and keep your Trans Am off the cinder blocks. If you see a neighbor raking his leaves, you’re almost 100% obligated to shout, “When you’re finished over there, you can do my lawn next!” 

My favorite neighbor, by the strict definition of “good neighbor,” was the very worst.

Buddy Fong was a mix of both neighborhood legend and Memphis myth. He was known by those who lived near him as “The Oriental,” an antiquated slice of political incorrectness that I neglected to adopt. His dilapidated house sat right next to mine, and it was completely concealed by a thick nest of bamboo. It was difficult to tell if there was even a house on the lot.

Except, you knew somebody lived behind the bamboo curtain because of the screaming. Buddy Fong (as legend had it) lived with his mentally ill sister, an apparition that (according to myth) sometimes escaped the bamboo and shambled down the street yodeling a sorrowful cry. Many of my less interesting neighbors claimed to have seen her, but I never did. However, Mrs. Angry and I often heard her screeches emitting from within the sagging walls of the house next door, followed by the guttural retorts from Buddy Fong himself.

At first, I worried that Mr. Fong and his weird reputation would damage the resale value of my house. But few homes in Memphis are without an eccentric neighbor, so that fear eventually dissipated. In its place came an growing curiosity. Who was Buddy Fong? How did he make his living? Was it murder? Opiates? Was there really an insane sister? Or (as I eventually came to believe) was Buddy Fong also The Sister?

Despite his jungle-like yard and the savage screams, Mr. Fong proved an excellent neighbor, at least in my book. He never dropped by to borrow a power tool. Never parked on my grass. Never invited me inside to watch basketball. On the rare occasion he and I would cross paths, we’d exchange a knowing nod that said, “You mind your business, and I’ll mind mine.” Bliss.

I thought that nirvana was shattered the day a branch from one of Mr. Fong’s dead trees came hurtling from the sky and crushed a section of my boundary fence. That morning, before I left for work, I observed the damage with dim reproach. I envisioned an afternoon of sawing and repair, two activities for which my body was ill-suited. Sullenly, I entered my car and left for work.

When I arrived home, the fence was repaired and the branch had been chopped and neatly stacked between our properties. There was a note attached to the wood. “Sorry about the mess – BF”

“BF!” A communique from  my new best friend, the mysterious Buddy Fong! It was like receiving a telegram from Amelia Earhart.

The next morning, my surprise deepened as I found myself met by the legend himself. For the first time, I was afforded a truly  lasting look at my neighbor – short, mid-50s, almond colored skin, clean shaven. He opened his mouth, and I prepared myself for some kind of terrible Kung-Fu challenge.

“Hi,” he said in a bland, almost Californian accent. “My name is Buddy Fong. Sorry about the tree.”

I extended my hand and we embraced fingers. Here I was, face to face with The Oriental, a man whose mad sister was supposedly chained up somewhere inside his house of horrors. I shook the hand that stubbornly refused to trim his gnarly bamboo. My name and greeting croaked from my lips, and we parted ways. It was the first and last time we ever spoke to one another.

What a great neighbor.












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