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Neighbors: A Soft Sense of Regret

ISSUE:  Summer 1977

The place next door: it is big, undistinguished, run-down, a three-story, frame house, painted a bad green. It had the appearance of a crash-pad, and we had misgivings about it when we first looked at the house we ultimately bought in a “coming-back” neighborhood in Atlanta. But the other advantages prevailed, and when we moved in, we discovered that the green house was not a crash-pad, but rather was chopped into many small apartments occupied by what might be called working-class people. (Some, though, never did seem to get around to working.)

A middle-aged couple was in one of the apartments. The man was thin, sallow, unhealthy looking, and his wife was thin, hard-faced, harrassed looking. He spent his days in the apartment, would listen to baseball games on the radio. She worked. We supposed that he was in ill health—tuberculosis maybe, some war injury? They had a late-model car, a thing of pride. Then one week the car was gone—maybe sold, maybe repossessed. And the next week they moved out—by hand, on foot. She brought articles out and placed them in a grocery store shopping cart, and he would slowly push it down the sidewalk to the corner, turn it, and after a time return with the empty cart for another load. As in the little we had seen before of him, he seemed furtive, almost ashamed. What had happened in their lives to cause them to lose their car and now to move? Why not move and then get rid of the car? One trip in it would have been enough to carry all the little horde of possessions he pushed in the cart. We didn’t ask them what had happened and didn’t offer to let them put their things in our car to be hauled. It would have intruded on their privacy, and that was inviolable,

My wife, Glenda, saw the woman once a few weeks later in a grocery store. Her impulse was to speak—as to an old friend. But again, that shyness they possessed, quietness, privacy (as though protecting something that could not stand even the slightest scrutiny) prevented it.

In the upstairs apartment on the other side of the green house from us: Chubby Checkers, My name for him. A fat man, he resembled Oliver Hardy, even to the little thin line of moustache. He was young, though on first glance you didn’t realize it. He drove a Checker cab, and in the mornings when he started it, the sounds it made suggested some critical, incurable malady. He wore for his work a chauffeur’s cap, black, hard-beaked, too small for him, round on the center of his head.

He would leave in the morning with great bustle, usually pausing in the yard to yell up to his pretty blonde wife, “Marie! Marie!” Marie this, Marie that, before he left. And then he would be back in 15 or 20 minutes, either to go in with some parcel—he brought five and six into the house a day—or to yell up some message or instruction: “Marie! Marie!” in a high, fat-man’s voice. They had two children, a toddler boy and infant girl. He was solicitous of them, as of Marie.

He was comic, visually comic: the Oliver Hardy look, the cab looking like one Hardy would drive, the constant coming and going with bustle and attendance, the yelling up at Marie. I saw him in the line of duty one afternoon at the grocery store around the corner. He had been called by an old, fusty lady whose car had run out of gas. He set off in his old cab to get her a can of gas, never asking her to put up the money to pay for it or for his trip.

The bottom apartment, right outside our dining room window, was unoccupied when we moved in. Soon it was tenanted by a family grouping of an old couple, a young woman, presumably their daughter, and her infant. It was a one-room apartment. The old woman was a prodigious, poetic curser. She and her husband would begin getting drunk in the afternoon, and she would get going on her harangues, often at him, sometimes at the world in general. It was country-talking cussing, with extra words, a break in the rhythm, thrown in at unexpected times: You God-damned, yellow-bellied—dogfucking—son of a bitch.

One night they had a gentleman guest, and in the course of the evening’s drinking, he became abusive of the old woman, and though she, with her eloquence and loud-voiced vigor, was standing up for herself very well, her husband felt compelled to defend her honor. Out into the yard he and the visitor tumbled, the husband swinging wildly. Suddenly the old woman yelled up at us as we watched fascinated from the lighted dining room: “He’s got a knife! Call the cops! Call the cops!”

The other man was crouched and attacking, and the old husband was backing off. We couldn’t see whether there was really a knife or not. But my judgment was that the cops wouldn’t get there in time to prevent violence and if they should come and no casualties had ensued, they would still lock the lot of them up. By the time we had agreed that we shouldn’t be the agents of that, the fight was over, with no one hurt, and quiet ensued.


There were other tenants, but these were the ones we were to remember. The old couple and their daughter and grandchild left soon after the night of the fight, owing a week’s rent, according to Foster, the man in charge of the apartments. What to him was even more of an outrage, they owed him a pint of whiskey. They were replaced by Taffy and her room-mate. On their first evening of residence over there, Taffy appeared at our door at two in the morning (we were sitting on the porch in darkness), and asked in her bright, clear voice if she might borrow a mop. We let her in, and I turned on the dining room light going to get the mop and when I returned with it, I beheld a sight. Taffy had extraordinarily large breasts, the largest proportionate to body size that, I believe, I have ever seen.

She was a teen-ager, of slightly less than average height and appeared to be fat because of that bust of hers, but she was not. Her legs were quite slim. Her face was round-eyed, girlishly pretty, and she had an air of merriment that seldom left her.(Glenda encountered her one morning looking ill and despondent. She had, Taffy said, a chest cold.) Her roommate was less spectacular and quieter. Her manner of speech suggested origins somewhere sandy, real sandy.

Foster had said in disgust after the treachery of the old couple that he was by God renting that apartment to hippie girls, and this was the beginning of the hippie era over there. Soon, the apartment above Taffy’s was occupied by a seldom-seen, long-haired youth said to be on heroin, a sort of sinister non-presence, Now, various of their tribe were to be seen (and heard) visiting in the two apartments. We began to find discarded hypodermic needles in our yard.

Taffy came over fairly frequently to borrow the mop or the vacuum cleaner and occasionally visited a few moments on non-borrowing trips. On one of her initial borrowing visits, she was wearing a tight t-shirt, braless, and she weaved her way between my son, Patrick (15) and his friend, Steve (18), who were sitting on the porch, those breasts moving before her with a life, a gravity center all their own, and Patrick and Steve sat there, wordless, dazed, for some little time after she had weaved her way out again.

One of the New Left people among our other neighbors said that Taffy was dealing in dope. Often, she and her roommate would get a ride with Foster to the grocery store. One evening they caught us in the yard and asked if we would take them to the store. Glenda did, and in gratitude on their return they offered to turn us on any time we wanted to come over. We were non-committal. I told them my rationale that booze, while maybe more damaging, was safer, that I don’t like to do things they can put you in jail for. We went out of town a short while later, and when we got back, Foster told us there had been a narcotics raid of Taffy’s apartment. The police didn’t find anything, but the next morning the two girls moved out, as did the other fellow said to be on dope.

Foster. He was a short, knotty-muscled man, almost wizened, though not old, probably in his late thirties. He was deeply tanned in the way of working people, on the face and neck and arms, That came not from working, but his staying so much in the yard of the green house whose custody was supposed to be his responsibility, (He got his rent free for serving as resident manager.) Day and night, he moved about or simply sat in the yard, seldom attending to the care of it, not even to the extent of picking up the beer cans, Coke cans, candy wrappers that his tenants abundantly littered it with. We had heard that he had been in prison, and theorized that he just didn’t like to be inside of anything any more.

We had a speaking acquaintanceship with him, saying hi or nodding over to him in his yard. Occasionally, he spoke of some happening among the tenants, or of his never-realized plan to clean out the back yard of the place, get rid of the kudzu vines which had taken it totally.

He had vague blue eyes that did not quite focus on you when he talked to you. As we got to know him better, we realized that his rapid talk missed focus in much the same slight way, was seldom in real response to what you said to him. There was the feel in it of some slight skip in the functioning of his brain, some small disorder.

One night, late, we were sitting on the darkened porch and a cop’s car came by and shined a spotlight on us sitting there on our own front porch. In that probably suicidal kind of belligerence I can get when well into an evening of drink, I stormed out to get the squad car’s number to report such an invasion of privacy. I encountered Foster in his yard, equally outraged that his house had been intruded so upon, too. Since there was no porch on it, I realized that the cops weren’t spying really, but probably trying to see house numbers.(The incident suggests the enmity people have come to feel toward police, the suspicion and distrust we have of them. It is no longer comforting but rather frightening and infuriating to see them about their duty; in this case we were still disturbed even after we figured out what they were up to.)

After talking with Foster, he pacing about in his yard, I asked him in the casual way of such things if he wouldn’t come over and have a drink with us. His reaction was nervous, an emphatic no, no he had better get back inside to his wife, but with fervent thanks for the invitation. After that, he was much more friendly, much more given to talking to us when we saw him. Later that week, he spoke of having us over on a Saturday night for a drink; he would get a bottle of Calvert’s. (Here again, his plan never came to fruition.) Glenda realized what had happened—that to people like him, for whom whiskey is an expensive treat when not a destructive necessity, to offer someone a drink is a mark of real friendship, not the casual thing I meant it to be. I felt a little ashamed of my insensitivity, and, as often in encounters with Foster and others over there in the green house, felt not pity but something like it—regret, perhaps.


Foster spoke often during the summer of going back to Wyoming, where he had once lived, taking Mary, his wife, out there to start anew. She was blonde, shy, pretty, Southern-talking. She came over one night, knocking timidly at the door, asking to borrow something. We had a bunch of people for supper, and their laughter and talk came overpowering out onto the porch. We both regretted it wasn’t a night when we were there alone, feeling that she had intended a visit, wishing we might have gotten to know her.

Toward the end of the summer, Foster spent a whole week working on his car in preparation for the exodus to Wyoming. We would see him out in the little cleared space he had made in the kudzu jungle of his back yard, working on the car through the hot days and into the night. It was a late model Ford, which must have cost him dear, and it was already beginning to fall apart. Again that sense of regret, almost pity, about things like the car. He talked an almost boylike enthusiasm and optimism for his various schemes—cleaning up the back yard, going home to Wyoming. I could imagine him talking that way about the car when he got it. The regret was that things weren’t ever going to turn out for him like that talk of his wanted them to.

We were sitting on the front porch about dusk of the Saturday night of that week and heard the commotion of a fire engine down at the corner of Argonne Avenue, half a block away. We walked down there to see what was on fire, and it was a car, just turned onto Argonne, its motor ablaze. “Oh Christ,” I said.”Don’t let it be Foster’s.”

It was. We could see him—slight frame, wiry, wizened-seeming—darting about, pulling stuff out of the car.”I bet he doesn’t have a damn cent of insurance,” I said as we walked over there to see if we could help him. His face was charred some; his eyes blinked his startlement still at what had happened. He saw us and grinned and said: “Don’t have a damn cent of insurance.”

They had the fire out, and he asked if we would push the car back to his house before the police got there to haul it away. We went and got our car, and when we got it in place behind Foster’s ruined car, Chubby Checkers had arrived on the scene. He trotted alongside as we pushed, a comic-opera figure, shouting directions, one of them to go ahead and turn into the driveway in the path of a car bearing down fast from the other direction.

Foster had asked if we minded letting him leave his car in our back yard because he had moved out of the green house the night before, having taken Mary and all their belongings over to her father’s home in Dallas, Georgia, preparatory to leaving for Wyoming the next morning. He was, he said, afraid to leave it at the green house because the people there would steal the tires off it. So we got it settled back in our yard where, sure enough, it would be when Glenda’s papa, Edmond, and her stepmother, Janice, came to visit us a week later, their first to see us since our marriage a few months before. Whatever disquiet her papa felt about the neighborhood couldn’t have been helped by that symbol sitting out there of poor Southerners—the collapsed car in the yard.(A philosophical friend says they keep such a car there with the hope of some magic morning climbing into it and cranking it up and driving it off as good as new. Or maybe it is just a reminder of past grandeur, a monument.)

We stood with Foster and Chubby Checkers in their yard, discussing the disaster. Foster, still with that almost boylike optimism, enthusiasm, was confident he could repair the damage. The motor just blew up when he was turning the corner, he said. It would need complete rewiring. Chubby Checkers said something must have been wrong with the carburetor to make the motor explode like that. He said he had smelled gasoline the whole time Foster was working on it.

Foster asked if we had something he could sleep on in the green house that night, and we loaned him a quilt. He said he would just have to call Mary and tell her what had happened and get over to Pallas some way the next morning. I felt sorry for him, having to make such a call.(We never did get the quilt back—a beautiful, hand-made, patchwork one we had bought in Alabama.)


From time to time, Foster and I had discussed the terrible problem of the water bill for our house. It was running very high, and the city sent a man out who determined there was a leak in the pipe somewhere between the sidewalk and house which we would have to get repaired.(Had it been between the sidewalk and the street, the city would have had the responsibility. Such is the way of municipal order and, of course, fate, ) Foster had said he could fix such a thing, that he had worked as a plumber for a time.(We later met the plumber he had worked for, and he said that Foster was a good worker and had skill. But he was not dependable. He would lose interest in a job and just not finish it.)

The next morning, Foster came with a serious offer to do the job on our pipe; he needed money to fix his car, So I said fine and tried to get him to agree on an hourly rate, but he insisted on a fixed price of $40, which might be high if the leak were easily found (the pipe was a foot and a half deep in hard earth), or low if not. I offered to let him use the old Rambler we had and grandly called our second car. Foster was grateful; it would enable him to commute to Dallas.

Our nights then for a time were graced with Foster and various of his cronies working with a naked light bulb over the car out in the yard. That went on sporadically during the time Glenda’s folks were with us. One night, a giant of a man called Red was in the gathering. He was introduced as a heating expert, and he got interested in our heating plant and showed me how to fill it with water for the coming winter and how to work the auxiliary unit in case of electrical failure. He explained that what we had was a gravity hot water heating system, showing me how the pipes sloped very gradually upward so that pressure from the furnace heat could force the water up to the radiators, and how the pipes came back to the furnace downhill. He was enthusiastic about the ingenuity of that. Nowadays, he said, you have an electric pump on them; he had that kind at his house. Hot water heat is the very best kind, he said. No dust, even temperature, no clanking in the radiators. We were to come during the winter to full agreement with his judgment.

All of the examination of the heating system was with great commotion in the basement, shouting and banging on pipes, with again Glenda’s papa probably wondering what kind of life his child had found for herself. But, gentleman that he is, he never commented on the goings-on.

I was to pay Foster on completion of the pipe job. He had dug a few desultory, exploratory holes but had not found the leak. After Edmond and Janice left, we spent the weekend at the mountains. When we got back, Foster’s car was gone, and we felt a lift of hope that he had miraculously got it going again. But the Rambler was nowhere to be seen either. Foster’s holes in the yard were carefully covered over. All, we felt, had been taken care of in our absence. But the next day, no Foster and no Rambler, and this was so for a week, Then the phone rang in the middle of the day and Foster’s voice, serious, abashed:

“I’ve just been ashamed to call you. You know your Rambler? Well I was driving it to Dallas one night and it broke down and I left it in the parking lot at the K-Mart out on the Marietta Highway and the niggers burned it up during the night.”

“How do you know that is what happened to it, Foster?” I asked.

“Well, it may have been a short. Anyhow it was just all burned up. Worse than mine.”

Glenda started in trying to find out what had been done with the Rambler’s carcass. She spent half a day on the phone, talking first to a security guard at the K-Mart who remembered seeing a burned car (“Lord, the steering wheel was melted”), but had no idea what had become of it. Then she called various garages where police store cars. None had the Rambler. I thought I had fire insurance on it, but when I checked, discovered that I did not—not a damn cent,

We never did find the Rambler, have not seen Foster since, and the water bill continued high. There, too, Foster’s optimism and confidence had not fulfilled themselves. And the regret, almost pity, I had felt about him and various of the others over there in the green house was now, in terms of a pretty good old car, in terms of a ditch to dig, turned inward.


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