One of my favorite all-time books was a play that I’ve seen performed at least a dozen times. Its called “Our Town” by Thornton Wilder. It’s a simple story about two families who live in a small town and lead ordinary lives, circa early 1900’s. Or, as someone once described it, “Our Town” is about “life and death in a small town.”
Reflecting on “Our Town” makes me think of my own little neighborhood in San Diego. Not exactly Grover’s Corners, where “Our Town” is set. But nevertheless, it’s my neck of the woods.
This month marks 20 years that I’ve been living here, and in that time I’ve witnessed the seasons change, the days get long, the Santa Ana winds come in from the east, and the birds chirping every morning. Every June, like clockwork, the San Diego Fair comes to town, and every July, the horse races begin. Which means fancy hats on opening day, and traffic congestion like you wouldn’t believe.
In 20 years, I’ve also seen many a neighbor come and go. Like the Huffy Boy Gang. When I first moved in, back when my children were young, the neighborhood was terrorized by the Huffy Boy Gang. In other words, these boys would ride their bikes and whoop it up, boisterously shouting at the top of their lungs, which made it nearly impossible to think. My son dubbed them the Huffy Boy Gang, (after a brand of bikes they’d ride). Thankfully, this gang of misfits grew up and found something else to do.
Halfway to the mailboxes, for many years lived a frail, Chinese woman with her husband, young daughter and a rather elderly father-in-law. The father-in-law would shuffle outside each morning and light up a cigarette, which somehow always wafted into my living room, two buildings over, and annoyed the heck out of me.
But each afternoon, the frail woman, donning a surgical mask, rubber gloves and a thin dress, would come outside, stand in the middle of the parking lot and perform an ethereal dance. She’d twirl around, pirouette, and move in an avant-garde way, as if the world was her stage. She’d do this so often that for most of us, seeing her out there, was just another part of the day. But then one day she stopped. I later learned that she had cancer and had died. I think dancing had been her way of feeling the world around her and feeling alive.
Across the street lived two retired women, Rae and Ruth. Rae was no-nonsense and always wore a cherry red cardigan. Ruth was sweet as can be. The two of them would go on a walk every morning, chattering away. Good friends until the day came when neither could continue to live on her own. Rae left our neighborhood first. Then Ruth’s daughter showed up one day and helped her mother move out.
Just like that, both gone.
There was George who’d walk through the neighborhood, picking up trash along the sidewalks, and then visit his grandchildren who lived somewhere nearby. There was Tony who served with me on the homeowner’s board and when his term ended, his live-in girlfriend left him. Purely coincidental but her departure made him bitter and the bitterness must’ve eaten at his heart because one day he didn’t show up for work. After three days, his boss called the police to check on him and found him in bed, dead.
There’s a 40-something year old guy whose mode of transportation seems to be a skateboard. He once told me, as he was whizzing down the street, just how lucky my dogs were because I seemed to walk them so much.
“Three times a day,” I tried to tell him, as I beamed with pride. But he had already turned the corner, and was too far away to hear.
I’ve seen kids grow up in this neighborhood. Like Grant who was a baby when I met him, but now he’s in fifth or sixth grade, I’m not sure. His younger brother, Jackson, was inside his mother’s belly when I first met him. Amelie once lived here and took care of Henry and Oliver when I worked late. She still does but now her mother has to drive her over.
There’s the elderly couple from India who, most afternoons, I see take long walks to the park. She in her colorful saris, and he, always walking a few steps ahead. There’s the young Mormon couple with their four children, and a dog named, Sugar. When I see them, they’re always smiling, big sugary smiles with gleaming white teeth. True, they exude happiness every time I see them.
I like my neighbors. All of them. Even the old man who once scared the bejesus out of me for reasons long ago forgotten. He’s nice as can be now, with a part-time job at the local gym.
Truthfully, I wish all my neighbors could stay put. A few remain and for that I’m grateful. After all, there’s comfort in the familiar and I get used to them–those that say hi and those that hurry off to work without so much as a by your leave. But the seasons change, the Santa Ana’s return, the nights cool down, coyotes howl and the jacaranda trees majestically bloom in springtime. And life goes on.
Don’t move away, I whisper to no one. A bird cries as if in response. Two decades seems like a long time to live in one place, I know. Still, I can’t help but wonder who’ll move here in the next 20 years and whether I’ll still be here when they do. If you ask me, I haven’t a clue.