We have (or I think at this point, probably had) a neighbor across the street that we don’t really know. He’s single, older. Old enough to have a difficult time getting his trash and recycling containers out to the street and back, which is what prompted the only conversation either Scuba or I ever had with him: Scuba: Hi. Can I help you with your garbage cans? Neighbor: Thank you, but no. It’s the only exercise I get at this point.
A couple of years ago there were several police cars parked at his house, one of the few two-stories on our street. Turns out he had a collection of old rifles in a glass-front cabinet and some kids broke in to steal them. He came home in the middle of it all, and they ran out the back door, dropping the guns on the lawn and hopping his back fence to escape down the creek behind his house. The police were asking the neighbors questions to figure out if anyone saw anything, and the first thing they asked me was, Do you know your neighbor over there? pointing to his house. I told them I did not.
I don’t know if he moved into assisted living or if he died. He’s for sure gone, though. From what we can tell (Scuba was outside and overheard some conversations between people we assume were his children) his kids/heirs wanted to quickly sell the house before the value dropped. (Sidenote: with a new large, upscale shopping center going in a couple miles away, and two HUGE new campuses planned for Apple and Google not too far away, I think they were a little misinformed.)
Next came about ten workers, who began by pulling the trim off the exterior of the house. I figured they were going to spruce the place up a little and list it. Most of the houses in our neighborhood are pretty modest 3 bed 2 bath 1,200 or 1,400 square feet, but this one’s big and backs up to a little stream that’s dry most of the time and means no neighbors behind you. It would sell in a hot minute, updates or no. After the trim was removed and repairs to the exterior stucco made, we noticed the workers were putting in six or seven twelve-hour days a week. Also appearing occasionally are a couple of complete assholes driving matching Teslas heartlessly barking orders at said workers. It seems the kids sold to a couple of house flippers.
Here’s where my personal baggage starts making all this difficult to watch. I loved my grandparents. Both sets. Tremendously. I remember when my mom’s parents built their house. We got to go visit when it was just wooden stakes and string in the ground and they showed me and my brother where our bedroom was going to be, just for us for when we came to visit. I was 4, almost 5, and too little to really understand that the string would later be actual walls, but I do remember. They lived there for the rest of their lives, and I spent a lot of time there when I was little and not nearly enough when I was grown. My dad’s parents lived about 20 minutes away from my mom’s, in a house that they, too, built in the 50’s when my dad was a kid. After my parents split, my dad moved back home for a while and my brother and I spent every weekend there with him, just a few doors down from our same-aged sibling cousins. The four of us were inseparable.
I can recall every detail of both houses. What the faucets and light fixtures looked like, the dishes and the art on the walls. The bedspreads and front doors and floors. How the light came in the windows at different times of day. And the kitchens — what was in every drawer, where the ice cream and Cokes were kept in the fridges. How at my dad’s parents’ the kitchen closet by the washer and dryer with the ironing board inside smelled of starch but I didn’t know it at the time, and how as an adult the first time I used starch while ironing the memory of hiding in that closet was so strong I almost fainted. This is my overwrought and long winded way of saying that there’s a couple of house-sized holes in my heart. Both places have been sold, first by my family and then by the subsequent owners, and I wish I could take back ever seeing the listings when the later sales were happening. Everything was horribly different. The kitchens. Just thinking about it right now has me crying again. I know it may seem like an overreaction, but they were my childhood and they got torn out for stupid cookie cutter shitty modern boring garbage kitchens. The people are all gone, and now their places are, too.
So, with that history I started seeing the remodel unfold across the street. One day a giant pile appeared on the front lawn. Books, appliances, clothes, small pieces of furniture, chairs, magazines, cameras, televisions, records, linens. A huge pile of this man’s life. I almost threw up. His kids couldn’t be bothered to sort through his things? I feel betrayed on his behalf. His whole entire life just went straight into a dumpster and I can’t seem to get over it. It’s really giving me a lot of feelings. Clearly.
About Alice Neel, though. I love her. I love the way she saw and the way painted, and how even though she knew Andy Warhol, she wasn’t tempted by art trends and stuck to the art she had to make. Apologies for the paywall, but this morning I read a piece in the New York Times about her upper west side apartment, and how it’s virtually unchanged from when she died in 1984. Her brushes and partly used tubes of paint are still sitting out, waiting for her hands. Chairs and sofas people sat on that were captured in their portraits and that you might recognize are in their places. From the article:
Seeing her paintbrushes in an empty Maxwell House coffee can, her lesser-known sculptural pieces positioned on her mantel, her piano in a corner — all attest to a creative energy that endured years without much attention or validation. It is for more than posterity, however, that Neel’s home has been kept as it is. “It is very hard to let go of your mother,” Hartley says. This, perhaps more than anything, is the reason Neel’s paints remain drying on the table. Hartley says he had always wanted to preserve the apartment, but Ginny recalls it differently: “It just kind of happens that you don’t go through the closet,” she says. “You just keep putting it off, and then it becomes, ‘Why change it?’ We really couldn’t give her up.”
We really couldn’t give her up.
I have some of both my grandmothers’ things that I use on a regular basis. A teaspoon. A wine opener. Little sunflower earrings. A diamond wedding band. I cannot give them up. A pair of one of my grandfather’s boots sits next to our fireplace. The autobiography my other grandfather wrote on a shelf next to my bed. I cannot give them up, either. Every time I look across the street, I’m sad all over again because it feels like our neighbor didn’t have anyone who couldn’t give him up. No one to come and lovingly sort through his belongings, keeping the things that remind them of him the most. I know not everyone’s home can become a shrine to them. Her son and his wife do stay there sometimes, they just don’t disturb her things. Honestly, I imagine that Alice Neel herself might prefer that someone in need turn her home into theirs. Who knows? I just know that as I see more and more things pile up on the lawn (most recently: kitchen cabinets, light fixtures, lots of wood and plaster) I feel more and more sad about my neighbor and the whole entire world in general.