Thursday, June 11, 2009

My Agile Neighbors

The guy in the tree with the machete was not, technically, in my back yard. Still, he was climbing a fifty-foot maple with the giant knife in his teeth. That's definitely the kind of thing makes you think.

I live on the cutting edge of the rougher section of Providence, Rhode Island. It is a busy street with multi-family dwellings crowded together on tiny parcels of land -- barely big enough to be called yards. We moved here from Massachusetts in 2002 because property was incredibly cheap. We bought a four-unit apartment building in the final stages of disintegration and spent 16 agonizing months bringing it back to life. My wife and I live there now with my mother-in-law, two-year old son and two other tenants. There are still many days when I wonder why I ever thought this would be a good idea.

It is the sort of place where you can't really build a big enough fence. We started with no fence at all but I soon realized that we had a backho infestation. In other words, the local "working girls" were using our back yard as an office with toilet. Additionally, car radio thieves and purse-snatchers found it a convenient escape route, and I would frequently find signs of junkies who had holed up there briefly, leaving their needles or other paraphernalia behind. So up went the first stockade fence. Problem solved, I figured.

Still, we've had several fence-climbers. One slick fellow actually claimed he was playing hide and seek. He was probably twenty-five years old and looked like he was either evading the law or considering breaking it. And the kids from next door routinely climb over, dig holes, rearrange the backyard furniture and leave their trash in our planters.

Then last fall we discovered that we had a sideho problem. Not willing to climb the fence with their Johns, these ambitious ladies had decided that our small side yard offered enough privacy for their illicit encounters. Hos are harder to get rid of than carpenter bees. So I am going to have to extend the fence to encircle the side and front yards, too. And I'm planting pricker-bushes all around the perimeter. We'll see how they like them apples.

Still, I don't know how I can keep out men with machetes. If they want to come in, there isn't much I can do about it.

The machete tree guy turned out to be one of our Guatemalan neighbors. His family lives in the house diagonally to the left of our back yard. When we first moved here he was raising rabbits and had fifteen-foot corn stocks swaying gently in the breeze -- on one tenth of an acre. The rabbits would roam freely and frequently escaped under the fence and into our yard. It was not unusual for me to come home from work and find two or three rabbits happily grazing on our tiny front lawn. For a while I would catch and return the little guys but that soon became a waste of time. For the rest of the summer they came and went as they pleased. It seems that the rabbits must have become dinner the following winter. They did not reappear in the spring.

So there we stood watching this nimble Guatemalan homesteader climb higher and higher. Reaching the top he began hacking off branches. He must have had the idea from watching the tree service that had recently removed two trees from my own backyard. The tree he was hacking at, however, did not belong to him.

We pondered what to do. Should we call the authorities and report that a Guatemalan farmer was denuding a fifty foot maple in the yard of his next-door neighbor? Would they even believe us? And was it really wise to mess with a guy like that?

My mother-in-law is fearless after six years of facing off against hos and gangsta wannabes. She decided that she would go talk with him and find out just what his intentions were.

From his perch, high atop the swaying maple, he explained that he was just tired of cleaning leaves out of his gutters. He continued, in excellent English incidentally, that he did not intend to cut the entire tree down. The property where the tree stood was apparently bank-owned and he was simply taking advantage of the opportunity to remove all of the branches while nobody was likely to complain.

It made a certain amount of sense when you looked at it from his perspective. I guess everything in this neighborhood makes sense from one perspective or another. Usually, though, that perspective wouldn't fly in any other place I've ever lived.

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