Thursday, November 06, 2008

Get Off My Lawn: The League is a Grumpy Neighbor


I awoke around 2:30 AM to the sound of 80's era new wave-ish dance music blasting from somewhere outside. I sort of recognized the song, but it was one that I'd long ago forgotten who performed it. I lay frozen, face down, convinced that the person playing the music had accidentally turned on a stereo and was even now, madly dashing to find the power button to shut it off.

After five minutes, I realized that, no... this was, in fact, their game plan. They were going to rock their backyard at 2:35 AM. And I knew exactly who it was as I'd looked out my blinds and could see my rear window neighbor was up and moving around, his lights on, the back door open, the stereo he keeps outside rocking the hits of 2 decades back. It looked like he had a visitor.

We'll call him Ted... But I was quite excited when Ted moved in. Prior to Ted, a family of five had lived behind us who home-schooled their kids. If, by home school, you mean "mom kicks the kids outside all day where their only toys are those pool noodle things, which they use to spend all day whacking each other in the weakest duel ever".

This, by the way, was busily driving nails into the coffin of how I think the State of Texas manages home schooling, but that's not really relevant. But we kind of grew a serious dislike of those kids because, well... why weren't they in school instead of whacking one another with noodles while the toddler did nothing all day but walk up and down the precarious staircase from their backdoor to the backyard?

That's relvant, too. We live on a hill. The hill slopes downward from the back of their house to our house. So if you stand on the backporch of their house (now Ted's house), you're about 7 feet higher than our back door and can look directly in on us at all times. Not really a worry, but it makes the privacy fence seem sort of ineffectual. And we can kind of see into their yard back up the hill.

Anyhow, right before the noodle whackers moved out, I was surprised to let Lucy back into the house on a completely clear day and find her dripping wet. About six months before that, I'd seen Dad Noodle Whacker throw a bowl of water over the fence at Mel who was being a dog and barking a bit, but who we rarely let out for more than 20 minutes at a time as Mel much prefers the comfort of the end of the couch. I stared for a minute from inside, then decided "hey, I'm neighborly. If he's been having a problem with Mel and Lucy, I should talk to him about it." So I opened the door, at which time Dad Noodle Whacker dashed back inside and did not come back out.

Seeing Lucy dripping, and knowing the Noodle Whacker kids ALSO often played with the hose, spraying each other, I decided to not be mad, but I could probably get a lot of mileage out of the kids and parents if I went ahead and talked to them. I went out into the yard to see if I could get their attention, but no dice. So I wandered around the block, rang their doorbell and waited. I could hear them inside talking about me, but nobody answered the door.

"Hey," I finally said out loud, "I know you're in there."
And then things got very quiet. I rang the doorbell a few more times, pondered the likelihood of them opening the door for a 6'5" dude they probably believed to be irate, and then headed home.
It was, in my opinion, all pretty cowardly on their part.

They moved out a week later. I don't know what the story was, but my guess is they knew they were leaving, so why talk to this guy? I'm not sure that was the best option for the Noodle Whacker family, but that's not for me to say.

Ted moved in shortly thereafter. Incredibly nice guy. But he couldn't work his sprinkler system. As I mentioned, we live on a hill, and every night one zone on Ted's system was going off for an hour and flooding our yard. The dogs were consistently covered in mud during a drought, and the whole thing was just dumb.

"Hey, uh... could you take a look at your sprinkler system?" I said upon meeting Ted over the fence. "It's running for an hour every night and flooding my yard. See how high and green my grass is?"

"Wow. Yeah, it's pretty complicated. I never lived in a house of my own, so I'm figuring all this out."
"Well," I nodded. "My grass is growing like crazy, my yard is flooded all the time and my dogs are muddy. If you could just take a look, that'd be awesome."
"It's pretty complicated..."
"I can look at it. This is my second system."
I found out later Ted finally took a look at his complicated system when he received a $400 utility bill.

When I was in college I lived in an apartment near 290 and I-35 (where we had a police shootout this morning, btw). We lived in a standard apartment block. My bedroom touched three other apartments, and every night for a month, one of my neighbors would play The Vapors' "Turning Japanese" on repeat. I'm sure I've mentioned it before, but PTSD will do that to you.

I don't mean they played it once a night. I mean, they turned it on repeat and played it, like, 10-15 times every night.

I banged on the wall in the classic apartment house style, but I began to suspect that they weren't listening to the song in their bedroom, but in their living room, and it was just on that loud. Loud enough not to hear the neighbor banging on the wall between 12-2 AM. I sincerely couldn't tell if it was the person above me, their neighbor, or the person on the ground level next to me. Anyway, I still don't hate the song, but it does conjure up some nights of frustrated disbelief.

For a while I tried to sleep in the hallway, but could never sleep well on the floor. I don't know if I eventually tuned out the Vapors or if they got tired of the song or what... but it did stop.

I went out to the backyard and leaned over the fence. Ted's backdoor was open, and so when the album hit a quiet moment between songs, I yelled for Ted over the fence. I don't know where he was, but neither he nor his visitor noticed me yelling. A few neighborhood dogs did notice and began barking.

Defeated, I went back inside.

I lay there for a few more minutes, really, really not wanting to call the cops. And eventually decided... Oh, screw it. I put on my walking shorts and wandered around the block, hearing the music most of the walk. I also saw several neighbors had lights on, which is unusual for 2:40 AM in my neighborhood.

2 factors here:

1) The band factor: Hey guys and gals in bands! Did you know that when you play music loudly, not everyone wants to hear your music? Be it all the neighbors of your house party or a patio at a restaurant, I may not have signed up to hear your noise. Musicians will, of course, be angry to hear this. You are wrong.

2) Living in the Burbs is Tricky: We're surrounded by, I'd estimate, 1/3rd rental properties. Part of the real estate boom in Austin translated to people dashing into new neighborhoods and buying houses for rent. We bought our house. We have a lot of money sunk into that house. If the neighbors are jerks, we can't just move when our lease is up. Rental houses also means a lot of houses in Austin go to younger folks who see a house and the first thing on their mind is: I shall have many parties.

I am just grateful I don't live about four blocks over where a bunch of frat dudes have set up shop.

Ted is actually older than me, but as I mentioned, its his first house on his own. He was in a band and toured. He loves his music. But, oddly, has no understanding of acoustics and that sound does not stop at a fence post, or even at a wall or window. And the areas between houses tend to act like an echo chamber.

I made it around the block and identified Ted's house by the rocking tunes as I got closer. All of Ted's lights were on, and I could see through a window and straight through the house. He and his guest had moved to the back porch now, and couldn't hear me ringing the doorbell. So... I had to go around the side of his house and through his gate, which, I think, scared the shit out of him.

"Hey. Can you turn it down?"
There was kind of a slack jawed silence.
"It's 2:30 in the morning and I have to go to work tomorrow."
"I didn't realize it was that loud."
"It's waaaay that loud," I was really snippy. "Look, it's 2:30 in the morning, and I don't want to call the cops, but I can hear everything through my window."
He looked confused.
"Where do you live?"
I have talked to Ted many times. I have loaned him my fire pit. But I imagine as a shadowy figure in glasses at 2:30, I may have looked kind of spooky.
I pointed Grim Reaper-like at my own home.
"The sound goes right into my house."
Ted turned off the stereo.
"It's off."
"I just... it's 2:30 in the morning."
"It's off," now it was his turn to get snippy. I couldn't tell if things were about to get ugly or not, but, yeah... the stereo was off.
I turned around and exited through the gate.

I thought about all those lights on in all of those houses. I know his next door neighbor has kids. I know Courtney next door is not usually up at 2:45 or whatever it was with her lighst burning. And I often wonder, are people just unaware of the problem their causing? Do they really not care if they're ruining a night's sleep for the people they live beside?

And why was I the only one pointing out the obvious? You do not play a stereo full-blast in suburbia on a Thursday morning between 2:00 AM and 3:00 AM. It's bad form.

Am I a jerk? A bad neighbor? Ted seems like a decent guy, but why do you know in the back of your mind that when you ask someone to do something that's so obviously and totally okay, you have to be ready for an argument, if not a fight of some sort?

After college, Jamie and I lived very close to campus on the edge of the conveniently located Hyde Park neighborhood. After a year of living under a girl who walked on her heels (we called her "stompy") a bunch of dudes moved in. Within two weeks, they were starting to throw a kegger on a Thursday night about 10:00. I know this, because Jamie had dialysis at 4:30 AM the next day.

I knocked on their door and pleaded for mercy. "It's a week night. She has to get up at 4:30. I have to get up at 6:45."
I was given assurances, returned downstairs, and immediately heard the chanting begin: "chug! chug! chug!".
I banged on the wall.
"chug! chug! chug!"
I called the cops.

For about a month the guys gave me dirty looks, but... screw 'em.

Until one night about 10:00 they started in with a stereo at full blast. I banged on the ceiling to no avail. Then I headed upstairs.
The four of them met me at the door, clearly ready to get into a fist fight. "Seriously?" I looked at them. "She needs to sleep. What are you doing?"
That moment of "oh hell, here we go..." was quickly disappated, but was playing their stereo at full blast at 10:00 really such a defensible act that it was worth kicking my ass?

These guys thought so.

That's the nature of living amongst people. My Psych 301 class taught me one thing: we're all the heroes in our own stories. That is why we have such a hard time understanding when someone points out that we're wrong. To the point, yeah, of violence.

So weird that we would fear not just the consequences of our own requests for civility, but the long term results of ruining a relationship that was already so non-existent that the other party didn't think anything of waking you up for an hour in the middle of the night. Let alone getting dressed and semi-illegally entering their yard.

What I find interesting is that when I mention that I have no problem asking people to turn it down, or calling the cops at some point, people look at you like you're a bad guy. You ruined someone else's fun. I'm used to that reaction now, and I've quit trying to justify my actions. I guess many people associate asking for civility with old man stuffiness and/ or imagine themselves on the other side of the door when the fuzz shows up.

But I'm also the guy who dreads going to the movies because I get sick of asking people to turn off the iPhone which is putting light in my eye, asking them to get off the phone, quit talking, what have you... it's just a pretty wretched experience most days. I simply get tired of getting to that point where if I don't take some action I know I'll miss 90% of the movie thinking about how that dumb guy won't shut his yap. This way I'll simply not enjoy the movie because I had to go through that whole routine of the perpetrator's disbelief and defensive posturing that always follows after asking someone to shut their pie hole for an hour and a half.

And whenever you do ask, you have to know that no matter how unlikely, you're playing a game of Russian Roullette. Sooner or later, someone is going to decide he's just embarrassed enough to be angry and start a fight. Sooner or later, its going to happen.

But that isn't what happened with Ted.

This evening I reached the house, and Ted was in the driveway. He'd stopped by before heading out to meet some friends. As I said, Ted's a good guy.

"What were you guys up to?"
They'd been out. Sounds like maybe there was a recent break-up. A friend had come home to hang out with him. They made a few more drinks.
Anyway, we exchanged numbers. He felt simply awful, and I felt pretty badly for making him feel so awful, but, yeah...

I'm glad we resolved it. I'm glad I didn't just sit up losing sleep and fuming. Sometimes you realize that other person isn't just being a jerk, and its just one of those things. We'll be better neighbors for it.

And it makes me glad that sometimes things do sort out, that some of those folks really are okay, and that asking is sometimes all you really have to do.


Michael Corley said...

You are one of the rare American's who's willing to speak to his neighbors in a civil fashion (and give them a chance before calling the cops, even though it's inconvienent to you). I wish I could say I've done that everytime, but I have not.

Having worked in a movie theater, however, I'm Johnny Quick when it comes to telling others to shut their yap. Suprisingly they usually do.

I would ad a smidge to the psyc 101 thiking. I agree that everyone is their own hero, but they also know when they've been caught doing something wrong. The dark space sandwiched between those two realities is what creates fear, anxiety and yes, violence.

Excellent stories. I could see you tromping up to Teds house.

J.S. said...

What's kind of unsaid in all of these stories (although made more explicit in the apartment with the college guys) is that they all probably involve alcohol and/or intoxication of one form or another. Once people start drinking, one of the first things to often go out the window is courtesy. A close runner up is logic.
I've talked to cops who say that they really think it's the best policy to go ahead and just call the police if you have a noise problem with your neighbors. They say this not because they enjoy responding to noise complaints (they don't), but because, as I said, usually one of the parties involved is intoxicated, and when people start arguing about it between themselves, oftentimes fights end up being the result. And the policy of the police in our town, at least, is to always give at least one warning before they give a ticket.
Anyway, I'm glad things turned out okay with your neighbor, but I'm also hear to tell people not to hesitate to call the cops when these situations arise. And even as one of those evil musician guys who plays in a band (that practices at his house once a week) I stand by this advice.

The League said...

I think Mono E, by and large, is about as polite as you could ask. I know for a fact you guys practice during very reasonable hours, and you don't know this because you're not outside, but probably thanks to your brick walls, the sound is audible, but not overpowering, even when the window has been open when I've dropped by.

Can't speak for your late night house party gigs, though.

Anonymous said...

My neighbors in college used to play Dave Matthews Band in the bedroom right next to mine at 4AM on full volume (so they can party downstairs). I called the cops everytime until they finally just stopped (or the semester ended. I don't remember).

For a long time, I feared getting jump everytime I left my apartment. And I couldn't shake the feeling I was acting like a total nerd because I didn't want to join in and have a beer with them while jamming to DMB.

The League said...

Wow. What makes it all the more painful hearing this tale for me is that I am, at best, apathetic to DMB, and when he's overplayed (which is always) he becomes as much fun as rocks in your shoe on a five mile march.

You have my honest condolences.