My Neighbours and Other Animals: Part 1

Much of what makes life in New York interesting are the people around me. I wrote previously about how welcoming we have found most people to be, and that remains true – but it’s not all Disney-style smiles and sunshine. There wouldn’t be any edge to The Big Apple if there weren’t a few bad apples thrown in – although admittedly, the odd stroller thief and our sour-faced postman are about as edgy as it gets round here. Or maybe that’s just ignorance on my part; I’m rarely out past 11pm these days so for all I know our neighbourhood turns into a hotbed of vice after those hours.

Because friendliness is the order of the day, unfriendliness is all the more shocking when one encounters it. From time to time you meet pedestrians who clearly think children should be banned from the neighbourhood; only yesterday a man stopped dead in front of my friend’s stroller, refusing to walk around her even though there was plenty of space to do so. My encounter with a bad-mannered store owner left me vowing never to cross her threshold again; she could not deal with Bigger Boy picking up one of her precious greetings cards and putting it back in the wrong place. In retrospect, I should have told her that she was in the wrong place; this part of Brooklyn is not known as ‘Strollerland’ for nothing. Being rude to parents could quickly spell business suicide.

Apart from these rude individuals who I have nothing much to do with, there are other people who colour my daily life with their unique little ways. My neighbours: the man opposite, who spends a good deal of his life with his rear glued to an armchair in front of CNN, but springs into action whenever there is a change in the weather. An inch of snow? He’s out with his shovel, freeing his car from its clutches (even when there are several inches and the street itself hasn’t been ploughed, so there is no chance of driving anywhere anyway). Too many leaves on the pavement? He’s out there with his leaf-blower, distributing them around his neighbours’ gardens. (If ever there were a garden implement more pointless than the leaf-blower, I would like to see it.)

Then there are our lovely next-door neighbours with their young daughter who we chat to at length whenever we encounter them outside our front door, but with whom we have an unspoken mutual understanding that we will resolutely ignore each other whenever we happen to be eating out on our decks at the same time, despite being a mere 12 feet from each other. This rule is all the stricter when they are barbecuing, as their barbecue is much better than ours.

Downstairs is the office of a business run by a Spanish family. They are extremely tolerant (they have to be, with Bigger and Littler frequently doing very vocal monster and dinosaur impressions right outside their door; though they did snap one day when the trike, pushchair, wheelbarrow and lawnmower were being pushed simultaneously along the wooden floor directly over their heads by the boys and their friends). We never hear them except when they raise their voices on telephone conversations and we are treated to the dulcit tones of their throaty, fiery Spanish. On this basis they must think I spend my life saying ‘Get out of that cupboard!’, ‘Get off your brother’s head, right now!’ and ‘If you do that once more, there will be no treats for a week!’

In the basement is our landlord, who we love because he shovels snow when it’s required, deals with all the ‘trash cans’ (I will stop putting inverted commas around American words and phrases one of these days, but for the time being I am still childishly amused by Americanisms and can’t help saying them with an exaggerated American accent) and generally leaves us be.

Finally, we have our neighbour on the other side who we have only seen once when she turned up outside our door at nine o’clock one evening just after we moved in. A lady in her early sixties, she was accompanied by her friend Jenny and Jenny’s daughter and grandson. It transpired that Jenny had lived in our apartment in the mid-seventies and hadn’t seen it since, so she was interested in seeing how it compared to her memory of it. They toured the rooms, gasping and exclaiming at how it had changed or hadn’t changed – walls had apparently been knocked down, bathrooms had been retiled (thankfully), but the revealed wooden floors and the exposed brick in the kitchen, both of which had been their handiwork, remained the same. They were very moved by their memories and their reactions made me think about the day when our time here will also be consigned to memory. One very poignant moment was when Jenny pointed to the corner of our kitchen and said to her daughter, now in her mid-thirties, ‘you used to play with your blocks over there while I was cooking’. I look at my boys now, playing in that corner, drink in the moment and, never wanting to let it go, imprint it on my mind for all time.

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