We bought our first and only house in the fall of 1991. Our handyman, Mr. Bandos, ripped out pine paneling, pulled down drop ceilings, and showered in the accumulated dust and termite residue of decades. Took him three weeks to recover his superhuman strength. We ended up replacing all the electrical, installing central heat and air, refinishing the heart-of-pine floors, and covering every square inch of walls and ceiling with new drywall. The screened front porch with the original Cuban tile floor looks out to the house next door, which is the one thing we’ve not been able to change in 26 years.
We moved in on Leap Year Day in 1992. Our next-door neighbor was a mysterious old woman who had been a prima ballerina in the Old World. She had thin gray hair which she pulled into a tight bun at the crown of her narrow head. Every morning, wearing a scowl and a black dress with long sleeves, a high neck, and a sweeping skirt she punished the hexagon block leading from the sidewalk to her front door with a broom that looked to have bristles no longer than an inch or two. She did not look up when I called “good morning.” Soon, I stopped trying. She had an assistant, a severe blonde with lines of grief and hardship etched from nose to chin and radiating from thin lips. The assistant would nod.
Then, with no warning, the old ballerina was gone. The house sat vacant. Weeds grew. Until the assistant rented the house to a group from the homeland and the lights came on and stayed on. All night. Lights were strung in the backyard just beyond our bedroom window. A boisterous group of men drug the ballerina’s dining table to the backyard. Their boombox blasted only ABBA or Bulgarian folk music, but their raucous cackles drowned out both.
I climbed the steps of our garage apartment to spy on the new neighbors. A bottle of scotch sat in the middle of the table. They were playing cards, gambling, bellies pressed against mahogany now exposed to the elements. I watched as the police came to tell them to turn down the music, watched them mock in response. Sometimes, platoons of men were herded from the house, arms restrained, faces twisted into sneers.
The party ended on a Sunday afternoon. From our front porch, my husband and I startled to hear a man’s voice singing out in condemnation of one of the American women who drifted through their flop house. “You,” he anguished to pronounce, “are a friend of Sa-tan.” He repeated the charge with escalating volume. “Sa-tan. Sa-Tan! You know Sa-tan!”
Competing was the screech of another woman: “Hold your ass up and it won’t hurt.”
That time, the police found the chop shop the Bulgarians had run for two years from the dilapidated one car garage at the back of the property next door. That night, they were all led away in handcuffs. And they didn’t come back.
Many months and thigh-high weeds later, Snot Girl bought the house at auction and oversaw the first feeble rehab. Snot Girl didn’t like our xeriscaping and hated that I was often on our front porch, far too close for her comfort. She and her new husband, Snot Boy (who was actually friendly), soon moved to a bigger money pit on a nicer street in the neighborhood.
They rented to a dentist and his wife, a large woman with a pathological fear of bugs. She dissolved into hysterical shrieks when a cockroach crossed her path. “Help me! Help me!” she screamed when caterpillars descended from the oak trees in the spring. We had barely settled on a nickname for her — Mrs. Dog — when they abruptly moved out and a gay couple moved in. Finally, neighbors with whom we developed a cordial ease. But the air conditioning bills were tremendous thanks to the absence of insulation, so off went the nice men after one short year.
Next came the executive and the architect, who had big plans for a stucco wall between our yards (yes, please) but they divorced shortly after buying and the house again went rental. A Kept Woman moved in. She didn’t leave the house and had only to entertain her married boyfriend occasionally. Alas, one solitary night she took too many of her pills. She went to rehab and the executive put the house up for sale.
The next owners were a good ol’ couple from South Carolina. We called them The Marines in honor of the flag they flew, which turned out to be in recognition of his son, a soldier who visited exactly once. The day they moved in, I took over a Christmas cactus and a welcome card, determined to change the dynamic with my new next-door neighbors. Mrs. Marine gave a huff and tossed the plant on the corner railing of the porch. I wasn’t sure why my gift was offensive but a tone was set.
The Marines hoarded cats and dogs but at least they were quiet, until her father came to visit and sat on the porch bellowing his hatred for anything and everything to do with O Bama. I hissed every time they visited, which averaged at least quarterly. But those visits came to an abrupt halt after The Marines moved everything out of the house one sultry August midnight in 2016. They took the mailbox, the appliances, and the good faith of their lender. Seems these Trump-loving Conservatives were bankrupt from medical bills and left the house next door in foreclosure.
In January of 2017, the house sold to an anonymous LLC and changed hands two or three times in four months. Renovation progressed in fits and starts. A team of pleasant South American workers swooped through, sometimes leaving for weeks at a time, announcing their presence with the blare of Spanish radio. A master suite was tacked onto the back, a new roof stapled over warped rafters. No rotten wood got replaced; termites desecrate the freshly painted bright white railings on the porch.
“A coat of paint covers a multitude of sins,” Mr. Bandos used to say.
UPDATE — According to Zillow, this “beautifully and thoughtfully restored and expanded 1920s bungalow . . . has it all!” It’s a steal for only $549,000.
Maybe the new owners will replace the spray-painted plants?