Saturday, June 1, 2013

good fences

I put up a fence.

new fence

Having received a thoroughly liberal arts education, complete with bona fide New England prep school, I can't possibly put up a fence without thinking of Robert Frost's poem Mending Wall:
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, 'Good fences make good neighbors'.
It's been years since I read it, and I'm glad to find it's not quite as inane as I remembered. That said, it was written in 1914, and hasn't aged well. The upheavals of two World Wars really did a number on artistic relevance over time.

I think that if I had acres of orchards, I'd be more inclined to agree with him. Instead, I have a corner lot in a dense urban area, a house which has been a neglected rental for decades. The yard has felt not quite ours, more like poorly-maintained public space, especially the side yard. Our elderly neighbor out back, here since the 60s, says people will come with ladders to pick from the orange tree; we've seen people picking the roses. Passers-by are accustomed to just wandering across the lawn while talking on their cell phones on the corner. Bits of litter blow in, or are dropped by the high school kids.

There's also José the Car Guy. Every Latino-heavy neighborhood I've lived in (this is #3) has the Car Guy, someone who has a habitual stretch of curb where no one cares that he's illegally fixing cars on weekends. Because no one cared about this house, the Car Guy would work on our corner.

This is all sort of whatever--we live in a city, he probably needs the money, and I don't want to be a jerk about it--but then one Saturday I watched one of his customers direct their son to dump used coolant in the greenbelt at the side of the house (between the sidewalk and the street). I went out and told José that I don't mind if he works out there, but dumping chemicals is not okay. I had a bit of a chat with José, and a longer chat with his friend Manuel, who (a) speaks better English, and (b) wasn't trying to replace a brake rotor.

(J actually emerged from the house and talked to Manuel more or less like a normal human, which was amazing: introduced himself, failed to start shouting when Manuel said "I bet you like sports," and excused himself when Anna called him. It was incredible.)

The coolant-dumping incident motivated me to start setting up wireless cameras for surveillance. I already planned to do this because of the epidemic of burglaries up and down the Peninsula, combined with the difficulty of actually securing the house; José gave me a reason to try one out in a "trust, but verify" way. I genuinely wasn't trying to drive him away; filming the corner isn't very friendly, but neither is dumping coolant into the grass. There's been no sign of him the past couple weekends, and I am indeed hoping he found another curb to work on.

Our fence is not a major physical barrier. You can drive through it, see through it, crash through it, walk around it. I can barely describe the difference it makes. By drawing a line around our yard, it feels like...our yard. It's a way to say that yes, we realize no one has cared about this house for decades, but that's different now.

So stay on the sidewalk, and don't pick our oranges.

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