The neighbors were oh so not amused.
They’d held down this Irish Catholic turf for three generations, on a street of houses with three floors plus attic and an asphalt driveway with a car or two. Each had a little mown yard with a chain link fence, and a plaster Blessed Virgin in a concrete pod, a devotional known as a Mary-on-the-Half-Shell.
Our house looked like theirs, but instead of owners ours held five renters who would come and go from year to year. The house was lively with arrivals, departures, some horn honking, and messages hollered down from the second and third floors. But the roommates were clean & sober and friendly as it gets. On summer nights they liked to pile in the Volkswagen for a day at the beach, then hang their bathing suits over the balcony rail and grill tofu pups with “Tears for Fears” playing on a stereo speaker hooked up outside the window.
And the neighbors were still not amused. Not amused by the guitar player who sang about the Vietnam War. Not amused by the roommate who volunteered at a women’s health clinic, and had impassioned pro-choice things to say about it with a “Never Again” coat hanger bumper sticker on her Volkswagen. Not amused by the hunky software engineer from Puerto Rico, whose hunky engineer boyfriend would tootle the car horn and call for Miss Thing to come out and play. Not amused at all when the crew held a balcony Christmas pageant, with the youngest house member playing Baby Jesus with an orange Frisbee halo taped to his head. By the time I replaced Miss Thing, the neighbors had had enough.
After moving in I hung a dustcloth on the balcony, and within minutes the landlord telephoned to tell me to take it inside. I baked a friendship apple pie for the girls downstairs, and when I knocked on their door with pie and baking mitts one of them took a look out through the chain lock, curled her lip, and said “We already ate.” The family matriarch next door had many opinions to deliver about us during her first morning cigarette, smoked in her front doorway and observing us. Very early one Sunday her voice shook us all from a sound sleep as she shooed away birds with the protest, “So help me, that better not be those pigeons from Next Door.” My roommates christened her “So Help Me” from then on; our guitarist became so good at imitating her voice that soon we had two of them — a loud one outside, and a quiet version sitting at our table dreaming up snappy retorts.
To improve a tense situation I made a resolution to pray and keep silence for 30 days. During every waking minute, I was going to “See Peace instead of this” and not speak at all except to contribute sweet conciliatory statements. As you may have noticed, people determined to exude peace tend to be nervous wrecks who are trying to get everybody else to calm the heck down. Within three days one very elderly lady neighbor passed me on the sidewalk while I aimed peace at her, and sent me home in shock by calling me a “!@#$%^&* Witch.” Next the roommates demanded to know why I was floating around in a trance, and that was the end of that.
Next, I came home and found on our telephone recording tape a very angry message from the police department, demanding that we open the door! Now! In a panic, I ran to the precinct house up the street with hands raised and turned myself in. The highly annoyed desk sergeant was in no mood to untangle my story, but finally figured out that we were persons of interest for leaving an abandoned car several blocks away. Apparently the neighbors there spotted the car and decided it must be, so help us, those ragamuffins in the rented house. Sarge was satisfied with my protestations of innocence, and sent me on my way.
I tried improving the house karma by tackling the basement.
It was stuffed with unclaimed debris from past renters and owners. For two weeks I sorted stuff into piles. Some I washed and carried to the Food Coop giveaway box. The bottles, cans, and newspapers went to the Coop recycle bins. Mounds of trash went out to the curb on collection days. At the bottom of it all I turned up a stash of gardening supplies: sacks of compost, mulch, sand, and manure; stakes and fence sections; old-fashioned garden tools. The landlord confirmed that the original house owners were an elderly couple who had to sell when one died and the other needed a nursing home. Their pride and joy had been tending the yard and filling it with flowering plants, to the delight of the neighbors.
Well. How sad that couple must have been, to see that garden go to ruin. The neighbors must have been sad too, to see their friends replaced by renting students who came and went every year. It was time to turn around that karma.
The soil was gritty baked hardpan. It took a lot of jumping up and down on the shovel to break it up. But I kept at it, chopping out broken concrete and glass, and finally cleared a patch 3 feet wide and 20 feet long along the side of the front yard. I hauled discarded planks out of the basement, and half-buried them on their sides to form a raised bed wall. I opened the sacks of sand and manure and compost and mulch, and carried bucketfuls outside and mixed them in with minced celery leaves and other kitchen greenery.
Before Ash Wednesday, a new suitor left my life after delivering a searching and fearless moral inventory of me and all my character defects, letting me know I would never succeed in landing a boyfriend. My Al-Anon sponsor didn’t even try to sound sympathetic about my broken romance. In fact, she made the sassy comment that with all the free time I saved by being single, I could finally come with her to lead meetings for the men at the local house of corrections. I sassed her back that this was not going to solve my boyfriend problem. She said No, but maybe I’d pick up some recovery along the way. Instead of going with her I curled up on the sofa in fetal position and sobbed until my roommate Pasha found me. He threw me over his shoulder, carried me upstairs to his room, cranked up “Why” by Annie Lennox, and hand-fed me CHEETOS® and Coke to restore electrolytes and coherence. Then he took me to the Food Coop to buy pea seeds and put them up to soak overnight.
On the first Sunday of Great Lent, several pre-kindergarten girls were playing outside my bedroom window in flowery dress/sash ensembles, all ready for church. Being no doubt instructed to play and not get dirty, the little ones were instead acting out a certain popular film starring Sir Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster. Apparently the Irish Catholic parents who warned the children away from our house thought it was fine to bring that movie into the home. I stood at my bedroom window amid my rescued trash-plant geraniums, watering can in hand, listening to the children parrot scene after scene from this film.
Clearly, our little world had lost its collective mind.
Something had to be done.
I marched outside and started planting peas in a freezing rain.
Immediately, a door flew open. Next door, our neighbor’s piercing voice rang out in the rising wind. “Y’ain’t nevah gonna grow nothin’ they-uh.”
Bent double in a cold nor’easter, trying to do some farming, I suddenly realized: the Neighbors might loathe us, but they really had no more clue than we did on how to lead a good meaningful life. Who knows how much disillusionment lay behind this lady’s gloomy prediction? Was she actually trying to be helpful and save me from disappointment?
I counted to ten, brushed the pinging sleet off my face, and turned to Mrs. So-Help-Me. “Well, you know — maybe some peas will come up after all, God Willing.”
She thought that over and closed the door.
I planted peas all along the side yard and then all across the front fence.
Two Sundays later, we were startled from our beds by a high-decibel bulletin from next door.
“Her peas are growing! Her peas are growing!” Mrs. S.-H.-M. shouted to the house across the street. “She said ‘God Willing,’ and God answered her prayer!”
Our jazz drummer trudged to the kitchen to start the coffee. “Clearly definitive proof of the existence of God,” he sighed to himself. “Clearly it had nothing to do with Mary busting along for weeks digging up that crummy yard, hauling mulch, lugging buckets of dishwater down two floors of stairs, planting peas in freezing rain. Call it a miracle of God, ya hollerin’ Cluck.”
The peas took off.
They ran amok all along the front and side, covering the chain link fence with a carpet of tender sprouts and white flowers, and then a truly Erewhonian harvest of sweet pods. My six salvaged geraniums in hanging baskets were all in bloom; so I hung them on either side of the front gate. The result was sheer magic. Our chain link fence looked like the portal to a European villa. I loved coming home in the spring evenings to that fence of peas and flowers. Meanwhile my bedroom was full of peat flats with seedlings — greens, cabbage, cucumber vines, cherry tomatoes. At night I’d wake up and sit with them, just feeling their green energy. Pasha filled the balcony railings with marigolds and nasturtiums. Our Volkswagen driver sowed a whole can of flowers around the sides of the house, and soon we had a carpet of them waving in the breeze. I got a book on edible weeds, and started transplanting in chickweed, purslane, lamb’s quarters, and more. That garden fed me all summer. What happiness to run downstairs on a dewy morning and pick weeds, flowers, and vegetables for the day, then to work in the garden all evening.
And that’s not all.
After the Prayed Peas showed their faces, so did the neighbors. Mrs. So-Help-Me was the first to stop by for a look. Now every day she sang out praises up and down the street, announcing every new sign of growth to one and all. The neighbors would send the kids outside to play, saying “Run over to Gahden Lady. Go see what she’s planting today.” The little girls stopped acting out heinous movies; instead they’d say “Here, we got you this pink rock at the beach,” or “We found a woim on the sidewalk. We putted him in ya gahden.” When the haughty coeds downstairs first found me squatting in muck, one of them curled her lip and said “‘Dja lose a bet??”; but soon they were all smiles, congratulating us on coaxing some life out of the yard.
One moonlit midsummer night, the seedlings around my bed woke me up. They wanted to be planted right then, at 2:00 a.m. Pasha found me heading outdoors, and said “Oh no you don’t, Missy. Not without me.” He took a kitchen chair and quart of Coke and sat guard while I planted peas. That night when the Irish pub shut down, a group of burly men came weaving down the street. But they stopped their rough banter and stood leaning over the fence. “That’s the way they did back home,” one sang out to me. “Gran did the planting at night, she said things came up better then.” The men looked over the garden, nodding and murmuring with reverence, then saluted and moved on. Early one Sunday, an elderly man came and saw me planting basil all around a large granite boulder. “That’s right, that’s the way,” he called. “Most people don’t take care of their graves they way they used ta.” On Sundays at the prison with my Al-Anon sponsor, the men loved asking about the garden. One night I had a beautiful dream about the men in their orange prison jumpsuits and shaved heads visiting our house just to stand in the moonlight and bow their heads in admiring silence.
Then the guitar player’s old college friend paid a visit. He drove up and honked the horn, and dropped off some concert tickets.
When he headed back to the car, Mrs. S. came outside. “Don’t you know it’s Sunday morning? What are you honking for? And you drove much too fast; there are children on this street you know.”
The college friend knew nothing about the long and hard-won web of relationships on our street. He was not at all used to being confronted by strangers on a street, especially one as forthright as Mrs. So-Help-Me. He let her know in terse terms that her opinion was unwanted, and drove off.
I heard the whole exchange from my room, and had the sinking feeling that our stay in this house was over. As it turned out, perhaps someone on the street really had enough. They either pressured the landlord or paid a visit themselves to our yard. Either way, when I came home from work a few days later the place was mowed out and the garden was gone; no geraniums, no pea vines, no vegetables, no wildflowers, no boards. Nothing The landlord gave notice that their relative was going to buy the house. So I rented a little studio and carried my stuff over one trip at a time, and the group of five went our separate ways for good.
But at that moment, standing upstairs, hearing the college friend roar off in his car, I also heard Mrs. S. cry out in amazement and genuine pain. It broke my heart to picture her out there with her cigarette, the proud senior-citizen alpha of the parish trying to defend her street, dismissed in front of everyone. I rushed outside to the garden with our very nicest serving bowl, rushed back upstairs, and washed and arranged the best of all our vegetables and flowers. Then for the first time I went to the house next door and rang the bell.
The door opened.
Our very agitated neighbor stared out at me, cigarette on lip. I tried to apologize. But I was so tongue-tied that I only thrust the bowl at her and started to cry.
It remains unclear how I ended up in the thin but strong arms of Mrs. So-Help-Me, or how she ended up with a weepy armful of me plus plant life. Formidable battle ax that she was, she said “But Honey, you din’t do nothin’ wrong,” patting my head with one hand and rocking me with the other while nasturtium petals fell all around us.