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PRIVATE LIVES

Loathe Thy Neighbor : When Irksome Habits Cross the Property Line, That Means War on the Home Front

September 09, 1990|MARGO KAUFMAN

NOT HAVING ACCESS to a thermonuclear weapon, my friend Jon recently put pen to paper. He reads me what he wrote.

"Dear Neighbor," he begins. "I can't decide what it is about you that I hate the most. Is it the display of bric-a-brac on your patio wall? Is it the huge American flag that hangs seven days a week, 24 hours a day, from your balcony? Is it your filthy garage, where who knows what vermin is breeding this very minute? Or is it your enormous head?"

I picture a Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon with an imbecilic grin hovering above Jon's property line. And I wonder. Jon lives in a Pacific Palisades neighborhood that is as peaceful and orderly as Switzerland. What is it about neighbors that turns an otherwise reasonable person into a tight-lipped, beady-eyed turf defender bent on revenge?

It's not just Jon. Everyone has a flash point. It could be a sprinkler that overwaters, or a dog that barks or bites, or a stereo that puts the bass right through the floor. But it's always something.

Jon's letter continues: "Is it the fact that you don't have the intelligence to remember that you have a car alarm?--so every time you get into the car, I'm treated to the sound of it going off."

Jon acknowledges that he would go nuts in my neighborhood. I live in Venice. It's kind of like living in the strainer in the kitchen sink--you never know what you're going to find. The day after I moved here, I went for a walk and saw a man wearing nothing but seaweed dancing down my street. I rushed back to tell my husband.

Duke, a longtime Venetian, was completely unfazed. "It's just one of the neighbors," he said.

Over the years, his response has become like the punch line of a bad running joke. It's covered such strange sights and sounds as gunfire, a ferret on a leash and the large black "Die Yuppie Scum" sticker plastered on the back of a new Jaguar. Just the other night, we were sitting down to dinner when we were jolted by a crash of breaking glass.

"It's just one of the neighbors," Duke said automatically. Sure enough, one of the Battling Bickersons next door had hurled a five-gallon Sparkletts water bottle through a second-story window. And my friends think they have neighbor problems.

"No matter what time I go to bed, at that exact moment my neighbor starts having sex," says Annette, who has a condo in Encino. "I'm trying to sleep, and it's boom, boom, boom upstairs. She must sneak down and see when I'm home." Either that or she never leaves her bed.

"My neighbor was having a birthday party for his girlfriend, and he strung colored banners around my trees," says Doug, who lives in the Hollywood Hills. "He didn't even ask permission. I wanted to kill. You move into a house for a sense of space, and then people invade it."

Nobody likes being reminded that their control over their environment is limited. Even my husband, the world's most tolerant human, ran out of patience when a neighbor acquired a novelty record from hell, The Best of Sitcom Theme Songs, and played it--loud! Once was amusing, but daily. . . . "No jury would convict me," Duke said. (Frankly, I didn't know which was scarier--the fact that such a record existed or that I knew all the words to "Car 54, Where Are You?")

It used to be that people dreamed of having neighbors like Ward and June Cleaver; "next door" was a friendly place to borrow sugar and swap gossip. But in these days of overcrowding, people dream of neighbors who travel all the time, whose only sign of life is the security guard who stops by three times a day to check the locks. Neighbors who aren't remodeling.

As are the people who live behind me. At 7 this morning, I was awakened by the sounds of a nail gun. At 11, my driveway was blocked by a large catering truck. And at 3, I was asking the foreman to please get his building debris out of my trash cans.

Still, most of the time I'm really glad that my neighbors are there. A lot of them are friendly and fun to talk to. And I know that if I ever screamed, someone would hear me and call the police.

Suddenly, there is a furious banging on my front door. Oh no, I think nervously. But it's Jane from up the street, inviting us to dinner. I accept happily.

"What was that?" Duke asks.

"Just one of the neighbors," I reply.

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