I've given up on getting to know my neighbors. It's impossible. They're "unit people." They live inside box units, drive to work units in travel units, then drive back home to box units, where they sit and stare at entertainment units and computer units. And with overly great frequency in this restless city, they change box units. Moving units clog my street at the end of each month.
It's not a lack of compassion on my part, it's just that--well, you know how it is in L.A. You say "hi" to someone on the sidewalk, and they look like they're waiting for you to pitch a religion or pull out an AK-47. It's the opposite of New Orleans--the Big Easy--where strangers invite strangers in for gumbo or crawfish etouffee. This is the Big Unease--where inviting strangers into your home is officially discouraged by law enforcement agencies. Of course, many people just don't have the time to get to know their neighbors. They're busy on the Internet, selling T-shirts to Zimbabwe.
Well, I should qualify that. I refer to human neighbors.
When it comes to non-human neighbors, I'm practically a socialite. A gadabout. The possums know me. And some coyotes. And the woodpeckers, owls, bats, deer, raccoons, crows and many cats. Where do I live, you wonder? Atop some mystic peak in Tujunga, Topanga or another rural niche with a trip-over-the-tongue Native American name? No, I, too, am a unit person, stuck smack in the concrete-and-Ikea building-block burg of Sherman Oaks. Unlike my peers, however, I seek out the social register of fur and feather, the furtive citizens of night and chaparral and apartment house foundations. My free-range neighbors. . . .
Consider the ever-controversial coyote, enemy of the domestic cat. It tends toward rare, skittish socializing, the latest having come one sweaty summer night last year. There I was, besieged by insomnia, prowling the streets in search of fatigue. Lady Coyote appeared a few yards ahead, at a trot, periodically glancing back to see what threat I posed. We were out for a stroll, each with our purpose: foraging for peace of mind and food, respectively. Eventually, she met several insomniac dogs that approached, ears up, tails straight. What manner of dog was this? they seemed to be thinking.
After a protracted session of curious mutual regard, they all inched within sniffing range--three canines on one side, and their feral preternatural cousin on the other. I watched politely as realization abruptly set in. This was a canine poseur! The dogs charged, and the coyote went poof!--almost as fast as Wile E. does in those cartoons. Or, to paraphrase Mark Twain's essay on the beast in "Roughing It," she "electrified her heels." I waved farewell. "Come back again," I said.
My other infrequent neighbor, the woodpecker, last dropped in one midafternoon in 1993, in a large sycamore tree across the street. I was writing, and the clacking of my keyboard seemed to linger after my fingers stopped. I stepped outside and found this imposing bird--it was a great big redhead, like Woody--maniacally banging his beak into the trunk for a full hour. Then he was on his migratory way. I waved goodbye and extended an open invitation to return, as a good neighbor should.
In another local social encounter, my concentration was shattered by the sounds of someone loudly prowling around the long-deserted house next door. I was up, working late, and the noises were flagrant, intrusive, almost . . . egocentric--with much scraping and leaf-crunching. I stepped outside and spotted a fearless interloper, all right, a masked one, on the house's rooftop. There he sat, looking back at me, a raccoon so round and imperious that I figured him for the Rush Limbaugh of his world.
Of course, there is the possum family. When I mention the pervasive possum population to friends, they express shock. What? Those big ugly rats? I explain plain that they're really quite gentle and unobtrusive--like Pogo, but less verbal. (A unit-person neighbor was horrified that I put kibble out for them.)
That same unit person, incidentally, once woke me around 4 a.m. with hair-raising shrieks of "Ohmygawwwd! Help, help!" I bounded out into the brisk night to confront--what?--a burglar, a masher, Madonna? No. My neighbor had opened her door to let her cat in, but was instead met by the Dracula-esque, sneering, hissing countenance of a possum clinging to her screen door. A baby possum, at that. I dispatched the little fellow into some ivy with a broom and advised him to steer clear of humans. I tried to tell my neighbor he was harmless, but she kept exclaiming "Ohmy gawwwd!" and made strange declarations about fear of possum urine.