The room in which I write is next to my kitchen and directly across from the second-story porch of the apartment house next door. Children play on this porch--Korean children whom, over the course of the last three years, I grew to heartily loathe. They came, they went and they were all incredibly, cruelly loud. There was the preschooler who ran up and down all day wearing sneakers with gadgets built into the soles that made every step sound like a duck with laryngitis. There were the obese brother and sister who hung all over each other like a couple of sumo wrestlers, braying with laughter. There were an 8-year-old girl who wore a red cardigan and her 4-year-old brother, each with precision-cut bangs. Together they roller-bladed, they staged sword fights with cardboard sabers and shields, they played hopscotch and Chinese jump rope, but most of the time they just stood there and shrieked as if someone was tearing out their fingernails. One day I looked over and saw a whole group of the little tykes leaning over the back rail. "Go ahead," I called encouragingly. "Jump."
I looked for another place to live but found nothing remotely comparable, for a comparable price, to our spacious Koreatown apartment with its high ceilings and hardwood floors. I tried everything: earplugs, writing at 4 in the morning, thinking of the little wretches as children of God. I even, stupidly, tried reasoning with them. I'd crack the window and say in a tight little voice, "Hey, kids, would you mind lowering the volume a little?" They'd stare at me, their mouths slack, and two seconds later start up louder than ever. "Hey!" I'd yell. "You've got neighbors, you know!" It made not the slightest impression on them. A couple of times I went completely over the edge, stuck my head out the window and shrieked at the top of my lungs: "It's not FAAAAAIIIIIRRRR!!! We don't scream while YOOOOUUUU'RRREEE trying to work!!! We don't sit out on the porch yelling while YOOOOUUUU'RRREEE eating dinner!!!" This entertained them to no end. Following such an outburst, one little stinker in a striped T-shirt calmly raised his squirt gun and shot me right in the eye.
To my disgust, my husband, Tim, took an entirely different approach: laughing and joking and even going so far as to learn their names. One night we were washing dishes when a horde of them descended onto the porch.
"Hi, Emily!" he called out the window.
"For God's sake, don't encourage them," I said, shrinking back into the doorway.
"Tim! Tim! Do that funny thing with your eye!" they started shouting.
"Tell them not to play so loud," I stage-whispered.
"Make the Frankenstein face!" they screamed.
"Tell them we'll call the cops if they don't shut up," I hissed.
Instead, he started prancing around with a dish towel draped over his head, shaking soapsuds from his hands and pretending to be a monster. The kids went insane, jumping up and down, holding their stomachs, rolling on the porch floor moaning with laughter.
"Have you met my wife?" Tim said sweetly, dragging me over to the window. "She's lots of fun, too!"
I shot him a dirty look. "Hi, kids," I said bitterly. "Say, can't you ever play down at the other end of the porch?"
The ringleaders seemed to be 8-year-old Emily, bilingual, responsible in her red sweater and glasses, and her brother, Ben, the 4-year-old hellion. I can't quite remember how it began, but somehow, no doubt with Tim's encouragement, the gang got it into their heads that they were coming over to our place one night for a pizza party.
"Pizza party, pizza party, pizza party," they chanted for hours, standing outside the window. Finally, in a moment of Christmas cheer-induced weakness, I relented.
"OK," I told Emily, "but I can only hack four of you. You and Ben, and you can each bring one friend."
After many rounds of shouted negotiations, we settled on party time as 5 o'clock on New Year's Day. At 4:30, Tim picked up the pizza, at 4:55, Emily yelled across, "NOW?" and at 5, Emily, Ben and two itsy-bitsy girls whose heads barely came up to my waist trooped upstairs and kicked off their shoes, leaving a little jumble of neon thongs and Mickey Mouse shower sandals by the door.
"We were going to bring Calvin, but his father's drunk again," Emily said matter-of-factly. "This is Julie and Helen." Julie and Helen had made identical crayon drawings of houses with smoke-puffing chimneys on top, flowers growing in front and dark-haired little girls standing in the yard, which they presented to me shyly.
"Why, thank you," I said, genuinely overcome. "They're beautiful."