the neighborly thing to do

the painters are back. as i begin typing, freddie mercury’s distinct falsetto is emanating from the radio they just plugged in after asking for use of an outlet when i went outside to check on the progress. one is older than the other, roughly forties and twenties, respectively, i would guess. they just exchanged perspectives on the prescience of “bohemian rhapsody” (both the song and video), with the younger of the two pulling in his father’s opinions. continued music musings ensue — concerts attended, videos viewed, music appreciated. it must be said that for full effect it is important to imagine this conversation happening with the tonal and linguistic inflections that are characteristic of longtime Philadelphia residents. for those who may be unfamiliar, consider these two examples:

– Philly, the affectionate, foreshortened name for this town is pronounced “FUL-lee” where the “U” in the first syllable has the same vowel sound as the word “fun”rather than “full” — and you’ll have noted, rightfully, that neither of these words reflects the “I” that is actually in the word. no matter.

– and when you’re from phUlly, you show support for your sports teams, specifically the “Iggles,” which is Phillyspeak for Eagles.

as a longtime Philly resident, but as one who arrived long after the age when one picks up and adopts such inflections and other turns of phrase, i am but an admirer of what comes to sound like a symphonic melange of inside jokes, knowing nods, and strings of utterances that can take decades to decipher. (read this for a more nuanced and less flippant analysis of Phillyspeak.)

the radio playing outside is probably not bothering anyone. the volume is on quite low and a steady stream of late 70s poppy rock anthems fills the air. but as i have taken to maintaining a relatively invisible existence, regardless of all my neighbors’ insistence on keeping everything — tables and chairs, bikes, flower pots, broken shutters, sculptures — in full view on our shared brick path, and despite the collective hours of sleep or writing time lost due to loud music/guests/other noises that i don’t wish to identify. i don’t begrudge them their visual and aural distractions, but neither do i want to be source of any. i have mentioned how squeamish of a homeowner i am — who to call? where to start? what is this? — and it is only appropriate that i out myself as an equally squeamish and nervous neighbor. so i sit on my sofa, typing away, awaiting the gauntlet that may come in the form of judging looks, music cranked up as a non-verbal response, or, in a rare occurrence, a note through the mail slot. my only solace is that the neighbors across the courtyard are just thankful to be rid of our previously problematic front wall that was facing them.

how does one learn to be a neighbor? my childhood experience doesn’t provide a great primer because our immediate neighbors included people of the overly intrusive, highly xenophobic, or aloof variety. and of the three, i’ll take the latter each time. but that was in the suburbs where we had lawns and expectations about how high or not to trim the hedges and the judging looks were about leaf removal, the paint on the mailboxes, and lawn care. for the better part of twenty years i have lived in cities, in brownstone walkups, high rise and low rise apartment buildings. and with very few exceptions, i have happily maintained a cordially distanced relationship with the people with whom i share a wall. that is a kind of daily existence that can take some getting used to if you are coming from other living arrangements. but i maintain that it is easier to ignore the often steady stream of chatter, odd noises, and more if you can’t actually place the sound with action and the more you know someone the more you can assume — oh, she must be cooking. it’s 10, [name of tv show] must be on. guess he’s having guests over; wonder why we weren’t invited.

frankly, i am doing my neighbors a service by remaining distanced. and while rene and glenn may know more about my life after a twenty-minute chat in a canadian cafe than sally or jim may know about me after over a decade of living next door, it’s all for the best. or so i’ll let myself think in the name of self-preservation, neighborly anonymity, and relative peace of mind.

radio update: the doors just finished after a ccr block. now, peter gabriel’s solsbury hill just kicked on. not bad, painters, not bad.

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