I moved into my house seven years ago. My dog was six at the time, and he’d seen me through heartbreaks and good times, and a move across the country, too. He was my best friend. He was the kind of dog who could turn people who weren’t dog lovers into friends, with one exception.
I have a neighbor across the street, I’ll call him Walter, although that isn’t his name. He’s kind of like the crotchety mayor of the block, always standing in front of his house monitoring the comings and goings of everyone around him. He’s the kind of guy who’ll run out and yell at neighborhood kids to get off his lawn. I don’t know exactly how old he is, but he’s over seventy for sure. About three weeks after I’d moved in, I came home to find a notice on my front door. Apparently, my dog had been barking and someone had called the police. I was pretty bummed out and wondered why whomever it was hadn’t just told me upon my return. I’d only been gone an hour, and my dog had never been much of a barker. I’d lived with him in apartments in New York City, and in a tiny house with a neighbor right on the other side of the wall. No one had ever complained about barking. The next few times I left the house, I drove to the corner and walked back. No barking. So I chalked it up to a one-time thing and went about my business. A couple of weeks later, I came home to a second notice and a warning that if there was a third incident, mediation could ensue and my dog might have to be removed from the premises. At that point, I put baby gates up when I left the house, so my dog would be in back, unlikely to be heard from the street if he did bark. A few weeks later, I left to lead a yoga retreat. I had a friend stay in the house to watch and walk my furry friend. One day when she came back, she found, you guessed it, another notice. Strike three.
When I got back, I went right over to Animal Control to speak to someone in person. As it turned out, I found the guy who’d been out to the house. He said he hadn’t heard barking when he’d pulled up either time, and that it wasn’t until he knocked that my dog made any noise, which one would expect. I asked him what my recourse was since none of the neighbors on either side of me were complaining, and the person calling in wouldn’t reveal him or herself to me. He said he couldn’t tell me who it was, but I could guess, and deduce it from his reaction. Kind of hilarious. “Bill?” I asked. “No”, he said. I made up three or four other names and kept getting that no, until I came to, “Walter?” Silence. I wasn’t surprised. The officer suggested I try talking to Walter, since mediation would only follow if he pursued it. He said maybe Walter was satisfied just to have caused some trouble. So I went over to Walter’s, understanding I wasn’t supposed to know he’d complained. I just asked him directly if my dog had been bothering him. Immediately, he called my dog a “problem”, said he’d been barking and that he had called the police three times. I asked him why he hadn’t just talked to me, and said I was confused because no one else around me was hearing it. I wondered if it could be the dog on the other side of Walter’s backyard, but he was adamant and unfriendly, although he didn’t pursue mediation. Things were strained from then on, even though I would always wave and say hello. It’s no fun to have tension with someone you’re going to see every day.
A few months went by, and my dog had become a favorite on the block. People would stop and pet him on walks, and we had settled into the ‘hood nicely, but Walter was impenetrable. I’d try to talk to him when I was alone, but he’d basically grunt at me and that would be that. One day, I saw Walter walk out of his house with a person I could only assume was his very elderly mother. She was hooked up to an IV and also had an oxygen mask. Walter had his arm around her, and was holding her up as they made their way to the car. She couldn’t have weighed more than seventy pounds. I hadn’t realized Walter was living with and caring for his elderly mother, and that he’d lived in that house his entire life. At that point, I tried harder to cultivate a friendship, but he just wouldn’t have it. Sometimes it seemed to me my friendliness was embarrassing him, but since I couldn’t get more than monosyllables from him, there was no way to approach the topic. A few years went by this way. My beloved dog died one awful morning, and Walter’s mother died, too. I had two kids. You know who finally “broke” Walter? My son. Because even Walter could not resist a two year old enthusiastically waving and yelling to him from across the street. Sometimes I’d bring my boy over to say hi to Walter, and little by little he started talking to me. By the time my daughter came along, it was on.
Today, several years later, Walter always waves and says hi to us, and very frequently crosses the street to hang out in the front yard. He doesn’t yell at neighborhood kids anymore. We have a new dog, and Walter even likes him. About six months ago, around 3am one morning, I awoke to a very loud crack and an explosion of light that shook the house. I was shaking, and went to the front door not knowing if my house had weirdly been struck by lightning, if we were having an earthquake, or what was going on in my half-awake, fight-or-flight state. I didn’t know if I should be grabbing my kids and running for the car, or what. There was Walter, crossing the street, saying, “You’re okay.” Turned out there was a problem with an electrical transformer right outside my house. It’s nice to have neighbors who care and are paying attention. Sometimes the people who don’t make it easy to be friends are the ones you want to watch. Underneath his gruff exterior and short fuse, it turns out Walter is a pretty cool guy. I’m glad I didn’t give up on him. He was just lonely and sad, watching his mother slip away from him. Most people have pain underneath the surface. Dig a little before you give up, you just never know what people are going through.
Sending you love,