Neighbors Old and New
Since 2005 Tim and I have lived in our little nest, our first home together. Being the more social of the two of us (and the nosier, as I am a writer) I have followed the lives of our neighbors residing in the two rental houses nearby. The closest home is across the street from my kitchen window. Perfect for observation and research. It was like watching a play unfold outside my kitchen window with many evolving characters.
The first couple we met were two wonderful gay men who had fabulous parties. They decorated flamboyantly and with many lights. Their music was dance worthy. Their grill was always hot, savoring the breezes with the scents of rich meaty steaks, chops and burgers, which wafted into our yard. They were always friendly and I chatted frequently with one or the other of the happy couple. We shared recipes and gossip about other neighbors. Alas, when they suddenly departed, the rental property deteriorated, as well as the integrity of the owner and his tenants.
Over the years we watched the revolving door of questionable groups of individuals. It was a delightful, sometimes fearful, never-ending play. Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, could not have been performed better on the stages of our neighbor’s yards.
First, there was the ring of neighborhood thieves. After many complaints, TPD moved in and found a cache of stolen items from other neighbor’s homes. Those folks were moved out, braceleted in handcuffs.
Next were the drug dealers who suddenly departed, along with their constant parade of clients. I must have slept through that arrest, but we suspect TPD had found them a new home, as well.
Then, there was the crazy Spanish lady. She and I had much in common, although I do not understand a word of Spanish. She would sit on the curb and scream what I imagined were obscenities by the demonstration of her accompanying hand gestures. She might have needed an anger-management program, but she adored her little chihuahua. With his sharp, nasty snaggle-toothed snarl they were a couple. “Snaggletooth” as I endearingly called him, would snap at my ankles during our conversations. I learned to converse with the little lady, while keeping my distance. We shared a love of plants, flowers, and her little dog. Our conversations went something like this:
“SO, are your Impatience still blooming?”
“Si, Si, punta not so much. She slut.”
Snap, snap, teeth gnashing at my ankles. “Ouch.” I replied.
“Si, Si, my Peanut, he like you!” Not so much, I would think, backing away with a smile and a promise to check in on her Penta.
The first and only time I was rewarded with an actual TPD Crime Scene Forensics Mobile Unit was after the next tenants, two brothers, stabbed one another in the front yard. Now, that was really cool. I felt as though I should be awarded with a Neighborhood Watch Program Award. Although I ran after the Forensics Mobile Crime Unit as they departed, they failed to stop. They had no idea that I was their hopeful intern.
Then there was the time an angry boyfriend chased his girlfriend into the street, waving a gun, directly in front of our home. He was in my line of vision, from where I was hiding behind my kitchen window. We called TPD, who quickly responded and hauled away the tenants to their new home.
This particular event had enraged my beloved. When the owner of the property showed up at the bequest of TPD, Tim called him a “slumlord.” To paraphrase, my sweetheart kindly asked the owner of the property (a.k.a. slumlord) to “vet” his tenants better. A heated exchange followed. Things got ugly. Eventually, Code Enforcement as well as TPD became involved. My beloved was not found to be at fault.
However, things improved on our street of dreams. The owner of the property lost his status of low-income State sponsored rental. Now, HE, not the State, had to vet his tenants. He had to protect the neighborhood.
Thus, a sweet couple moved into the afore-mentioned rental across the street. The stay-at-home dad always smiled at me while walking his two dogs. I giggled as those two little dogs dragged this skinny little Portuguese guy down the street, as he waved his departure to me.
Down the street the second rental began to have more families and fewer unrelated individuals moving in and out. This house, two doors from us, had not been in my sights, as they were harder to observe. A young woman would often walk by, sometimes alone, sometimes with a gaggle of young children in front of her. She would chase them, keeping them in line, much as the Muscovite Ducks chased their chicks across the street to the Hillsborough River.
The happy chatter of the kids echoed down the street and caressed me, evoking memories with their sweet voices. I watched as she taught her younger brother to use a skateboard. He would fall, scrape his knees, bruise his elbows. She was always there to soothe him. She picked him up, dusted him off, checked for injuries and hugged him, readying him for his next foray into independence. Over the next few months his falls and tears grew less frequent. I loved watching those kids grow up.
In the preparations for Hurricane Ian we were about the only people who stayed put. We assured our neighbors that we would watch out for their property. Remaining at home, Tim and I felt marooned. We were a deserted island. We kept an eye out on our neighborhood. We were in charge.
Throughout these years of watching tenants and their battle scenes, the crazy people, kind people and many dogs and cats who all arrived and departed, I felt as though we were watching performances, an always-changing cast of real-life-characters. We were in the middle of a Theatre in The Round in Tampa. Shakespeare couldn’t have written the story better.
Last night a huge white van arrived at our neighbor’s home across the street. I realized I had not recently seen their dogs being walked or heard their constant barking, within or without their home. Four men I had never seen before ran in and out of the home, carrying small items, throwing them into the van. They took off, and drove around the corner to my second rental neighbor’s home, which I suddenly realized had also been devoid of activity. No kids, no bus stops, no skateboarding, no basketball playing in the driveway, no laughter and shouts. No one home.
This was odd. The owner and landlord of both homes must be helping them move out, I imagined. It was the first of the month, March 1, 2023, the usual time for renters to come and go. But why would both tenant’s homes, two families, evacuate at the exact same time?
The reality struck me. The landlord raised the rent, forcing his tenants out.
I wondered how high the rent had risen to force two families from their years-long homes. Rents in our neighborhood, for a house, had risen from about $1000 to $2400 and more a month. The cost had become unattainable for anyone, singles or families, wanting to raise their kids in a home, in a neighborhood, being able to walk to school or be picked up by a school bus. A place where you could skateboard down the street and talk recipes with a neighbor, while dodging snapping little dogs. The American Dream.
Where had these families gone? What could they possibly afford? What would their new lives be like? Would they have a home with relatives or within a crowded shared house or apartment? Living on the streets or in a car, or hopefully, a shelter.
The detritus of hastily retreated lives littered the edges of departed neighbor’s lawns. Mattresses were draped over a curb. A broken dresser, couch and table decorated the end of one driveway. Tired, dilapidated beach chairs sat, sadly collapsed, on a porch. A Wal-Mart Floral Canvas, a nouveau decorator's treasure, was propped against the garbage pail, as though saying, “Please pick me up. I don’t deserve the garbage bin.” Lives discarded, along with furniture, art, plastic dishes and memories.
I put myself in their lives and shuddered. How fortunate Tim and I were to not be forced from our home, ripped from our lives, with all our familiar places and happy memories evacuated, as these people had been forced to do. How could I survive such a loss of my life? All my beloved books? Our Art? Our tchotchkes?
At the end of the night I watched the big white van depart, its lights illuminating my kitchen window. I closed the door on their departure.
I wondered who the next cast of characters would be, playing out their lives in the theatre of our neighborhood. Who would be the new actors to embrace this play, with hope and joy? Would they become figures of tragedy or comedy?
We’ll have to wait until the next act unfolds.