By JOSEPH TINTLE
Every neighborhood has at least one wild neighbor. Ask Seth Rogan or Justin Bieber. Rogan makes films about nutty neighbors and Bieber is the nutty neighbor.
But right now I’m thinking about a real doozy I once knew. Twenty-two years ago when my son, Kieran, and his friend, Greg, decided it would be a great idea to cover my new car with dirt, I chased them away, cranked up the hose, and started to wash my Toyota Corolla. What resulted was a two-inch wide stream of chocolate-colored water trickling down our newly-paved road.
My neighbor spotted this miscue of mine and came huffing and puffing up the street. She hurled insults at me like former New York Yankees relief pitcher Ryne Duren hurled fastballs — all over the place. I stayed calm. After all, I couldn’t understand why she was so upset.
That same month–July 1993–the Mississippi River had flooded the entire Midwest. People in several states had lost their lives, their homes, even entire towns were swept into extinction. But my neighbor was far more concerned about a narrow stream of dirty water that was ruining the apparent pristine look of our street.
“What do you have to say for yourself, you idiot?” she shouted at me with her gravelly voice.
“Just this, lady,” I replied in a most Christian mannner. “Get off my property and don’t come back.”
Her eyes widened and she turned to leave, never to be seen again.
Perhaps my most interesting neighbor, though, was the one who lived by our family home in Morristown when I was 13. Two days after we moved into the house, she approached my mother and father and said that her cat had been kidnapped and that I had driven it to Livingston, New Jersey, some ten miles away. Now remember: I was 13. In New Jersey, one needs to be 17 to drive.
My father dismissed her ramblings with a laugh, but my mother was not cracking a smile.
Two months later our phone rang at night and this woman was on the other end.
“Joey,” she said to me, “I can see you in your pajamas with my binoculars.”
She laughed hysterically and hung up.
“I told you about her,” my mother said to my father.
To give you an idea where our neighbor was coming from, she also enjoyed hosting barbecues in the fall and often invited the entire neighborhood. Those who did not live near her to witness her antics year-round attended, but after two or three invitations they knew better than to return.
This woman used to pile up the grill with unlit charcoal, toss several hamburgers onto the metal tray, then grab a can of gasoline from the garage. She then laced the burgers and charcoal with gasoline simultaneously and struck a match.
Those burgers sure cooked up fast. She was dishing out a dozen or so within ten minutes. Talk about flame broiled!
One time I was walking through her yard during one of her cookouts and I surreptitiously hung a sign by her grill that read: HIGH-OCTANE BURGERS: 33-9/10 cents. (Such was the price of gas in 1967).
Eventually I decided to get back at her big time. Year after year whenever she’d come out of her house carrying a massive plate of food to her barbecue, I’d dial her house phone. She’d drop everything, go in the house, walk up the steep stairs to her living room and answer the call. Of course, just as she picked up the receiver, I’d hang up. Then she walked downstairs and outside again, and as she took a few steps away from the house, I’d ring the phone again. Up the stairs she went to the living room. And, like always, I’d hang up.
I did this dozens of times and never once felt a twinge of guilt. The expression “Payback is a bitch” did not exist at the time, but it was payback and for her it was a bitch.
Our family also lived near another curious family. One day I was sitting by their driveway and I was doused with a wet substance that came from a bedroom window. No sooner did I realize that I had just been soaked with gasoline than one of the boys living there came charging out the front door brandishing a lighter. I took off and he never got near me. But he’s changed his ways since then. He has become the fire chief of his current home town.
Years earlier we lived in Middlesex County near two notorious brothers, Carl and Frank. Clearly they had issues when it came to associating with people of the Earth. One time they took on the sons of a law enforcement agent and beat them to a pulp. Pulp may be too mild a word because the cop’s kids walked away from the fight having their faces bashed against rocks.
Twenty years later, one of the bully brothers actually was decapitated in a car accident. The remaining brother lived at home with his mother who died one August. Oddly, the son did not report the incident and instead let her body rot on the sofa. It wasn’t until a neighbor “sniffed something funny in the air” that police were called to the home. She had died of natural causes, but her son was too petrified to call the police.
That incident prompted my mother to instruct my father to find us a another house in another town within two weeks because she was pulling up stakes.
My father, a former newsman who knew all about deadlines, did better than two weeks. Six days later he was signing papers for a new home at Kimball-Coleman Realtors in Chatham, N.J. My mother could not have been happier. That is until two days later when she met her new neighbor. You know, the woman who said that my mother’s 13-year-old son — me — had kidnapped her cat and driven it ten miles away.