Monday, January 28, 2008

Choices, paint and property values

“Is that a news camera?” Friend asked and I frowned, certain I’d misunderstood her. So I stepped around the small wall that separates the kitchen - where I was baking chocolate chip cookies - from the living room where she was peering out a window toward one of the houses behind my own.

“What?” I asked, since that’s my typical question for her. Either I can’t hear of Friend mumbles - I often require repetition before I can decipher her messages to me.

“There’s writing on their house,” she said, still squinting through the blinds. “I think the news people came to fill your gang-ridden neighborhood.”

I sighed, found a spot to look with her and watched my hopes of selling my adorable cottage disappear like paint from a spray can. So I swore. I think Friend nodded in agreement.

“What does it say?” I asked, resigned.

“Something bites? Or Bite something?” she guessed. “It’s kind of unclear. This is why they need to teach better penmanship in public schools. I can’t read what they’re saying in their graffiti.”

“Do you think they see us?” I asked, for the neighbors were standing outside, looking at the side of their house at the black paint shouting some large words on their beige siding. Friend shrugged and I moved to the kitchen and looked out the back door. It has a better view and Friend soon joined me.

“I wonder when it happened,” I mused, feeling a bit sick. “I don't think Chienne noticed - she usually barks at anyone out there near her yard. Oh, no,” I gasped. “Do you think there’s anything on my house?” Picturing my pretty, light brick marred with symbols and words, I looked at Friend with mild panic. She shrugged again.

“Go out and look,” she suggested. “And see if you can figure out what that says. And talk to your neighbors and see what they know.” I scowled and shook my head.

“I’ll go out when they go in,” I decided, not wanting to talk to them. But I’ve long hated that house. I’ve had to shout at younger children who were tormenting my dog a year ago - running at the fence and picking up rocks to throw at her.

“Hey!” I yelled one day above Chienne's barking when I caught them, incensed and overprotective. “If you can’t leave her alone, you can’t walk through the yards! That’s not nice!” They scampered away, laughing.

I’ve seen the older boys - they’re always dressed in baggy jeans and dark shirts with the hoods pulled up against the cold mornings. They walk right next to the corner of my house, shoulders slumped and strides slow, to catch their bus at the end of my driveway. Chienne will often go bark when they walk by, but they ignore her. So I’ve left the pair of them alone.

After I came in from looking at the exterior of my home - it remained untouched - and decided that the message said “Bite Brown” and then one last word I couldn’t get, I sighed. I’d like to make this simple and be angry at the parents for not keeping track of their children. For not teaching them right from wrong and no-gang versus gang. My gigantic residential neighborhood has suffered arson and shootings and defacement of property and it’s all attributed to the high school population of young adults without supervision. And, damn it, where are their parents?!

I tried to imagine what that couple thought as they stared at the side of their home. If they worried that someone would soon come with bullets instead of paint, targeting their offspring for some minor statement or choice or color worn. And I think of my parents - who were arguably good at raising children (I'm delightful!) - going to pick up Brother after he was arrested for possession of marijuana. Or when he announced that his 19-year-old girlfriend was pregnant. Or talking to the Dean when he skipped school his freshman year in high school. Or figuring out a punishment when he drank all the liquor they kept downstairs.

Brother is cute and athletic. Incredibly social and quite smart. And I don’t think it was a matter of not living up to my example - we’re just really different. I hated having all his friends around, preferring to read and think in solitude. I was quiet and obedient, crushed when my parents showed the slightest disappointment in me. Brother was brash and impulsive and would laugh at them when they scolded him, leaving Mom lost for what to do.

I remember hearing them talk in the mornings before I moved into the dorms. I’d smell the coffee and drift from sleep, curling into warm blankets and mounds of pillows, feeling safe as the murmur of conversation down the hall reached me, though I didn’t fully follow all the words - just the sounds of parental voices. But when it came to Brother in his teenage years, there was tension and urgency in those conversations. But there never really was a good answer.

And in the absence of what I think the parents should do, I’m left feeling a bit sympathetic. My pity rests with greater intensity with the teenagers inside the house though and with those who felt it necessary to deface property to make a point. Yet as the sun rises and light filters through my back windows, illuminating Grandma’s china displayed in my kitchen and carpet I vacuumed on Saturday, plants I’ve grown over the years and possessions I love, I’ll confess to some anger and fear as well. Those actions have adult consequences for some of us. Property values and insurance claims are not trivial, dammit. And those kids are screwing with my life.

I turned off a living room lamp when I woke at 5 this morning. Friend left it lit when she went to bed, and I’ll probably continue to do the same from now on. I flipped off the light in the back yard when I cleaned Sprout’s box and made sure the deadbolts on both doors were locked before bed. Then I sighed as I stared through the window and past the picket fence that protects Chienne's yard as daylight made the paint all the more ugly as it marred the side of the house not too far from my own.

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