"My Working-Class Neighborhood," Lisa Keeton (2013)


My neighbors are all named Bob or Dick. Well, not all of them, but a good majority of the men on my street bear those names. The Bobs and the Dicks are all retirees. Retirees on fixed incomes, who bought their sixties-era homes many years ago before the housing bubble began. They have watched as the rest of us have moved in around them; the small business owner, the school custodian, the police officer, the junior college instructor, the contractor. Young families, working couples and single parents all coming together with the retirees to create the little suburban melting pot that is our American working class neighborhood.

Our neighborhood is comprised of ranch-style, single-story homes, most of them about 1,200 square feet. The homes, like in many American neighborhoods, are all constructed as variations of the same floor plan. Every house is more or less the same as the house two doors down. Most have painted faux shutters lining the windows, red or painted brick facades and a gable roof with asphalt shingles. We don’t have walk-in closets or wine cellars or laundry rooms. Our homes are small and simply constructed.

Lawns are the centerpiece of most of the yards on our street. Some are well-maintained, some a little less so. All of the yards have a clear line of separation where one yard ends and another begins. In our yard, there is a low fence that runs the length of the property line from the backyard fence to the sidewalk, so, unlike some yards where the lawns run together from neighbor to neighbor, on our street we know where to stop mowing. Some yards have rosebushes, some have tulips, one neighbor has a lemon tree, and one an apple. Two of our neighbors have installed low maintenance yards; rock gardens and shrubs and low water plants. The yards ebb and flow with the seasons; in the spring and summer, the green lawns and the flowers bring color and life to the neighborhood, and in winter and fall, the low maintenance yards still look good, distracting from the dead plants and frost-bitten lawns next door.  Well-developed trees tower over many houses from the backyards, providing shade in the summer and littering the neighborhood with leaves in the fall.

A power pole sits at the end of our driveway, as if standing watch over our house. The large, ominous cables come at it from every direction, linking our house to the house next door, to the house next door to that. It is a reminder that this is not a newly constructed neighborhood, and if one of us loses power, we all lose power. The cables provide the neighborhood crows a safe place to perch while they taunt our dog and patiently wait for a freshly washed car to pass by.

The population of my neighborhood is primarily white, dual-income, married couples. There is one lesbian couple who don’t socialize much with the neighbors, and a foreign couple, Russian maybe, who also keep to themselves. Of course, every neighborhood has to have one family that doesn’t quite fit the mold and in our neighborhood, it’s the Jamaican renters. They moved in about a year ago when the single mom moved out, and their late night parties and cars coming and going at all hours quickly made them very unpopular. Our neighborhood, with its retirees and families with young children, is not a late-night-party kind of neighborhood. We are more Saturday-afternoon-barbeque and in-bed-by-ten types.

On weekday mornings, my neighborhood goes to work. At six o’clock, the widow next door speeds away in her Toyota sedan, headed for the business she owns, probably enjoying that she can speed down the street in peace at that hour without angry glares from the neighbors. The custodian warms up his white utility van at precisely half past six, headed for the elementary school around the corner. At seven, the daughter of the retirees on the corner arrives in her Suburban, dropping off her kids with their grandparents. And seven-thirty brings the roar of the exhaust of the police officer’s motorcycle as he prepares for his commute to Marin. Everyone has a job to do or somewhere to be. Once all of the workers have departed, the retirees are left to stand watch, keeping an eye on the neighborhood from behind the safety of their kitchen windows.

By eight a.m., my street is deserted, but the street at the end of the block begins to busy with parents dropping their kids off at school.  The sound of squealing schoolchildren and the whistles of yard duties can be heard from blocks away. Residents of the neighborhood know that if you haven’t left for work before eight o’clock, you may as well sit back and enjoy a cup of coffee, because there’s no point in trying to leave until at least eight-twenty. The streets are lined with minivans and SUVs and the crosswalks hold a seemingly non-stop chain of kids and parents and backpacks. Groups of moms congregate on the corners, chatting about kids and teachers and homework assignments. On Fridays, garbage day, the line of trash cans from the apartment complex next to the school and the garbage trucks trying to access them just add to the morning chaos.

Afternoons in my neighborhood are quiet, except for the occasional FedEx delivery truck rumbling through. The mailman arrives in the late afternoon. I am always surprised that he is able to complete his route each day based on the amount of time he spends chatting with our neighbor the custodian across the street. The custodian is the neighborhood gossip and he is home quite a bit during the day. In his many years of living here, he has developed both friends and enemies, and he is happy to tell you the stories of how his enemies came to be. If you want to know anything about anyone, you go to him. And apparently the mailman does.

By early evening, most of the neighbors have returned home from work. We wave at each other as we pass by, eager to get home, knowing that we’ve lived in the same neighborhood for years and still don’t know each other’s names. In the cooler months, the fireplaces are lit and the smell of burning wood fills the air. The occasional after-dark dog-walker or jogger passes by. During the holidays, most houses don the traditional Christmas lights and illuminated deer on the front lawn. One neighbor boasts a tacky array of enormous inflatable lawn decorations that proudly stand in all of their lit-up glory each night, only to die a deflated death every morning.

When the weather is warm and days are longer, the neighbors venture outside in the evenings to do a little gardening, play ball with the kids or go for a walk. Some neighbors chat back and forth across the street about the day’s events. And the retirees report back on any suspicious goings-on.

It seems that nearly everyone in our neighborhood has made a choice to hire either a cleaning lady or a landscaping crew. Only one neighbor, the retired surfer and his wife, has hired both. I assume that he is a surfer only because we occasionally get his surfer magazines in the mail by mistake, not because we’ve actually had that conversation. We share a cleaning lady with the surfer, and he shares a landscaping crew with a few other neighbors on the block. For us, and perhaps for our neighbors, it is a guilty pleasure, a luxury even, to hire people to do the household chores that we don’t want or have the time to do. Perhaps because we’ve spent most of our lives thinking that hiring someone to clean the house or mow the lawn was unattainable.

My neighborhood has an unwritten and mostly unspoken set of rules that the majority adheres to: keep the lawn trimmed and in some shade of green, don’t let the weeds reach the windows, paint when you need to, it’s okay to park a few cars out front, but keep them in front of your own house, keep the noise down after 10 and don’t let your dog use my lawn as a restroom. If you follow these rules, you’ll get along in our neighborhood. It’s a way of showing respect for the fact that we all share this space. If you choose not to show that respect, well, you become the ousted Jamaican renters.

There is nothing uniquely special about our neighborhood. It is typical of many American working-class, middle-income neighborhoods. Everyone may not know everyone else, and we may not invite each other for barbeques or birthday parties, but we are familiar enough with each other’s routines to know what to expect and to be able to recognize when something is out of place. We are comfortable with each other, so in that way, our neighborhood works.