The Neighborhood

Melissa Garrison Elliott

Copyright 2002 by Melissa Garrison Elliott

Photo of  houses on Basset Street.   by Melissa Garrison Elliott
by Melissa Garrison Elliott

When I moved to Bassett Street back in 1981, I was 24 years old, married, and the youngest person on the block by about four decades. These houses on the far west side of Van Nuys. California were built in 1948 for the post-war parents of the baby boomers, of whom I am one, and many of the people on my street in 1981 were the original owners.

Back then, Margaret was living on my right, a little old lady in both age and stature; her back was bent like a willow rocker from osteoporosis. To speak with me she had almost to turn her head sideways to crane it up to my height of five feet nine inches. She didn't speak much with my husband, Chuck, maybe because she couldn't look him in the eye-he is six feet five. Margaret had lived there for more than 20 years, a vast amount of time to a new home-buyer, and had the established trees and mature rose garden to prove it. She petted my two cats wistfully; her dog Rusty and her cat Trina had passed on, and she refused to get new pets for fear they would outlive her and be homeless.

On the other side of Margaret lived Pearl, who taught me how to make apricot jam, and gossiped mercilessly and with a bit of malice about everyone else on the block, so that I had the low-down on everybody but wasn't sure I could trust it from her opinionated and prejudiced point of view. She was 80 years old and came from the deep South, by way of Chicago. She used both the "N" word and the "D" word in speaking of the two African American women who lived on my left, but grudgingly admitted that they kept their yard up nicely so she had no beef with them. She didn't like Mrs. Rosenberg down near the other end, because Mrs. Rosenberg had been a Catholic who married a Jew, and besides, Pearl said, she was a terrible gossip. I nodded with a careful poker face. Pearl had a husband named Russell, whose habit of repetitively stroking his head from his eyebrows back over his rapidly thinning hair as if it were a precious, much-beloved dog would irritate someone saintlier than Pearl, who was constantly telling him to knock it off.

Across the street from Margaret lived the sole other non-Caucasian resident of Bassett street, a Japanese lady named Vera. She was friends with Margaret, but called Pearl "that old fool" because of some offensive remarks Pearl had once dropped about "Japs." She, too, had a lovely garden. In fact, as my tenure lengthened on Bassett Street, I discovered that if you kept your lawn mowed and your flower beds populated with sequential plantings of annuals, you would be forgiven almost anything.

My husband and I bought the house as the first investment of a young married couple, and the strategy, as outlined by my father, who gave us the down payment, was to buy it, fix it up, live in it no more than three years, and then sell to move up. My father's secret agenda was that we would stay here 'til the patter of little feet was anticipated, at which point we would need a bigger place, these houses being all of 900 square feet, with two tiny bedrooms and one bath. Instead, at the end of the three years, Chuck, who loathed mowing lawns and planting annuals, moved to a bachelor apartment and a single lifestyle in Manhattan Beach. I bought him out of our starter house, and set down some roots. I dug up half the back lawn and planted six fruit trees, an herb garden and a few vegetables. I also painted in the colors I loved but he disliked, rearranged my half of the furniture, and claimed the space. I was still under the illusion that in just a few years I also would be leaving for places unknown-a small farm in northern California, a place along the wild and windy Oregon coast, a thatched cottage in Cornwall.

Twenty-one years later, I am one of the older people on the block. All but a sprinkling of the original owners have died or moved into rest homes, the houses have been sold to new young couples, and I have become the crazy middle-aged spinster with too many cats. The neighborhood has also changed demographically, with three Asian families, two Hispanic, two African American, one Armenian, and a gay couple who just moved into "Margaret's" house next door, the third set of people to live there since she died. Pearl is probably spinning in her grave, but I and my friend Danny across the street greeted their advent with glee, as we succumb to stereotypical thinking and assume that all gay men are pristine about their home and lawn care, unlike the previous (heterosexual) occupants, who never planted a perennial in five years' time.

I have seen renters come and go, including the guy next door who started his car every morning at 4 a.m. and left it to warm up for 15 minutes, belching exhaust straight into my bedroom window; the couple with the garage band catty-corner across the street who got progressively drunker and more off-key as Friday evening turned into Saturday morning; and the present tenant of the house two doors down who has reneged on his deal with the owners to maintain the yard and whose knee-high weeds are provoking universal comment from the remaining old guard (including myself).

Each morning now I walk around the neighborhood, starting and ending with my block. I take note as I pass each house of new pets, new roofs, and landscaping innovations. I occasionally linger to catch up on new scandals with the aforementioned Mrs. Rosenberg; with John, who spends much of his retired life standing in his front yard halfway between one corner and the other observing us all; or with Joe, a musician who plays at night and waters his lawn by day. His wife, Dora, leaves a red lipstick print like a tiny primrose not only on Joe's cheek but also on the top of their two Labradors' smooth tan heads as she leaves for work every morning.

A few weeks ago, John sadly informed me that Fran, the oldest resident of the neighborhood, had finally passed away. Her house has been sitting vacant and forlorn ever since, waiting on inheritance, probate, and probably sale, reminding us all that our tenure on Bassett Street will come to its inevitable end. But today as I walked past, I noticed that Fran has left a legacy that-barring crazed new owners who rip everything out and pour cement-will last a long time after she has gone: Daffodils, hyacinths and crocuses have all pushed through the soil and leaves at the foot of the tree in her front yard and bloomed butter yellow, imperial purple and cardinal red against the frosty lawn.

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