The Millisecond Rule

by | Nov 10, 2022 | 0 comments

So we’re living in a Hollywood set. Not something I would have chosen. We just had to get a place but fast and this was the first thing we saw that passed inspection, though the rent is ruinous (you may look up average costs of rent in the San Francisco bay area if you have the stomach for it). And here we are. In the epicenter of suburbia. 

We are so out of place, so alien here. The cultural biome of Berkeley where I grew up and my twins grew up is at odds with the island of Alameda which used to be a Naval base. 

We’ve been twiddling our opposing thumbs in this rented Hollywood set for over a year now and I still don’t know any of the neighbors, not by name or by sight. I wouldn’t recognize a single one of them if a crew from NBC knocked on our door, showed us their photographs and asked if I’d ever suspected they were part of a cult traveling cannibal dinner club. I couldn’t even look surprised and say: 

“Gosh, no. They were so quiet and polite. They never failed to say good morning and smile. I had no idea they were foodies.” 

The neighbor/stranger phenomenon is familiar to me. Growing up in Berkeley, I bet you thought we new age enlightened progressive cultural provocateurs would be living in a chronic block party–the sons and daughters of the university and all the fellow travelers to the seventh degree of separation discussing intellectual matters, catered by Chez Panisse, everyone stoned on grass, acid or, “I don’t need drugs; I’m high on life.” Everyone knows everyone else because we all go to the same protests together. How does it go? “From each according to his ability; to each according to his needs”? 

But it’s not so. No one in Berkeley ever sat on the front porch waving at neighbors or gossiping over the back fence. We knew who lived in the house across the street from us, at least by name. That’s because Mrs. Hotchkiss (true: some forebear way back earned that last name because evidently he kissed his hotch) would open her front door at 5:00 P and holler, “STANLEEEEEEEEEEE!! STANLEY HOTCHKISS!!” Not so intimate as if we really knew them, but we’d recognize that yodel anywhere. 

People didn’t trot over and ask to borrow a cup of balsamic vinegar reduction, or drop by just to chat. So here is your proof: Berkeley is not a commune. My parents lived in that house for sixty three years. Well, my mother did. She outlived the monster by twenty-five years (more on that later). In all that time, not one neighbor ever came over or invited them over. And the limit of the neighborhood welcome wagon when they moved in in 1957 was a spray painted message on the garage door, a swastika and, “Kikes Go Home!” There’s your typical upper middle class Berkeley neighborhood before the ’60s interrupted the great white male free for all with its festivities. 

We are on the Island of Alameda now, in an upscale tract. No one knows us and we don’t know them. Kids are not playing in the street. Their parents aren’t calling them to come inside for dinner. What we see of each other are not faces; we only know the cars who live nearby. We are the gold Honda Odyssey. Next door is a Toyota station wagon. Maybe the blue Audi sedan belongs to the spouse with the bigger paycheck. There is a slate grey Tesla a few doors down. And every once in a while when the big white behemoth Mercedes SUV can’t find a place to park near its house, it parks in front of ours. There is a shiny black Lexus that lives across the street, and to complete the Alameda portraiture in the context of the surrounding bay area’s zeitgeist, I have not seen a single Prius in the whole development. 

I’m familiar with this neighbor as stranger phenomenon. It takes a lot of energy and disruption of  the habitual habitat meeting  someone new in the neighborhood. It isn’t the case when you’re a child. Children greet the world as something new almost every day, and there is someone protecting them if the world gets out of hand. Or there should be. For the grown ups, incentive is needed and a reason to risk what you know for something you don’t. 

When I was thirteen, we woke up in the middle of the night hearing fire engines coming down our street. We all went to our windows, all the neighbors who didn’t know each other and we stared. There were orange, red, black reflections and shadows roiling on the face of the house across the street. There they were, all of them at their windows.  This is how I learned where their bedrooms were. House by house, the neighborhood came outside and drifted down the street seduced by fire. A house in the middle of the block was in flames. The noise was an angry storm, a hurricane, glass exploding. We all gathered at whatever we thought was a safe distance, our faces red with heat. The Berkeley Fire Department had put up barriers. A few teenage boys tried to violate them and were pushed back. 

It wasn’t up to the neighborhood to rouse the bucket brigade. We were spectators, nor did the whole block get together to build them a new house. In the morning there was a black heap of ash where that house used to be and that’s when everyone stayed away. The family who lived there simply disappeared. We didn’t know them.

The great  East Bay Hills Fire of 1991 that burned 1,520 acres dense with houses put five thousand of us out on the street. When the authorities allowed us to come back in, we returned to sift through the ruins. All of us did. This was the first time we saw our neighbors. There we all were, without hedges, trees or walls to hide us. We waved then bent back down to our private mounds of ash. 

I hear there are people who know their neighbors, who do more than smile for a millisecond then look back down at their shoes as they pass each other. This here, where our fat temporary rented house is planted, is a millisecond neighborhood.

I’d been thinking as far back as Halloween of 2021 how we could be more approachable, inveigle some form of membership in the neighborhood. So that first year here, I took to a huge sheet of newsprint and drew a deliriously silly Halloween beast along with my version of a terrifying Halloween tale (no bloodshed, no maiming—strictly fear for babies), wildly colorful birdlike creature with a tiny version of itself growing at the end of its tail. I posted it on our front door thinking we’d establish ourselves as the warm and welcoming benignly eccentric artist types who live in model/floor plan #6 — you know, the gold Honda Odyssey. At least it might be a conversation piece, an ice breaker.

Here’s that picture. Imagine it’s big enough to cover half a front door. When I figure out WordPress, I’ll come back and make it larger.

And here’s that story:

This is what broke into our house last night and ate all our pumpkins. It let out terrible grating howls. At first we thought we’d wounded it when we hurled our kitchen cleaver at it, but no. It ate that too! Hungry for carbon steel? We ran to hide in the closet under the stairs, crouched there against the door hoping it had an appetite only for sharp knives, metal and pumpkins, not human flesh. We heard it scraping the walls with its talons, crashing, thrashing. It must have been overturning the furniture, devouring lamps. But how could we know, huddling together, trembling in the dark, our backs to the closet door? I can’t tell you how terrified we were. No one wants to be eaten alive, especially not by something so disagreeable! Oh no! It  had clawed its way upstairs. Doors were thrown open and slammed shut. Was that glass shattering? Or was the monster chewing on it as a dainty appetizer for . . . for us?! We didn’t have our phones or laptops with us, and anyway, AT&T had bungled again and the internet was down. So what could we do but hope—and wait? We took a vow to call the HomeOwners’ Association in the morning if we lived through the night. Things like this should not happen in Bayport!

We heard shrieking, long wails, high pitched buzzing like a gargantuan mosquito, and that hideous rasp that must have been the monster breathing. We listened, shivering together in the closet armed only with coat hangers. My mind was racing. What would be left of the house if we lived to see it?

We fell asleep in our matching pajamas—the ones with the bunnies and smiley faces on them—clutching our coat hangers, too exhausted to do anything but surrender.

I do recall my last thought before sleep overcame me. “Does our insurance cover this?” We woke up to a deathly silence. We waited, our ears to the door . . . . Nothing. The Bayport Beast must have gorged itself on all our worldly possessions and, sated, moved on—still alive.

It will doubtless get hungry again. Slowly, carefully, we opened the closet door. A noxious stench remained suspended in the air—but no monster. We tiptoed out not knowing what we would find. There were a few pools of mauve slime in the entrance hall, but the house looked unharmed—or so we thought. The Bayport Beast had mopped the floors, vacuumed, dusted, re-organized the spice cabinet and made all the beds.

Well gosh! That was nice and all.

But it ate all our pumpkins.



Tobie and Meyshe

Scads of kids in costumes came by, their parents waiting at a short distance on the sidewalk. No comments, not even body language, though one child, maybe five, six years old, said, “Why did it eat all your pumpkins?”

“We were just happy it didn’t eat us!” I said, expecting an answer, but there wasn’t any. He reached in the bowl and grabbed a piece of truly awful chocolate candy marked, “Fun Size!” So neither he nor his mom talked to us, and in return I poisoned her son with high fructose corn syrup in an imitation chocolate flavored base infused with tasty preservatives giving it a shelf life of twenty years. He and his mother retreated from the door and continued down the sidewalk, and that was the end of it.

Here we are so much later and we have more social contact with the huge endemic population of Canada geese who communicate volubly with honks and squeaks. If you didn’t see what was making such a clamor you could think it was a donkey, “Heee HONK!” And incidentally, their waddling could not be more fetching. Their additional commentaries are prolific scat-singing that decorates the gold Honda Odyssey. This is no ordinary bird shit. They fly in formation and shit in concert on command. (“Hey! They’ve got a new minivan down the block! Let’s get started!”)

We made something like 140 humentashen this last Purim, the 17th of March. Three fillings: poppy seed, dried fruit, and dried fruit with hot peppers. I actually considered packaging some up and giving them to our neighbors on either side, maybe leaving them at their doors, a nice friendly introduction. It would be like saying, “Hi there! We’re the neighborhood Jews. And here’s our bribe.”  But I didn’t. There’s a millisecond rule in place, and besides, we’re not going to be here for long.


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