One of our neighbors put a nasty note on the car of someone who was visiting our house.
I could not believe it.
So I did what any other wronged neighbor lady would do: I repeated the news, over and over, to everyone I ran into—my husband on the couch, my friend picking up her son at karate, my mother on FaceTime, my Bosu ball instructor, the altos in my church choir, and my husband, again, when his alarm went off in the morning, waking me up and causing me to shout the first thing that popped into my head: “One of our neighbors put a nasty note on the car of someone who was visiting our HOUSE!”
This was not your typical under-the-wiper-note, the kind you scrawl in a fit of parking-lot rage on that damp Starbucks napkin you find under the floor mat and then feel bad about later. No, this note took effort. And thought. And evilness.
Actually, it wasn’t even a note at all, but a ticket. A parking ticket. A fake parking ticket, printed from a website called youparklikeanasshole.com (because there is a website called youparklikeanass ole.com). There were various violations that the ticket-giver could check off, like “Too close to my driveway” and “That’s a compact?” The one X-ed on this ticket—a ticket that one of our neighbors put on the car of someone who was visiting our house—was this: “Two spots, one car.”
Let’s be clear here: We live in the suburbs. There are no “spots” on our street. There are no lines. There are no meters. There is just curb. And asphalt. And, apparently, there are people who park perfectly reasonably and legally and non-crookedly on said asphalt, next to said curb, but are, nonetheless, assholes. (In this case, said assholes also live in said neighborhood and were invited by us to come to a holiday cookie party during the time of year when there is supposed to be said goodwill to all.)
But that wasn’t the worst part. In addition to the various checkable offenses on the ticket, there was a blank line for write-in infractions. The ticket-giver, perhaps worried that he or she hadn’t been entirely clear, decided to add this: “You must think you’re royalty.”
“They basically called Andrea a royal asshole,” I summarized for my husband, Thad, who was already talking about installing surveillance equipment.
Fortunately, Andrea, a fellow kindergarten mom, was less concerned about the name-calling than the critique. Post-soiree, upon arriving home with her 14 dozen cookies and her “asshole” ticket, she downed a glass of pinot while desperately defending herself to her husband: “I’m a really good parker! I used to live in Fishtown.”
But Thad and I were shocked. Already, this note broke all kinds of rules. Like the Golden one. And one of the Commandments … from God. But it also broke that unspoken rule of suburban neighborliness. Wasn’t this precisely why we’d moved from 13th and Pine to a South Jersey ’hood? So we could walk our kids to school in a town where we know everyone’s name, where we wave to each other as we pull out of our driveways, where we bring each other dinner when we’re sick and have cookie parties and book clubs and township parades and never, ever put nasty notes on each other’s cars?
Thad and I stood at our front door and surveyed the nine other houses on our street. All of the inhabitants had been in our home at one time or another. They’d hung out on our back porch. They’d drunk beer with us. They’d eaten my linguini salad. Which one of you did this? Which ONE?
But there was an even more important issue we had to figure out—what were we going to do about it?
The first thing I was wrong about was this: We live in Mayberry.
I know now that we do not.
As I town-crier-ed the disturbing news of this vile, vicious vehicular affront to the familial fabric of our happy, humble hamlet, I discovered that … well … there are way more assholes out there than I thought.
No matter who I told my tale to, that person responded with an even more jaw-dropping story of an even more horrendous neighbor.
Like the friend a few blocks up whose neighbor snuck into a nearby yard to poison a tree that he didn’t like.
Or my church friend whose neighbor stole his lawnmower and then rolled it out in front of his house and tried to sell it.
Or my yoga friend whose neighbor began trimming her bushes while she had guests over, all of them sitting outside, next to the bushes.
Or our piano teacher whose neighbor stormed out of her house and screamed at the teacher when the teacher’s baby daughter touched a rock in the neighbor’s yard. (The neighbor has since put up outdoor cameras.)
Or the mom across town who has to distract her kids from their neighbor’s gigantic picture window through which they can see his gigantic flat-screen on which, all day long, he watches porn.
“I’m sick of looking at the unfinished house next door with the giant blue tarp as the roof on the effing front porch. It’s been seven years,” lamented my mom friend Denise as we rehashed Notegate two days later. She’d attended the cookie party. In fact, she was an eyewitness, standing right by the car when the note was discovered.
As far as the identity of the culprit was concerned, Denise shared my suspicions. When you live in a town where everyone knows just about everyone on everyone’s street, you can instantly drum up a solid suspect list. We used a simple formula to narrow it down: With x being the location of the parked car and y being the sight lines to that location from every window of my house, we cross-referenced those variables with the bits of gossip about my neighbors that we’d heard around town over the past 10 years and then, finally, subtracted the 13 glasses of cranberry-and-rum punch we’d collectively consumed on the night in question. We were almost sure we’d kind of isolated a somewhat likely perp.
“Do you have a plan?” Denise asked.
“A plan?” I responded coyly, as if I hadn’t spent the past two days plotting various acts of revenge. “Well … I was thinking of writing a note back.”
“A note back?”
“Yeah. I’d explain what happened, then I’d put a copy in everyone’s mailbox … ”
“Wow,” Denise interrupted.
“What? You think that’s bad?” I asked, suddenly paranoid, wondering for just a split second: Was it you, Denise? Was it YOU?
“Nooooo,” she said, and by the look on her face, I thought for sure she was about to erupt in a maniacal Mwahahaha! “That … is … brilliant! At times like this, you can never go wrong with a little public shaming.”
Public shaming. It had such a neighborly ring to it. And it would so totally work. Because if there was one thing I knew for sure, it was this: If I found a note like that in our mailbox, I would knock down elderly people and trample baby birds in my frantic sprint to find a phone, call the letter-writer, and clear our family’s good name. My plan was foolproof: The family that did not call us was—boom!—guilty as the day they … put a nasty note on the car of someone who was visiting our house!
I poured a hot cup of coffee, sat down at my computer, and typed up a letter explaining exactly what had happened. I read it over. Then I promptly deleted it, telling myself it just wasn’t worth it.
To be perfectly honest, I felt a bit scared. I knew very well that neighborly confrontation was rarely neighborly. A good friend of mine still can’t bear to talk about the afternoon two summers ago when she hosted a small family-only birthday party for her three-year-old son in their backyard. When her neighbor noticed the balloons and the filled kiddie pool next door and realized that neither she nor her children had been invited, she put up a two-foot-high plastic fence that she hammered, on the spot, into the grass between their properties. Then she ordered her husband to inflate four giant moonbounces (which, oddly, they owned) in their backyard while she invited all of the other neighbor kids over to bounce, serenaded by Metallica, which played on the highest setting from speakers aimed directly into my friend’s yard.
“I mean … it was … my son … he didn’t … I just … can’t.” That is what my friend mumbles whenever she thinks about that day or hears “Enter Sandman.” She and her neighbors have yet to reconcile.
I certainly didn’t want World War Westmont. But I also couldn’t let it go, especially after I ran into Denise the next morning.
“Did you do it?” she asked.
“It’s been three days now,” she pointed out. “After today, I think you have to let it go. I’m pretty sure there’s a three-day rule about these things.”
“You’re right. And what if I don’t say anything, and they do it again? What if next time, the visitor is, like, my mom?”
“Or, like, Joe Flacco?”
“Right! What if it’s Joe Flacco?”
I marched straight home and typed out exactly what had happened. Then I got personal:
Thad and I were quite sad to discover that whoever it was who had an issue with our guest’s park-job didn’t feel comfortable just letting us know. We’ve all lived here a long time, and we’ve always felt grateful at how respectful we’ve always been of each other. And helpful. And friendly. Every single person on this street has at one time or another been in our home. So, in the future, please … please … do not hesitate to address something like this with us directly and we will be happy to take care of it.
I included every phone number of ours that I could think of, printed out nine copies, signed them, slid on my coat, and hand-delivered the notes, mailbox by mailbox. Then I went home. And waited.
The phone finally rang. It was one of our next-door neighbors: “Hi Vicki. I got your note. Well, you know it wasn’t me, because you know I have no problem at all telling people what I think. I don’t want to know who it was. It’s just terrible. I don’t want to know who it was. Do you know? Because I don’t want to know who it was.”
Next came a text from across the street: “I see your friend got my note. Just kidding! I am flabbergasted that someone would be so obnoxious as to leave such a note on anyone’s car. This isn’t exactly South Philly.”
I ran into another neighbor walking her dog: “Not me. Do you know who?”
Then an email from the mom next door: “Well you know it wasn’t us … you know I would say something to you (you know me, big mouth, LOL)!”
Absolved. Absolved. Absolved.
As I was getting into my van later, I heard our neighbor from the corner house yell my name: “Vicki! We got your note! Was that a joke?”
“What do you mean?” I yelled back.
“We actually went to that website. We thought we’d find a funny Christmas photo of your family or something.”
This, however, led to the second thing I was wrong about: that my plan was foolproof.
I know now that it was not.
From that point on, I didn’t hear from anyone else. That meant four potential miscreants were still at large on Melrose Avenue. The cars of guests visiting our homes would never be truly safe again. It was a sad day.
What was even sadder was the realization that, maybe, there was no such place as Mayberry anymore. Gone were the days when neighbors would gather together in someone’s front yard at twilight, the dads lounging on lawn chairs, smoking cigars, while the moms sipped whiskey sours and whispered about the dads, while no one watched the kids ride up and down the street on each other’s handlebars without helmets on. Maybe the new neighborhood was exactly this: not just nasty notes on cars, but phone calls, and texts, and yelling across the street, and nothing more. Maybe the new code of neighborliness was this: We aren’t moving. You aren’t moving. Deal with it. And shut your hole.
A few weeks later, when I went to fetch my kids who were playing in the yard of one of the No Comment Neighbors, I couldn’t help myself—I brought up my note to the mom: “Did you get that letter I left in your mailbox a while ago?”
“I did. I didn’t really pay any attention to it at first, but then I thought, ‘That’s a pretty big deal.’”
I wasn’t sure what she was referring to—someone putting a nasty note on a car, or me putting notes in everyone’s mailboxes.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Well,” she said, looking at her socks, at the kitchen table, at the door … anywhere but at me. “You’re certainly, um … braver … than I am.”
As I walked toward our yellow bungalow, the street deserted except for me and my two little girls holding onto my hands, I suddenly stopped short.
“Oh crap,” I said out loud.
“What’s wrong, Mommy?” one of my girls asked, but I knew neither of them could understand my humiliation over the image that had just flashed through my head: I saw the mother I’d just been talking to, on her cell, calling God knows who, sniping: “You are not going to believe this! One of our neighbors put a nasty note in the mailbox of every single person on our street!”
And, so, the third and last thing I was wrong about was this: I am a good neighbor.
Well, now I know.