On knowing our neighbors

Everyone thinks themselves a good judge of character.

I think it’s a survival mechanism for the ego. We want to believe the people we have chosen to be in our lives are good ones. If they’re not, what does that say about us?

A recent conclusion of mine is that I am not a good judge of character. At least I am not a good judge of character if only given about five minutes to judge a character.

I think this is related to my craving for stories. Because it is impossible in one meeting to know the pit stops and attractions littering the roadside of one person’s journey, I often make them up.

It’s fun. And kind of sick. And fun… until I get the chance to actually know the person. Nine point seven times out of 10 I am clueless as to what a person really is. (In my defense, I’d argue that the 9.7 out of 10 people have the same fail rate in accurate first impressions.)

An example: On my first plane ride alone (aged: 20 gurgling years) I spent all my minutes above earth writing a story about the doughy middle-aged man one row in front and across from me.

There was maybe five of us on the small plane total. I picked him because he looked like an easy archetype. There are plenty of disturbing make-believe paths on which to take a white middle aged man stranger.

I often concoct stories about strangers. It’s not personal. And I guess if it’s sick, all fiction writers are kind of sick?

At worst my stories are disgusting. At best they are just totally unfair to the unwitting muse. If the strangers I wrote about had a chance to read them I’d probably get punched in the face.

Recognizing this–and the fact that I am a hideous fiction writer–I usually fill notebooks with my scribbles and then throw them out. After I got my iPhone, I started just typing them out as emails to myself and then deleting them.

This Florida-seeking gentleman on my flight was named “Bob.” Naming my character isn’t important to me, hence the lame name. I’ve written about at least 10 Bobs.

This Bob was a child molester.

An insurance salesman in Ohio (oh, so predictable), he was giddy heading to his first convention about his dirty little secret organized by an underground online ring of fellow perverts.

He kept going over how stupid his  stupid wife was in believing his story about leaving town for work. The salsa stains from his water and chips snack at the airport Chili’s evidenced his inability to  contain himself–a common life theme for Bob when shadows stood still and doors were closed.

My story didn’t get into details of his horrid exploits. It was just about Bob and his thoughts and his life plans. How he got here. How he liked his plane seat and why.

I’m terrified of flying, especially flying alone. I’m afraid to die and leave my parents devastated. If I’m on a plane with all the people I love, it’s a big old party for me, though; because flying is in reality really cool and fun but then at least my last thoughts as the plane crashes down won’t be about all the pain those I love will be in when they hear the news of my fiery demise.

I think I made Bob a person who deserved to die in a fiery crash because then I could at least justify it if the plane did actually come tumbling to reality from its jaunt through the heavens.

When it was apparent the five passengers of Flight 4892 would be safely delivered to Orlando, I hastily wrote a sentence about how his beloved convention had actually been organized by the police and Bob went to prison FOREVER. He made national news and his salsa stains became the subject of fodder for the style bloggers also trying to justify such a shitty, shitty world.

After real-life “Bob” smiled at me and helped me unstuck my carry-on from my above compartment I immediately felt the familiar rush of embarrassment for making up a story about a total stranger. Poor dude was probably just a schlubby guy who ate too many cheese fries and coached his kids’ soccer team. … Or maybe he was dying from some tropical disease he got while exploring the amazon and seeing Disney World was his final wish… Here I go again…

Another recent storytelling in my head has had me thinking about Bob. I recently moved out of my apartment to a new place.

At my old place I had a balcony and a downstairs neighbor. Val was in her 60s, I’d guess. Tan as leather. Skinny as Bob’s rap sheet before his arrest.

The first time we talked, a friend of mine and I were drinking wine on my balcony. Val was coming home from the grocery store. She always waved at me. She did again now and saw we were drinking. It was maybe 5:15 p.m.

“It’s always margarita time, girls!” she laughed. She had the voice of a 60 year old woman who had smoked since she first learned how to work her mother’s lighter.

Immediately I imagined Val as my fun, sassy old neighbor a la Magda from “There’s Something About Mary.” This image of her held for a few weeks. I imagined her getting ready to sunbathe and scope out the hot young men who lived in our complex as they slathered their throbbing muscles in oil and winked at her, smitten by her cougar fuckitallness.

Then I met Vanessa.

Vanessa is Val’s younger sister. By younger I mean she’s probably in her 50s. Vanessa is mentally handicapped. I’m not sure what, exactly, she suffers from; in the two years I created a life above them I was too ashamed to ask.

A tanning bed addicted, chain smoking old lady orgy ringleader, Val was most certainly not.

We became close, as far as apartment complex neighbors go.

Vanessa knew she could knock on my door if anything happened to Val and she needed help, emergency or not.

They bought my cats Christmas presents–mice made of catnip guts, wearing superhero capes.

Val helped Vanessa make me holiday cards. The going-away card they made me is one of very few things I actually kept after my move.


Val gave me her favorite white Stetson hat, a feather the shade of green only royalty used to get to wear peeking through one side, when I moved out and we said our hug-filled goodbyes.


My secret re-writing of Val is of her true self. True selves are usually more interesting than fiction.

Granted, I don’t know Val well. Who do we know well. Maybe she DOES have orgies. It’s funny how much we don’t know about people right beside us.

I have heard Val snore. I have heard her cry. I have heard her curse out Urban Meyer and Thad Matta.

I know what kind of laundry detergent she uses and where she prefers to park in the lot. Vanessa always gets out of the car second.

I don’t know Val, but I do know she is a person who would sacrifice all her creature comforts to provide a person she loves a life of dignity and respect.

That’s worth writing about.


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