It seemed innocent enough at first: John just wanted to put some of his trash in my trash can.
Michael David Crawford
Copyright © 1994 Michael David Crawford. All Rights Reserved.
This is an e-mail that I wrote to my friend, Hollywood animator Sari Gennis. I wrote it while I was a graduate student in Physics at UC Santa Cruz, and was also working as a programmer.
I was manic when I wrote this - I meant to write just a brief note and ended up writing for twelve hours. During this manic episode I was experiencing peculiar irregularities and disclocations in time and space. My experience of the time I spent writing this was that perhaps an hour had passed. As I wrote, I made cup after cup of tea - it seemed to me that when I put the water on the stove that it would burst into a boil instantly. I was also eating bananas. By the end of my writing I had eaten the whole bunch and was suddenly surprised to see a large pile of banana peels appear next to me on the table.
I wrote this on a Sunday, while still in the pleasant part of mania. The following Friday I was in the mental hospital, hallucinating and paranoid. I was in for four days. I took a few days off after that and then went back to work at Working Software.
I had an interesting adventure today.
My neighbor John has been slowly, but persistently encroaching upon my yard by piling garbage in it. This would seem a rude and blatantly obvious offense, but John is quite a pleasant, polite and friendly fellow, and very clever and subtle in what seems to have been a three-year-long project to fill my yard with his refuse.
This started by John politely asking if he could put an extra trash can out with ours. My housemate and I recycle diligently and are quite modest in our consumption of packaged goods, so we put out only one can of trash, and even then only every other week. Residents of Santa Cruz are entitled to two cans per week of trash pickup, so John filled up the remaining half of our can and added another of his.
John and his wife work as party decorators - they inflate the balloons and provide the ribbons for large corporate parties and entertainment events.
This generates a tremendous amount of trash, I am sure, but this is not the trash that he gives me. Instead, John is always puttering around his house, tearing out the fence and rebuilding it, replacing window frames and so on. The outside of his house is a complete chaos of overgrowing blackberry and grapevines, potted plants, trees and big piles of just plain stuff.
Thus I was astonished when I once walked inside his house. It is quite clean, well-lit and pleasant and, (I swear I'm not kidding) decorated in a manner that puts Pee Wee's Playhouse to shame.
It is the home of a creative couple whose purpose in life is to create parties.
They adopted two little Russian girls from an orphanage in St. Petersburg last year. John and his wife - I fear I do not recall her name, though I know her well, are most devoted and doting parents. To go from an orphanage in post-communist Russia to a loving home inside of a tradeshow exhibit for toys must be quite an experience for their little ones.
It seems that most of the trash is the refuse from John's yard and household projects.
From time to time we would get charged an extra five dollars by the city for excess trash disposal - perhaps John would put a hefty bag out as well. The city would take it, and I would cough up five extra bucks. It took quite some time for me to even notice this as I just pay whatever happens to be on the bill without really examining it, and some more time to realize that it was John's trash and not mine.
I thought to protest, but I felt that it was not worth mentioning as John did me so many little favors. I felt it would be un-neighborly to quibble over such a thing.
For example, John replaced the fence between our house and his, without asking for any help from me, after it collapsed. The fence was quite elaborately but very poorly constructed, and was only supported by the strength of the grapevines that had long ago grown up through it. Finally the crushing weight of the flower bush was too much of a burden for the grapes to shoulder and they at last gave up, felling the fence in a heap against the side of my house so that I could no longer enter the backyard by going around the side.
(Of course, even if I did, I would have to climb over the gate, as it was long ago frozen shut by John's vines. I've meant for years to tear the gate out entirely and replace it. Perhaps I will do this soon.)
Now, John is the sort of easygoing good natured fellow who likes nothing more than an idle chat with his friends and neighbors. This sort of conversation is something that I usually enjoy. I am a country boy at heart and feel that such personal style is sorely lacking in our fast-paced society. My irritation with him stems from his timing - he usually wants to have his long, drawn out discussions with me just as I am leaving for work or school in the morning, and often stops me for a friendly, and lengthy, hello as I am standing by my open car door, heavy briefcase in hand.
What is worse is that he often gives me detailed and slow-moving lectures on subjects with which I am intimately familiar. I feel like a sprinter trying to run on a track paved with sticky soft tar.
I do like my neighbor, and if he would choose to come by in the evenings, when I am often here by myself, just reading or playing my piano, I would make him a pot of tea, change the subject to something of actual interest, and converse with him late into the night. As it is, I find myself sometimes choosing to delay my departure until he has left for work, or driving a couple of times around the block when I return home so that he can go from his car to his house, for fear that I will become engaged in conversation.
Again, it has taken me awhile to actually realize this is occurring. With most conversation one awaits a convenient and polite point to interrupt before saying "I must be on my way." People such as John are skilled in the art of speaking for hours without yielding one single fingerhold upon which I may lift myself from the conversation. I hate to be impolite, but I have found that he really does take no offense if I interrupt him in midsentence and just leave (though he does sometimes walk along my car as I try to flee from his friendly chatter).
The fence project resulted in a small pile of excess wood, on my side of the fence. John said that he would throw it away by putting a few pieces into my - my! - trash can each week until it was gone. The new fence is a marvelously contrived piece of architecture, surely supporting itself against all laws of physics, aesthetics and most especially common sense. The grapes are already sending their tender tendrils into the fence as the eternal cycle of creation and destruction begins anew.
Having managed to cross our property line, John went on to encroach five feet further by "giving" me a new drainpipe for my roof. Our lots drain poorly and usually flood each winter. Several people on our block have pumps - my backyard has gotten as much as six inches of water, and I believe that I could float a canoe in my garage during a heavy rain. (I had thought to buy the house from the landlady someday, but I realize now the importance of a firm and dry foundation, and especially the importance of a dry underlying structure. We have reduced the fungus by running a dehumidifier during the winter.)
(John purchased a very nice and clearly expensive pump, and lent it to us last winter so we could pump out our yard. He gave it to us still in its original box, unused. We were perplexed at the volume of water that we pumped from our yard - clearly there was far more than would fit on our own lot. I realized that we were pumping out John's yard as well, and our other neighbors' lots. John could just as well have drained our yard by using the pump himself, but to have done so would have meant to lose this opportunity to do us a favor.)
He actually gave me two drainpipes, made of PVC pipe. He put a new one on his own house as well, and ran all three pipes all the way out to the sidewalk. At first the pipes ran garishly along the fence, but he hired a day laborer to dig a trench and lay the pipe properly. They did a decent job in the end, and got the plumbing laid in time for the big rainstorm this year. I think it did help a little -- but left on my side yard was a pile of PVC and sheet-metal pipe easily ten times the quantity that actually got put in the ground.
Last summer he hired a crew to cut down a tall, dead tree from his backyard. As his yard is completely packed with stuff, he asked me to allow him to throw the wood into my backyard where we (keyword: "we") could haul it out into the front to load it into my truck, where he would graciously pay the dump fees to dispose of it. For weeks after I would occasionally see a log launched into the air over my fence, making a pile fully six feet high. (He managed not to clobber my cat.) The pile yet remains.
Now, all of this is happening quite slowly, gradually, always with good humor and presented in the light of him doing some kind of a favor to me. I have been quite wrapped up in work and school and hardly even noticed.
Further, my own yard is not at all tidy. In fact, my front yard is a verdant meadow, now quite blooming with sourgrass, dandelions and clover. The interior of my house is overflowing with clutter - complete computer science, physics and electrical engineering libraries, all on bookcases Efren and I made ourselves, the walls completely covered with art, racks of compact disks and cassette tapes, with several crates of records skidding about the floor on wheels. I have enough tools in my garage to make or repair very nearly anything - from pottery, to cast metal (up to sixteen pounds of aluminum in volume), to auto repair, plumbing, electronics, precision optics, gardening and carpentry.
I have sufficient computing power in my own little home, and sufficient skill and experience to produce commercial software products on Macintosh, DOS, Windows and Unix. The Macintosh products I can and do create on the little Powerbook that rests comfortably in my lap as I write this letter to you... for a brief time, I created these products with your little Yin-Yang trackball.
(I do not yet have a lathe or milling machine, but I actually decided to go out and get a job back when I first started work as a programmer because it occurred to me then that if I worked as a programmer, I would have the money to actually buy the milling machine I had coveted for so many years. I had endured several years of crushing poverty with the notion that there really was no point to even attempting to better myself, but when it occurred to me that I really could find work as a programmer, and this work would allow me to afford a mill of my own, I went right out and got the first job that led to my present success. Funny though - I still don't have the mill.)