Short Stories: My Old Neighborhood

In the old days, before I made my first million (enemies, not dollars), I lived in some pretty strange neighborhoods. I'm not so sure that I was not a little strange myself. Back then, I was renting a one-fourth of a four-plex that the landlord said used to be the Pony Express station for the area, and it wasn't too hard to believe. The walls were two feet of adobe block, and the only windows were slits high up on the walls as in a prison cell. This, too, was an aid in spurring the creative forces within. Like I always say, there's nothing like a dungeon to really set you free. Luckily, the small amount of light that did make it through the windows, which incidentally were of the type of glass that they put in bathrooms so it is impossible to look in or out, did not have much room to illuminate. The floor plan was of the all in the same room variety, and there was just space enough for my roommate and I, if we invited no one else over. This stipulation was largely ignored by my roommate, who seemed to have a continual gang of acquaintances with no other place to go. I tried to reason with him, but to no avail. It was no help that he didn't speak a word of English. So far as I know, he didn't speak a word of any language. Cockroaches rarely do. After he began listening to my albums and not putting them away, and I killed a great many of his friends, we signed a nonaggression, non-escalation pact which he did not keep but I did, because he was so much bigger than I.

As I said, the apartment was supposed to be the old Pony Express office. There was a new building now, called the Post Office, but judging by the service, they still depend on the old system to deliver the mail. As I moved to the area, my mail did not.

The only other feature of any note in the neighborhood was the community mental health center that stood just a few blocks away. Whether it was a mental health center that was community in location, or a mental health center for that specific community was up for debate. It was also ambiguous as to whether it was a facility for the propagation or containment of mentally unhealthy people. This missing distinction was laid a fine smoke screen by the habit of the center to let out large bunches of patients to wander through the district. Avoiding the groups did not seem to be enough to ensure safety. Many is the time that I would, with my fast walk, come up behind someone only to have them stop and wait until I passed, at which time I would hear them breathing in a belabored manner as if it were a struggle to get any air at all past the saliva. Upon coming abreast of these people, they would suddenly whirl and stare fixedly at my neck, and follow me at quite a close distance as far as they could keep up.

Living in this neighborhood soon cured me of any friendly tendencies that I may have once had. I'm hardly the Welcome Wagon type, but I do not mind nodding hello to those I pass in the street. I soon found that this was not acceptable behavior in my neighborhood. The two acceptable responses are either showing ones incisors to the passer-by, or to stare beyond the other as if he did not exist. But you say that this is the same in many neighborhoods? Ah, but you have not heard all. The dental works flashed my way around here would shame many vampires, and the stares are no mere stares. Rather, more than being a store of avoidance, they are the stares of those who must concentrate all energies to maintain an outward appearance of sanity.

Under the circumstances, I could appreciate their problems. If the theory about dogs mirroring their masters is true in even the smallest way, the population here is certainly among the most stupid imaginable. There are no breeds of dogs discriminated against, but the heavy favorites are the huge, outdoor types that blend so well with the tiny yards and three-foot leashes that all dogs are confined with. These dogs are all bored to the point of distraction, and beyond. That is, they distract me. Any movement anywhere in their view elicits paroxysms of barking, the consequence being that the sound of dogs barking at once almost drowns out the sound of the children screaming at the day-care center across the street.

So, when I got my first big royalty check, I was immediately elated at the prospect of missing this place. The day after moving out, I took one last walk to the Post Office, running the gauntlet with the dogs on one side and the screaming kids on the other. I gazed fondly at the stop light that had been replaced just after I had moved in because it had been working. I remembered the hours that stretched over months that the workmen had spent adjusting the new light so that it would impede traffic as much as possible. The only thing in my box was a quaint advertisement urging me to vote for Truman. On the way back, I passed the two old men who always sat talking in the morning, one in Japanese, one in Mexican. Their voices were raised higher this morn than normal, due to competition from across the street in the form of a large parrot trained to abuse passers-by. I felt so invigorated that I jogged the rest of the way, which, by the time I had reached the house, gave me a minute to wring the saliva from my cuffs that I had received from a brush with the group. This done, I roll-started my car after finding the battery missing, and waved a final, fond farewell to my ex-roommate … and his friends.

— January 1977