My intrepid friend, Neil, likes to read books about intrepid adventurers. Subscribers to this blog have met Neil (not his real name) before in my account of an awkward party.
Late one Saturday afternoon last month, he headed to the pub to finish Jack London’s 1903 novel, The Call of the Wild. While talking to the barman, he drank a beer. It went down fast. He ordered a second to take to his table. He put his smartphone’s earphone in and started reading. That second beer also went fast. So he went back to the bar and bought a third. He finished the novel. Time to start the sequel. He went to the bar to order a fresh beer to accompany him on the new adventure.
When he finished the fourth beer, he stood, shrugged his backpack over his shoulders and set off home. Feeling pleasantly tipsy, he was in a festive mood. This was a month or so before the lockdown, but it was already a quiet residential neighborhood. As he approached the corner for his street, an overhanging branch whacked him in the eyes. It stunned.
He has some vision, but it’s no use in the dark, and by now it was evening, and his cane wasn’t going to alert him to any head-height dangers. In the past, he’d talked to some of the residents along this street about cutting back the branches from their trees and bushes that spilled out from their gardens to the sidewalk. They’d said the right thing, but never got around to acting on it.
He resumed walking. Another branch whacked him in the eyes. Years earlier, a similar encounter with a branch had caused iritis. Iritis can raise pressure in the eye, and the treatment to cure it always raises pressure. He already had glaucoma, so added pressure was a serious matter. That last time, he’d landed in hospital.
Now he was annoyed. He pulled himself together, resettled the backpack on his shoulders and resumed walking.
Whack number three. This time he got mad. Abandoning caution to the mild wind blowing that unseasonably springlike evening, he grabbed the offending branch and snapped it off. The wood was dry and brittle, and he made the break with one hand, fingers against thumb. He thrust the branch on the sidewalk. Then he walked back the way he’d come, identifying sidewalk-encroaching branches, and broke them one by one. Some required two hands, but thanks to his backpack and holding his cane under his arm, both hands were free. By the time he’d done, the sidewalk was littered with broken bits of shrub and trees.
Just then the owner of the next house in line, an acquaintance named Phyllis, came out and called to him. He owned up to what he’d done.
“I told them about how they needed to clear the path for you,” she said.
“I know, and I appreciate that you cleared yours.”
Neil was back to his urbane self. This was how James Bond would have handled the situation: suave, calm, a smile at the ready. It was no act: At his best, Neil is all of that.
On getting home, he called me, all the way across the Atlantic. “I have to tell you what I just did.”
When he finished, I said, “Nice work. You’ve made the street safe.”
“I feel good about it.”
An hour or so later he called to tell me he’d emailed Phyllis to apologize.
“Cutting down all those branches. I asked her to apologize for me to her three neighbors.”
“Neil!” I all but shrieked. “Your apologizing could be what sets them off.”
“You think I did the wrong thing?”
“You did the right thing, but now you’re telling them it wasn’t.”
“Hm. Well, it’s too late. The email went out.”
“You can email her again and tell her you’ve changed your mind.”
He relented. “After all, I didn’t commit a crime. If your neighbor’s tree grows out over your property, you have the right to cut off the part that transgresses.”
“Um, well, that’s private property. A sidewalk is a public right of way.”
“But no one’s coming after you for doing what you did to protect yourself. Just don’t give them any ideas by having Phyllis apologize on your behalf.”
“I’ll get on it right now.”
“Go,” I said, and hung up so he wouldn’t delay.
Around seven the next morning in Brooklyn, five hours behind his time, as Neil well knew, he called again. “I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t eat. No dinner. I finally dozed off around three, but woke up before five. At first light, I went back to the street with a big bag and picked up all the debris.”
“You did what?”
“And threw the bag in my building’s dumpster. So all the evidence is gone.”
“At least you got to Phyllis in time, right?”
“Wrong. She conveyed my regrets.”
“Let me see if I have this right,” I said, hoping my first coffee of the day was kicking in. “The neighbors know about your vandalism last night, but you cleared the sidewalk before they could see you performing that public service.”
“But all the evidence is gone.”
“Neil, you numbskull. They don’t need evidence. They have your apology—your confession.”
We didn’t speak for a few moments. We’re such old friends, going all the way back to when we were six, that we can be quiet with each other even on a trans-Atlantic call.
Then he said, “The funny thing is, when I get drunk, I’m a happy drunk. I don’t get angry. I don’t know what got into me last night.”
“You sounded happy when you called,” I said. “Your anger was short-lived, and anyway, it was justified.”
“It doesn’t feel that way anymore.”
“Well, think about this. You did something you now feel guilty about, and then a good deed that only you and I know about. Why hide the evidence?”
“Yeah, I know,” he said, sounding resigned to being an incurable imbecile. “Tonight I’ll go and get the bag from the dumpster before they come and empty it tomorrow morning.”
“Don’t do that! It won’t prove anything. Besides, by then, people will have dumped all sorts of nastiness on top of it.”
I tried to picture dapper Neil ferreting through his building’s dumpster. I had to treat his anxiety seriously, but the whole episode had its comedic points.
He got off the phone, leaving me with an impression of someone slouching away, utterly demoralized.
I’d had my restorative mid-morning coffee by the time he called again. “I just went to apologize in person to the neighbors.”
“The first lady, she was really nice to me last Christmas when we had a long chat. So I went to her first. I started to speak, but she said she had to take an urgent call. I told her I’d come back. She said, ‘Don’t,’ and slammed the door. So I went to the second neighbor. She opened the door, saw me, slammed the door in my face.”
“What about the third?”
“I’d had enough.”
I didn’t know how to respond.
“I’m really worried about how suddenly angry I got,” he said. “I know those four beers lowered my inhibitions—it was way more than I normally have—but anger must be lurking there all the time. It’s happened before.”
“As you said, normally you’re a happy drunk. Going on a path of destruction is the last thing anyone would expect of you. But I don’t mean to be dismissive. I worry about the same thing in myself.”
He changed the subject. “I got the shrubs back from the dumpster.”
“People hadn’t buried more stuff on top of it?”
“Nope. I got there in time.”
“So where is it?”
“Sitting in the corner over there.” He meant a corner in his living room.
“What are you going to do with it?”
“Keep it here in case I need it as evidence.”
“Evidence of what?”
“Like you said, that I did something to—what’s the word?—ameliorate the situation.”
Knowing I’d helped inspire this folly, I stopped resisting. “Just don’t keep it too long,” I said. “You don’t want little creatures migrating into your flat.”
The third day, it was I who called, to find a new, invigorated Neil.
“I told my friend, Pod, about what I did.”
“And I told him about the neighbors slamming their doors in my face. He said, ‘Fuck ’em.’ It was exactly what I needed to hear.”
I thought back over all the supportive words I’d spoken to Neil when just two would have sufficed. But it was a matter of timing. “Fuck ’em” wouldn’t have done the job the first or even the second day.
Last week, he was walking along the same street, though he’d vowed to avoid it, when a car pulled up and a woman hailed him. She turned out to be the second woman who’d slammed the door in his face, the one who didn’t speak a word. She apologized and went on to encourage him to cut off any branches that grew over the sidewalk. “Save me a lot of trouble.”
This Tuesday, a “For Sale” sign was posted on her property.