Wednesday, July 13, 2005

The Gatekeeper

It started with waving. Or more accurately, not waving.

I must admit that I’m not a super-social kind of guy. I figure this comes from working sales jobs for so long. As a retail drone, you have to do so much gladhanding and asskissing, you strenuously avoid doing any more on your own time. I have my own circle of relatives and friends. While I’m not opposed to meeting new people, “live and let live” is my usual policy.

The neighborhood I’ve lived in, off and on, since age 8 is not a “Waltons”-style community. No one ever drops in to sample Grandma’s apple pie; if they did, she would probably sic the dog on them before she’d offer them a taste. That may seem harsh, but it’s also very American. I mean, the notion of respecting a person’s space, of leaving them alone to do as they please (within the law) is as American as, well, apple pie. Still, there are many misguided souls who are forever searching for Walton’s Mountain.

About ten years ago, one neighbor of ours went off seeking John-boy and company. She organized what she called an “annual summer block party” at her house, and invited everyone in our locality. By the time it was all over, this lady knew how Max Yasgur must’ve felt looking over his farm after Woodstock. The block party turned into a hedonistic beer blast, which culminated in one drunken reveler’s wild dance atop a picnic bench as “U Can’t Touch This” blared from the stereo. The fun ended when M.C. Hammered lost his balance and fell, twisting an ankle in the process. One lawsuit later, the “annual” block party was permanently discontinued.

Following that debacle, our neighborhood returned to its “polite but private” plan, which suited me perfectly. Think about it. Wouldn’t TV-type neighbors like Fred and Ethel Mertz, who were forever barging and butting in, be giant pains in the ass? They nosed into Lucy’s business so much, it’s a wonder Little Ricky was ever born. One of the blessings I always counted was that my neighbors left me alone. That is, until the Gatekeeper.

The Gatekeeper lives just up the street from me and my parents. His house sits on the corner of our little side-street and the main thoroughfare, which is the central entrance to our ‘hood. If you want to enter or exit, at least on my block, you’ve got to go past the Gatekeeper. Night or day, rain, shine, snow, or tornado, the Gatekeeper will be on patrol, waving and grinning like a coked-up Target door-greeter.

Before he transformed into a Marvel Comics-style villain, the Gatekeeper was a mild-mannered fellow resident I’ll call “Mr. Mancuso”. A widower with two kids, Mancuso moved into our subdivision about twenty years ago. His kids, a daughter and a son, were the same ages as my sister and I. We went to school together, and while we weren’t best friends, we’d occasionally hang out at each other’s houses. I met Mr. Mancuso just once, circa 1984. The rest of the time, he never seemed to be around. The common excuse was that he was “at work”. He was a single parent and he had to make a living. It was understandable.

After high school, I lost track of the Mancuso kids. They moved out and moved on. Soon after, Mr. Mancuso remarried. I was not invited to the wedding. While I never met her, I’d often see his wife out doing yard work when I drove by. Mancuso himself maintained a low profile. I assumed he was still working. Didn’t know, didn’t care. I had my own life to live.

Around the time I quit my job, something changed. The once-elusive Mancuso was suddenly as unavoidable as Tom Cruise on a press junket. I remember the day clearly. As I returned home from my orientation at the Career Center, I turned down my home street. Out of nowhere, a gray-haired and plaid-clad figure jumped in front of my car. I hit the brakes and stopped inches away from him.

“Hi, John!” said Mancuso, waving. “How’s tricks? What ya up to these days?”

Having just aged five years, I was too startled to say anything. I simply drove on.

Later that evening, I had a curious conversation with my mother.

“John,” she said, poking her head into the living room, “I just got off the phone with Mr. Mancuso.”

“Really? How’d he get our number?” I asked, quickly changing channels to PBS. Didn’t want her to catch me drooling over “G-String Divas”, you see. Doesn’t matter how old I am. Mom’s house, Mom’s rules.

“I don’t know,” Mom said, “but he was pretty upset. He said he waves to you every time you pass by his house, but you never wave back.”

I nearly gagged on my Hard Lemonade. “Are you kidding me? He should be glad he isn’t road pizza, after the stunt he pulled!”

Mom leaned on the doorframe and folded her arms---her “reasonable” stance. “He’s an old man and he just retired. He has all this spare time on his hands and doesn’t know how to fill it. You should know what that feels like. He waves to me and everyone else. Why not humor him and wave back?”

“Nevah!” I exclaimed, in my best British accent. “My life is my own. I am not a numbah, I am a free man!”

Mom didn’t get the joke. She isn’t a fan of the 1960s British TV series “The Prisoner”, from which I was quoting. She simply took away my bottle of Hard Lemonade and left the room.

But I wasn’t totally joking. Mancuso was out of line. I didn’t mean to ignore him, but when I’m driving, I have this odd habit of focusing on the road ahead and not on someone who appointed himself the one-man welcoming committee. I don’t wave to anyone; nobody waves to me. It’s nothing personal and that’s how it’s always been. It’s just a fact of life in our neighborhood.

I suppose I could’ve accommodated him. This shouldn’t have been a major issue, but Mancuso made it one. His “you must acknowledge me” game of chicken was bad enough. Then he goes to my mommy and tattles on me? According to standard playground rules, that was an act of war. I had, as an American, a God-given right not to wave. If it pissed him off, tough buns. He’d started the tussle, but I’d finish it! It was mark-your-territory, alpha-male, chest-beating, Tarzan-yelling pride time!

So it went, for weeks. Every time I drove past his house, the Gatekeeper would be there at that precise moment. Taking out the garbage, getting the mail, washing his car, grilling burgers or just standing there, like he was waiting for a bus (we don’t have bus service in our area). He must’ve lived in his driveway. As soon as he spotted me, he’d make like Uncle Jed, toodle-looing as the credits rolled on “The Beverly Hillbillies”. I swear he was psychic, in addition to being psychotic. But I did not wave. I didn’t even look at him. And it felt oh-so-very satisfying.

The battle raged on, through spring and into summer. I realized I was irking the Gatekeeper as much as he was irking me. Out of the corner of my eye, I noted that his waving had taken on a frantic quality. As time went on, though, the fun of snubbing him faded dramatically. It became, frankly, a staring contest and I was tired of it. But backing down was out of the question. I hoped the old fart would poop out and quit, the sooner the better.

Mom thought I was nuts and refused to take sides. But I was not without allies in this titanic struggle.

“Hey,” said my father, plopping down next to me at the kitchen table one day. “I talked to that goombah on the corner this morning.”

Dad, you see, is a politically correct and sensitive soul.

“He flagged my car down as I was coming back from the chiropractor,” Dad said. “He asked me why you came and went at such irregular hours. Then he asked why he never saw you wearing your red work shirt anymore.”

With that, my battle with the Gatekeeper sank from the “silly” to the “pitiful” level. Evidently, the Gatekeeper was so lonely, so without purpose, he’d been watching me even before I chucked my job, much longer than I thought. This guy had missed his calling. The F.B.I. could’ve used him. I asked Dad what he’d said to my foe.

“I said it was none of his business, and told him to go chase his tail. Listen son, everyone in life has a long list of asses they have to kiss. But Mancuso’s name isn’t on yours. Stick to your guns.”

Wow, the old man had stuck up for me, just like John-boy’s dad would have. Believe me, that hasn’t happened very often. I thanked him.

“No problem,” Dad said, grabbing the sports page and ambling off to the TV. “I never liked Mancuso. The guy who owned that house before Mancuso, now he was a neighbor. He was a dope-dealing goober who landed in jail, but he minded his own business.”

While I appreciated the support from Dad, I had by then had enough. Life had become a “Seinfeld” episode. I was George Costanza, fighting tooth and nail over the petty “principle of the thing”. The Gatekeeper had become the defender of irrelevant gestures. There was an errand I had to run the next day and I was dreading it. I decided to give in and wave. Hopefully, the Gatekeeper would back off.

The next morning, I hit the road a humbled man. When I reached the corner, the Gatekeeper. . .was nowhere in sight. Lucky me. When I got home, the Gatekeeper still wasn’t there. Luckier me.

In fact, I haven’t seen the Gatekeeper in over two weeks. Maybe he finally figured it out. Perhaps he returned to his previous sane and elusive form. God help him, but I don’t know and I won’t go asking.

What’s it all about, Alfie? I learned that adult men, no matter how old, never outgrow games of oneupmanship. I also learned that TV shows are not idealized fantasies, but biting satires of true life. Or true life is a biting satire of TV, I haven't quite decided yet. But most of all, I’ve come to appreciate privacy. I come and go and nobody notices. The neighborhood is normal again.

Except for those people in back. The lights in their house were on until one o’ clock this morning. What’s up with that?


Blogger Doggie Extraordinaire's Mom said...

I, too, live in N. IL, and my 'hood is probably just like yours. While I don't have a Gatekeeper, I have a group of unemployed/retired/homemaker women I refer to as the Driveway Squad, who are outside everyday (in the garage with the doors open when it rains) and their sole purpose is to watch comings and goings and gossip about everyone. While my parasites are meaner than yours (as most bored, gossiping women usually are), I would say they're also easier to ignore. Still, oh how I long for winter and solitude on my block. Why can't they do something constructive like weed my rock garden or pick up my garbage can when it falls over after being emptied on Tuesdays? It's not like they have anything better to do.

Too bad your Gatekeeper is now married. We could've tried to hook him up with my divorced, unemployed "Godmotha" of the Driveway Squad. On second thought, if they got married, I'm sorry, but you'd have to take the pair into your neighborhood. There's no room on her driveway for The Gatekeeper.

8:23 PM  
Blogger Mona said...

What an excellent story. Again, I love the way you tell it. I had tears in my eyes by the time I got to the part about your dad. And he rocks. Most people would just appease neighbors even if they think they're psychotic.

I personally like a little bit of interaction with my neighbors, but I know not everyone does. And we can't all love the people we happen to live near. I completely respect your right to privacy and your right to not wave. He could have simply taken the social hint and backed down a bit, but alas, the Gatekeeper had his goals that he was sticking to.

Now that two weeks have gone by, it makes me wonder...

4:30 PM  
Blogger Mona said...

also, I can understand needing the break from socializing...I remember when I used to have a job that involved a lot of phone conversations. The LAST thing I wanted to do was answer my own phone at home at the end of the day.

4:32 PM  
Anonymous jq said...

First time reader, love your style! Why don't you ever write about politics?

5:23 PM  

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