The worst part about moving to the suburbs is that I don’t understand the social mores of the place, the traditions, norms, and unwritten laws of behavior that guide one’s relationship with one’s neighbors. I grew up in the rain-streaked city streets and later down dusty rural dirt roads, where your relationship with your neighbor was often simpler. In the city, if you messed with your neighbor or your neighbor’s, erm, stuff, the neighbor might well shoot you dead with his nine millimeter. In the country, if you messed with your neighbor or his livestock, the neighbor might well shoot you dead with his 12 gauge. This simplicity led to a certain respect for your neighbor as well as a certain distance from those you didn’t know.
Here in the suburbs, though, the rules of behavior differ, and that confuses me. For example, many of my neighbors don’t own nine millimeters or 12 gauges and think it’s odd that someone might. Territorial rights aren’t always marked by barbed wire; instead, we have things such as mutually understood (it’s assumed) borders noted by lines in plats in the county office or by the seasonal plantings. Fortunately, though, in most of my suburban domiciles, I’ve had something of a boundary marker, such as a privacy fence that trickles into chain link. Actually, I’ve had a number of privacy fence boundaries, including those erected after I’ve moved in, so the boundary line isn’t an issue.
However, incursions across those boundaries pose an ethical dilemma. Such as the beating conundrum I confronted recently when I stepped into my slightly overgrown (gone to seed) backyard and found a Wiffle® ball amid the lush suburban saw grass. What in Suburbia was I supposed to do about it?
The neighbors on one side, hidden behind a tall wooden fence, have children. The ball could belong to them. But I don’t know about the rear abutting yards; they, too, could hold children in those hours or seasons in which I am not in the back yard cutting the grass. The ball could as easily belong to families beyond those tree-high pike pylons separating the yards.
In the city, a Wiffle® ball never gets hit anywhere but common areas or the street; if it goes into a yard, the big dog or crazy person there eats it. In the country, no one can hit the ball far enough to go into someone else’s yard. This white plastic sphere at my feet was an unknown artifact for which the lessons of my youth provided no proper recourse.
I have a son for whom I could claim the ball under the particular possession/law equation that no lawyer ever wasted a retainer teaching. But that would be theft, pure and simple.
I could march up onto the front porch of the neighbor’s house with the ball in hand and ask if it belonged to the children there, but in my old neighborhoods, the frontal approach could be confrontational. City-dwellers might fear the polite home invader or the Jehovah’s Witnesses. In the country, someone on your porch could be the IRS or the jackbooted thugs from the ATF (now the BATFE). In either case, one wrong dingdong, and they greet you with a hail of lead (now, due to safety regulations, this is sometimes steel).
Besides, I’m unclear if the door knocking behavior is covered under the suburban code of conduct, or if this unelicited contact would mark one as a pariah amongst the decklocked crowd. Perhaps word would spread of the forward and slightly creepy fellow up the block who confronted neighbors with only the provocation of a Wiffle® ball, and our family would purposefully not get invited to block parties sponsored by the local real estate agent.
I could drop the ball over a fence surreptitiously. Of course, that would assume that the ball belonged in the yard where I know children live. If it did not, I could perhaps be charged with littering or perhaps trafficking in stolen goods depending upon the demeanor of the local five-oh. Or perhaps they would see me as conducting a sortie upon their pristine green backyard with some sort of secret Wifflepon.
Torn, I knew I could not keep the ball, I could not break the code of silence maintained by community, and I could not throw the ball over the fence into an unseen backyard. So I did what any self-respecting adult male born of country and city would do if he were me.
Carefully in the early morning hours, in that period between darkness and dawn, I looked up and down the street from beside my front porch. Assured I was unobserved by early dog walkers or the fabled milkman, I crouched low and crossed the broad, blackened expanse of my asphalt driveway and deposited the ball at the very edge of the neighbor’s front lawn where its presence would tempt the children from that yard to reclaim it or claim it, where the father would pick it up or kick it into my driveway or the street when it came time to mow the lawn, and where I could have plausible deniability about how the ball got there.
Then I scurried back into my house and bolted the strange and frightening world of suburbia out.