Neighbors. Never trusted them. Thanks to Mr. Rodger’s Neighborhood, I grew up with an unrealistic view of the benevolent neighbor, anxious to help out. You help me, I’ll help you. Here’s some brownies, use my weedwacker. I’ll lend my goods and services in return for your goods and services. Bullshit. Never happened like that.
My neighborly distrust began with my first neighbor, Mrs. McAllister, an ageless raisin in the sun with severe arthritis. From my bedroom, I could look down on her in-ground pool as the membrane of algae grew to bright verdant hues while she, clad in a paisley housecoat, attempted to skim the water.
One summer, she asked me, at the age of ten, to cut her fairway-sized lawn and offered the use of her forward propulsion mower—one of those contraptions that yanks you around while threatening to chop your feet off.
“It’ll be fun!” she said, pinching my cheek with all five fingers. “The thing does all the work for you.”
The handle of said mower sat just below my chin, and after being dragged from one end of her yard to the other for 6 or 7 hours, I knocked on her front door and demanded payment for my services.
Maybe my expectations were too high, but I was a bit disappointed when her claw hammer hand presented me with a measly $10, divvied in five $2 bill increments. Since then, $2 bills have always proved to be bad luck for me. Vowing to never again be exploited for less than $2 an hour, I locked the front door and spent the rest of that summer watching Cartoon Network from the comfort of my unfinished basement. For the next few months, the answering machine surged with messages from Mrs. McAllister, gingerly asking me to come back and cut her grass.
“It’s almost up to my waist now, honey,” said the answering machine.
I rationalized that, because Mrs. McAllister stood at an elfin 4’10, her definition of ‘waist-high’ would really only be considered ‘knee-high’ by normal standards and thus, nothing really to fuss about.
Summer bore way to fall and her grass eventually stopped its growth at a healthy 3 feet. Her calls waned and eventually ceased, with the last few entreating me to come over and help with the unclogging of her commode, as her pincers were unable to gain the necessary torque on the handle of the plunger and send the blockage to its intended destination. I hunkered down in the basement for a long winter.
I approached each subsequent neighbor with an air of aloofness. Still, a neighborly relationship arose inevitably when I moved into my last college apartment, a two unit converted house on Main Street. I first came across Chung while sifting through mail in our communal bin. Multiple correspondences from the Aviation Students of America sat awaiting their reception from a ‘Chung Kao Yu.’ I had never met this ‘Chung,’ though I assumed he was Asian, if not for the namesake, but also the Mandarin exclamations audible from the hallway we shared. On multiple occasions, I considered breaking the silence to ask Chung for a cigarette, as the stench of stale tobacco constantly wafted under my door. But, like I said before, aloof.
One morning, a week or two after moving in, the windows of my car were smashed by an unknown assailant or assailants. I found the offending rock sitting on the front seat. I had never thought my car a target for vandalism—the ’87 Chevy sedan held no distinguishing marks, apart from the various rust holes and one ‘Go Pittsburgh’ magnetic decal left on the trunk by the previous owner. Said decal must have been the catalyst that drove the agitators to uncontrollable rage. I pictured a bunch of drunken Charlie Frye fans, bladders full of Natural Ice, taking a shortcut through my parking lot and finding this lone vestige of Pittsburgh spirit. They became possessed with that familiar Cleveland rage and were thusly capable of chucking thousands of bottles at NFL referees or a single rock at an unassuming late model sedan. It was like beating up an old lady with no purse. They might as well have punched Mrs. McAllister in the face. At least she had $2 bills.
Later that day, I returned to sweep away the millions of granules of broken glass and hang a reward sign which read: I Don’t Like to Use the Word ‘Heinous’ very often, but this __________ act of violence has left me no other choice. If you have any information about this broken glass incident, don’t hesitate to speak up. REWARD: one case of Natural Ice to whomever steps forward.
Behind me, I heard, “Can’t believe what happen to your car, man. I hear crash, look out window, see them run away.”
I knew him immediately: “Let me guess, you’re Chung?”
“Yeah, but most people call me Mike.”
“It’s my American name. Most people have trouble with Chung.”
“Are you kidding, man? ‘Everybody Wang Chung Tonight,’ come on!”
Chung let out a chuckle, “Yeah man, you know.”
I don’t mean to come off as bigoted or stereotypical, but Chung looked exactly like I thought he would: roughly 5 and a half feet tall, shaved head, air force bomber jacket, shoulders preeminently slouched forward and hands thrust in the pockets of his Dockers.
“So wait, uh, Chung,” I said. “You said you saw the people do this? When did it happen?”
“Yeah. Probably happen around 8:30. They stood out in the street.” He gestured toward the sidewalk roughly 100 feet behind my car. “I could not see them though.”
“8:30?” I asked. “It would have still been light out. You’re saying they did this in broad daylight from all the way in the street?”
Chung shrugged. “’S what I heard. Bad kids in neighborhood. Fuck with my mirror.”
I looked at Chung’s Toyota. The sideview mirror bore a jagged gash, as if it had lost a knife fight.
“Does this sort of thing happen often here?” I asked.
“Nah. But don’t park your car so close to building. I can’t watch your car when so close. Move over. Your car does no good for me here.”
I assumed this meant Chung had nothing better to do during the day than keep watch over the parking lot. Looking up at his bedroom window, I could see how the line of sight could be obscured from this position.
“Okay, Chung,” I said. “I’ll move the car, so long as it does some good for you.”
The next day, upon leaving for work, I saw that Chung had moved his car into the spot I had previously vacated, the one closest to the building. Huh, I thought, I guess that does more good for him.
My last semester began, and Chung appeared randomly in my Fundamental English Grammar class. I tried my best not to question his judgment in taking an upper division English class, but, I mean, come on, the guy was an aviation major. My concerns disappeared when Chung sat down beside me with the $150 Grammar text required for class. I had yet to purchase the expensive book. Suddenly, the benefits of being neighborly were realized. During that first class, Chung announced that he was from Taiwan, that Mandarin was his native tongue, and that he very much like to fly.
I accosted Chung after class, “Hey, Chung, can I borrow that book when you’re not using it?”
“Sure, man, just help me pass the class.”
As the tests were all take-home, I said I’d have no problem letting him copy off me if he would save me the money on a book.
He reiterated that he just wanted to pass the class.
Four weeks later, my fist, clenching the first Grammar test, resounded against the door to apartment #1. Chung had been absent from class the last week, and I visited with the veiled intention of seeing if he was all right. Really, I needed to use that book. The thumping bass to Justin Timberlake’s “SexyBack” reverberated against our common wall, as it had all semester long, usually between the hours of 3 and 5:30 in the morning. Shirtless, Chung answered the door. It appeared I had awoken him.
“Chung, you haven’t been in class all week, is everything okay?” I asked with as much concern as I could muster.
“Yeah, I fine. Have aviation test need study. Very much reading. Right now, I taking nap.”
“That’s cool. You know, we have a Grammar test that’s due tomorrow. I was wondering if I could borrow your book.”
“Oh, yeah, book.” He began laughing and rubbing his neck uncomfortably. “I lose book. I drop the class.”
“Wait, Chung? Drop the class? We had a deal. I need to use that book! Exchange, Chung, for goods and services! Haven’t you heard of capitalism? Aren’t you neighborly? When you can’t deliver the goods, the whole system crumbles!”
Now was probably not the time to engage in a socioeconomic discussion with a communist. Taiwan’s communist, right? I suppose it doesn’t matter.
“Yeah, I realize I don’t need class anyway,” Chung explained. “Does no good for me. Take easy one instead. I go back to nap. Good luck with grammar.” He laughed again.
“Goods and services!” I yelled, as Chung shut the door in my face.
That night, I stumbled through the exam and possessed neither the time nor the money to procure a new Grammar text. Instead, I was left to realize the sins of the dangling modifier on my own. I vowed never to speak with Chung again. He does no good for me.
For the rest of the semester, I stayed true to my vow and cringed each time I heard ‘SexyBack’ or caught a whiff Marlboros in the hallway. Does no good for me, Chung.
The semester came to an end, I graduated from college, every appliance in my apartment broke at once, and I began to pack my things for the big move from Kent to Cleveland. To help with the move, I enlisted my special lady friend to sort through my clothes with me. An hour or so into the job, the only clothes we had managed to sort were each others’, which sat in sporadic piles around the room. Chung’s gracious musical choice of ‘SexyBack’ one wall over provided a romantic ambience. We just couldn’t help ourselves. That is, until, I heard a cautious ‘Hallooo!’ from out in the kitchen.
The sound frightened my special lady, and she curled up underneath the comforter. Pulling up my jeans, I told her to hold tight and I would see about the commotion. I strolled into the kitchen with clumsiness of interrupted intimacy, or as I liked to call it, Quality Time. My maintenance guy, Big Dave, stood in the doorway to my bathroom. Inside, crouching with a plunger over the shower drain, was a plumber. I discerned his title—and I’m not trying to come off as bigoted or stereotypical here—by the gratuitous length of protruding ass crack.
Big Dave saw me and said, “Hey, we knocked for like five minutes but no one answered so we just came in.”
I rubbed the back of my neck uncomfortably, “Yeah, I was taking nap.”
“Well, this shower’s been clogged for a while, so I just thought we’d take care of it,” Dave said.
The drain emitted a digestive gurgle and spewed close to four gallons of matted, swampy hair clumps.
“Guess that’s the clog,” said Plumber.
“Jeez,” Big Dave said, “have you been shaving in the shower? That’s a lot of hair.”
I denied it vehemently, citing the trauma of a sink clog in my youth.
“Well, you and Mike share a drain,” Big Dave said, “maybe this is his fault.”
“Who the hell is Mike?” I asked. “Oh, you mean Chung, yeah. It could be his, I mean, I don’t know what type of bizarre bathing rituals those East Asians have, you know?”
“He’s a pilot, you know,” Big Dave said.
Does no good for me. “Just don’t ask him to borrow a Fundamental English Grammar book,” I said.
“Why would you do that?” Big Dave asked, “He’s from China.”
“It’s Taiwan and you’re absolutely right. Congratulations on the clog.”
I turned and went back to my room to continue with the sorting.
About an hour later, my lady friend and I were interrupted with another ‘Hallooo!’ I yelled an impassioned expletive and again replaced the comforter over her. She was a headstrong lady, but some things made her anxious.
The front door hung wide open with keys dangling from the knob. Hunched over the kitchen sink, my landlord, Chris Smiles, attempted to tighten the knobs on the faucet. The thing seemed to drip agelessly, and considering that I had seen Smiles a grand total of twice since I had moved in five months ago, I found his timing impeccable, given the circumstances.
“Is that you, Chris?” I asked, stumbling against the kitchen doorway.
Chris looked startled, “Oh, hi. I, uh, I knocked but no one answered so I just came in.”
“Yeah,” I said, a bit more irritated. “I was taking nap.”
“Huh. Well, I got a $300 water bill from this building last month. I thought it might be the faucet, but I don’t think this drip would cost that much. Have you heard water running?”
I thought back to that previous December, when, for three straight weeks, I could hear water perpetually running behind the wall in Chung’s apartment. Assuming it was some type of makeshift Chinese Zen ritual, White Noise, Feng Shui, I left well enough alone. But coupled with the recent hair clog, I wondered if Chung had embarked on a three-week cleansing/body shaving ritual, to commemorate (I don’t know) the ensuing Chinese New Year. What other holidays do they celebrate over there? And I’m not trying to come off as bigoted or stereotypical or anything.
I looked my landlord in the eyes, “No, can’t really think of anything like that.”
“Well, if you do, let me know," Smiles said. "In the meantime, try not to use your toilet too much. Let’s try to keep this bill down from now on.”
Regardless of my feelings for Chung, I wasn’t about to sell him out in favor of this tightwad.
As Smiles was leaving, Chung, Marlboro dangling from his mouth, stepped out of his apartment and casually into mine. He narrow eyes lit with surprise.
“You still live here? Wow, place look lot different.” He took the liberty of navigating between the boxes and milk crates I had stacked in the kitchen and walked into the living room. “Yeah. Haven’t seen you all semester. Can’t believe you leaving. I miss you.”
“Chung, I have to say, I’m going to miss you too. You’re almost done with school, right?”
“Yeah, one more semester. Then I go back to China. Become corporate pilot.”
“Why do you want to go back to China?” I asked. “Don’t you want to stay in the U.S.?”
He shook his head. “Nah. I get no respect here. Will never have power.” He thumped his chest, “I want to go place where I have power.”
I understood and maybe smiled a bit at the irony of going to China to achieve freedom. But, I guessed it would do much good for him. I wished him luck.
“Beside,” he said, “I make more money there than here. And I want most return for my work.”
“Goods and services,” I said.
“Yes, does much good for me.”
“Me too,” I nodded.
Chung, still pulling on his cigarette, turned and walked, as if he owned the place, into my bedroom. I couldn’t stop him.
“Yeah, place look lot different.” He startled, “Oh! You have naked girl in bed!” As if driven by habit, Chung dropped his Dockers and stood in plaid boxers.
“How much for service?”
He shut the door.
“Chung!” I yelled. “Goods and services! Goods and services! That’s not what I meant!”
Neighbors always try to take more than they give.
This essay was originally presented as a spoken-word performance piece for Chucklef*ck, Monday Night's Leading Alternative Comedy Show. For more info on the show, contact series organizer Carrie Callahan.