The Man With the Phone

I can feel them watching me.

When I walk out the sliding glass door, I feel their eyes on me. I wonder what they say to each other about me. I don’t know if they’re friendly yet; you know how neighbors can be.

When I step out onto the patio, I look up and wonder what they’re doing – playing, perhaps; eating a meal? I’m not sure what to make of them.

I’m new to the neighborhood, having moved to this quaint little hamlet of Montclair (Oakland) a few weeks ago. The view from my back patio is impressive; eucalyptus trees towering above me, in a semi-circle of sorts. The redwood decks and hot tubs of the homes nearby are a couple of stories higher than I’m standing. The hillside that slopes up to the homes is covered with wild blackberries, hundreds of plants creating a canopy of brambles and thorns, and the luscious fruit, hanging within arm’s reach, but not easily accessible. I would have to don a suit of armor to pick the fruit, or risk being covered with a zillion painful little scratches. A friend has requested I make him and his wife a cobbler; I’m happy to do it, but I’m going to need a protection plan.

First, I’m going to have to understand why they’re watching me, and what they want.

The first few nights in this apartment, their presence and proximity was intimidating. They were loud, chatting, walking around; I didn’t dare try to meet them, so I stayed on the patio, listening. I have to spend a lot of time on the patio, because my phone has no signal inside the apartment. I have to walk outside to make a phone call, and it’s unbearably inconvenient and annoying. My desk is 3 feet from the sliding glass door, yet I might as well be locked in a lead box. No bars, no signal, a handheld rendered totally useless.

They’re likely calling me The Man with the Phone, because that’s their only visual of me; pacing back and forth, leaning slightly west to grab two bars of signal strength, constantly repeating myself because the frustrated person on the other end of the conversation is saying, “You’re breaking up…” So here I am, the Man with the Phone, talking, repeating, pacing. I probably look a little weird, so I understand their hesitancy in not wanting to walk up and meet me just yet.

I am intrigued by them. They’ve lived here a long time, and they’re not sure what to make of the new guy yet. They haven’t been unkind, just wary; I want to know more.

Last week, one of them was trying to open the door to my side yard, a cement slab butting up to a retaining wall against the hillside. It’s 4am. I fly out of bed, grab my cop MagLite flashlight, 18 inches long and carrying enough heft to bring the pain, should one be on the business end of a blow to the noggin. I’m standing in my living room in my boxers, thinking about the options; should I just go out there and let him have it, call 911, or plan C? I didn’t have a plan C.

I decided to do some reconnaissance; I slowly slid open the door, looked through the screen and felt one hundred eyes, all on me –  their bodies hidden in the canopy of blackberries, but all stopping for a moment to watch… and see what I do next.

I slide open the screen door and ever so slowly stick my head out… and around the corner. I raise my flashlight and illuminate the side yard, and I see him – a skunk the size of a black lab. He’s as big as a house, as skunks go. He looks at me, unimpressed, and goes about his business. I exhale, slide the doors shut, and now back in the apartment, I realize I’m too keyed up to sleep.

These hills are full of deer, skunks, moles, mice (and for all I know) aardvarks, giraffes, wolves, bears and monsters. To slide my door open at night is to hear a cacophony of critters milling about, doing their thing, and watching me, The Man with the Phone. I’m wondering if they have a secret plan to ambush me, walk through the flimsy screen door into the kitchen, and raid the fridge, feasting on everything from bleu cheese potato salad to 2% organic milk to a ham sandwich.

You know how neighbors are; you just have to figure out how to get along. They obviously have no plans to move.

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