When bad things happen to good neighbors

The next house up from us has that dreaded sheaf of papers taped to the front door. We’d known the owners, Andy (so I will call him here) and his family, for the nearly 20 years we’ve been neighbors. We might’ve been able to anticipate the foreclosure, but probably couldn’t have done anything to prevent it.

I don’t remember exactly when we met but I know it was before we started to get to know him. In 1991 we were inured to the honking of drug house customers up the block and behind us on Nicollet. But his honk was the anomaly, “shave and a haircut” from his LTD about half a block away meant to let his wife know he was pulling into the driveway soon.

After an awkward dispute over the city issued garbage bin that was chalked up to our house but had drifted to his driveway over the time our house had been vacant, settled amicably with the help of the city’s solid waste staff, we gradually connected over mutual homeowner gripes.

He worked at a hotel Downtown, and we eventually gathered he was from Gary, Ind. Holidays he’d tell us he was visiting family in Gary and asked if we could keep an eye on his home. I recalled hearing at some community meetings back in the early 1990s, about “those people from Gary” that were causing problems.

The only people I knew directly who hailed from Gary were Andy and his family. So whenever I heard about “those people” I would interrupt, hoping to quash some “place-of-origin-ism,” and say, “You’ll have to meet our next door neighbor — he’s from Gary and he’s the salt of the earth.”

A few years after we moved in, Andy’s wife began to fade. One day while I headed out to work she yelled to me through our tilting redwood ranch fence. I didn’t see her but I recognized her voice from the occasional visit of their grandkids.  

She would sing hymns to them from the second floor in a cracking lilt best suited for the far back corner of the choir loft. I stepped around the garage and saw that her dog was running loose in their unfenced backyard. She asked, “Could you bring Honey back to me? You can pick her up, she’ll be nice.”

She was too weak to run after this gnarly pit bull. I wasn’t convinced I’d survive this act of kindness, but I knew they treated the dog like a prince. I picked it up, and it immediately rolled over, offering its belly to be scratched, and the transfer back to the queen was uneventful.

She died not long after — Andy’s wife, not the dog — I don’t think I ever caught her name.  

I hadn’t seen her for months when I passed Andy in the alley. I asked how she’d been.  Andy said, “She passed some months ago — I thought you knew that.”  

I told him I was sorry to hear that. Remembering her hymn singing, I blurted out, “She’s with the Lord.”  

Andy straightened up, and said confidently, “Yes, she is!”

Over time the exchanges of modest favors built up. Andy remarried, and his new wife Madeline’s kids were enthusiastic students. We had built up a surplus of cheap computers and many times she would encourage them to drop by to key in an assignment for junior high classes.

Both households teamed up briefly once to close down a crack operation next door to them. Andy would call 911 on their shenanigans from the darkness of his second-floor window. I’d call from my cell phone and meet the squads when they arrived.

Knowing Andy had emphysema, and also partly reacting to my own all-too sedentary job and lifestyle, I’d start shoveling our walk and just keep going through his, and right up to his front steps.  

It became a contest as to who would shovel both walks first, but the contest didn’t last long as Andy’s health declined. So I kept shoveling both walks. Once a stiff wind blew off a few shingles from his roof, and we tossed up a ladder and nailed them back on.  Andy would have Madeline drop off a basket of hotel seconds such as wine with negligible chips in the bottle necks. Another time they needed us to flush a bat from a bedroom window screen. A bag of coffee with a card found its way behind our front screen door the next day.

Eventually Andy’s health had declined to the point of being mostly confined with an oxygen tank. Once when they’d come back from a trip to Gary and misplaced their keys, they asked if I could slip in through the second-floor window and come back down to open the door. I climbed up to and through the window, and came downstairs to find the front door unlocked anyway.  

Both had health problems which must have weakened them to where they couldn’t tug open the door from an un-square, 100-year-old door frame. I didn’t have the heart to tell them it was unlocked.

About two years ago a moving crew came by and we never saw Andy again. Later Madeline and her daughter came by to fill up a car with more stuff. Still later that week the door was placarded by the bank. Did horrendous health care bills drive them out? We don’t know.

Our VA-fixer-upper had itself been empty for years, so now we are in the spot where Andy was in 1991 — wondering who he’d get for new neighbors. I just hope we can be the “good old neighbors already there” for them like Andy and his family was for us.

Luther Krueger is a crime prevention analyst for the Minneapolis Police Department. He lives in the Lyndale Neighborhood.