Neighbors by Neema Avashia
Judge's Choice, 2019 Creative Nonfiction Contest
An empty 750-milliliter bottle of Tito’s Handmade Vodka sits on its side on the front porch of my house, a green and maroon Victorian triple-decker in the neighborhood of Jamaica Plain. I am unsurprised.
An hour earlier, my friend Craig had texted me a warning: “Just saw your neighbor Jimmy staggering down the street with two bottles of vodka in his hands. Wanted to give you a heads up.”
I gingerly place the vodka bottle in the recycling bin, sending it to be melted down with the many other nips and full-size bottles discovered in our yard, hallway and mailbox over the last two years. Once upstairs, I make a call to the absentee landlord for Unit 2.
“David, it’s Neema. I came home today to an empty bottle of vodka on the porch. This situation is getting out of hand. Please call me back when you can.”
These calls have become more frequent, the tone of my voice more stressed each time, in the 18 months since my partner Laura first opened our front door on a frigid winter day in 2017 only to have Jimmy collapse on the floor in front of her, his pants down to his knees. She cried out to me, thinking he was dying, then fled to our apartment in fear. I called 911 and attempted to describe his symptoms—inability to stand up, shortness of breath, incoherent mumbling—only to have Jimmy’s partner rush out of their apartment to disclose that he wasn’t dying, just terribly drunk. That Jimmy had been a closet alcoholic for years, and that his addiction had grown so large that it no longer could be shoved into the closet.
In the eight years leading up to this moment, Jimmy existed in my mind as a lovely, if unusual, neighbor: cologne-laden and exuberant, always greeting us with strangely anachronistic phrases like, “Hey, Doll,” and gushing at how beautiful we looked when we ran into him on our way out of the house on special occasions. Every fall, he decorated our stoop with mums and pumpkins; every winter he gifted us an enormous red poinsettia and pine bough wreath.
One October, when the mayor declared a state-of-emergency in Boston because of an impending hurricane, he left us a Styrofoam cooler of hurricane preparedness items: mango and passionfruit vodka, paper towels, candles, and a flashlight. When Laura fell off our swing in the summer of 2017 and broke her shoulder, Jimmy came running up the stairs, his distended belly jutting out from under his undershirt, and refused to leave her side until the paramedics took her out on a gurney.
But there were clues, also, that all was not well under Jimmy’s cheerful veneer. At night, our floor vibrated from the hum of a machine that was supposed to help Jimmy breathe. When sorting the mail, the majority of envelopes in Jimmy’s name came from insurance companies, hospitals, or Social Security. And Jimmy’s partner, Wally, moved in and back out again multiple times during the course of their relationship, though I never knew Jimmy well enough in the early years to understand why.
In truth, there was much I didn’t know about Jimmy. I knew that he had been the manager at high-end hotels in Boston and San Francisco before getting ill, but it was only in his obituary that I learned that he once worked as “Sandy the Sea Lion” on Fisherman’s Wharf, and that he was the lightman at some of San Francisco’s most popular gay nightclubs in the 80s. Upstairs in our apartment, I was reading Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel to understand more about the history of ACT UP and the fight for gay rights. It never occurred to me that someone in my own house might have borne witness to that history.
The day after our discovery of Jimmy’s alcoholism, he left a huge bouquet of flowers and apology note in front of the apartment door for us. “I am so embarrassed,” he wrote in a virtually illegible scrawl. “I will never do it again.”
I didn’t even want to bring the flowers into the house. I referred to them as guilt flowers, the kind an abuser would give to the abused after a violent episode, and threw them in the compost as soon as they showed the slightest signs of fading. I sensed the first drunken episode would not be the last. And indeed, it wasn’t.
A few weeks later, Laura and I heard loud clanking and banging on our back landing late at night. Frightened, we huddled under the covers until the sounds stopped. The next day, Wally called me to tell me that we needed to lock up our alcohol, as Jimmy had been stealing from our liquor cabinet. He had asked the liquor store owners in close proximity to refuse to sell to Jimmy, and Jimmy, in turn, resorted to stealing. When we checked the cabinet on the back landing, entire bottles had disappeared, while others had been largely drained of their content.
Although I haven’t lived on Pamela Circle for nearly 22 years, I can still create a mental map and recite the names and house numbers of every family that lived on my street growing up: 5301, the Gearhearts, 5303, my family, 5305, Mr. Turner, 5307, the Lunardinis, 5309, the LeMasters, 5311, the Woodys, 5313 the old ladies we called Holly and Berry, 5315, the Riecks, 5317, the Mundays, 5319, the Carneys, 5321, the Raethers.
I recall the names of neighborhood dogs long dead—Zeke and Duke and Bonnie and Butch. I can give you a memory I made in virtually every house on the street, and with virtually every person who lived there.
I grew up in a place where the word “neighbor” did not just indicate geographic proximity; it possessed the kind of emotion that we more often attribute to relationships like “mother” or “lover”. Manjufoi, my favorite aunt in India, who has lived in the same apartment complex in Ahmedabad for the last 40 years, often likes to say that the relationship between those who live together is even stronger than the bond between family members. That when you go through your daily paces together, you understand each other in a way that family cannot.
I learned early what it meant to be the kind of neighbor who sits on the porch and listens to stories without feeling the need to rush home, who lends a hand to make light work. Being a good neighbor was perhaps among the most prized of qualities in my house growing up . . .
This was particularly true for my nuclear family. Our West Virginian neighbors were 8,000 miles more proximate that the majority of our blood relations. My parents shared childcare responsibilities, garden produce, household repairs, caring for the ill and the elderly, not with their siblings, but with their neighbors. In a town where the ambulance was sometimes a half-an hour drive away, my dad played first responder to heart attacks and hemorrhages, while my mom cooked comfort meals and sat with those in mourning.
More often than not, I was the messenger for my parents’ expressions of neighborliness. I delivered the bulging plastic bags of garden tomatoes, peppers, corn and eggplant, the paper plates of Christmas cookies, the prescription medicines brought back from India because they cost so much less there. And by observing my parents, I learned early what it meant to be the kind of neighbor who sits on the porch and listens to stories without feeling the need to rush home, who lends a hand to make light work. Being a good neighbor was perhaps among the most prized of qualities in my house growing up, right up there with being a good student, and being a good employee.
I would not be who I am today without my neighbors. Without Mr. Withrow, who shot hoops with me on Saturday mornings and taught me how to drive when my father found he didn’t have the patience for the job. Without Mr. Starcher, who built me my first clubhouse, taught me magic tricks, and showed me that being educated wasn’t about how many degrees you held, it was about the way you read, the way you questioned, the way you made yourself a learner of the world around you. Without Mr. and Mrs. Carney, who stocked their fridge and pantry with snacks that I liked, and made their home my second one.
Be present. Listen well. Share your bounties. Look for ways to help. Those were the unspoken lessons I learned from my neighbors on Pamela Circle. And they are the ones I try to live out in my work, and in my personal relationships.
A short while after my discovery of the vodka bottle on this warm May evening, Laura calls me. She is driving around the neighborhood looking for a parking spot and has caught sight of our neighbor.
“Jimmy has been sitting in his car without moving for ten minutes,” she tells me. “He doesn’t seem to be able to get the door shut. He doesn’t look good.”
I look out the kitchen window and see Jimmy get out of the car, and partially close the door. He opens the door again, then falls into the driver’s seat. He struggles to find the coordination and strength needed to actually shut the door, his hand unable to grasp the door handle to pull it shut. This motion gets repeated multiple times.
“I think you should call 911,” Laura tells me, her voice full of concern.
I don’t want to call the police, however. I worry about how Jimmy may respond to them. Worry that if he acts aggressively, they may hurt him. I equivocate, try to put the responsibility for calling the police on Laura, if that’s what she wants to do.
“Love, he could have killed someone the last time he got in a car,” she reminds me. “You need to call 911.”
Just a week earlier, Jimmy got drunk before 7 a.m. and managed to flip his car within less than a thousand feet of our house. I still cannot grasp the sheer physics of this--neither the speed required, nor the level of erratic steering necessary to put an SUV on its head within such a short distance from its parking spot. Our street is heavy with foot traffic—students walking to four elementary and middle schools within short distance, workers heading to the train station at the bottom of the hill. It is difficult to imagine how he could have totaled his car without killing or maiming anyone. Yet the police let Jimmy go with a warning, and now here he is about to drive drunk again, this time when all of those same students and workers travel homewards.
Jimmy’s prior drunken episodes have left me uncertain of how to approach him. After eight years of neighborly pleasantries, his battle with alcohol, and the way it impacts the rest of us living in the house, has become the defining feature of our relationship. Wally has broken up with him, and struggles to balance his sense of responsibility to someone so clearly ill with his own need for a healthy relationship. Jimmy is alone in his apartment with his alcohol. Laura and I, and my first floor neighbor, are alone in our building with Jimmy. There is no Wally to serve as a buffer any longer.
Sometimes Jimmy turns aggressive, sneering and cursing from his vantage point on the stairwell where he has stumbled and fallen, and we are trying to help him up. Sometimes he acts incoherent and childlike, and repeats the same ideas over and over again, as was the case when he locked himself out of his apartment on a winter day and then pounded on our doorways unceasingly, begging us to let him in, before ultimately laying down on the floor in the foyer and rolling around for twenty minutes.
Each time I find Jimmy drunk, I channel my inner teacher, maintain my composure, speak with him rationally, try to de-escalate the situation. Inside, I am shaking, but I do not let him see. I try to think about what a good neighbor should do, what my Pamela Circle neighbors would have done in a similar situation, but come up short. The difference, on Pamela Circle, was that we did not neighbor alone. We worked together, helped each other, grieved together. Alone, I am not enough.
Jimmy’s family lives in California. His parents are elderly, his sister’s husband suffers from Parkinson’s. None of them are able to give Jimmy the care he needs. He is alone, with the exception of Wally, and us, his neighbors. I call the landlord after each incident. He has known Jimmy for years, and I beg him to get involved in supporting Jimmy, but he lives in Florida, and isn’t able to grasp the severity of the situation. I call Wally, say that I know it is awkward because they are broken up, but that I don’t know who else to call. We commiserate about Jimmy’s addiction, but Wally feels conflicted about how to help without getting re-enmeshed in an unhealthy relationship.
When I call the local police station seeking help on the evening when Jimmy is rolling around in the foyer, they say there is nothing they can do about a person who is drunk within their own house, and suggest that next time, I keep him locked out of the building completely so that he can be arrested for public drunkenness. I am shocked by their callousness, and by the failure of our society to have any other kind of safety net for people struggling with addiction. Am I the only safety net? How can this possibly be the case?
Based on previous experience, I am unconvinced that I can keep him from getting in his car on this day in May. At Laura’s insistence, and remembering the police officer’s advice about seeking support when Jimmy is outside the house, I call 911 on my neighbor for the fifth and final time.
“My downstairs neighbor has consumed at least one, and most likely two, full-size bottles of vodka within the last three hours,” I tell the dispatcher. “He is at his car now, trying to get the door to close so that he can drive. He has already wrecked one car while drunk, and I am frightened that he may hurt himself or someone else.”
I wait at the window. Watch as the police pull up to the intersection of Boylston and St. Peter and approach Jimmy. They talk to him gently for over thirty minutes, distracting him away from his car every time he attempts to return to the driver’s seat. Eventually, an ambulance comes, and Jimmy is strapped on to the stretcher, an image that I have become far too accustomed to seeing. One of the officers on the scene calls me and tells me they have gotten Jimmy a bed at a residential rehab program, and that he will be away for three weeks.
I have called the police on my neighbor and gotten him institutionalized. I do not know how I should feel about this fact.
I learned to love my Pamela Circle neighbors deeply, more, perhaps, than I even loved members of my own family. Each loss on our street—Mr. Starcher getting hit by a train, Mr. Carney dying from lung cancer, Mr. Withrow dying in his sleep, Brian taking his own life—has been a source of profound and sustained grief. One we still talk about with sorrow today. Yet those relationships had depth long before death, held a kind of emotional equality that I never found with my downstairs neighbor, even though he, too, would leave plastic bags bulging with produce hanging on my doorknob after his trips to Haymarket.
Indeed, on Boylston street in Boston, where I have lived for the last ten years, I am barely able to name the neighbors who live in the four houses directly adjacent to mine. I only know the house next door as the “clown house” because one of the women who lives there occasionally comes out dressed as a clown. I know they vote Republican because of their lawn signs. That they used to drive a car service until the old man totaled his car turning the corner. I heard the crash, watched his car get towed home, and still did not find a way to engage with him. I have no memories with these neighbors, only memories of them.
Even within my own house, it’s difficult to describe my relationship with my neighbors as anything more than civil. My first floor neighbor owns the driveway, has no car, and yet refuses to let us park there unless we pay her money. At various points, she attempted to micromanage the laundry schedule because she claimed the spin cycle running on the third floor disrupted her life on the first floor. We walk on eggshells—the very opposite of what Manjufoi said is supposed to happen with the people you live alongside.
I tried to figure out how to support Jimmy in the best ways I knew. I googled addiction support resources. I talked to a colleague whose son struggled with addiction. Again and again, I got the same answer: you can’t help someone who isn’t ready to get help themselves. And while I understood this, it also filled me with despair.
Being neighborly on Pamela Circle had meant keeping doors unlocked and fridges stocked. I ate pickle sandwiches and chocolate pudding at Mrs. Carney’s house nearly every day after school because she bought the groceries my parents never would. It meant that no one complained when I started pounding my basketball on the pavement at 8 a.m.; instead they came out to play with me. The saying “good fences make good neighbors” has never really made sense to me, because on Pamela Circle, the lines separating neighbor from friend, and friend from family, completely faded away.
But here in Boston, in the context of addiction, everything I was reading and being told urged me to do the opposite: To maintain a firm boundary. To seek punitive measures because no corrective ones existed. Was I just supposed to watch Jimmy descend into a death spiral, killing himself just a little bit more with each bottle of liquor he consumed?
Later that year, Laura and I awoke at 3 a.m. to the sound of a horrible crash on the second floor. An ambulance was at the house within minutes. We learned the next day from the landlord that Jimmy had suffered an alcohol-induced seizure, and almost choked on his own tongue. He was hospitalized for a few days, enough time to enter withdrawal, then discharged. Within days of him being home, I saw empty nips thrown beneath the bushes in our yard.
As these incidents increased in frequency, I dreaded going home, dreaded seeing my neighbors. My feelings about 41 Boylston Street stood in direct contrast to my feelings about 5303 Pamela Circle. Pamela Circle was home, and the place where I knew how to be my best self. At Boylston Street, I only felt like I was failing. The skillset my West Virginia neighbors equipped me with, perfect for virtually every social situation, did me no good when it came to Jimmy.
The doorbell rings at 5 a.m. It is insistent, alternating between the bell for our unit and the bell for the first floor. I know without looking that it is Jimmy. That he has signed himself out of the rehab facility within less than 12 hours of being admitted, and is back to drink some more. The police have taken his keys, so he has no way in to the apartment. He needs us to let him in, but I am full of shame for having called the police on him, and anger at him for not accepting the help he needs.
I feel my jaw lock into its stubborn position. Refuse to answer the door. The fact that he continues to ring the bell incessantly indicates that my first floor neighbor feels the same way. She, too, is exhausted by this cycle of drunkenness, police and ambulance involvement, apologies, and further drunkenness. It is warm outside, and I will leave for school within an hour. I want to punish him. I want to make him wait.
The bell rings and rings and rings for the next hour. I twist in the sheets and seethe. At Jimmy. At myself. I am theoretically full of empathy for people who struggle with addiction. I teach my students about the difference between seeing addiction as a failing or crime, and seeing it as an illness. We learn about decriminalization, safe injection sites, Narcan, all of the ways in which our society could do better by those struggling with addiction. And yet with Jimmy, my empathy reserves are depleted. Worn down by too many instances of seeing his body writhing on the floor, too many 911 calls, too many bouquets of guilt-scented flowers and apology-filled cards, only to be followed by yet another instance of self-destructive drunkenness.
I unlock the door at 6:20 when I leave the house, brush past him without speaking. We will not see each other again before he moves out, evicted by the landlord who has tired of my calls.
When I run my mental checklist of actions I could have taken on Jimmy’s behalf, there is only one that remains unticked. What if I erased the line between neighbor and friend, and confronted him? I imagine going downstairs one evening, knocking on the french doors to his apartment, addressing him directly. “You’re sick, Jimmy,” I tell him. “You need help. Let me get you help.”
Would he have been sober enough to hear me? Even if he were, would my words have mattered? Wally told him those very words a hundred times, and in the end, it was Wally who ended up leaving, not Jimmy who ended up going to rehab. Difficult though it is to admit, I am unsure that I possessed the skill, the words, or the knowledge needed to do for Jimmy what he was unable to do for himself.
What is it that causes this disconnect for me between knowing what it means to be a good neighbor, and actually being able to be a good neighbor to someone like Jimmy? I want to blame it on New England snobbery and urban living, this fast-paced, closed-door existence that leaves no time for sitting on porches, no space for holding people as they struggle. I want to indict our society’s flawed approach towards addiction. I want it not to be a personal failing that has caused me to fail Jimmy, and yet I’m not entirely convinced this is the case.
Even now, the only time Boylston Street feels like Pamela Circle is during a blizzard. Then, Joe from across the street will pull out his snowblower and clear the sidewalks for everyone on the block, the way Mr. Starcher used to loan out his pick-up truck for all of the neighborhood to haul away brush. Then, Anne from next door will invite us over for tea, or we will ask her over for an impromptu dinner, the way my mom used to walk down to the Carneys’ house for a cup of coffee, or Mr. Turner used to come over on Fridays for pizza. Then I will keep shoveling past my patch of concrete to clear the way for the folks from the clown house, the way I used to clear the driveways of the elderly on Pamela Circle, even when they told me that doing so was “bad for my ovaries”. We know how to be good neighbors to each other when faced with natural calamity here on Boylston Street. Human calamity, it would seem, is more difficult to navigate.
Last week, Wally called me. I knew what had happened the moment I saw his number on my missed calls. He told me that he hadn’t heard from Jimmy in several days, went to check on him, and found him not breathing. That though there would be no autopsy, the EMTs suggested the cause of death was liver failure. I wondered if in fact he had suffered another seizure, choked on his tongue because none of us were there to call 911.
I sat in my car on the phone with Wally for an hour. Listened as he talked about Jimmy’s downward spiral after moving out. As he recounted that the last two numbers Jimmy dialed before dying were his, and that of a rehab facility in Vermont. I learned that he was 25, and Jimmy 45, when they first got together. That their relationship, so ravaged by alcoholism, was the only serious one he had ever been in. He talked about spending time with his brother and his brother’s girlfriend after Jimmy’s death because he didn’t want to be alone. About watching them cook dinner together, and realizing that his relationship with Jimmy had never felt that balanced. Wally’s voice was full of caregiver’s guilt, and no matter how hard I tried to absolve him, that guilt never dissipated. Before he hung up, he told me that he was planning Jimmy’s memorial service, because there was no one else to plan it.
“Have you ever talked to a counselor about your relationship?” I asked.
“You’re the first person I’ve ever said these things to,” he told me. “And given how much better I feel after this conversation, I’m wondering if maybe I should go to see someone.”
I never found the right way to support Jimmy. In truth, I’ve come to the conclusion that some situations are too complex for even the most willing neighbor to navigate alone. But for supporting Wally, at least, the lessons I learned on Pamela Circle still held true. Be present. Listen well. Share your bounties. Look for ways to help.
So it is that I still cling to the blizzards each winter as a sign of the possibility for community that exists on our street, though it is as yet unmanifested. A sign of the possibility that Boylston Street can one day be for me what Pamela Circle once was, and that we can learn to love each other through human calamity just as we do through natural calamity.