I grew up, and lived most of my adult life, in a wealthy “bedroom community” suburb of New York City. This was a place of old and stately homes; beautiful Victorians and Colonial style houses built in the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries. In the 1950’s there was another spate of building as some of the larger lots were broken up and sold to accommodate smaller, newer, less grand but still nice houses. It was an easy commute by train to the heart of Manhattan and the financial and business centers of the world.
I had little understanding or appreciation of some of the legal restrictions required of those who lived there until my husband and I had our own tiny house in the town. We lived across the street from a single man who kept his property well, but was something of a character. Unlike many of his neighbors who had lived there for decades, I knew little of his past and thus was one of the few people who bothered to make an effort to talk to him, despite his reputation as a recluse of sorts.
One summer he decided to take advantage of the early morning light and mow his lawn before going off to work. It was light, alright, but it was 6:00am when he decided to fire up his very noisy, though thorough, mower. The first time this happened I didn’t think much of it as I had young kids who woke with the light anyway. The second time I did find it annoying. The third time I actually thought about going out and telling him he ought to consider mowing at a more reasonable time for making that half hour of racket.
Someone else must have had the same idea, for as I listened to the mower I heard it stop abruptly in the middle of mowing, far less time than he usually spent to do his lawn. I looked out the window and saw a police car stopped in front of his house. A policeman and my neighbor were engaged in conversation. The mower went back in the garage, and the policeman drove away. I later found out that there was a noise ordinance in the town. You had to wait until 8:00am to make such untoward noise or you would be subject to a fine. The man never mowed his lawn so early again.
I live in a tiny little town in northern Colorado now. I live in a new subdivision, subject to the noise of all kinds of construction machines as new houses are packed into the available little lots as the housing economy recovers. The rumble of dump trucks, cement mixers, excavators and front loaders permeates the air on nice days between the snow storms. With few exceptions, this has rarely bothered me.
This morning, however, was not the case. I normally get up early because I like to spend time in the quiet as dawn begins to sit in my healing room and meditate. I had neglected to set my alarm and thus was still in bed as the gray twilight peeked around the edges of my window. I felt more than heard the deep rumble shaking my house. “What the hell is the matter with my furnace?” I thought as I started awake. Another second or two passed and I realized it wasn’t my furnace.
I hastily dressed and raised the shade so I could see outside. A few feet off my back fence a huge truck, the kind that have the long arms that unfold to pump cement through a hose into foundations, sat humming, its red trailer lights on in the dark. A rumble and grind continued as a cement mixer backed up to the pumper, its lights on, too. It was 6:10am. They were coming to pour the floor of the basement of the house going in catty-corner to my lot. The vibration continued as they waited for it to get light enough to pour the cement.
“Really?” I thought. “What time did these guys have to start their day to come pouring cement in a residential neighborhood before first light?”
It bothered me a lot more than listening to a lawnmower on a summer morning. I thought of firing off a letter to the editor of the local paper. I thought about going to the town hall to register a complaint. I like to let my opinion about things like this be known. I like the sovereignty of my personal space undisturbed. I am much older now, and oh so much less flexible than that long-ago young mother. Besides, it’s winter. According to me they shouldn’t be building now, anyway.
I also know how futile my complaint will be. I tried once before to register a complaint at town hall. The house next door is unlike the others in the neighborhood. It’s a tiny little house built on a cement slab without a basement at all. A huge machine came one day to tamp the ground into rock-like solidity so the slab wouldn’t shift as I was typing in the basement bedroom that was my writing space. The ground shook with each resounding stamp of the iron rectangle on the arm of the machine. I could see the vibration in the wall next to me. I imagined a crack appearing somewhere and how thrilled I would be.
I hightailed it to town hall to complain. That’s all I wanted, was to complain. I was blown off and told to come back in an hour when someone would be back from lunch. It wasn’t lunchtime, but I did come back in an hour even though I suspected they hoped I wouldn’t.
I was met with a resolute little woman, a member of the town board, who was anything but sympathetic. She didn’t introduce herself or ask me my name, but I knew who she was. She didn’t even invite me into her office to speak, but chose instead to stand in the middle of the open space among the various secretaries with her hands on her hips as I spoke. She didn’t invite me to sit in one of the chairs nearby, either, these simple courtesies even an oaf should realize would at least partially defuse a disgruntled homeowner.
I know how to be polite. I didn’t raise my voice, or say anything untoward. I told her my story. I asked if there was any place at all to register a complaint. I asked when she didn’t respond if my only alternative was to write the town paper.
“You should have known when you bought your house that there would be construction noise in your area,” she snorted. “Besides, the worst that’s ever happened is a picture fell off the wall in a house next to one of those machines.”
“So I’m not the only one who has ever complained,” I thought.
I didn’t say any of the things that went through my mind, the least of which was to chastise her for her perceived lack of civility as a member of the town board. “You really shouldn’t piss off a writer,” I thought. “Especially an ex-New Yorker.”
Ultimately, other than complain to a couple of my neighbors, only one of whom owned the house in which they lived at the time, I did nothing. I could feel the futility of continuing any conversation with this person. It wasn’t my place to give this woman a lesson in etiquette, much less become irate at her behavior. I was proud of myself for not “picking up the rope,” as they say.
I found out later, as a partial explanation of her behavior, perhaps, that she is the mother of the guy who built the house next door.
So this morning I stood on my little patio, coffee cup in hand, and watched the floor being poured in the house behind me. Eventually the light got strong enough to illuminate what they were doing and I found it entertaining to stand there and watch for a little while.
Three truckloads of cement later and they were done. The arm of the cement pouring machine folded up neatly. It was exactly 8:00am when the last truck drove away. So much for country life.