Sunday, January 22, 2012

Goodbye, Mr. Fence

Some four decades ago, a family moved into the old neighborhood. They purchased a Tudor-style single-family house. It bordered on the extended communal backyard of three-family homes where I grew up and where I played wiffle ball, catch, and touch football.

The new family on the block was an odd one. The parents were older and so were their three sons. There were thus no tailor-made bonds between them and us. The patriarch of the family was actually kind of scary. I think he liked to drink a little more than he should have, and also suspect he was a bit off. It seemed the man’s abiding obsession was tending to the fence at the end of our shared backyards, so that no one could even look into—never mind enter—his. He was constantly patching it up. In those days in the Bronx’s Kingsbridge, patchwork fences were pretty commonplace. Aesthetic appeal took a back seat to utilitarianism almost every time. Still, it just couldn't be helped. Our various spaldeens, hockey pucks, and rubber hard balls from our lengthy concrete play land often pelted his revered fence and the fence owner did not like it—not one bit.

The ten-year-old me assigned our mysterious neighbor the moniker: “Mr. Fence.” The family was so detached and secretive that most of us on the block didn’t even know their surname. So, some of the locals came to believe the family’s last name was actually “Fence.” I recall overhearing an elderly neighbor of mine saying that she saw “Mr. Fence” at Sunday Mass, and the little me felt sort of proud at having infused this almost-sinister local character with, if you will, character.

Mrs. Fence, on the other hand, mostly stayed indoors. Eventually, she made a friend with another standoffish neighbor, who gleefully reported to one and all how Mrs. Fence believed what an unfriendly neighborhood, with very unfriendly people, we lived in. At some point in time, my brother and I were peddling on our front stoop smooth-looking rocks that we had amassed —I think along the Jersey Shore where we vacationed—and painted, adding slogans to a few of them like “New York, the Big Apple.”

When Mr. Fence plucked down a quarter for a “New York, the Big Apple” rock, I never again saw him in quite the same negative light. I was certain he didn’t really want a not especially special stone with the words “New York, the Big Apple” scrawled on it with magic markers. The man went out in style. I will thus remember my customer, Mr. Fence, and not the guy who had the trunk of his car searched by the police for a gun—that some Exxon gas station attendant down the block had reported seeing during a routine inspection. Goodbye, Mr. Fence…and thank you for the business.

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