Friday, January 19, 2007

Dark Day on Ivy Drive

Working at home means I know what goes on around the block during working hours. The woman who lives across the street may wonder what Buddy, her white terrier, does all day alone while she’s at work, but I know. (A lot of standing on the couch, making nose prints on the window, and barking at people walking by.) It’s dark when Moustache’s owners get home, but I know where the patch of sun was that he spent his day in. (He likes to park his large, black-and-white caboose next to a bunch of white flowers in the garden next door to where he lives. I think he thinks he’s hiding but it takes more than a spray of daisies to camouflage an 18-pound cat.)

I see the stay-at-home dad leave a couple of times a day with his toddler son (so much for the labels we put on people). I see the Asian couple with their conical hats going through the recycling bins. I see the guy down the street pull his BMW out of the garage on nice summer days and park it on the street, where he tinkers with it for several hours while listening to the Giants on the radio. He always knocks off in the late afternoon, opening up the parking space to the first of the nine-to-fivers returning home. They probably don’t even know he does this. If they even give it a thought, they probably assume the space has been wide open since early morning, because who comes to visit this residential neighborhood during working hours?

I see all these things, the charming pet behavior, the furtive immigrants smelting a living from our refuse, and the comings and goings of the other people on my street who, like me, don’t seem to have anywhere else they really need to be during the day. I see all these activities, and I follow them, because the sometimes banal, sometimes eccentric pastimes of my neighbors fill a niche I might otherwise be filling with daytime television.

Yesterday, though, was a little different.

“There’s been an accident with one of your neighbors,” the officer told me. I wasn’t exactly surprised—even in Oakland, you don’t glance out the window to find multiple police cars on your street unless something is very wrong. There had been three cars, one parked hurriedly at a skewed angle, partially blocking the street. A blond woman was standing on the sidewalk, talking to one of the officers. From my third-floor nook, I couldn’t hear what she was saying, but I could see she was in tears. She motioned for the officer to follow her up a short flight of stone stairs into a courtyard. Halfway up the stairs, she suddenly dropped to a crouch and took her head in her hands. In a moment, the spasm of grief passed, and she and the policeman continued up the stairs, along a pathway through the courtyard, and out of my sight.

The officer in blue hesitated a moment after informing me of the accident. I hesitated, too, uncertain whether or not I had the right to ask what kind of accident required the services of seven police cars—the three parked on my street, plus four more I’d just discovered around the corner. An empty, idle ambulance stood by as well. It was the largest collection of emergency vehicles I’d seen in a long time. When my car got broken into a few years ago, no cruisers were dispatched—an operator took my name, and it took days for someone from the police department to call me back to take my report. Once I was involved in a three-car accident. The police arrived quickly that time, but only two officers came, with just one car.

We both stood there in awkward silence, and it was then I realized that silence was another oddity. Shouldn’t seven police cars and an ambulance make noise? I hadn’t heard a single siren all morning. What kind of accident requires such a huge emergency response but no sense of urgency? My sense of dread mounted. I shuffled my feet uncomfortably. The officer was dressed so smartly, and I was wearing sweats and the wild hair I’d slept in. I almost hadn’t come out to talk to her at all, embarrassed by my disheveled appearance and the fact that if she asked what I’d been up to that morning, I couldn’t really say. Here she had already dealt with some kind of incident and begun an investigation, and I had nothing to show for my morning but a crumpled newspaper and clean breakfast dishes. I’d meant to go for a walk right after breakfast, but I’d been preoccupied by the police presence. If she’d asked me what I’d been doing for the past half hour, I would have had to say, “Pacing the bedroom and trying to eavesdrop on you.”

If she’d asked me if I’d seen or heard anything out of the ordinary, I’d have said no, except for the sound I’d heard while reading the paper on the couch. It had sounded kind of like a cat yowling, and sort of like a baby crying. I’d thought to check it out, but it sounded far away, and we have a neighborhood stray cat that makes a lot of noise for no reason, so I didn’t think an investigation would turn up anything unusual. Besides, I still had coffee to drink and it couldn’t really have been a woman shrieking. That kind of thing doesn’t happen on my street.

It was the officer who spoke first, answering my unspoken question about the nature of the accident. “Actually, your neighbor seems to have taken his own life.”

I think I gasped. “That’s horrible,” was all I could think to say. “Yes,” she said, “It is.” She gave me a sad smile and put a hand on my shoulder. Had she done this for the crying woman, too? I wondered how she could stay in touch with her compassion in her line of work without burning out. She must have to preside over “accident” scenes all the time. “You might not want to go down that street,” she suggested, gesturing toward the ambulance and the knot of uniformed men and women milling around it.

Was it a gory scene? I don’t know—I took her advice and didn’t venture around the corner until much later in the day. By that time the police had gone, as well as the ambulance. If there was a coroner’s van, I missed that, too. The tearful blond was nowhere to be seen. I expected yellow caution tape, but didn’t see any. Aside from myself, there were no gawkers. You would never know anything had happened.

Later still, my other neighbors would start straggling home, greeting their pets and reclaiming their street parking without ever knowing that Buddy had spent the morning exchanging barks with a K-9 Unit German Shepherd, or that the last car in their parking place was black and white with flashing lights. Unless they knew the blond lady personally, most people were—and probably still are--completely unaware of the tragedy that came out of nowhere like a meteorite falling into a pond, leaving behind concentric shock rings slowly dissipating, by dinnertime becoming so small as to be undetectable to someone who hadn’t seen it happen.


Rona Fernandez said...

Wow, I live on this street, in a building across and a few doors down from the one where the white-Beamer guy lives (I'm 90% sure anyway). This is crazy. I definitely wouldn't have known what was going on because I'm one of the 9-to-5ers who is gone most of the day during the week. Thanks for this, and for your great writing. If you still live on Ivy maybe I'll see you around the neighborhood sometime.

Nicole said...

Hi, Neighbor!

Thanks so much for posting a message--and for your kind words. I do still live on Ivy. The BMW I'm thinking of is black or gray, not white, but we can't live all that far apart--it's not a long street!

A couple of summers ago there was a neighborhood block party. I hope they do that again. I'm kind of a hermit and shy about meeting neighbors, but that was a really good way to put names with the faces I see all the time.