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The Madame Next Door

Facebook is wonderful if, like me, you were raised in an eccentric town during a remarkable era. Simply looking at photos of old classmates can send you back in time. Manhattan Beach in the 70’s was a bastion of suspended childhood. Shoes and shaving were completely optional. If you were lucky enough to get your turn in the front seat you were just as likely to lose it to a hitch hiker. Which never made sense to me. It seemed to me that they were lucky to get the ride at all and the back seat would be adequate. Plus, they smelled.

Our neighborhood was interesting. Caddy corner to our own home was a rental that seemed to always feature pit bulls that would run though the streets as fast as any car. We’d lock ourselves inside until we’d see the dog returned to their house. Right down the road in Inglewood our father was working for a family whose 2 year old child had been killed by a Pit Bull. We had good reason to fear those dogs.

Across the street were some ex drug users who formed their own church. They loved Jesus and wanted us to love Jesus too. Just a few days after I turned ten they were outside tending to a non existent garden and said, “Did you hear? The president’s been shot.” And I let myself in the front door and waited for my mother to get home feeling terrified. If someone could shoot the president they could blow me off the face of the map. They also talked to me about hell a lot. Those neighbors were scarier than the Pit Bull Neighbors.

Next to us was a lady who was about five feet tall and possibly four feet wide. She had grey hair that reached to her waist and was occasionally tied upon her head. She talked a lot about communism, it’s merits and the Spanish Civil War. She always wore a mumu and most often a flower in her hair to match the mumu. The flowers were always picked from someone else’s garden. I remember her nipples because she never wore a bra and they always seemed to be pointing at me.

The scouting family four houses down had their yard dug up by the police during the McMartin trial. They were looking for animal remains and I hoped for their sake that they’d been more successful with hamsters than we’d been. We didn’t know how to talk to their kids during those weeks, so we didn’t. We all just sort of played and didn’t talk.

Around the corner my brother had a friend whose mother would always chat with me. Instead of going to Hebrew school I’d sit on her sofa while she sipped champagne and smoked a tiny joint, “Just a pinner in the afternoon.” And she’d talk to me like I was an adult. She was a hulk of a woman, over six feet tall with a puffy but kind face, grey hair, blue eyes and never a stitch of makeup. Her husband was slight and unassuming and her boys were younger than I by a year or two. Four o’clock was a good time to pop in there. She’d always feed me too. Stoner food mostly, it was enjoyable and even in retrospect it doesn’t seem all that strange.

My neighbor next door was one of the only women of color that Manhattan Beach hosted. She lived alone in a modern home that could only be described as slick. Unlike every other lady in town she was not a hippie so my brother and I would go over there for a visit and get sodas from behind her bar. She’d sit and chat with us. She had exotic food like white bread and bologna, things that our family would never have.

Behind the bar our neighbor had a neon sign that said, “Foxy” in pink script. It was her nickname. In addition to being black (which automatically made her exotic in a town where my family was the diversity) she was tall and wore enormous headscarves. As a child I wondered why she’d chosen Foxy instead of Nefertiti, she looked like Nefertiti to me.

Foxy had a name but I can’t recall it. It was ordinary like Susan or Ruth. She’d let us in the door for our sodas in the afternoon (or on a lucky weekend in the morning) and warn us that she had a Gentleman Friend coming to visit at exactly 2 o’clock so we’d need to leave. In the event that he was early we were given explicit directions to call her Foxy, not her real name, Susan or Ruth. We never forgot to call her Foxy in front of her Gentlemen Friends. She did have a lot of them and we saw a few of the same friends more than once. I never saw a woman visit Foxy or Susan or Ruth.

Our neighbors now are much less interesting. Partly because I’m home and partly because the kids don’t walk to school they won’t be poking their heads into a bunch of living rooms. They won’t be scared of Pit Bulls or Jesus Freaks and they’re unlikely to befriend a madame with cheekbones that looked like they were carved from stone.

I’m pretty sure we have a local communist though. That should help keep their childhood interesting.