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Neighbour Watching in a Pandemic

Some people observe birds. I observe the man next door who’s in love with his lawnmower.

Dorothy Woodend 16 Jul 2020 | TheTyee.ca

Dorothy Woodend is culture editor of The Tyee. Reach her here.

In Alfred Hitchcock’s famous film Rear Window, Jimmy Stewart plays a photographer by the name of L.B. Jefferies. Jeffries is recuperating from a broken leg and spends his confinement days watching his neighbours on the back lane. It’s a curious cross-section of urban life.

In one apartment, a couple of newlyweds pull down the shades and get busy. In another, a young dancer minces about in panties and a brassiere. In yet another, a man kills and dismembers his wife.

Lurid, voyeuristic and a bit creepy, the film is also plenty of fun.

The pandemic has turned me into a female Stewart. I’ve been spying on the neighbours, pondering on the curious things they get up to. So far, there hasn’t been anything murdery — yet.

The closest is a gang of crows (a murder of sorts) that’s taken to dive-bombing unwary souls wandering down the lane. Crow attacks aren’t uncommon in Vancouver, but they’re usually seasonal, limited to the weeks when parents are busy building nests and raising babies. This gang just seems to get off on scaring the living daylights out of people.

They got me good the other day, swooping down, cawing with blood-thirsty intent. I screamed and ran, much to their apparent delight. While I cowered under the car port, shaking my fist and yelling, they perched on the roof of the house next door. If birds can laugh, that’s what they seemed to be doing. Nature may be healing, but nature is also something of an a-hole.

Most of the time life in the back lane is reasonably quiet, except for the guy next door who’s involved in a passionate affair with his lawnmower. This man-machine relationship reaches a furious apotheosis every few days, when he fires up his mower and begins to whack the weeds with an effusiveness that’s frankly unseemly to watch. This doesn’t mean that I don’t. I’ll take what I can get in terms of entertainment lately. It’s only when he does it at 9 p.m. that I give him the hairy eyeball. But lawnmower love knows no shame.

His wife carries on with the family dog, which is approximately the size of a postage stamp but packs an outsized bark. A few times a day, woman and dog go on a walkabout. When they’re gone, the man steals out to the tool shed to visit his mechanical girlfriend. At least I think that’s what he’s doing. I should use one of Jimmy Stewart’s long-lens cameras, the kind he uses to spy on the murderer in Rear Window, to get a better look at what’s actually going on in that shed.

On the other side of the lane, an elderly lady in exciting muumuus spends a good portion of her time piling up junk outside her garage. Most of it is kind of normal, a bunch of tarps, cardboard boxes and a huge white barrel. But other times there are stranger things, such as a backpack perched on a pair of antique wooden chairs like some Waiting for Godot visitation. It’s not even so much the stuff itself as the time and dedication spent poking about in this collection, moving bits and pieces around. Adding, taking away, like an artist working on an installation, each component playing a critical role.

Further down the lane, a younger couple spent the better portion of winter installing a hot tub in their backyard. It was an extensive project involving large pieces of machinery, stone pavers and soil fill. As the project got closer to completion, they added a high cedar fence that effectively shielded the tub from view. But of course, you can still hear the bubbling action if you happen by. Whether or not anything kinky is happening in the hot tub, or just some good clean fun, depends on your state of mind.

Then there are the houses where the drapes remain resolutely closed. Sometimes cars come and go, but you never see who actually lives there. This brings on all kinds of Boo Radley notions about the mysterious residents caught only in fleeting glimpses, a curtain quickly closed, a light burning in the uppermost window. Drug dealers, a satanic cult or a Miss Havisham-type scenario? Your guess is as good as mine.

For those that share too little, there’s also those who share too much, like the folks who hang up their underpants on the clothes line or the guy who’s obsessed with teenage hoodlums and won’t stop talking about all their nefarious doings, even as you’re looking at your watch and edging away.

What has this extended period of close observation provided? Only that people are deeply weird and totally banal, all at the same time. In making his movies Hitchcock took inspiration from Freud’s theory on the uncanny, which argues that we project our own dark thoughts on perfectly innocent objects and surroundings. But as Hitchcock well knew, everything can be turned into a story, and it’s in the combination of the strange and the ordinary where the most compelling tales arise.

If I’m watching the neighbours, in all likelihood they’re also watching me and my family. What are they seeing, I wonder? A woman staring and sketching in a notebook, a gangly youth wearing a groove in the lawn obsessively practising his golf swing, and a lot of family dinners in the carport that consist of arguments about which generation is the most annoying. Or maybe something more?  [Tyee]

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