I'm a little obsessed with first impressions. I think this is common for the unemployed because we're reminded by the job "experts" that everyone we meet is a potential networking contact. So recently, when I had my first encounter with the new neighbor across the street, I was extremely kind. Because he? Was not a happy man.
He was angry. Understandably so, of course. His basement had flooded and he wanted someone to pay for the repairs and losses. He was convinced that the fault lay behind the culvert that lays between our property and the one next door. It backed up and caused the water to pool in his yard, eventually seeping into his his garage and basement family room.
I listened and empathized with him. But hadn't the former owners told them of the flooding issue? No. That sucks. He should definitely report that to the realtor at least because nondisclosure is punishable, I think. He'd call the realtor.
Still I had the detached attitude of a bystander and a renter. Sure, I'd call my landlord and let him know to expect a call. Their loss across the street didn't affect me, but I felt awful for them. And angry for them, too. The people who sold them the house used to fuss at me to keep the neighborhood kids from playing in the culvert because they left debris there that clogged the pipe and led to some flooding. I reminded the kids all the time to stay out of the ditch. But kid debris - discarded soda cans, candy wrappers, and popsicle sticks weren't the issue. A ton of soil had clogged the pipe. The walls of the culvert were nothing but red Georgia clay.
I walked away from the encounter feeling sorry for the guy, but thinking he sounded like a dick and glad my landlord would have to deal with the headaches.
Fast forward a few days. I was out mowing and the new neighbor pulled into his driveway. When he got out, I waved, removed my earbuds and asked him if he'd gotten in touch with our landlord.
He crossed the street and told me where things stood. Things seemed to be moving along reasonably well. Another neighbor was using his tractor to remove the soil and the city was looking it fixing it. I was glad for him, but still. What a loss.
I asked him what he did for a living, a sad opening, but it was all I had. He was coming home from work. A little embarrassed, he told me how he worked for a company that does something with sewage and septic tanks. I probably smell bad, he tugged at the sleeve of his blue work shirt.
Not at all. Hell, I was mowing and hadn't had a shower all day so who was I to notice?
I pulled another conversation thread and the story unraveled. His job was okay, paid the bills, but it wasn't what he wanted to be doing. He was thinking about going back to school to be a teacher. He loved economics. When he got out of the military - he'd had multiple deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan - he was surprised to learn that he couldn't get a job in law enforcement because he'd never pass the psychological exam. Three different police departments told him that.
He'd been discharged honorably after a severe injury. He was part of a convoy that was attacked by IEDs. His humvee ran over one and exploded everyone was killed but him and one other soldier. He had shrapnel embedded in his body.
He talked about the choices we make. He'd initially gone to Georgia Tech on a baseball scholarship and to study engineering. Something didn't work out with baseball and he told the coach to keep his scholarship and walked away from school. Joined the military because there weren't a ton of options and besides then he could travel.
He didn't foresee 9/11 or what our country would do in response. Nevertheless, he loved the military and served a long time. Now he was married to a woman he'd met a year ago and was a stepdad to three kids. His wife, like me, was looking for a job.
Here he was. The man I met before was reaction and emotion. He had every reason to be angry. Now he was interesting and funny and earnest like you'd expect someone to be after they've lived the life he has. I was the glad that I'd been empathetic to him during that first meeting because if I'd responded to his frustration with anger, had taken what he said personally, we might never have had this conversation.
As a writer, one of the most important things I can do on any given day is listen. He didn't realize it at the time that he was offering me the gift of his story. Later he asked me what I did for a living and I hesitated to tell him that I'm a writer. It's an awkward moment for me. I told him about that I worked in association management before I was laid off. He asked what I was doing these days. I suspected he was comparing my situation to his wife's?
Looking. And writing. I paused.
Oh? Writing what?
A little of this and that. Working on a novel, I blog.
That's cool. A novel? He waited, but I didn't say anything, changed the subject instead.
Better get back to mowing.
Neighbors become friends. Angry men become heroes. Stories get told.