The Other Side of the Screen

We just got rid of a problem neighbour, and I must say I was delighted to see her go. It started sporadically—the parties, the cars, the shouting matches and blasting stereos—and then it became a nightly occurrence. It also became evident at some point that the woman was not just living her life in the way she found most pleasant, but that she was taking a sadistic delight in tormenting her immediate neighbours, the families who had the misfortune of living on either side of her.

Finally there was an all-night party on the front porch in the middle of the week. The police were called and took the complaints of several neighbours who had congregated on the street in front of the house in question. The cops left, everyone else went home, but the shouting and music continued unabated until 9 a.m. As each of our neighbours left for work that morning, some of them with children in tow, they were cursed at high volume and maximum foulness by three women on the porch of Party Central.

The next night, the woman who was renting the house came out onto the street at 1:30 a.m. and advised a friend waiting there in an idling car to rev it up for as long and as loud as he could and then to circle the block and do it some more. He followed her instructions to the letter for the next hour or so, throwing in a few toots on the horn and cranking up his stereo for good measure, while she and her friends cheered from the front porch. After that it was only a matter of time. More charges were laid with the police and complaints made to the city councilor, and a petition was circulated and signed by every adult on both sides of the street. The woman renting the house was on welfare and hadn’t paid her rent in months anyway, so before another week went by she and her friends were history.

All this time, however, mingling with the exclamation points who lived their lives so stridently on that porch, there was a question mark who went in and out the front door almost unnoticed, a four-year-old boy whom I’ll call Timothy. At the height of the excitement, my wife was talking with a group of neighbours, and one of the men said, “That poor kid doesn’t stand a chance. They might as well take him out right now and shoot him.”

The horrible thing is not that someone should make such a statement, but that it happens to be true. I had just finished editing a textbook on delinquency and was familiar with the theory and statistics. The kid’s future, by any standard of judgement, is dismal. Statistics tell us that a child raised in the sort of environment Timothy is enduring has little chance of finishing high school, of working at anything more than the most menial of jobs, or of enjoying anything but abusive relationships with women. In fact, we don’t need a crystal ball or a tenured academic to tell us that Timothy will probably spend a good part of his life in prison.

A couple of months ago, I was reading at the dining-room table when the doorbell rang. Looking up, I could see the form of a child through the screen door. I called my son down from his bedroom. He went to the door, and I could hear him say, “Go home, I don’t want to play with you.”

I was dumbfounded. “Who was that?” I said. It was Timothy, and my son did not want to play with him because Timothy was in the habit of punching the other children. “He’s only four years old,” I said. “You’re six. How bad can the punches be?”

“It’s not just that he punches,” said my son. “He’s nasty.”

I was reminded of a cat that bedevilled my wife and me on a vacation we took several years ago in the Florida Keys. We wound up staying in an old fishing camp just outside Marathon that the owners had taken to advertising as a beach resort. It was a hole. The beach consisted of thirty yards of mud flat that had been carved out of a mangrove swamp. The water was two feet deep. When I complained it was impossible to swim there, the manager directed us to the boat ramp, where the water was filmed with gasoline and dotted with fish heads.

The genius loci was an emaciated cat with matted fur that crawled out from under the screened porch of our cabin when we first drove up. It followed us everywhere with a sort of demented faithfulness, but since it was literally jumping with fleas, we did everything we could to keep it at bay.

The first night we were having a beer on the screened porch. Even with the breeze off the Atlantic, it was sweltering. The mud flat stank; fleas bit us on the legs, mosquitoes on the arms. There was a long silence while we savoured the realization that we couldn’t have found a worse place to stay if we had tried with all our might. Then the cat meowed. It was sitting on the other side of the porch door with its face pressed to the screen. “That cat’s only got one eye,” said my wife. Perfect, I thought. It was an element of the animal’s gruesomeness I hadn’t noticed before, but a fitting cap to everything else. It occurred to me that before leaving for the Keys, we’d been staying with my sister in Miami, and she had two pampered cats she never let outside. They’d never experience the cruelties of the world, and this one would never be able to escape them.

We do not like to admit it, but there is something immutable about the distribution of wealth in the world, whether it be of money or love or opportunity. When Jesus said that the poor we will always have with us, he wasn’t whistling Dixie. Timothy, with his brute of a mother and nonexistent father, is on the other side of the screen with the one-eyed cat, and barring a miracle, that is where he will stay for the rest of his life.

It doesn’t take a prodigious leap of the imagination to think that 20 years ago Timothy’s mother was very likely in the same situation he finds himself today. What is next to impossible is to make a corresponding leap of sympathy. Over those 20 years, her material circumstances have probably not changed at all, but our feelings toward her have. It is as if there is a hidden, immaterial valve in the heart to control the flow of sympathy. The valve ossifies and the flow dissipates as the object of our attention ages. For the very young child we have what the Old Testament writers called a heart of flesh, but for the adult that child has become, we hold a heart of stone.

I remember reading in one of R. H. Blyth’s books on haiku an explication of a poem by Issa. The whole poem consists of a child informing his mother that a rice-cake maker has arrived next door. The mochi makers were the equivalent of the ice-cream vendors who circulate through our neighbourhoods at dinner time. In his inimitable way, Blyth fills in the blanks and extrapolates for the reader. The boy can hear through the walls of his house the vendor’s mallet as he prepares a cake for the child next door. The boy’s mother, though, is too poor to buy a rice cake for her son, and all she can do is stare at him in silence. The child’s uplifted face Blyth describes as “half-expectant” and the mother’s as “wholly dejected.” Then he says, “This kind of thing must also be taken into account when we are considering the causes of social delinquency and of war amongst nations.”

This essay was first published in The Globe and Mail’s “Facts and Arguments” series.

Photo by Mitchell Orr on Unsplash