There were meetings where I wondered if we were talking about an actual median strip or if we were all lost to flights of fancy, and I believe that this lack of a clear referent was responsible for the impasse that would plague the Neighborhood Association for weeks. Not every neighborhood has a median strip in its jurisdiction, but ours does, sizable in width and fairly squat in length, and though the strip is technically owned by the city and the responsibility of the city to maintain, it had sunk this spring into what I’ll refer to here simply as aesthetic squalor. Of course, by that I am referring to the homeless men who had begun to give each other favors amongst the rhododendrons. I have begun using the term “aesthetic squalor” to refer to the men ever since Miriam’s previous choice term was met with criticism from Carol. In fact, she called us intolerant, and she had said that in front of everybody before storming out of the small school auditorium where our bi-monthly meetings were held, snatching her bag and slamming the door behind her.
When obstacles just remove themselves from a room and hitch themselves to the wind of high- horsed social causes with no sign of returning, well. No one at the Neighborhood Association meeting complained when Carol left, that’s for sure, and we were looking forward to getting on with our deliberations re: how to militarize the median strip against the men without her.
However, it wasn’t so easy. Those who had homes that bordered the controversial run of turf thought that the best way to divert the men from hanging out amongst the rhododendrons was by removing the rhododendrons altogether. They wanted nothing but cut grass. Not only that, but instead of just coming out and saying it, they were oft to use the word “transparency” in describing their ideal median strip, as if transparency was not only a self-explanatory term to use in this context but also incontestably good. It’s true, cutting down the thickets of small trees and clearing the rhododendrons that provided cover to the men at night and planting in their place squares of grass and installing more of those “ye olde” style lampposts to illuminate the median strip would result in “transparency,” and this “transparency” would likely deter the men from hanging out there, as it would allow residents like Meryl Thompson to police the strip by merely looking out of his window and yelling at them to leave. I don’t disagree with any of that. However, by speaking in such abstract terms Thompson was unknowingly inviting others to do the same, which meant he was not only shooting himself in the foot, but also each one of us in our feet, as we were all but a small part of the organizational body known as the Neighborhood Association and each of us would have to suffer the impasse that such talk brought about.
Though each and every person in the room at least could agree that medians strips weren’t the proper place for homeless men to give each other favors, other than Carol, who somehow still managed to show up at our meetings despite the wrong times and locations we gave her, Thompson’s discussion of grass prompted others to preemptively mourn the loss of trees. The grass would come at grave costs, these others argued, like that of natural beauty.
The issue of natural beauty was, you might say, the political agenda of the second camp, those who espoused density, which I could see was the better of two. However, the density camp acted as if natural beauty was synonymous with density and Denise Millip, who was something of a leader to this second camp, spoke with such condescension on the aesthetic superiority of density that she ostracized potential allies, I believe. Every time she approached the podium it was with such puissance that you would think Ms. Millip had just returned from a visit to all seven natural wonders around the world with the “correct” understanding of beauty, and that she thought it was a charitable act, informing us plebeians what magnificent sights the wider world had to offer. She went so far as to argue that a dense forest was much more beautiful than an open vista, when anyone who has seen the aurora borealis or hiked up a steep slope, as I had on my annual birdwatching trips with my late husband, knew not to be the case.
If any concrete plan of action could be gleaned from such nonsense, it was that the density people wanted more trees and low-lying brush planted. It was all to the same effect as the transparency people, anyhow: rather than using openness to assist the policing of this “conservation reserve,” which was what the density people had begun to call the thing out there in the street between the two paved strips of road, perhaps in an attempt to distinguish themselves from the transparency people with an even greater sophistication and eye to technical terms, Denise Millip wanted the “conservation reserve” to possess a repressive function at a morphological level, deterring the men by way of an excess of ornamental landscaping, thorny bushes and compact shrubs like yew trees, the berries of which are poisonous.
Of course, one can not plant a tree without mislaying some turf. So it happened that after three meetings, there were two median strips envisioned, each at the other’s expense, and there was little anyone could do, as my neighbors had gotten into the habit of thinking themselves as occupying the “right” position and regarding those with whom they were in disagreement as having taken up the “wrong” position, and it was a difficult thing to do, compromising with someone who was wrong but went around acting as if they were right when they were not. In such cases an impasse is all but inevitable. After attending a number of neighborhood meetings in this city as well as in Florida, where matters like these were handled slightly differently, I knew that, as with any disagreement, the impasse would only drive those involved to further extremes, and though extremism was not outright a bad thing, and certainly had its place, it should never get the best of the people who succumbed to it.
It should be noted that for the sake of strong-arming the other side, the two camps hid inner divisions and grievances, of which I tried to play no part, having joined neither the ranks of the density people or the transparency people, biding my time as I was with the blueprints for my impressive stone bird bath and the accompanying list of the numerous species of small birds it would attract and the time of year they might be found. Still, I was not so far removed from the drama that I had not heard how residents Cindy Eisenhower, Marge Wetly, and Cliff George of the transparency camp were hoping a clear-cut median strip might double as a type of park where residents of the neighborhood could have picnics, take their dogs, etc. What a park means to one person and what it means to another varies as greatly as the people talking, and, without a proper definition of terms, by invoking the concept of a “park,” Thompson, who was also of the transparency camp, in fact it’s leader, believed that Eisenhower, Wetly, and George were suggesting that the median strip mimic a natural setting. It is true that the dominant mode for park design throughout the late eighteenth century, when the majority of the finest urban parks were built, many of which I’ve been fortunate enough in my younger days to visit with my late husband, honored the existing natural features of a landscape, working around sloping hills and large trees and low-lying marshes to create a natural-like setting in which residents can find something akin to a profane sanctuary, a physical peace of mind. Picturing the heavily wooded parts of Central Park and not its lawns, Thompson suspected that this faction of the transparency camp in favoring parks favored mutiny, preaching something that sounded like density.
The idea of a park was wildly unpopular, though, as anyone who has ever been to a park knows they harbor sodomites and rapists, and the fact that Eisenhower, Wetly, and George had been originally aligned with the transparency camp was used to discredit the proposal of grass altogether, much to their leader Thompson’s dismay. The in-fighting became more divisive, and it was at this time that the meetings had arrived at that unfortunate but inevitable moment, which is but a natural stage of an impasse, where members become so blinded by their own anger and the anger of their neighbors, and not to mention the technical vocabulary, that they start espousing reactionary views they did not genuinely hold, and though their anger also blinded them to this sad fact, that they were making demands for things about which in their heart they did not care one way or the other, like whether a median strip should host woody perennials in addition to grass or simply grass, the residents were determined to spot out insincerity in the opposite camp as if all of life’s training had been rearing them for this exact moment where they could expose their counterparts for contradictory positions in an effort to stomp them out.
Although fools do not like to be told they are playing the part of fools, what I saw as I sat there time and again in my steel folding chair was a bunch of men and women who had lost sight of the things in life that really mattered. It was into this mayhem that I rose from my chair. I am not a tall person, and do not command attention by my appearance alone, but everyone in the room was so tired of hearing their own voices, and also there was something about the sunlight that day in the school auditorium, viscous and golden as honey, a beam of which happened to be shining onto the exact location where I was standing, that the others, whose arguing had shown no sign of letting up, grew quiet and listened as I began to speak. I laid out my case. There was no question in my mind that the birdbath met the criteria of each of the two clashing camps, being both dense and transparent in a way if one thought about it, and without a doubt birdbaths possessed a great deal of natural beauty, or at least would attract it, while the activity of the various species of songbirds fluttering about the bath would draw the attention of scrupulous eyes and ears to the median strip, a condition of the sidewalk vigilantism that Thompson avowed. I also explained how I thought of the birdbath as a kind of shrine to my late husband, with whom I had traveled across the Michigan peninsula into Canada every spring to watch the great migration of neo-tropical songbirds across the marshland of Point Pelee, a trip I had not taken since his untimely death. Any question with even a hint of scrutiny about the birdbath would have implied an insensitivity to the immense loss I had suffered in his passing, and whether I had capitalized on that sympathy, I cannot say, though undoubtedly I had expected it, speaking as if the birdbath was already unanimously approved and my proposal was for the sake of ceremony, a nod to the democratic process and no more.
Perhaps it was why no one had brought up the cats, which I had somehow overlooked when drafting my plans, but about which I would soon be reminded. By then it would already be too late. Though I firmly believe that anyone can be neighbors with anyone, that there is no disqualifying trait for good neighborly relations other than unneighborliness, and this is perhaps something of a motto, my neighbors are not good neighbors. They are bad pet owners. Free- ranging house cats are responsible for the preventable death of millions of birds every year. I have heard it said that on average a single outdoor cat is individually responsible for the death of as many as thirty-six birds, and that is annually, not over the course of a lifetime. Had it not been for the impasse and the fragile egos of the Neighborhood Association members during those meetings re: the median strip, I do not suspect I would have gotten my birdbath, but in any case, I did. So it had come to be that all of the wrens, catbirds, and waxwings, as well as the robins, warblers, and orioles tempted by that small offering of water had to bathe and hydrate themselves in terror, eying the rhododendrons in case lurking within their blossoms was a free-ranging house cat.
Matt Polzin is a writer based in LA. He has an MFA from California Institute of the Arts, where he now teaches as a fellow in the Critical Studies department. His criticism has been published in Modern Painters and the Poetry Project Newsletter, and his poetry collection, Solicitations, was published by DittoDitto Press. He is currently at work on a novel.