Independence Day and My Unfriendly Neighbor

Privately celebrating our public holiday of national unity

One advantage of coastal Orange County is the extra fireworks on the Fourth of July. Every community has a display, each shot out toward the ocean, so from the right perch you can see four or more celebrations in the distance, the rockets’ red glare repeating all along the shoreline.

Our first year in Laguna Beach, we watched from an upstairs window. Most of the neighborhood had turned off the lights and wandered down to the water, and the night seemed particularly dark. There were at least three displays within the city limits: two in the gated communities and a third, the public show, for the riffraff. The fireworks sparkled like red, white, and blue gems strewn on black velvet—Main Beach’s in the foreground, Emerald Bay’s to the north behind it, Three Arch Bay’s and beyond to the south.

We were so mesmerized that we forgot one of the disadvantages of coastal Orange County: Our upstairs window looks directly onto our neighbor’s flat roof. As our eyes adjusted, we realized we weren’t the only ones home alone with the extravaganza. The guy next door was about 10 feet away, on the other side of the glass, perched with his back to us in a lawn chair. With every explosion, we could see his silhouette.

How to put this? That guy is not our most sociable neighbor. He guards his space. He doesn’t make small talk or ask us to water his plants. When tourists park outside his front step, he doesn’t just grouse like the rest of us; he puts notes on their windshields. He’s gone much of the time, but when he’s around, he’s beset by intrusions—this neighbor’s tree sheds, that one’s dog barks. The rest of the block had warned us: He doesn’t like company, and he doesn’t like trespassers. Don’t tread on him. Really.

And now here he was, probably imagining that he was alone at last on his rooftop. And here we were, his fellow Americans, this close to trespassing on his pursuit of happiness.

What to do? Step away from the window and miss the big finish? Rap on the pane? Holler “Yoo-hoo!” into the darkness and see whether he only looked like he was spoiling for a fight? The finales began, bombs bursting in air in a panorama of separate patterns, now a flash-bang from the civic show, now a sharp report from one of the private enclaves.

All were so grand and gorgeous and so very separate. What a metaphor: We, the neighbors, manning our personal ramparts. One nation, but not as stoked about being indivisible and equally created as one might assume. What kept us apart? What bound us? We held our breath, shadows ourselves at our darkened window. Then the neighbor rose from his lawn chair, turned, met our eyes for the merest of moments—and then looked away as if he’d seen nothing. We didn’t press our luck by smiling and waving. We just left the room.

We never asked, and the neighbor never told, whether our presence had actually registered that night by the window. But over the years, we developed an Independence Day tradition: In honor of our right to privacy, we began to ritually ignore each other. Sometimes I wonder if democracy would have happened had the Founding Fathers known how comically complicated it would get.

Now, when the sun sets on the Fourth, we and our neighbor take up our posts and wordlessly lift our eyes, each to his own star-spangled horizon. It used to feel funny, but hey, better fireworks in the sky than fireworks between neighbors. E pluribus unum. Sometimes less-than-perfect unions are the best.

Illustration by Brett Affrunti

This article originally appeared in the July 2012 issue.

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