Land’s End: Busybodies

No one is disconnected in a county of nosy neighbors

The house up the block used to be a tumbledown beach shack covered with wisteria vines. The young couple there seemed so romantic. He was French, she was blond—you wouldn’t believe how they looked at each other. On weekends, the woman next door would stop by their house with pancakes just to feel their magic. Then one day, a construction crew arrived.

Down came the shack, up went a pricey remodel. As the last nail was pounded, the economy went south. By the time the couple moved back into their dream house, the dream was over. Sharp words rang from the windows—he’d done this, she’d done that, one or the other was leaving. After a while, they did leave. To the block, it felt like the bitter end of a community romance.

Don’t get me wrong. This was a Southern Californian level of neighborly involvement—no one cornered them to demand an explanation. Still, after they were gone, you couldn’t go to your mailbox without someone leaning over the hedge to ask how the now-divorced pair were doing, or if you’d seen them, or remembering how enchanted they’d seemed.

The house three doors down from ours, on the other hand, was a different matter. If those walls could talk—well, you wouldn’t believe it. Peeling, neglected, and besieged by hard-partying and short-term tenants, that poor cottage, with its out-of-town landlord, was the neighborhood eyesore. Inquiring minds wondered who would let their home go to that depth of ruin.

One day in exasperation the woman across the street Googled the address and found a shady ad for a vacation rental that, upon further inspection, turned out to have no permit. So she called City Hall. Now the owner has moved into the house and become an annoyance, hogging the street parking, shouting into his cellphone, sneaking his garbage by night into other peoples’ trash cans. You can’t grab the morning paper from your lawn without seeing someone slipping an angry note onto his windshield.

Funny, isn’t it, how much intrigue can fit into an ordinary assemblage of houses? How the mysteries behind a single doorway can grip a whole neighborhood? Orange County is famous for its bland, suburban sameness, but I’m not sure we deserve the reputation. There are 3 million stories in the Naked County, and most of the ones I’ve heard are straight from the neighbors. Few conversations are more entertaining than an Orange County homeowner giving a tour of his subdivision:

Here’s the McMansion that’s for sale because the guy got indicted; there’s the condo the teen snowboarder bought for his mom when he got that endorsement. A movie star’s dad lives in that house, or a “Real Housewife,” or a relative of a young traveler who got caught in an international diplomatic crisis (up the street, on the left), or one of the first same-sex couples to be married in California (cater-corner).  
We may respect one another’s space, but that doesn’t mean we don’t collect one another’s stories. Does this make us gossips? Or is it a kind of wealth, an enrichment that says, even in this sprawling place, we have a stake in each other, and a fascination with who we all are and where we’ve all been?

The other night, we were reminiscing with neighbors about what our house was like before we bought it. It was a fixer-upper in those days, a tumbledown beach shack. The retirees who rented it out, though—well, you just wouldn’t believe.

Illustration by Brett Affrunti

This article originally appeared in the September 2013 issue.

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