Eleven months ago, I called a man in the small Prince George's County community of Forestville and said I wanted to write a story about his neighborhood.
"Are you going to tell us how poor and low-class we are?" the man asked.
One month ago, another call to another neighborhood -- this time to Wheaton, a quiet suburb in the heart of Montgomery County. But the voice on the other end of the phone was just as wary.
"Are you going to do another one of those stories about how rich and smug we are in Montgomery County?" he asked.
Many calls in the intervening months were met with similar suspicion. So as I wind up this year-long series about life in the neighborhoods of Montgomery and Prince George's counties, I have one chief conculsion to share:
Suburban Marylanders think their neighborhoods have been typecast -- consistently, unfairly and inaccurately.
As an aide to Montgomery County Executive Charles W. Gilchrist put it: "I know the image is only the image, but sometimes it's become the problem all by itself."
Examples abound. In the East Bethesda community of Columbia Heights, a man built a garage behind his house that neighbors found unsightly -- and that county inspectors found in violation of the building code. However, the garage was barely visible from the nearest public street, and neighbors acknowledged that in response to their complaints, the man had pretty much stopped gunning the engines of his Porsches at 6 a.m. on weekend mornings. Meanwhile, the county's wheels of justice were beginning to grind the controversy into a compromise solution.
End of problem? Hardly. Most of the "offender's" neighbors ostracized him socially and tried to persuade other neighbors to do the same. Meanwhile, one neighbor obtained a signed statement from a real estate saleswoman saying that the garage was lowering neighborhood property values.
"What we really have in this case," said an assistant state's attorney familiar with the details, "is a neighborhood that is trying to become classy the way it thinks the rest of the county is, and one man who lives there not caring to conform to the image."
Meanwhile, the image of southern Prince GeorgeS County was at the center of a dispute that erupted there last year.
To much of the rest of the Washington area, southern Prince George's has a reputation as a combination of hayseed tobacco farmers and wild-eyed, tattooed motorcycle jockeys. The mentality and wealth that produce neat, orderly subdivisions are thought to be rare.
Last year, Tom Wilson allowed rusty nautical hulls and unprocessed human waste from boats without toilets to collect at the Fort Washington Marina he operates beside Piscataway Creek. In response, the nearby Fort Washington neighborhood -- full of $100,000 homes, incidentally -- took action.
Community study groups were formed. State officials were called in. Attorneys were consulted. Residents spent hours of their spare time researching land records to determine where county property stopped and the marina's started.
"It was actually quite ironic," said an official of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. "They made exactly the moves you'd expect citizens in Montgomery County to make."
None of this is to say that there aren't problems in the Maryland suburbs, or that the problems aren't serious.
Indeed, Montgomery and Prince George's neighborhoods are facing the same vexing issues of a generation ago: Should there be growth? If so, what and where should it be? Can cutbacks in services be avoided? Are there enough roads, subways, buses and parking spaces to go around?
Actually, for neighborhood leaders in the two counties, services and transportation are the most frequent sources of post-midnight phone calls. And emotions run high.
When county officials were considering closing five schools in Bowie for the second consecutive year, members of the school board got more than 200 opposing phone calls. And when state highway repair crews failed to fix a monstrous pothole in a New Hampshire Avenue exit ramp, three dozen White Oak residents called two different state senators to complain.
On individual blocks, meanwhile, the declining birthrate has removed a critical piece of the neighborhood fabric -- school-age children.
Arthur Castleman, for example, has lived on Drumm Avenue in Kensington for 37 years. When he moved in, "all 11 houses in the block were occupied by a mom, a pop and a couple of kids," and all were owned.
"If you wanted sombody to babysit or shovel snow, they were damn near standing in line," Castleman recalled.
Today, however, eight of the 11 houses are rented, and three are occupied by co-ed groups of single young people.
"But I can't even claim that they're setting a bad example for the kids on the block because there's no kids on the block any more. None," said Castleman. "Still, the neighborhood's suffered."
Like other longtime residents of communities inside or beside the Beltway, Castleman is worred that the absence of children and the prices of homes will encourage further rentals, which will in turn cause deterioration.
"The only thing we want is to try to hold on to the standard of living we're used to, in a stable kind of way," said Terry Gibbons, a 30-year resident of Takoma Park.
So it has been no surprise that the loudest complaints from Maryland neighborhoods have been caused by proposals to dump sludge near them, locate public housing in them or remove services from them.
"People simply want the problems to go to open space -- someplace else," said Dave Sobers, Montgomery director of environmental planning."The big problem for each neighborhood, and all of them together, is that we're running out of 'someplace elses.'"