The brickwork on my house was being repointed last week to keep it from falling down, and the worst part involved removing old mortar from between the bricks with small electric saws. Thick cement dust billowed from the house and fell like volcanic ash on my neighbors, their cars, pets and homes.
I was sure that some block captain or advisory neighborhood commissioner would be dispatched to complain. And I would have understood. Had someone else's dust been coming into my house and coating my car, I probably would have called the D.C. government to get a cease and desist order.
But my neighbors on Capitol Hill did none of that. They just squinted and grimaced as they walked past my house, trying to shield their faces and cover their heads. When the dust had settled, some dropped by to see how things were going and to ask if I was satisfied with the quality of work being done.
Half expecting somebody to sue, I was surprised to hear only words of kindness and understanding.
In a region that is changing as rapidly as ours, disputes between neighbors have become commonplace. Sometimes, the issues are complex--such as the recent clash in the District's Columbia Heights neighborhood between newly arrived upscale residents and older working-class folks. The former wanted to preserve a live theater while the other group, which prevailed, wanted a more family-oriented entertainment center built.
The fight turned into a political Hatfields and McCoys, and it's going to take a lot of neighborliness to heal those wounds.
More often than not, however, the conflicts are as mundane as the incessant barking of a dog or the nuisance caused by people who drink in public. To say nothing of the neighbor who coats his street with dust during a renovation project.
Well, maybe that last one is not so mundane.
I did receive a telephone call from my next-door neighbor, Christian Rougeau, saying that the least I could have done was give him notice so that he could have put some plastic coverings over his windows. As it happened, the dust from my house came into his house and covered his computer and record player.
But that's not what made me gasp. Rougeau and his wife, Afi Zormelo, have a 2-month-old boy.
"I took the baby to stay with my sister," Afi told me with a curtness that actually seemed polite under the circumstances. The District's poison control center had warned her that cement dust could cause emphysema. If ever there was a reason for someone to come banging on your door, cursing your name, it's the specter of some inconsiderate neighbor's cement dust coating your baby's crib.
But again, Rougeau and Zormelo were just too kind, and I was deeply moved by their extraordinary patience and tolerance.
"Can you help us find some masks so we can clean up?" Rougeau asked.
Ruth Ferguson, who occasionally makes an extra sweet potato pie for me when she bakes for her church, had her wash hanging out on a clothesline in her back yard when one of my homemade dust storms blew up.
She just took the clothes down, brought them back into her house--and never said a word to me about it. (Of course, she hasn't offered me any pies lately, either.)
Charles Hawkins, who is employed at a medical office next to my house, left work most days last week to find his 1986 Cadillac covered with dust. And you know how some people can be about dust on their Cadillacs. But Hawkins, too, was pleasant.
"It's not your fault," he told me. "Those guys doing the work should have put up some kind of covering."
True, but for what I could afford to pay, this job didn't come with covering. It came with Boenerge Lopez and his young crew from El Salvador who, dust storms notwithstanding, do excellent work. My only consolation for the trauma that I caused my neighbors is knowing that the job will help Lopez earn the money he needs to bring his 4-year-old son from Central America to live with him and his wife in the Washington area.
Which reminds me: It's expensive to keep up a house. I used to wonder why so many homes in the District looked so run down. Now I know. Just getting a brick pointing permit from the D.C. government, i.e., permission to keep your house from crumbling to the ground, costs $376.
With all of the stress and strain of homeownership, it sure helps to have good neighbors. I am fortunate to have many, although I'm sure that some of them don't think much of what's been going on at my end of the street lately.
"People have sort of been complaining to each other," W.A. "Dawk" Dawkins, a 78-year-old Army veteran, confided to me. "Cement dust can leave a bad taste in your mouth."
I had seen Dawkins leave the corner store carrying a cup of coffee when some cement dust blew up and ruined the drink. When I went to his house to apologize, I noticed that his front porch was covered with dust. And because he likes to keep his doors open at this time of year to catch a little breeze, his living room was also quite dusty.
My offer to buy him a fresh cup of coffee sounded woefully inadequate. But like the other good neighbors, Dawkins just brushed off the dust with a smile.
"I'll tell you what," he said. "I'll buy us a number, a Powerball, and if we win, we just go out and buy everybody a new house."