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The Good Neighbor

iStock_000010697444XSmallOne of the rules of living in High Rise Society is that when your neighbor across the hall goes on vacation he can ask you to water his plants.  He can’t ask you to feed his cat unless you’re a friend, not just a neighbor, because cats might attack strangers.  And most people put their dogs in hotels when they go away.  Plants are the perfect good neighbor test because even though they’re alive, they’re inanimate so they can’t hurt you and you can’t hurt them — or so I thought.

My first call to duty came when some guy I hardly knew was going home for the holidays and needed someone to care for the plants on his terrace.  I watered the roses, crouched down on my knees to snip the spent petunias, even trimmed the overgrown hydrangea to encourage new growth.   Early on the morning of the night he was scheduled to return, I decided to pay one last house call, only when I unlocked the door with my borrowed key, there he was — in his boxers shorts.

“I’ll take those,” was all he said, as if I were guilty of breaking and entering when I was only trying to be a good neighbor, and even though he was the one who came back a day early without telling me, probably figuring I was a slacker and wouldn’t take my responsibility seriously, when, in fact, I had been as anally compulsive in my plant care as I am about everything else.  I was sure my efforts were for naught cause all he’d remember was that I saw him in his underpants.  He never asked me to water his plants again.

Watering flowersBut another fellow tribesman did.  She lived a few floors below me, not next door, so technically she was breaking the rules by asking me, but I figured it couldn’t be worse than what I’d just been through because she’s a she and so am I so even if I walked in on her stark naked it wouldn’t be that bad.

I felt like I was in the glass menagerie. There was so much stuff and so many potted plants crammed onto the window sills, I was afraid if I breathed too hard I’d break something.  I thought I was done till I saw there were even more leafy pots hanging from the kitchen ceiling and no way to reach them, except by standing on my tippy toes on a chair, which I did, almost killing myself in the quest to be a good neighbor, relieved that the job was done — till I heard the sound of broken glass.  It was a frog.

I knew she had a frog fetish.  There were painted china frogs, porcelain and crystal and ceramic frogs, goofy plush toy frogs, frog princes in fancy dress, Indonesian wooden frogs, even a carved soap tadpole.  The place was a shrine to frogs. But it never occurred to me there’d be a frog hiding in a pot of leaves.  It wasn’t anything I could replace.  It was a vintage frog.  I glued the pieces together as best I could, and debated whether to tell her, until finally I decided it would be worse if she found out herself.  So I confessed.  Only it turned out it was her prize frog, the one her grandma had left her, which had set her on the path to frog collecting in the first place.  She said not to worry, but she never spoke to me again.

If you are asked to do plant duty, smile and say, “Sure I’d love to.” Then when your neighbor tells you the dates he’ll be away, look despondent and say, “I really feel terrible, but I’m going to be away – on business, visiting a sick aunt, going to Mars (no, don’t say that, but you get the idea).”  And for good measure, “Next time, you can count on me,” knowing you’re off the hook – probably forever.

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