The Importance of Being Neighborly

The oil stain on my garage floor has faded to a dusty umber, the same nondescript color as the other random blots that collect on concrete over the years. Once, it was a shallow black puddle, pooling under my neighbor Bill's motorcycle. Now it's an indelible reminder that friendship can be fleeting.

It didn't take me long to meet Bill after I moved into the neighborhood in September 1992. Each day, he and his dog passed my house on their morning walk. She introduced herself first, a fetching young malamute who bounded straight for me and threw herself, belly up, at my feet--tail swishing, tongue lolling, eyes pleading. I couldn't resist. We bonded with a tummy rub even before he finished scolding her for scampering away. Pretty Girl, he called her, pronouncing it "Purdy Girl."

I pegged Bill right away as one of those fiftysomething counterculture types who'd tried on the 1960s and found a fit for life. From a distance he looked intimidating, with his full, grizzled beard and scraggly hair, his seedy T shirt, tattered flannel shirt and ragged jeans. I couldn't help but notice his coarse knuckles and dirty fingernails when we shook hands.

I berated myself for succumbing to stereotypes the moment I looked into his face. It reminded me of the line from " 'Twas the Night Before Christmas": "His eyes--how they twinkled! His dimples, how merry!" A persistent grin had worn deep laughter creases around those eyes, and I felt as foolish in my fear as if I'd been spooked by Santa Claus.

Bill's house was painted mustard yellow, with a roof and yard that looked neglected. Over time, I learned that he lived there with his 80-year-old parents, George and Lily, and that he earned his keep by lugging other people's castoffs to the dump. The signs on his battered old pickup promised u call i haul. On weekday mornings, while the ancient vehicle coughed loudly to life, Bill would stand in the street near the driver door, killing time by brushing his teeth. Then, with Pretty Girl riding shotgun, he'd rattle off to his workday.

We struck up the kind of occasional friendship that people cultivate when happenstance makes them neighbors. We waved to each other in passing, shouted greetings, watched the evolving relationship between Pretty Girl and my cat, Max. Sometimes it went further. When my car had a dead battery one morning, Bill hurried over with jumper cables. When I left a mountain of yard debris moldering in my driveway for a month, Bill took it upon himself to haul it away, then refused to accept more than $20. I knew the dumping fee alone was $13, so after dark I left a 12-pack of Bill's favorite beer on his porch.

As the years passed, I learned that I wasn't the only neighbor on the receiving end of Bill's favors. So when he knocked on my door one night in February and asked to park his bike in my garage for a few days, as he had no covered space for it, I said sure. It turned out to be not any old motorcycle, but an antique Harley-Davidson worth a bundle. I could tell what it was worth to Bill just by watching him stroke it, and it had more to do with memories than monetary value. He loved that bike. For reasons known only to Bill, "a few days" stretched into weeks, then a month. Every few nights, Bill would find a reason to come by and tinker. He'd drive a screw here, check a gasket there, and later I'd find the oil dripping onto the garage floor. Or he'd bring over a half-dozen buddies and ask me to open the garage door so they could admire it. After a while, I'd just ask Bill to turn off the lights and lock up when he was through.

Then one morning, an ambulance pulled up to the mustard-yellow house. Several of us neighbors huddled outside, worrying aloud that George or Lily had suffered a stroke. We breathed easier when the medics left without a passenger. But when Bill's daughter rang my doorbell, asking to collect the bike that was still in my garage, I knew something was wrong. She said Bill had died in his sleep that morning, felled by a heart condition.

Pretty Girl misses him most of all, I suspect. No one's nearly as reliable as Bill when it comes to her accustomed walks. For a long while, Lily fielded calls from people who needed a load of debris hauled. She'd just say Bill died and went to heaven.

My 8-year-old daughter said it wasn't fair that we didn't get a chance to say goodbye. The lesson, I tried to explain, is to cherish all the chances we get to say hello.