Strong though the temptation may be, I have yet to chase a single kid off my lawn. That’s due as much to the dead white guys I read in college as to memories of my own time spent in short pants.
When my widowed mother died three years ago, I bought my brothers out of our childhood Long Island center-hall colonial. This place, aging linoleum and all, is about two rooms too big for me. Still, I knew I could handle the overhead. Also, I didn’t want to be bothered moving my old stuff out (mainly my in-the-box GI Joes). Besides, why be a 52-year-old writer if you can’t be master and commander of a standalone bachelor dream pad?
This house squats on a corner that sports a large, trapezoidal swath of grass across which whippersnappers have been cutting, to and from school, since I was their age. Mom, a former teacher, never had any problem with that. Whenever the trespassers looked up in alarm to see her watching from the window, she would smile, nod, and wave. They weren’t in any trouble.
Certainly Mom was more sympathetic than a couple of the nearby landlords who pretty much loathed my crowd when we were growing up. Looking back, I understand why the woman on the next block groused to Mr. McAllister, our principal, about us roughing and tumbling on her turf while waiting at the bus stop. We cut it out eventually, after one of our fourth-grade ranks broke his collarbone in a scrimmage.
Mr. Sterling, on the other side of my street, was rather less forgiving. Whenever we had to retrieve Wiffle balls that we’d innocently knocked into his driveway, he would snatch them away, glower and bark. You know the type—retired, childless, taxonomically classified as a “crab.”
Lately, as I’ve grappled with everything from replacing my water heater ($2,000) to getting new coils for the central A/C ($4,000), I too have grown a tad ornery. When I awake to the occasional clutch of empty beer cans on my sidewalk apron, I consider lying in wait with my big wooden spoon.
Then I think of both my mother and my crotchety neighbors and the fantasy passes. I think, too, of the complex broodings of some 17th, 18th and 19th century gentlemen about property in general.
When I got to Columbia in 1981, one of my required courses was “Introduction to Contemporary Civilization in the West.” This survey of seminal works of philosophy, politics, economics, psychology, religion, and other heavy stuff took in all the Biggies, starting with Plato and ending with Freud. I did well enough, successfully spitting back Kant’s categorical imperative and Adam Smith’s division of labor come exam time.
One notion really bedeviled me, though: property. A few of these fellows seemed obsessed with it. Why did some of them insist on equating property with human freedom and others with slavery—and both sides with such vehemence? Sure, I understood the Lockean idea that if you’ve worked hard enough to buy it, your new iPad is an expression of your individual dignity and worth. Similarly, my 18-year-old self grasped the Marxist mantra that guillotining top-hatted capitalists, and giving their factories to the vast unwashed, was only fair.
But getting so hung up about property as a concept just plain eluded me—probably because I didn’t have any at the time. As we all know, however, once you make your first mortgage payment, ownership becomes gut-wrenchingly real. Hence, I’ve got my binoculars trained on the trick-or-treaters.
Still, I’ll continue to cut them some middle-aged slack. Knowing that Rousseau could explain this better than I could, I pulled down my undergraduate copy of his “Second Discourse” the other day. Jean-Jacques had written, “The first person who, having fenced off a plot of ground, took it into his head to say, ‘This is mine,’ and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society.”
Rousseau then goes apocalyptic: “What crimes, wars, murders, what miseries and horrors would the human race have been spared by someone who, uprooting the stakes or filling in the ditch, had shouted to his fellow-men: Beware of listening to this impostor; you are lost if you forget that the fruits belong to all and the earth to no one!”
It’s quite a stretch from old Mr. Sterling’s crabbiness to war. But conflicts have to start somewhere. That’s why, a couple of Christmases ago, when I brought my girlfriend outside to see the candles in my windows and the spotlight on the front-door wreath, I told her, “A nice man lives here.”
Don’t worry, youngsters. Your occasional incursions aren’t ruffling me. Just don’t drag your heels, OK?