Our ginger cat liked to sleep on John’s front stoop. Although we were next-door neighbors, we had barely gotten beyond hello with John. The cat had a closer relationship with him than we did. John’s house was one of the first built in town back in the mid-1920’s, and he had lived there his entire life, almost 80 years. The white paint peeled off the clapboard siding, a green shutter hung loose, the asphalt roof on the detached garage bowed, the backyard was overgrown with an impenetrable thicket as tall as a grown man, and the gravel driveway was choked with weeds.
John was a big man with a stubbly beard and often had tomato sauce from his previous night’s dinner left on his chin and a red stain in the center of his plaid work shirt, the pocket stuffed with a small wire bound notebook, slips of torn paper, and pens. When he did talk, his teeth were a distraction, one on top, a couple on the bottom, maybe a few molars hidden in the back, all gray and yellowed. There was always some spittle on his lips.
The older neighbors on the block had known John for years, but he didn’t say much to them either. Socially he was awkward; tracking conversation was difficult. He had no friends that I knew of, but he liked to read and loved trains. On nice days, he walked to the library and spent hours by the tracks in the center of town watching the Burlington Northern whiz by. Most of the time he kept to himself at home. A recluse. A hermit.
A few years after we moved next door to John, we vacationed on sunny Sanibel Island off the gulf coast of Florida. Our twins were three years old and the resort hosted family activities each afternoon. Thursday: Hermit crab races! For $5, each child picked a crab from a large bin and placed it in the center of a chalk-drawn circle on the patio. To tell the crabs apart, the staff had painted each shell with a stripe of bright nail polish. My son’s crab had a blue stripe; my daughter’s crab red. We cheered the crabs on until one with a green stripe moved across the edge of the circle and was declared the winner. Win or lose, you got to take the crab home. Who could resist? Another $10 got you a small plastic aquarium lined with blue and pink crushed gravel and a container of smelly food. With the hermit crabs side by side in their new habitat, we boarded the plane back to our home in a suburb of Chicago.
Neighbors had complained about the disarray of John’s house for years. He had been served with several notices, ordinances that required him to paint the house and cut back the weeds. He had the financial resources but not the motivation or know-how to get things fixed. Ironically the mess of John’s property made it appealing to some. The real estate market was booming. Many of the older homes in town were being torn down and rebuilt on bigger and bigger footprints. People were trading up for more and more space. The competition for land was fierce. John’s old house and big lot presented an opportunity. They knocked on his door. They rang the bell. They left him handwritten notes. Would you like to sell? I’d like to make you an offer. One you can’t refuse. John ignored them all.
About this same time, I was reading a picture book to the kids called Old Henry, the story of an eccentric, solitary, unkempt old man, who lives in a dilapidated house on a manicured block and angers his neighbors with his neglect and untidiness. The neighbors don’t understand why Henry is “so unfriendly” and “never talks.” (A remarkable coincidence—John and Henry.) One day they seek the advice of the town’s mayor, who suggests being nice. “Please try it twice,” he says. So, two ladies bake Henry a pie, and three men offer to shovel his snow. But Henry is reluctant to accept their help. “No. No thank you,” he says. The neighbors go back to the mayor and say, “We told you so!”
We kept the hermit crab aquarium on the fireplace mantle in the living room, and the kids checked on them often. Hermit crabs are nocturnal so there wasn’t much activity during the day. Sometimes I heard the clicking of the crabs’ claws on the gravel at night. One morning while the kids were at preschool, I looked into the aquarium and found my son’s crab half out of its shell and my daughter’s crab pulling at it with at least eight of its ten legs. His crab squirmed to get away, but it was no contest. Her crab was tenacious and kept pulling. It was hard to watch. I retreated to the kitchen for a refill of my coffee. A few minutes later, I took a peek and saw a shriveled crab carcass discarded on the gravel. The red-striped shell of my daughter’s crab lay tipped on its side, empty. The blue-striped shell of my son’s crab now had a new occupant. My daughter’s crab, the new resident, looked straight at me as if it was gloating.
The thing about hermit crabs is that they are basically squatters. The crabs are crustaceans, which makes them distant cousins to sea crabs, lobster, shrimp, and barnacles; the name is derived from their habit of salvaging abandoned shells. Most are aquatic and live in the shallow coral reefs along the shore or in the deep water at the sea bottom. But a few of the tropical varieties, like ours, are terrestrial and live on land like snails. Hermit crabs have two eyes set up on stalks and a long, soft, pink spiral-curved body designed to clasp onto the central column of a shell, which they carry on their backs like a mobile home to protect them from predators. The hermit crab prefers a shell large enough so that its entire body, legs and all, can retract inside to hide. The point of all this is that as hermit crabs grow, they need bigger shells. Once the hermit crab finds a new, suitable shell, it moves in and abandons the old shell, which can then be taken up by another crab. Depending on the environment, empty shells can be hard to find, and competition for shells among crabs can get fierce.
Sometimes people knocked on my door too. “Is that house next door abandoned? No? I could make your neighbor a great offer.” Then they would look at me curiously, as if they were thinking, “Of course you would prefer me to be your neighbor instead of that old man and his mess.” But I didn’t prefer them. I’m not sure why. At that point, I barely knew John. He was a messy neighbor, but he was my messy neighbor. I wanted them to leave him be.
Here’s another curious fact about hermit crabs. In the wild, they have the habit of forming vacancy chains. First there’s an empty shell, which attracts hermit crabs to try it on for size. Then comes the chain. The crabs, sometimes up to twenty, line up from largest to smallest, each holding onto the crab in front of it—like a hermit crab conga line. The first in line claims the empty shell (some call this the Goldilocks’ crab). Then, the other crabs in the queue swiftly exchange shells in sequence, each one moving up to the next size. This chain reaction of shell swapping is like a seller’s market in real estate terms.
What I had witnessed with the kids’ crabs is that nature is not always ordered and friendly. There isn’t always an organized line of crabs each taking it in turn to find the perfect fit. Hermit crabs will gang up on a vulnerable crab to get to a better shell working together to evict the weaker one by wrenching it out of its home.
It was February and frigid the day my husband and I stopped by John’s house. We had gotten a call from, Bea, the old dear who had lived in our house for forty years before we bought it. Bea had moved one town over and still had a busybody’s pulse on our neighborhood. She already knew about John’s fall on an icy sidewalk, his night in the hospital, his broken leg. Bea never had much good to say about John, his mess a long-standing source of frustration for her. But she cared enough to call us, to tell us she thought we should check on him. So, we knocked, and he let us in.
The first thing we noticed when we walked into John’s house was the smell. An undercurrent of body odor, sweat, stale food, and urine, the air thick and musty. Like the outside, the house was a wreck inside too. Newspapers piled everywhere, junk mail and letters scattered on the floor by the mail slot in the front door. Stacks of clothing and more newspapers covered the dining room table and cluttered the stairs. The kitchen overflowed with dirty dishes and trash. Upstairs, three bedrooms were crammed with cardboard boxes, balled up sheets, crusty towels, a web of extension cords, newspapers and more newspapers.
The sun streaked through the blinds and dust particles danced in the rays. John sat stiffly on a high-backed chair in the dining room. His expression—shell shocked. His pants had been cut along the inside seam to make space for the thick, white cast that extended from his toes to the middle of his thigh and kept his right leg perched a foot off of the floor.
John clearly could not get upstairs to a bedroom or the only bathroom. The commode that he’d been sent home from the hospital with sat in the foyer. It was Saturday. We asked if a home health agency would be by. His response: a blank stare. Not much could be done until Monday, so we carried a twin bedframe and mattress from one of the bedrooms down into the living room, placed the commode beside it, and put the phone and TV remote within reach. Meals were the next task. Our block had organized meals for neighbors before, for the young couple with newborn twins, when my friend had thyroid surgery, after an older woman’s husband passed away. That’s how it worked in our tiny suburb in the Midwest. The email went out, and the neighbors signed on. Everyone pitched in.
The storybook about old Henry ends with a handwritten note from Henry to the mayor. After the long winter melts away, Henry sits on the edge of his bed and has a good think. Despite their nagging about the overgrown grass in his yard and the sidewalk that goes upswept, Henry realizes that he cares about his neighbors and the street where he lives. So, he writes to the mayor and asks, “If I clean up the yard and fix up the house, would the neighbors be nice to me again?”
John hobbled to the front door when the neighbors knocked. He’d extend his arm out between the screen and front door and grab the meals they offered. “Hi John,” they would say with a smile. Often, he’d say nothing in return, not even thank you. But over the next several months, John began to talk more. He looked tidier, his face shaved, his hair combed, and his shirt washed. He warmed to the neighbors and the neighbors to him. And John and I became friends.
That summer, like every summer, our neighborhood held a huge block party. Orange cones were placed at each end of the block to shut out the traffic, and we gathered in the street. There were games for the kids—the water balloon toss, a three-legged race, a cakewalk, face painting. The highlight of the day was the arrival of the fire truck. The local fire fighters connected a large hose to the fire hydrant, which sat in the middle of the block in front of John’s house, and sprayed the kids with water as they ran back and forth across his lawn. In the past, John had never ventured outside for the event. But that day, John and I stood across the street chatting and watching the kids at play. His rundown house looked transformed behind the misty curtain of the water’s spray.
A few years later we moved to California. On our first visit back to the Midwest, we went to see John, who now lived in a nursing home. With a new pair of glasses, a few extra pounds, and a new set of teeth, John looked good. But his hands shook from Parkinson’s disease, and his conversation drifted to paranoia and delusion. “They’re watching me,” he said as he pointed to the empty corners where the walls met the ceiling, as if there were invisible video cameras. We switched the topic, but he got agitated. He shook his hand at an empty chair. “Fire,” he said. We looked. No fire. We pushed his wheelchair outside hoping some fresh air would help, which it didn’t.
Later that day we drove back to the old neighborhood. John’s house had been torn down. A family from up the street bought it. I heard there was a bidding war for the property. Nothing left but the gravel drive and some overgrown weeds.
After that visit, I sent John a few cards. He wasn’t one to write and talking by phone was difficult, because he didn’t hear well. Then I got busy with my new life on the west coast. And as old neighbors do, we drifted apart. A year later John passed away. His sister sent a nice card with a recent photo of John sitting outside in a crisp, blue plaid shirt. His eyes looked away from the camera’s lens up and off into the distance.
Another year passed and we were back again for a visit to that tiny town in the Midwest. We drove down our old street and our eyes were drawn to the huge new house, which now sat on John’s old property. The house extended far into the backyard where the thicket had once grown. The garage was new and the gravel driveway paved. A wide, welcoming porch extended across the front of house. And as we passed by, I thought I caught a glimpse of a ginger cat sitting on the porch railing, it’s tail swishing to and fro. But when I turned my head and looked back, it wasn’t there anymore.