While You Were Out: What goes on in the neighborhood while you're at work may surprise you.


© 2007 by Nicole Clausing

Working at home means I see what goes on around the block during working hours. The woman who lives across the street may wonder what Buddy, her white terrier, does all day alone while she’s at work, but I know. (A lot of standing on the couch, making nose prints on the window, and barking at people walking by.)

Home during daylight hours, I see things my commuting neighbors never know about. I see the stay-at-home dad buckling his toddler son into his car seat for outings. I see the Asian couple with their conical hats going through the recycling bins. On nice summer days I see the man a few doors down pull his BMW out of the garage and park it on the street. He’ll tinker with it for several hours while listening to the Giants on the radio. He always knocks off in the late afternoon, opening up the parking space to the first of the nine-to-fivers returning home.

I see all these things, the pets acting out, the immigrants smelting a living from our refuse, and the comings and goings of people who, like me, don’t seem to have anywhere else they really need to be during the day. I see all these activities, and I follow them, because the sometimes banal, sometimes eccentric pastimes of my neighbors fill a niche I might otherwise be stuffing with daytime television.

One day in late January, though, was a little different.

“There’s been an accident with one of your neighbors,” the officer told me.

I wasn’t exactly surprised—in Oakland, you don’t glance out the window to find multiple police cars on your street unless something is very wrong. There had been three cars that I could see, one parked hurriedly at a skewed angle, partially blocking the street. A blond woman was standing on the sidewalk, talking to one of the officers. From my third-floor nook, I couldn’t hear what she was saying, but I could see she was in tears. She motioned for the man to follow her up a short flight of stone stairs into a courtyard. Halfway up, she suddenly dropped to a crouch and took her head in her hands. In a moment, the spasm of grief passed, and she and the policeman continued up the stairs and out of my sight.

The officer in blue hesitated a moment after informing me of the accident. I hesitated, too, uncertain whether or not I had the right to ask what kind of accident required the services of seven police cars—the three parked on my street, plus four more I’d just discovered around the corner. An empty, idle ambulance stood by as well.

We both stood there in awkward silence, and it was then I realized that silence was another oddity. Shouldn’t seven police cars and an ambulance make some noise? I hadn’t heard a single siren all morning. What kind of accident requires such a huge emergency response but no sense of urgency? My sense of dread mounted. I shuffled my feet uncomfortably. The officer was dressed so smartly, and I was wearing sweats and the wild hair I’d slept in. I almost hadn’t come out to talk to her at all, embarrassed by my disheveled appearance and the fact that if she asked what I’d been up to that morning, I couldn’t really say.

It was the officer who spoke first. “Actually, your neighbor seems to have taken his own life.”

I gasped. “That’s horrible,” was all I could think to say. “Yes,” she said, “It is.” She gave me a sad smile and put a hand on my shoulder. Had she done this for the crying woman, too? I wondered how she could stay in touch with her compassion in her line of work without burning out. She must have to preside over “accident” scenes all the time. “You might not want to go down that street,” she suggested, gesturing toward the ambulance and the knot of uniformed men and women milling around it.

Was it a gory scene? I don’t know—I took her advice and didn’t venture around the corner until much later in the day. By that time the police had gone, as well as the ambulance. If there had been a coroner’s van, I’d missed it. The tearful blond was nowhere to be seen, either. I expected yellow caution tape, but didn’t find any. The normalcy was eerie.

It was dusk. Soon, my other neighbors would start straggling home, reclaiming their street parking and greeting their pets without ever knowing that Buddy had spent the morning exchanging barks with a K-9 Unit German Shepherd, or that the last car in their parking place was black and white with flashing lights. They would start dinner, crack beers, and check phone messages as if it were a normal evening. And for them, it would be. They would have no idea that death had swept through Eastlake that morning like a tornado, cutting a swathe of destruction through one building, and leaving the rest of the street as untouched as the Emerald City.

Nicole Clausing is a freelance writer based in Oakland, California. Her writing has been published in The Christian Science Monitor, Going Places Magazine, and on the Travelocity.com web site. Her award-winning essay, “A Tale of Two Turkeys” will appear in “Best Women’s Travel Writing 2007.”