At 100,000 people and growing, Columbia is 50 times the size of my hometown. As you can imagine, moving here was quite an adjustment for me.
The sheer number of bodies in public spaces such as university lecture halls or the mall made me feel like the walls were closing in on me. But other times, the vastness — or, what I then perceived to be the vastness — of the city made me feel tiny and alone.
But if there is one universal truth I’ve encountered in both the country and the city, it is that nobody is sane — least of all the people who live next to you.
Back home, we lived at the end of a gravel road that saw a slowly shifting cast of weird characters. Because most people owned a few dozens acres, there was at least a spatial buffer protecting us from close contact. That isn’t to say we didn’t know more than we wanted to know.
When I was a very small child, there was the hunting enthusiast named Buckley who lived up the road. Buckley had one snarling mountain curr chained up to every tree and fence post behind his house. One day they got loose and, in a blood-thirsty craze, came tearing down the road to our farm and killed our dog, Woodstock.
Neighborly interactions chilled shortly thereafter. Any time there was anything wrong with the neighborhood, it was because of Buckley. For example, when my sisters and I commented that there were far fewer squirrels in southeast Missouri than there were in St. Louis, our parents said Buckley was single-handedly responsible for killing them off.
“We used to have squirrels,” my dad said. “There were trees full of squirrels, but Buckley shot them all and ate them.”
And the thing is, his explanation doesn’t seem implausible to me. I sincerely believe Buckley and the mountain currs ate all the squirrels.
There was another family whose boys rode the bus to school with Katy and me. We were probably in kindergarten and second grade then; the boys were at least in eighth grade.
A few times, one of the brothers walked down to our farm too ask our mother if we could come out and play. She sensed something was off about the whole situation, so she shut it down.
The boy was later arrested for setting things on fire.
Then there were the white supremacists, whose Nazi propaganda occasionally got mixed in with our mail. Rather than tossing their newsletters into the trash where they should have gone, our mother made me and my sisters trudge up the road to deliver them to their intended recipients.
“How would you feel if they held onto your magazines?” my mom asked.
Easy for her to say. She didn’t have to dodge the neighbors’ dogs, which were named after gun parts.
I don’t recall having any real expectations of the people I would encounter when I moved to Columbia. However, closer quarters mean closer looks into the lives of others.
When I lived in my first apartment, there was a young woman whose primary means of transportation was a unicycle. Even after she had a baby, I would see her pedaling around the East Campus neighborhood with her daughter bouncing along in a sling.
One day I ran into the Chinese family who lived down the hall from me. I stopped to admire the newest addition to their family. The grandmother said something to me in Mandarin, which I did not understand.
“She wants to know how your baby is,” the baby’s mother said.
“Oh, I don’t have a baby,” I said.
The baby’s mother translated my response to the grandmother, who said something back that sounded like a protest.
“You sure you don’t have a baby?” the mother said.
“Yeah. No baby.”
The two talked this over.
“We are sorry. It’s just that you white girls all look the same,” the mother said.
My next apartment was a little quieter, at least until the college kid with the pot plants moved downstairs. Eventually, somebody called the police on him, and he and a friend were arrested.
When I called the property manager to report a leaky sink, she asked me if I had had any trouble with the boy downstairs.
“Well, honey, that young man downstairs was arrested last night,” she said.
“Oh, wow. Was it pot?”
“Well, honey, I don’t know about that, but he was smoking marywanna.”
“Ah. Well. Um. That is too bad.”
Too bad indeed, but it didn’t get better when I moved to the duplex I live in now.
One year there was a trio of college girls, who were able to fit an impressive number of redneck friends into their unit. The high point of these parties was always the morning after, when Meghan Mae’s boyfriend would break up with her.
“Coooooooooooorey, nooooooo! Don’t gooooooooo!” she would wail.
Corey would shove her to the side, climb into his truck — which, according to its window decal, was named Black Thunder — and drive off, leaving hearts and Miller cans rattling in his wake.
But, he was always back the next weekend for another round.
After a year of that nonsense, the current trio of neighbors was a major relief. I’ve never heard a sound from them, but somehow their silence makes what takes place next door even crazier.
The day after Thanksgiving I found a big hunk of hair, festooned with a several bits of pizza crust, out by our mailboxes. Was there a throw-down over the last slice of stuffed crust? And why did nobody see fit to properly dispose of this refuse? It took many months of wind and rain to wash this ghetto fabulous tumbleweed away.
And the party hasn’t stopped. This week, I found another hunk of hair — this one is considerably larger, about a half head’s worth — and lots and lots of shattered glass, as if someone had broken into a car.
I have no idea what is going on, but I haven’t heard a peep out of them.
And that is why, when potential sublessees ask me how the neighbors are, I tell the truth: They’re just great.