Years ago, when I joined The Writers’ Brigade, Gettysburg’s only public writers’ group, long-time member Keith Johnson put a name to the steady stream of intensely personal prose I churned out. He called it confessional nonfiction. The name fit. Much of what I produced seemed to spring from an uncontrollable desire to come clean. To fess-up. To exercise my demons, purge my bad energy. My stories recounted years of substance abuse and unchecked mental illness.
Here’s a confession:
As a youngish adult, out of my many problems, alcoholism ruled the roost. Upon graduating college, I rented a house in the working-class community Wheaton, Maryland with three other college friends. Our house was small, brick, and sturdy. It was built in the forties, and already dumpy inside. The sort of house you can rent to four irresponsible young men and not worry about them destroying it.
Wheaton, my section of it anyway, was one of those neighborhoods that filled with families as the homes were built, the kids grew up and moved away, and their parents never left. Forty-some years later, every house harbored a married couple of senior citizens. Our house, the party house on the street, raised hackles.
I could tell a few stories about that house. Some, on the surface, seem funny: the time I wrapped my head in duct tape like a mummy; or the time my roommate Mike and I graffitied our dining room with spray paint; but really, these are just pathetic portraits of immature men with a drinking problem.
When he first dropped by to visit, my brother eyed our basement with envy. His band, the Stallones, named not after Sylvester but his younger brother Frank, had no place to practice. He and his band-mates lived in a DC row-house, sharing walls with two neighbors. They couldn’t pull off amplified music in such close quarters. We quickly cut a deal. The Stallones could practice in our basement on Monday nights if they brought along a case of beer.
The arrangement didn’t last long. The Stallones were insanely loud. With the walk-out basement door open to create some airflow, you could clearly hear the band a block and a half away. Immediately outside our house, maybe from our neighbors’ front porch, it sounded like, well, a band was playing next door.
On the morning after Thanksgiving, Mike returned home from a night spent at his parent’s house with a fresh bushel of oysters from a roadside vendor. Knowing it would take all weekend to eat so many oysters, I drove to the store and bought a keg of beer. And so, we started. Shuck an oyster, slurp it down, chase it with some beer. Our roommate Scottie got into the mix. He didn’t care for oysters, but was happy to help with the keg. All day we drank and into the evening. Around dinnertime we called around and let some friends know we had a keg.
A handful of people came over, but didn’t stay long. My roommates and I were drunk and loud and probably boring. By midnight the party narrowed to Scottie, my brother and me. We decided to jam—my brother on guitar, Scottie on drums, and I sang. We played only snippets of songs because I only knew the choruses. Once it was time to sing the verse, I forgot the words. Finally, Scottie sang a lyric he made up with a friend when they were kids:
Standing on the corner
Standing on the street
First you move your hips
Then you move your feet
And after a while you’ve got a pretty good beat
When you’re standing on the corner of the street.
“C’mon Jeff, keep it going!”
I improvised: Cuz I’m dancing, dancing on a train
I don’t know why I’m dancing on a train
I’m dancing, feeling quite insane
Why the f*ck am I dancing on a train?
Impressive, no? Here’s the thing. This went on for hours. The amps were turned all the way up. The basement door was open to the world. It was deep in the early morning.
I’d like to say this was a one-off; a crazy night for reasonably well-behaved adults; quickly forgotten, forgiven by the neighbors, but really this crap happened all the time. Parties, large and small, indoors and out, always loud, vulgar, slurring conversations. One summer night, door and windows open, approaching 3:00 a.m., we had our stereo turned all the way up, the Clash’s Police and Thieves rattling the cupboards. Lights out, three or four of us shouted to one another over the music. A flashlight popped on. A cop stood in our doorway shaking his head in disbelief. “I can hear your music at the end of the block. Turn it off and go to bed.”
What is it they say? Karma’s a bitch? Fifteen years later, Susan and I now responsible adults living a quiet life in suburban Washington, D.C. As newborn Sophie just entered the world, our next door neighbors moved out. Rather than selling their house to another young family, they rented it to a group of students. Four played on the American University men’s soccer team, the other two on the men’s rugby team. Their house was the official party location for both teams.
In the early 2000s, the way people communicated over the internet was through listservs, which is essentially a group-chat via email. My neighborhood had an active listserv with messages flying every night our new neighbors had a party. And party they did… Huge parties, the yard filled with students whooping and shouting, people throwing up and peeing in our bushes. Small, intimate gatherings of just the roommates playing a game together: “Drink, Drink, Drink!” One night, Susan and I woke up to the sounds of loud sex… from the house next door.
The rest of the neighbors on my block complained endlessly, their listserv messages recommended that Susan and I call the police. Our house abutted the party house. They acted as if the parties were our fault, or at least our responsibility to fix. And truthfully, maybe they were. I can’t think of another person who deserved those neighbors more than me.
I wish there was a way for me to contact my Wheaton neighbors, to offer a proper apology. But after all these years, I’m sure most of them have moved away or moved on. Instead, I try to make up for my stupid, obnoxious past by being as polite a neighbor as possible.