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Petty squabbles are just that, petty

By GENE WEINGARTEN Washington Post
Published May 13, 2007


When I lived in the suburbs, my back yard was big enough for touch football. Now that I live in the city, my back yard is still okay for some sports. Twister, for example. Speed chess. Maybe even pingpong, so long as it isn't being played by those wiry guys in short pants who stand 12 feet away from the table.

Because it is tiny, every square inch of my back yard is precious. And so my wife and I were thrilled when we noticed that right behind our back fence was 4 more feet of usable space - part of a warren of small, pebbled, ugly footpaths I call Peeping Tom Boulevard. The only scenery you see from these paths is people's back windows. According to city maps, the footpaths don't even exist.

So my wife and I just sort of claimed the land in the name of the King of Us. We marched our fence back 4 feet. Then we took the lock off our gates and built a nice cobblestone passageway through the seized strip of land, so if neighbors wanted to use the walkway, they could open our gates and pass on through. In effect, we gave up our privacy for space.

Giving up privacy is part of living in the city. My row house shares a wall with houses on either side, and sounds do sometimes penetrate. The common wall seems particularly thin in our main-floor bathroom; we know this because when we are in the bathroom we sometimes hear the guys next door pretty clearly. My wife and I have never discussed the flip side of this phenomenon, even with each other. Ever. Denial is also part of urban living.

Anyway, because other neighbors have done what we did, the alleyway behind our house contains several gates. Sometimes we let our dog, Murphy, out one of our gates and through the alley for a few dozen feet, where her progress is impeded by another gate; this is fortunate, since the alley eventually leads to the street, and Murphy considers cars to be enormous running dogs. She longs to join the pack.

One day recently, Murphy ran down the alley and didn't come back. I found her heading for the street. Oddly, the far gate had been lifted off its frame. Puzzled, I put the gate back on its frame after collaring Murphy. The next day, I let Murphy out and she didn't come back. This time the gate was . . . gone.

It turns out that we have a neighbor, many houses away, who hates gates - all gates, even those nowhere near her property. She informed me that, yep, she took that one, and that she may well take others: She has decided to reclaim the alleys for public use. When I asked the Alley Avenger who on Earth cares about footpaths no one ever uses, she said indignantly that she herself happens to love walking through alleys, which she considers charming historical thoroughfares. I called her crusade "stupid." She said I was a usurper of public land. I accused her of trying to kill my dog.

Other neighbors eventually got involved: At least two took her side; some took my side. Decades-old grievances flared among people who had lived here way longer than I. This was bigger than all of us.

Meanwhile, I kept Murphy stashed in our fenced front yard. One day when I checked on her, I found a young man on crutches leaning over the gate, petting her. He and I got to talking.

It turns out he once had neighbor problems, too, back when he was a boy in Sierra Leone. Eight years ago, when he was 12, during the worst of the civil unrest there, the rebels shot a rocket-propelled grenade at his mud house, and he took shrapnel in his hips. That explained the crutches.

"At least you have your hands, " I said, remembering the most awful of rebel atrocities. "Yes, " he said. "They cut off my sister's hands." She bled to death before she could get help. She was 8.

The rebels also killed his parents and grandfather. The young man was found by the Red Cross four days later, nearly dead.

"You have a nice dog, " he said, pleasantly.

I do. I also have a backyard dispute I'm no longer interested in. Others will fight it, and whatever happens is cool with me.

Gene Weingarten's e-mail address is weingarten@washpost.com.

Washington Post Writers Group