in which the naked chimp is unmasked, his machines debugged, and his bugbears debunked

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Good Neighbours, Good Friends

As odd as they may seem, the weirdest thing about Tokyo is not the locals. No, it’s the ‘people like you’ that you’d better watch out for. When you discover that ‘gaijin’, the local term for someone like you, means ‘alien’ and ‘outsider’, you take umbrage; but the bristles subside when you meet a few living, (mouth-) breathing gaijin and realise that, however offensive the term may be, it was probably the most appropriate choice. At the extreme end, ask the Friedmans, or anyone of the poor sods discovered in that unspeakable Austrian basement: it’s always those you’re closest to who are the real monsters.

Take our old neighbour in Tokyo (no-one else will). From our first day in Toko flat A #101 we were convinced that we were living next door to a very, very odd German. I will never forget opening the door to our flat to have him say, just like Herr Lipp from The League of Gentlemen, ‘So it is true you are my neighbour, ja!’ before suggesting we start swapping sci-fi novels. I politely declined the swap offer, and thereafter Herr Lipp was noticeably colder toward me. I put it down to fussy ‘German’ sensibilities, or some other half-arsed stereotype. Nine months later, he was gone, never to return. About three months after the departure, we asked our other (local) neighbour –a maniacal greenfingers we nicknamed (imaginatively) ‘Flower Lady’ – about Herr Lipp, his whereabouts, and, frankly, his oddness.

‘I suppose he’s gone back home – tell me, do you know if he was Austrian, or German?’
‘Heeeeh…’ Flower Lady responded in that ascending bray peculiar to J-ladies, ‘He was from England.’
‘Are you sure? He always spoke with a thick German accent.’
‘Hontou, hontou’ [I’m sure, I’m sure], she replied, ‘He sent me a postcard from England – hora.’ And she went and got it to prove the point. Sure enough, he was from Cornwall in Britain. But had he lied to us gaijin, or to Flower Lady? Were we all a victim of his naughty, sneaky dissimulation? Germans, eh? Can’t trust em…

But what about neighbours: who the hell are they? And what do they want with us? As papa Freud once said, the phrase ‘love thy neighbour’ is both the hardest and cruellest of all the commandments: why should we? How could we? And what good would it do us? Love is valuable – why would you throw it away on Herr Lipp, or even Flower Lady? If you love someone, they must be worthy of it in some way or other – how are you supposed to love somebody who is not just a stranger, but also really, really strange? A stranger than strange sci-fi buff, one who would fake being German in order to set up an elaborate joke ending in a punchline with an audience of one?

Or what about snowdroppers, those neighbourly types who poke their business into other people’s underpants, after lifting them by moonlight? Last week, I talked about ‘hanky Pops’, my next-door neighbour with mucous and anger management issues. A week ago, Pops may have been merely repulsive – this week, he’s a potential perpetrator. That’s because, over a course of days, weeks, or even months (until we realised), some smelly little nonce had been lifting my lady’s smalls. After the discovery, we told all our neighbours about the theft, and, as it turns out, all of the women in the building had experienced their very own snowdrop. How long had this been going on? How much is it going to cost all of us to replace our lifted smalls? And how many pairs of knickers does a pervert need to get their jollies?

Thing is, I doubt the snowdropper is Pops – unless he’s using panties as hankies… but no, I don’t think so – he’s slow-moving, and I’ve never seen him out at night. Being snowdropped is expensive and inconvenient: to the replacement cost of the underpants is added the inability to comfortably hang out your washing of an afternoon ever again. And this connects to the worst aspect of the whole thing: the breakdown in trust. Every person who passes by my window is now a suspect, and seeing the world of my neighbours through such squinty, suspicious eyes is enough to get your knickers permanently in a knot. All it takes is one arsehole with peculiar masturbatory habits and the idyllic, naïve vision of a happy, sunny neighbourhood is wrecked.

A recent, popular ‘solution’ to the existence of snowdroppers and the fear of worse is the erection of walls and the flight behind them into gated communities. In a gated community, so the story goes, each of the residents is carefully vetted, while each visitor must pre-arrange a visit with a resident in order to be admitted. Gated communities are screamingly successful in the US, and they’re gaining popularity in Australia – Sanctuary Cove, our very own Truman Show on the Gold Coast, is the most well-known example. But here’s the rub: according to a recent study, you’re actually no safer living in a gated community. Sure, the walls are high, the lawns are cut – if you’re lucky, the guard is even awake. Problem is, gated communities are based on the flawed assumption that the criminal/devo/madman is an outsider, when in fact, the perp is more likely to be a neighbour, or even a family member. Crime rates are at least as high, or higher, inside gated communities than they are in the free-flowing neighbourhoods in comparable places – in a gated community, the weirdos aren’t locked out, they’re locked in. Unfortunately, there are freaks – I wish it were otherwise. But at least if the doors aren’t bolted you can escape. If it’s a choice between bricking myself in with those I think I know so well, or taking on the risks of strangers that I don’t, give me the fear of the unknown any day. That, and an indoor drying rack.

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PC is an animal of the antipodes believed to be related to a gibbon.