Suburban Life, A Pretty Wife, I Think I've Got It Made
Photo: Will Harris
In 'The Wizard of Oz', a tornado acquaints the characters. In South Norfolk, a hurricane provides the introduction for the new folks in the neighborhood. Much like the girl in Oz's Emerald City, the fellow in South Norfolk, with his emerald-green, mysteriously self-mowing lawn, learns that there really is no place like home.
My wife, Jenn, and I pull into the driveway after a rainstorm and notice just how darned nice our grass looked. We chalk it up to the effect of raindrops still attached to the blades of grass, or something like that. Laugh if you will, but which is more likely: that the rain's made your lawn look particularly nice, or that someone's cut your grass out of the kindness of their heart? Perhaps I'm cynical, but I'd think that most would think it was a rain effect.
The next time we pull into the driveway and notice how nice our grass looks, we know damned well it didn't looked that good when we'd pulled out of the driveway, just hours ago. We consider the implausible: "Someone cut our grass for us". The following Saturday I walk out the front door, ready to pull out the old push mower and make a run on the front yard. And there is Barry, sitting atop his riding mower (a Mastercraft Lawn Chief). He's putting the finishing touches on his own lawn, driving around and around. He sees me, and waves me over to him.
Barry Herbert is a thin, gray-haired fellow who looks a bit stern if you catch him surveying his terrain. He diligently served the United States Postal Service for many years before retiring, and, at a glance, you have no problem believing that neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night would stay him, in mail delivery or yard work. Once he sees you, however, his face lights up in a wide smile, as it did this time, true to form. Over the rumbling of his idling mower, he asks me, "Will, do you mind if I cut your front lawn?" I'm taken aback, but after a moment's thought I say, "Barry, I have never rejected anyone's offer to cut my grass." I've never actually received such an offer, mind you, but my statement is no less true for that. Still, I feel obliged to ask, "Are you sure? Because I was literally just coming out the door to do it myself." He nods at the riding mower beneath him. "It'll only take me five, 10 minutes on this." "Mow away!" I laugh.
The next morning, I'm getting the Sunday paper from our now-neatly trimmed front yard, I see Mrs. Herbert, tending her flowerbed. Given how lovely the landscaping of the Herbert's house is, I presume that Mrs. Herbert must have an actual gardening outfit to work in baggy khakis with pockets, a shirt one doesn't mind getting a little dirty, durable gloves but she's always immaculately dressed and coifed whenever I see her dabbling with her flowers. I say to her, "Please thank your husband again for cutting the grass for us." "Oh, he loves to do it," she says, "He's retired and has all the time in the world. I think he's cut most everyone's yard on the street at some point or other."
That may be, but Barry certainly seems to favor our lawn, possibly just because it neighbors his own. He continues to cut our front lawn every time he's cut his own, which must run into a few hundred miles of lawn, by now. Lagwagon may have song that "Friday night's a perfect night to mow some neighbor's lawn," but Barry seems partial to Thursday afternoons. The last time we met up in our front yards at the same time, I shouted over to him, "You know, I've lost track of how many thank-yous I owe you now." He waved me off. "You just keep right on counting," he laughed, and went inside.
Now that's a fine neighbor, right there. A fine neighbor in a fine neighborhood, indeed.
Too Close to Home?
I live precisely seven miles from the spot where I was born. Okay, maybe not precisely seven miles. I might be giving Yahoo! Maps a bit too much credit, there. But when I punch in the address of the hospital where my mother gave birth to me (Norfolk General), then enter my current address in Chesapeake, VA, Yahoo! Maps tells me that the distance between is 7.0 miles. If it's close enough for Yahoo! Maps, it's close enough for me.
I'd like to say that my voyages since my arrival at Norfolk General have taken me far and wide, and that, even after seeing the four corners of the earth, what I've come to realize is that there's really no place like home. Well, the old adage is true, but I didn't really need to go anywhere to figure that out. Which is a good thing, I suppose, given that I haven't really been anywhere.
Sure, I've traveled a bit, been to England and Scotland (once after college, once on honeymoon). Even been to Canada, both with my family and on a solo expedition. I'm not exactly sure how many US states I've visited from the makeshift camper on the back of my dad's pickup truck, but I'd say that I've probably set foot in almost half of them, by now. So I've got a bit of seasoning, so to speak.
But the farthest away from "home" (i.e., my parents' house) that I've spent any significant length of time was 200 miles for two years in the faraway place of Danville, Virginia, last capital of the Confederacy. I was a journalism student at Averett College. Young, single, and B.A. in hand, I briefly flirted with the idea of staying in Danville because it was such a nice, quiet town. Friends who did stay there after college have assured me that the novelty of Danville wears off quickly, usually right around the time one realizes that they'll always have to drive at least an hour to catch a decent concert. So it's clear that I made the correct decision in moving back to Chesapeake.
When it comes to leaving the nest, some seem to go out of their way to evacuate the premises as quickly as possible. They want to leave their past behind, and start a brand new life without Mom and Dad hanging over them, often going out of their way to move as far away from their family as possible. Not me, baby. My parents live 10 miles away, my wife's parents only slightly farther. The majority of our aunts and uncles live within a 12-mile radius. There's been no cord cutting for this boy or for his wife. God help us, we LIKE our parents. We LIKE our families. We actually WANT to live near them. I know it's crazy, but it's true.
A Bit of History
I'm 33 years old. Jenn and I bought our first house at the end of August 2003. It's only a mile and a half from the first house I ever lived in. We live in South Norfolk, which is part of the city of Chesapeake, itself originally part of the city of Norfolk. My location, therefore, is kind of difficult explain.
Me: We live in South Norfolk.
Them: So that's in Norfolk?
Me: No, actually, it's in Chesapeake.
Them: But it's called South Norfolk?
Me: Right. Because Chesapeake used to be part of Norfolk.
Them: But you don't live in Norfolk?
Me: No, I live in Chesapeake.
Them: Then why did you say you live in Norfolk?
Me: I didn't. I said I live in South Norfolk.
Them: Which isn't in Norfolk.
Me: Right. It's in Chesapeake.
Them: (shaking head) Dude, you should just say you live in Chesapeake.
Yeah, but, dude, that would defeat the purpose of specifying South Norfolk in the first place.
Norfolk County was founded in 1636. In the last part of the 19th century, a portion of Norfolk County evolved into the suburb of South Norfolk; by the early 1900s, the area had its own water works, public schools, and a post office. Nearby railways and waterways enabled South Norfolk to incorporate into an independent town in 1919, then into a first class city in 1950, with a population hovering in the neighborhood of 21,000. Unfortunately, annexation suits filed by neighboring cities over the next few years led to geographical restructuring of both Norfolk and South Norfolk. In 1962, South Norfolk was incorporated into a new city: Chesapeake, population 61,000.
South Norfolk had developed so much of its own identity during the first half of the 20th century, however, that it had no interest in being quietly absorbed into Chesapeake. Even as much of South Norfolk was taking an economic nosedive, with privately owned stores driven out of business in the oncoming wake of big chain stores moving in, and many residents moving to other portions of Chesapeake, longtime inhabitants of the borough, in particular those with a sense of history, continued to take pride that they were "from South Norfolk".
My father has that sense of history, even though he now lives in another borough of Chesapeake; his entire family is from South Norfolk, born and raised. Our realtor, Anna Sullivan, has it, too; she went to high school with my parents, and, when I was a kid, she used to baby-sit my little sister. By the time I was married and in the market for a house, she'd won fame in the local real estate community with her crack squad, Anna's Home Team. With her husband, Tommy, by her side, she's put together a group of realtors and assistants that have won acclaim and awards, regularly appearing in the Tidewater Association of Realtors' Circle of Excellence. As such, there was little question that we'd want Anna to be our South Norfolk real estate agent. Plus, there was also the additional bonus of knowing that my parents would never let her get away with selling us a house that was not up to their standards.
The process of purchasing a home went down just as quickly as everyone had warned us it would, but seemingly 10 times faster. Anna called me at 11:15 AM to tell me that a house had just gone on the market that morning that she thought we'd be interested in. It was on a nice, quiet street on the right side of the tracks (literally, in this case; trains pass by only a few blocks away), and it matched up with the general criteria we'd given her: three bedrooms and at least a bath and a half. She warned me, though, that it wasn't likely to stay on the market long, and that, if we thought we might be interested, we should get over there to take a look right away. Taking her advice to heart, I picked Jenn up from work and we were at the house by noon.
My wife was sold on the house before we'd even finished pulling into the driveway. Her eyes grew wide as she excitedly bounced up and down on the seat, looking back and forth between the house and I, shouting, "I could live here! I could live here!" Later, she said of her sudden decision, "It wasn't any one thing that specifically sold me on it. It was just that, as we drove up, I saw this cute little cottage on a nice little street, the kind of place where I could live happily with my husband and start a family. It had a garage, and everyone knows that no house is perfect unless it has a garage. But what I remember most was that, in the flowerbed, there was a little sign that said, 'Welcome.' And it's still there."
I didn't make up my mind quite as rapidly as Jenn, but it didn't take me a great deal longer. We stepped inside the house and, yes, it really was everything we wanted. The bedrooms were spacious, the kitchen was nicely laid out, there was both central air and a woodstove, the garage was tremendous, and the back yard provided plenty of room to add a deck or patio. I thought we'd kept our cool while we were getting the grand tour, but, as soon as we stepped outside, it was clear that Anna wasn't fooled for a second. "If you're really interested in this house," she said, "we should go back to my office right now to draw up an offer". And so we did. But on the way over, I called my father and asked him if he and my mother could take a jaunt over to the house to check it out, so that I could get his blessing. A half-hour or so later, he called back and said with an audible smile that, as far as he could tell from just a quick drive-by, Anna had found us a winner.
At 7:30 that very night, the opposing realtors met at a nearby Hardees restaurant parking lot, where our offer was accepted. Anna called within minutes to give us the good news. Wham, bam, thank you, Anna. My memories of what we did immediately following the congratulatory call are hazy, but I suspect that a victory dance might have been performed. At the very least, however, we went out for celebratory ice cream. And the rest, as the cliché goes, is history.
Everybody Knows It Gets Windy, Here
In the first few months of our lives as homeowners, a not-so-nice lady by the name of Isabel wreaked havoc on the East Coast. What luck that the first significant hurricane to hit the Hampton Roads area in my lifetime should occur before we'd even made our first mortgage payment.
Jenn and I opted to ride out the storm in the house, because we've been assured by the city that we're in a no-flooding zone. (Thankfully, they were right.) Unfortunately, the winds got a little crazy, hitting upwards of 100 miles per hour. Our power went out before the worst of the storm even hit, so we were in the dark as our new house was pelted by driving rain and smacked by flying branches. My wife was furious at storm, running outside and screaming at Isabel, "Stop hitting our house!" You think I'm kidding, but I literally had to keep following after her, yelling, "Dammit, get back in here!" Every time we heard the sound of large branches striking the roof, she'd run out the door to curse at the storm.
The next morning, once the storm has passed in its entirety, we went outside to survey the damage. It was, all things considered, negligible: a shingle missing here, a piece of siding loose there. Not even worth calling the insurance company over, thankfully. Still, what were we going to do with these big-ass branches in our front yard, one so large it punched a six-inch hole in the ground? The largest cutting instrument in our repertoire was a little hacksaw, hanging from a nail on the wall in the garage.
So there I was, standing in the front yard, feeling like an idiot, but giving it my all, trying to cut branches with this tragic excuse for a saw, the tiny blade bending like it was made of rubber. Jenn was collecting smaller branches for a curbside pile. Various neighbors emerged cautiously from their homes to survey their own damage, and yet, despite all that they had to look at, I was convinced that what really caught their eye was my futile attempts to cut large branches with a hack saw.
Thankfully, I was right. Six nearby neighbors (three married couples) couldn't help but notice how ridiculous I looked, and they came over with their chainsaws. This was our first real encounter with most of our neighbors. Hurricane Isabel introduced us to Willie and Donna, our next-door neighbors. "You look like you could use a little help," said Willie.
As the wives assisted Jenn with the smaller branches, the fellas fired up their chainsaws and tore through larger branches. Branches cut to manageable size and move the curbside, we set out together to wander down the street to the next house in need of assistance, to repeat the process.
The power was still out on the street as night crept in. At 6:00pm, the daughter of one of our neighbors knocked on our door, inviting us to a cookout. We offered our apologies, having nothing to contribute, but she told us not to worry about it. One of the guys in the neighborhood drove through the debris and got everything needed for a barbeque from the Wal-Mart, about five miles away. So we had a wonderful dinner with folks from several houses who joined us for a cookout in our neighbor's yard. Jenn and I greatly appreciated their hospitality, and offered to return the favor, just as soon as we invested in a grill of our own.
We received a grill as a housewarming present a few weeks later, but, come to think of it, we still haven't held that payback barbeque. But there's plenty of time. We're not planning on going anywhere, anytime soon.
Think I'll Kick Off My Shoes and Stay Awhile
South Norfolk feels like an oasis of stability in the desert of the Hampton Roads naval community, where the population is constantly fluctuating and your neighbors change like the seasons. On Earle Avenue alone, Barry's lived in his home for 40 years. Freddy Weaver, the bespectacled, gray-haired gentleman who lives across the street from us, has been a resident of the Avenue for almost 50 years, having bought the house from his mother. His wife, Betty, regularly makes sure that every holiday is represented in their front yard with decorations and displays to commemorate the occasion. Even Willie and Donna, who are about the same age as we are, have been here for 12 years now, and the kids they've raised here seem to have all turned out nicely.
So here I am, still in the area where I was born and raised. I'm not able to say that I've never felt a need to "escape", to "find myself" elsewhere. On a few occasions, I've wondered what it might be like to live somewhere else, like in a big city, where I'd be the star music journalist on the staff of a major metropolitan newspaper or glossy weekly magazine. But how can I really complain? Most of my family is here. I met my wife in this town. We worked together for six years before I ever got up the nerve to ask her out, proving conclusively that I'm not a fast mover. Most of her family is here, too, so she's in no rush to move elsewhere, either. She's fond of saying that she'd follow me anywhere, but as there's no doubt in my mind that she means it, I feel no need to make her prove it.