Columns

2017.07.06 Guest Column: Taylor Ballinger

Good Neighbor is Hard to Find

By TAYLOR BALLINGER

My first time meeting our neighbor was, I thought at the time, a bad omen. It was the day before our closing, and Rosie and I were doing one last survey of the house with our real estate agent. It was a beautiful day in mid-May, and we were excited about buying our first home.

An older man with long, unkempt gray hair, a rather large belly, and a difficult-to- understand eastern Kentucky accent walked over and introduced himself.

“I’m Mr. Sullivan,” he said. “Looks like y’all are gonna buy this house. Well, I’ve got these dogs here—they bark a lot, but I’ll keep ‘em locked up and away from those girls, ‘cuz they’ll bite ‘em. But, don’t worry, they’ve got all their shots.”

This was shortly followed by his one piece of advice, “and, keep your car doors unlocked, ‘cuz they’ll get in after your stuff anyway and you don’t want ‘em bustin’ out your windows.”

On our way back to our rental house, Rosie and I relived the conversation with Mr. Sullivan. We thought we knew who he meant by “they,” and in future conversations it would become clear that “they” were various minority groups.

“So, we’re moving next door to an overtly racist old man with dogs who may attack our children,” I said to Rosie. Our excitement about the new house went down.

Over the next several months, I tried to avoid Mr. Sullivan. The couple of times I engaged him in short conversation he would complain about “the Mexicans” who moved in down the street or about his grandson who just got out of jail.

 Then, sometime in April this year I looked at my yard and realized it had been mowed while I was at work.

 Same thing a week or so later. I saw Mr. Sullivan out by his yard and asked if he’d been mowing ours, too.

“Aw, yeah,” he said in his thick twang. “I mowed that old woman’s [the previous owner] yard for a long time ‘cuz I got this big ridin’ mower, so I just keep doin’ it.”

I told him he didn’t have to do that, but that I surely did appreciate it.

A few weeks later, I was changing my car’s oil in the driveway and couldn’t get the old filter off. I knocked on Mr. Sullivan’s door and asked if he had any tools that might help, and his eyes lit up as he walked back to his garage to find what I needed. When the job was finished and I brought the tool back, he smiled and said, “Any time, happy to help. Gotta change your own oil these days, just too dang expensive otherwise!”

One day in late May, I was standing out front with the girls playing with bouncy balls as we were getting ready to leave for a hike. Mr. Sullivan came out of his house slamming his door and huffing and puffing, and I could tell he wasn’t in the best of moods.

“My son ain’t worth a dime! He’s just an old alcoholic. His momma started lettin’ him drink when he was 14, let our girl start goin’ out with boys when she was 12. Lord, it was a mess.”

I stood there, eyes bulging a little and mouth slightly agape. Caroline and Ellie froze.

“See, when I was a little boy I sucked my fingers for a long time. Kids called me ‘Sucky Sullivan’. And, of course, no girls wanted to go out with ol’ Sucky Sullivan. But then this pretty gal come up from over in Breathitt County [a few counties over from where Mr. Sullivan grew up], and she didn’t know me as no ‘Sucky Sullivan’. We started going out, and got married and I tell you what she ended up being about the death of me.”

The girls were now hiding behind my legs.

“Lord, we were married for a long time—and she was runnin’ around with all kinds of different men.

Finally, one day I know she’s been out with this police officer in town and I’ve had enough and so I go on into town and take my pistol and put it right between his eyes. A few of his buddies talked me down, and when that woman and me finally split up I was down to 80-some pounds and in real bad shape.”

I wasn’t sure how to respond, and probably said something ridiculous like, “Yeah, that sounds pretty rough.” Soon Rosie and the girls and I were in the car on our way to our hike.

I’ve reflected on my interactions with Mr. Sullivan a lot in recent weeks. His racist views offend and frustrate me. His dogs haven’t bit our kids, but they are loud and menacing. Yet, he takes joy in mowing our yard, is happy to provide a helping hand, and he’s even offered to give me guitar lessons. From the bits and pieces of his life story, I’ve come to see a complex man who’s had challenging life experiences and his fair share of heartbreak. 

In an age of political toxicity and personal division, I take solace in my growing relationship with Mr. Sullivan. We have vastly different world views, and I’m thankful he continues to engage me in conversation, because I don’t know if I would have otherwise. I’ve come to know a man who, like most of us, simply desires love, happiness, acceptance and neighborly friendship. It’s amazing how engaging in conversations can help bring people together—and I can’t wait to start my guitar lessons.