By Tina Traster
April 3, 2008 -- I bought a co-op on the Upper West Side a decade ago. My first week there, my neighbor invited me for tea. We had a lovely conversation.
But it wasn't possible to love thy neighbor for long.
She had a penchant for blasting music and vacuuming at 6 a.m. on Saturdays.
One morning I asked her if she could turn down the music, and I got an earful about how she had lived in the building (in her rent-controlled apartment) for 25 years. Who did I think I was? We never spoke again.
In fact, I would even peer out my door's peephole to make sure she wasn't waiting for the elevator.
In 2005, my family and I relocated to an old farmhouse on a woodsy mountain pass in Rockland County.
Up here, neighbors are important. You count on them to keep an eye on your home when you're away. Sometimes you might need to park in their driveway or borrow a chain saw. But the folks who lived in the house to the south were recluses, and we never met them. So I was glad when they sold their house last fall.
A young family with teens moved in. We met on a beautiful September day. "Hi there," I trilled. "Welcome to the neighborhood."
They turned out to be vegetarian, tree-hugger types like me - had I hit the neighbor jackpot? "You guys are vegetarians too," the mom said. "That's great. We can eat together without having to explain ourselves."
We excitedly talked about organic food, hiking and alternative education. It was as though we had been matched by eHarmony.
After a chat and house tour, I met Mimi, their 7-month-old kitten.
They're cat lovers, too! It just doesn't get any better than this, I thought.
But you know when you start a relationship and everything that seems too good to be true really is?
My new neighbors explained that they were feeding the kitten, but they couldn't allow her to live indoors because they have allergies.
I understood that, but how could they expect a kitten to survive up here, where there are roaming coyotes? Didn't the world have enough feral cats? This puff of gray fur would never make it through the winter.
I bid goodbye and spent a couple of weeks contemplating whether I should steal the kitten. If I did, my neighbor and I would never be able to have that veggie meal together.
Two weeks later, Mimi appeared in my driveway. I gave her tuna and bottled water. She jumped into my lap. I had to give this cat a home, no matter what it cost me in neighbor relations. When I told my neighbor that I was prepared to take the cat, she said, "You've answered my prayers. I've tried to get a home for her and nobody wants to adopt a little gray cat."
She thanked me profusely, and I told her that I would take the cat to the veterinarian for a checkup and get her vaccinated. "Just let me know how much the bill is, and I will cover it," she said.
Mimi checked out fine and I brought her home. She quickly worked her way into my existing three-cat hierarchy. Later that day, my neighbor stopped by. Mimi was curled up in a wicker basket. What a love fest: Neighbor helping neighbor, little cat rescued off the streets.
"I'm so relieved," she said. "Thank you so much. How much was the vet bill?" she asked.
"It was $110," I answered.
"OK," she said. "No problem."
That was the last time I saw her. Maybe she will put a check in the mailbox, I thought, after weeks had gone by. Then, I thought, why had she offered to cover the expenses? I didn't really care about the money, and I was afraid that if I dropped by, she would feel as though I was coming to collect a debt. I could have said, "Don't worry about the vet bill," but that might have embarrassed her. It was easier to do nothing.
But after five months went by, I decided to do something. I called and left a message. When she called back, she asked, "Is something wrong with Mimi?"
"No, not at all," I said, "Mimi's wonderful. I realized several months had slipped by and we haven't been in touch."
We chatted about a backhoe that crushed her driveway and the runoff down our mountain road and the bad food that is served in our school district. An hour later, we hung up. I'm hopeful that one day we will break bread - and stir-fry some vegetables.
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