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Away They Go

By Tina Traster

July 9, 2009 -- The brown raised Ranch down the road is for sale. A young couple bought the house three years ago. I met them once for a brief moment when they jogged past my house and stopped to admire my garden. I know they had a baby sometime later because balloons and a "Welcome" sign hailed the infant's homecoming.

I have no idea why they are selling the shingled house. A motorcycle at the end of their driveway is also for sale.

"I bet they're in foreclosure; probably lost a job," I say to my husband. "Why else would anyone sell in this market?

"Maybe one of them was offered an incredible job opportunity in Europe," answers the eternal optimist.

Whatever the explanation, we're unlikely to find out. Our serpentine mountain road in Rockland County fosters anonymity. You may know a neighbor to the north or south, but I haven't been invited to a "block" party since I landed here four years ago.

Here, sculptors labor, inspired by beautiful ponds and verdant hills. Writers write. People keep chickens. They also keep their secrets hidden.

Until recently, the only changes along the road I knew about arrived with the seasons. In spring, a gaggle of goslings appears on the banks of the pond opposite the yellow house with the fantastic garden. The scent of lavender announces summer. The tomato plants in the fenced-in enclosure at the corner house creep up wooden stakes.

But now I notice that the constant buzz of chainsaws and drills has been replaced by birdsong. Contractors' trucks with rattling ladders no longer lumber up and down our hilly road all day long. The man who started rebuilding a front porch at the green-and-white house across the road stopped midstream. Large beams waiting to support planks look like outstretched arms asking a higher power why this is happening to a society bent on home improvement and secure in home ownership.

Foreclosures in neighborhoods in Illinois, Florida and Las Vegas have become symbols. Life has been interrupted. Houses are stripped of copper and fixtures. Hearts broken, animals abandoned. The cameras show images of a massive, systemic failure.

In neighborhoods like mine, the signs are subtler, but hints of distress are emerging.

There's a "For Rent" sign at the house on the corner where an elderly lady feeds a colony of feral cats. Her lawn is not a neat carpet of grass anymore. Will she give up and walk away? Who will feed the cats if she pulls up stakes? I bet she's lived in that house for decades.

I don't know because I've never met her. I don't know what she looks like. I don't even know her name.

The grand old gray-and-white Colonial farmhouse perched high on the hill has a "For Sale" sign out front. I bet you can see the entire valley through their large windows. Not long ago, the owners built a generous addition over the garage. Maybe they were courting a tenant, but it wasn't enough to save the house.

A couple of years ago, even before the market crash, a seven-unit luxury townhouse development on my street had stalled. The fresh pine slowly weathered to gray. Stripped earth turned into a weed-strewn lot. The ghostly hulk became a graffiti-scrawled eyesore. I've been told by a town official that the builder filed for bankruptcy. No one will touch it now. A fire official finally hung a large "No trespassing" chain at the entrance.

One day, my neighbors' mail ended up in my mailbox. It was from their bank. I felt an odd pang of panic. Were they in default on their mortgage? I was tempted to open the envelope to see for myself. Instead, I walked down to their mailbox and stuck it inside.

When there is a national crisis, we gather. After 9/11, we went to vigils. During the presidential election, the Internet was our global community. We watched MTV to grieve Michael Jackson's death.

I can only wonder if my neighbors are suffering. Or, I could ring their doorbells and introduce myself.

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