His mother bought the house next to ours to flip and moved her 33-year-old son in during the renovation. The next afternoon, as he scrutinized his front yard, I walked over to welcome him to the neighborhood. He was wearing a profanity-laced T-shirt bearing the message that a woman’s place was in the kitchen. I thought he would explain that it was a joke. He didn’t.
Over the front porch railing he soon hung an assortment of hostile T-shirts printed with anti-feminism, anti-Islam, anti-gay and pro-1st Amendment sayings.
My new neighbor spent his days digging up the lawn, and then pushing wildflower seeds into the ground in random spots around the property. He watered it all four times a day. As he soaked the dirt, he would yell at anyone walking by, calling them “progressive scum” or “socialists.” If he got no response, he would chant and sing, “Lock her up” or “Build the wall”— for 30 minutes.
Our delightfully diverse, liberal-leaning, bake-sale-for-charity Hollywood neighborhood was horrified, me included. We had to put up with his rants, off and on, all day as he watered his “landscape.” If any neighbor suggested he tone it down, he would shout, “I have freedom of speech! You should support the Bill of Rights.”
Then one day he needed my partner and me. He was locked out of his house and had no cellphone.
No one in the neighborhood would open their door to him except us. My partner let him use her cellphone. He called his mom to rescue him.
He handed back the phone. “Why are you being so nice to me?”
She replied, “Oh. Human being.”
Moments later, as he went down our front steps, he said, “Islam hates people like you and your girlfriend, so you should hate them too.”
The next week, he began to spread peanuts on the sidewalk for the squirrels and broken crackers for the pigeons and crows, then get as close to them as they would allow. In those moments, he looked like a friendless child at a petting zoo.
One early evening he came over in a huff, asking to use our phone. Someone had stolen the T-shirts from his front porch railing. He called the police.
“It was probably kids,” I said.
He was adamant that it was the neighbors. “They hate me,” he said.
I replied, “You’ve had your shirts up for a month. If it were adults, the shirts wouldn’t have stayed up for a day.”
He calmed down a little. An hour later, I came across his T-shirts, scattered over the next block. I made a decision to pick them up and deliver them to him in his front yard.
There was no “thank you.” He only mumbled bitterly that one was missing. I knew which one — a black T-shirt with a derogatory definition for each letter of LGBTQ.
I looked him in the eyes and said, “What did the T-shirt have on it?”
He squinted in return.
“I’ll look for it on my walk,” I told him, “and I’ll bring it back to you, because I do support the Bill of Rights. What did the T-shirt say?”
He looked down. “It’s probably gone. Never mind.”
I turned to leave.
“People are starting to scream at me,” he said, now in victim mode. “They drive by and yell at me because I have different opinions.”
“You’ve done more than your share of yelling at people for six weeks,” I pointed out.
He tipped his head back and laughed. “OK. That’s true,” he said. For the first time, I saw him smile.
All I know is that he wouldn’t tell me to my face the words on his gay-bashing T-shirt. He could not look at me and verbalize what he thought was his “right” to express. When it was human being to human being, the hate was unsustainable.
His mother moved him out a short time later. The neighborhood breathed a collective sigh of relief.
A week after he left, the yard blossomed in a chaotic mix of wildflowers. For about five days, before the sun scorched them dry, it was beautiful. I was surprisingly sad that he didn’t get to see it.
Marcia Wilkie is a freelance writer and performance artist.