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April 2007

March Madness

Tour info for What The Dead Know

My twelfth novel, What The Dead Know, was published March 13th. And then -- well, if you really want the whole blow-by-blow, click on the button above for The Memory Project, where I've been blogging the tour. Let's just say -- there was plenty of good news.

What the Dead Know

But when I remember March 2007, I'm as likely to remember the bittersweet day that we said goodbye to our longtime neighbor, George. Robert Frost famously wrote that good fences made good neighbors, but I'm guessing that Frost never lived in a Baltimore rowhouse. (Actually, in re-reading the poem, I see it's the neighbor who makes this assertion, while the speaker, presumably Frost, seems inclined to argue it, if only for perversity's sake.) George and I shared a wall, a thin one at that, thin enough for me to hear his phone ring, which means he probably heard far more on his side, but he never complained. A second-generation resident of the block, he also was our only link to the neighborhood's past, sharing stories about the wedding receptions and wakes he once attended in my house, a former parish house.

If I left town without stopping the mail or the papers, George took them in without being asked. On those early mornings when the parking police were on the prowl, George would rap on the front door with a timely warning. (Once, when I was still in my pajamas, he simply moved the illegally parked car for me.) When I wanted to contest the increase in my property taxes, a triennial rite of spring in Baltimore, George suggested I take photos of his house, which happens to be covered with the siding known as Formstone. Once popular, the siding is now considered a bit of an eyesore by most. "Tell them how awful it looks," he said cheerfully, sitting on his front steps, smoking a cigar. "Take photos with your digital camera. Make sure to get my window sills, too." (The inside of George's house was pristine; he did the bare minimum to the exterior, because those where the kind of improvements that most often resulted in an increased assessment.)

Baltimore City's high taxes were part of the reason that George and his wife, Sandy, decided to retire to North Carolina. On March 18th, we gathered in a neighbor's house -- the former corner store, George reminded us -- for a formal goodbye. Many of us cried, and George seemed close to tears himself. He raised a glass and made an elegant toast. I wish I remembered it word for word, but I'll have to settle for a paraphrase. You have reminded me what a neighborhood is, George said, what a neighborhood can be, a place where people look out for one another.

Not even a week later, I came home and saw a group of workmen removing the Formstone from George's house. I stopped to watch. "We won't be long," they promised. "I'm just sorry to see it go," I said. "Well," the foreman said, "we can always put it on your house." Okay, I wasn't ready to go that far. But I was wistful about the Formstone's disappearance, which marked the passing of an era.

Besides, with George gone -- I'm now the oldest person on our block. By a lot.

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