John Julius Reel

The Foreigner’s Neighbors

The foreigner, recently moved into his girlfriend’s apartment, felt fortunate to be able to look down at the park in front, although it seemed more like an abandoned lot up close. The enormous sign announcing that it was under construction, or was about to be, gave him hope—false hope, it turned out. Five years later, with the foreigner now married with children and still in the exact same place, the park remained a wreck. Even the sign had been destroyed.

Children never went there to play, or young lovers to stroll, or families to picnic, only dogs with their owners to befoul it. At night, cast-offs both young and not-so-young, perhaps just perpetually juvenile, skulked around the borders of the park, enjoying not the park itself, but what they’d brought to get wasted on. They only entered the park to break things already broken, or to do the same as the dogs did during the day. And they always left their garbage along the edges—beer and liquor bottles, fast-food packaging, dirty diapers and condoms, drug paraphernalia. Because the park had been plagued by hard luck for so long, without anyone trying to remedy it, the foreigner wondered if perhaps the neighborhood and the city preferred a filthy and abandoned park, so that they could continue mistreating it, while blaming each other for its disgraceful state.

But the neighborhood was changing. People from faraway had begun to move in. These people missed the open country of their homelands. Very few owned cars, and those who did had no friends or family in nearby towns or villages to welcome them for ferias, carnavales and romerías. Very often, entire clans lived in the same apartment, or rather hovel, with low ceilings and paltry natural light. Barred windows looked out toward other barred windows, across stinking and stained courtyards, where the spare parts and stripped frames of motor scooters were chained to sickly and stunted trees. Living like this allowed them to make ends meet and send the little bit extra to the loved ones they’d left back home. Other than this, these people didn’t ask for much, didn’t ask for much of anything at all; they were even willing to settle for blight pawned off as a park.

One day, the foreigner’s next-door neighbors, even newer to the building, neighborhood, and country than he, installed themselves around the park’s sturdiest tree, with a cooler full of food and drink. Most of the park’s trees had dried up, rotted and come crashing down. Most of the rest seemed doomed to the same end. Only the tree picked by the foreigner’s neighbors provided the assurance and shade necessary to receive such a gathering of aunts, uncles, cousins, and of course friends, with their gaggles of children, and beach chairs and fold-out tables and Styrofoam crates and trunks filled with fare for a shared feast. They set up a makeshift grill in a corner created by two crumbling cinderblock walls, where, during the winter, bonfires had been lit by deadbeats in order not to suffer cold while nurturing their apathy and dissolution. The foreigner’s neighbors spent the whole afternoon there, mounting their very own romería, packing up only after night fell. They took their garbage with them. The foreigner, returning from his errands that afternoon, had seen the ambiance and suddenly resented his mortgage payments a bit less.

The next weekend more of the foreigner’s neighbors’ clan showed up, and the following weekend still more. Soon, on Saturdays and Sundays, from noon till nightfall, they overran the place. One way or another, they found space and shade for their tables and chairs, and to grill and season their meats, and to play their instruments and sing their songs, and to celebrate birthdays amidst the jubilant cries of their young. Since the park’s courts and playing fields had fallen into such disrepair, these people brought their own equipment, assembled it, and after playing their games, disassembled it, and took it away. They always left the park in the same filthy and poor state they’d found it in.

More than once, the foreigner’s neighbors, upon seeing him return from his errands with a look of approval on his face, invited him to drop off his bags upstairs and come back down with his tiny clan. The foreigner, American just like they were, planned to accept the invitation one day. He looked forward to taking part in a revolution that had transformed the great eyesore of his neighborhood into the mise en scène of a recurring feast.

But like all revolutions, this one met resistance. To the more established neighbors, the sudden state of grace of their park was cause for alarm, not joy. The “stench of barbecue” clung to the laundry they hung out in the afternoons, they complained. They apparently preferred their clothes to give off the odor of rotting garbage and backed-up sewers. These self-proclaimed “lifelong” residents, who spent all afternoon indoors, with the windows shut and their televisions on, and who spent their incomes—occasionally earned with great effort and forbearance, it was true, but nothing compared to the exploitation suffered by those whose community spirit they now condemned—on a way of life that shut them off from the world pissed and shit on by their dogs and delinquent children, began publically denigrating this advent of open-air diversion as “a gross spectacle that would end up provoking altercations.” All of a sudden, the naysayers began to notice the litter strewn along the edges of the park, and the ashes of the bonfires from the winter before, and the broken and charred remains of the discarded furniture they’d been fed by, and they blamed the recent arrivals for ill-treating the neighborhood’s—ahem—“wooded promenade.”

One weekend afternoon, as the park brimmed with barbecues and volleyball and birthday parties and impromptu musical groups, someone called the cops, and they came (almost unheard of, when it came to nuisance complaints). Not only that, they came in force, with paddy wagons, helmets, and riot gear, spoiling the party once and for all. The foreigner’s neighbors’ clan quietly packed up and left, never to return, in search of peace, not problems—proof that they’d been deliberately misunderstood. The park went back to being abandoned, and the long-standing neighbors puffed up with pride, like children who’d managed to get borrowed toys back, only to break them on purpose, before the eyes of their imagined rivals. It was the only time the foreigner had ever seen his adopted neighborhood and city work together efficiently—to expel people who knew how to make the most of what the locals had long ago forgotten how to value or appreciate.

“What can we do,” said one of the foreigner’s neighbors, “if their dogs come before us?”


John Julius Reel, born and raised in Staten Island, NY, has lived for 12 years in Seville, Spain. He is the author of a memoir in Spanish, ¿Qué pinto yo aquí?, and has collaborated as both writer and editor in El derbi final, an award-winning book about the Seville soccer derby. His essay, “My Darlings,” was recognized as “notable” in Best American Essays 2015. Reel’s Sevillian andanzas have appeared in Cleaver MagazineGravel and Thread.

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