It is human nature, I have found, and constantly work, to turn whatever dank and pitiful hovel in which we fester and live, into a sort of nest of comfort that separates Us from Them, indoor from outdoor. And so, Spaulding and I set to work haven-ing our hovel, adding kitsch and coze wherever we could. Tapestries that once decorated the walls of my high-rise apartment now shelter us from the reality that lurks just outside the window. The pavement vista was the first to be hidden away, masked by a green, tree of life mandala that swayed in the wind when gusts blew through the shoddy windows — horrible antiques from the building’s naissance glistening in cracked lead paint, framing our weak attempts at domesticity for the cars outside like a drive-in freak show.
Outside our apartment, tumbleweeds of trash swept across the empty parking lot, littering the frozen asphalt. This angular square of gravel and pavement is shadowed on one side by stone apartment buildings, separated by a cavernous hillside driveway passage. Extending from the building on the left, a dilapidated chain link fence zig-zags half-heartedly along the cold gray parking lot to meet the Great Wall of Wood, sturdy and tall jutting this way and that to contain the adjacent lot until it meets the road and encircles my little square of pavement into perfect right angles of parking space nightmares. On the far side of the lot, curled into the shadows of the apartment on the right, is an open trail of rocky terrain winding up to another adjacent lot. This is the patchwork quilt of Burlington’s tenement houses, with fences stitched and frayed between the serendipitous community squares of each building.
When my boyfriend Spaulding and I moved into apartment #2 of 19 South Willard Street, I was disappointed at first. My previous apartment, at Spinner Place, had been on the fifth floor, with views of the Winooski River and a wide sunset from every room. This place was a heap of brick and wood careening down a hill, just one more cube in a grid of shelters doomed to fall into Lake Champlain. Poised against the heavy metal door in a struggle to balance assorted boxes from the move, I stared out into the sad gray parking lot for the first time and wondered why, it seemed, we were entering a building through the basement. Upon stepping into a grimy and dimly lit foyer, turning abruptly left, and walking through the doorway of my new home, I couldn’t help but compare my river vistas to the panorama before me: the same ugly square of asphalt and trash that I had been so eager to depart from just moments before.
Along the far wall were two more windows, one bisecting the living area and another perched above the refrigerator in the kitchen. The first provided a view of the adjacent parking lot, and the front door of the apartment that began four feet from where ours ended. This is the apartment that gazed down through the second window, such that the girl doing dishes next door could, if she so chose, inventory the groceries on my countertop or watch silent television for free. For this reason, the second window was quickly blockaded, but I protested the obstruction of the first, because sitting on the couch altered the angle such that it provided a view of a blossoming green vine outside that was almost pleasant. It wasn’t more than a week, however, before men came with shears and power tools and chopped the vine down, leaving a bleak visage of chain link, which was cathartically familiar on gray days and maddeningly constrictive across a bright blue sky. And so, that window was blockaded too, with an orange and gold tapestry, obstructing the fence with another fence and then stacking book after book as if we might make a cave of literature to hide all trace that the window even existed. A small plant survived for a short time, sustained by the thin rays of sunlight that shone through the cracks, but it ultimately perished from the bitter cold that blew through the porous window frames.
It was the corpse of this plant that inspired me. In the muted colors and fading light of Vermont winter, I began to dream of spring and of a time when I might someday see green again. I thought of the vine, and of the fence, and that strange little space between the fence and my window that had been overlooked for so long. I don’t know who it belongs to, or even if it does belong to someone. The Native Americans thought the colonists absurd for thinking that someone could own land — to them, land was an entity itself, a living ecosystem that may be occupied at some point by this being or that one, but never owned, because how can you buy something that is priceless? This forgotten strip of land had become priceless to me, and I began to think of it as communal, a natural “freebie” if you will.
I hatched a plan to create a garden: clearing out the space between territories during the cold months, building a base and filling it with soil when the frost receded, nestling infant seeds into their soft dark incubators to sprout excitedly into the sun, nurtured by compost and rain. Spaulding made me rationalize: I ought to ask permission. Why? I wasn’t exactly sure. I didn’t know who I ought to be asking permission from; the chain link fence, albeit haphazard and dilapidated, was patched and mended every so often, though it was not clear by whom. “Who do you think put the fence there?” I asked him. “Whoever got angry first”, he replied.
I called the property management company to ask if it was their strip of land, and if I could plant on it. I gave a distressed-sounding girl the back story. She has never been to the property, and rustles around some papers for a while before she boredly explains that she’ll have to get a supervisor to call me. I give her my information, and suddenly her tone changes to rapt mistrust. “You’re not on the lease. Who are you?” she demands.
Caught off-guard, I stumble over the words, “It’s my boyfriend’s apartment… I’ve been living here for two years.” I figure now is not the best time to mention that we also have a roommate living in the second bedroom.
“You can’t live there if you aren’t on the lease! You’re not allowed to be there right now!” she whines, and I begin to worry that I’ve jeopardized her job somehow. “You should be evicted.” A long pause follows during which she seems to angrily shuffle more papers, and then she quips, “I shouldn’t even be talking to you right now. Goodbye.” and the phone clicks silent. For a few days, I’m afraid that any moment two gigantic repo men will come to the door and toss me out into that filthy parking lot to find a new bed.
After some time passes, I don’t worry so much. It took six months for them to fix the light bulb in the foyer after it broke. I’ve never met a landlord, only the cleaning ladies and a few handymen. No one seems to know who actually owns the building, and the secretaries in the property management office are far from managerial. Frustrated with this sovereignty identity crisis, I resolve to ask permission of the only people who will actually care: The neighbors across the fence. This will prove more of a journey than necessary. Because of the fence, I have to walk up around my building, along South Willard Street, and down the neighbor’s driveway in order to knock on their door.
Suddenly nervous, I knock rapidly at the metal and plastic outer door, hoping to catch someone in a good mood. Several frigid minutes of close listening and anxious pacing yield no result, and I leave a note instead. “Hello Neighbor! I live at #19 (apt. 2) right across the fence, and I want to build a garden in the space between our buildings. Will you text or call to let me know if this is okay with you? You’re welcome to plant veggies of your own too! Let me know, Jane Adams”, I write, and append my phone number. Relieved to have completed my task to the best of my abilities, I jog back around the buildings and glance at my handiwork through the fence before I step back into my comfort zone.
Several days pass, and no one calls or texts. I begin weeding out the space between the fences, collecting years of trash and cigarette butts into the dumpsters outside. I don’t see anyone enter or leave the apartment next door, but I’m working in short shifts throughout the day to keep my fingers from turning blue. I begin to feel indignant, having been so ignored first by my landlord and now by my neighbor. Of course, we’ve been ignoring each other for two years and it’s worked wonderfully, so why change now? I suppose these borders give us an excuse to avoid the unfamiliar, a fear of the strange that is embedded in human nature.
I do, however, begin to watch the squirrels. Spaulding and I sit like an old retired couple in lawn chairs on the spit of concrete beside the future garden, pointing at them as they leap from tree to tree and scamper along the fence. That damned fence, that has caused me so much confusion and frustration, is a thoroughfare for them, not a border. It connects all the trees, tiny cities unto themselves teeming with birds and insects, and hollows out a groove along the base that acts as an excellent nut cellar. Like the squirrels, I realize that I have made something new of these fences — they no longer separate two places, but contain another. I have created another nest, a subsidiary of my own. A colony of sorts, to provide raw materials for the mainland. Trade agreements with other nations have proved bleak, but perhaps upon seeing the fruits of my labor in the spring time, the opportunity will be renewed. For now, I’ll just have to watch the squirrels.