Neighbors

Neighbors

Eric Smith

My family had been in the neighborhood five years when Robert Aronson started the Belly Button Country Club. Robert, the only adult in the neighborhood whom every kid called by his first name, lived next door to us with his wife, Nan, and their two kids, Charlie and Elly. Like streets in every suburb that bloomed after the war, ours was a bare vine at first, houses growing up and down its length like fast appearing fruit. The Davies house went up on other side of the Aronson’s, the Roses’ on the other side of them, the Haskin’s house sprung up across the street. All modest homes compared to those in an older part of town, a section between us and the bay, where stately structures stood veiled behind dense shrubs and spreading oaks. We, too, planted trees and shrubs and built fences along property lines on our block but our fences were always partial, with openings left between us and our neighbors. A dirt path went around our chain-link fence to the Aronson’s where Robert laid down planking to keep us out of the mud. The redwood fence between the Davies’ and the Aronson’s had a gate that was always open, shut only by the wind. Moving freely between home and the homes of friends, we all eventually ended up at Robert’s.

Like our fathers, Robert worked hard during the week seizing the opportunities of a post war boom, securing his share of treasure loosely buried in the Golden State. But unlike our fathers, he didn’t play golf on weekends or watch sports or take long naps, he had a different notion of leisure. Not surprisingly, kids in the neighborhood gravitated to the Aronson’s on weekends to see what Robert was doing. Dressed in a tee shirt, jeans, and moccasin-loafers, Robert was often found playing in his workshop or assembling something in the yard, and always with plans, never disclosed, for fun later. Sometimes he’d pile us into the bed of his VW truck to drive to an embryonic housing development where we skate-boarded down a virgin street with the perfect slope. Once, after buying one of the first “slip-n-slides” ever sold in the country, he took us into the gated estate of a family he knew so we could slip-n-slide on their terraced lawn. Since the building of every new house in the neighborhood interested him, he often put a half dozen of us in his car, and several more in the trunk, and drove to the latest home-site after workers had gone for the day. We’d thread the skeletal frames, collect lead “coins” cut from electrical boxes, and scavenge discarded wood and nails for our own construction projects, mostly toy boats. Robert made sure we didn’t break anything, step on nails, or climb an unfinished stairway. And one Saturday, every month, he loaded the back of his truck for a dump run. Robert would lay a tarp on top for us to sit, older kids holding onto younger kids as we rode down Atherton Ave over the freeway to the bay-shore dump to watch hundreds of sea gulls wheel in the sky and bulldozers push stinking garbage around.

Of course, he built the first pool in the neighborhood. Standard length but charcoal colored, made of concrete mixed with crushed lava. A bunch of us were there when the chugging caterpillar dug the hole, the deep end, first. We saw the bottom framed with rebar then the dark gunnite sprayed on and the upper tiles laid and the deck cement poured. Two garden hoses ultimately filled the pool, taking a couple of days. When it was done, Robert did an inaugural cannon-ball off the diving board after which we all jumped in. And never got out. Not that summer or the next, as long as someone’s mother was there to watch. A trampoline soon went in, set at ground level over a pit, an idea Robert got after taking us to a fun center in town. We’d swim, bounce, and swim all day then come back after dinner to bounce some more, even into darkness. The trampoline and the pool brought kids from new houses farther up the street, not only in summer but year-round.

I was eight years old when we became members of the Highgate Country Club. Rising affluence in the neighborhood induced several families, including the Roses, Davies, and Haskins, to join local clubs. Our lives changed instantly. Now, we were on swim teams, working out three days a week. Though we continued to wander over to the Aronson house on days we didn’t practice, we all saw less of each other, and less of Robert. In July, we came together for a trip to Lake Tahoe, a half a dozen families in a big house Robert rented on the lake. Robert sat for hours behind the wheel of his new ski boat towing each of us to our heart’s content. From the shore, a parent joked how no one had ever seen Robert sit in one place so long, far surpassing Christmas Day when he made his yearly rounds in the neighborhood, sitting in a chair in our kitchen or living room for maybe twenty minutes before he was up and off to wish the next neighbor “Happy Holiday.”

I don’t remember first going to the Highgate. Though I was old enough to fix enduring memories, the thrill of swimming in an Olympic size pool, practice as a new member of the team, even my first grilled tuna sandwich out of Isabel’s minuscule kitchen, are all lost to me. But the Belly Button Country Club, I remember clearly. I was ten years old the day Robert gathered us around his pool to announce the club’s founding. There were about twelve of us, all laughing at Robert’s latest playful idea. It was just like him, we thought, a case of Robert being Robert. When Scotty Davies began pulling at something in Robert’s hands, Robert lined us up to make sure we met the club’s one and only entry requirement.

“Show me,” he said to Scotty who lifted his shirt high. “Yep, you’re in.”

I showed mine.

“Funny lookin’,” he said, “but yeah.”

My sisters giggled. He waved them over.

“Girls, place a finger where your belly button is. OK. OK…. right. OK.”

After verifying the existence of a dozen navels, he handed out patches for our bathing suits: a depiction of a belly button set inside a circle with the initials B.B.C.C.

“Congratulations,” he said, pushing his glasses back on his nose and ticking his eyebrows, “you are now members of the Belly Button Country Club.”

He led us to the Aronson house then hurried inside while we waited on the lawn. The soundtrack from “My Fair Lady” was playing– “Wouldn’t It Be Lover-ly.” Coming out of the house, Robert had a square of folded cloth across his arms which he opened and held up: a flag with the same logo as our patches. Leading us to a flag pole just off the lawn, he lowered the Stars and Stripes, hooked the new flag below it then raised both flags high.

“When you see this flag, the pool is open. Members and guests. And today,” he said, pushing on his glasses and working his brow, “the Belly Button Country Club is officially open.”

For a few weeks, we eagerly watched for the flag. Swimming at the Aronson’s was simply for fun, not competition. But the novelty didn’t last long. And most of us didn’t know what to do with the new patch, we couldn’t put them on our speedos along with our swim team insignias. Some kids had their moms buy them a second suit for the B.B.C.C. but most patches, like mine, wound up in dresser drawers. In the end, the attraction of the Highgate and other clubs was too strong, especially for our mothers, who dropped us off in the morning and picked us up at five. For them, it was the easiest thing to do. For us, it was an adventure. Walking up the garden path to Highgate pool was like going to summer camp every day. A special domain where kids created their own activities –ping-pong baseball, sharks and minnows, bellyflop contests–while adult supervision stayed limited to a cool lifeguard who stepped in mainly to prevent injury or keep water balloons from accidentally hitting the stray mother, or worse, a grandmother. At Highgate, my sisters and I formed a new circle of friends, seasonal peer groups not unlike the friendships we had at school, enduring year to year and growing stronger while our neighborhood friendships, like the seasons, altered and faded. Highgate was also a place where I renewed crushes every year, or felt new ones, the opportunities to flirt being endless. Plus, l could eat whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted, provided Isabel had it in her kitchen– I only had to sign my name.

In the end, the whimsy of the B.B.C.C. could not compete.

The flag continued to fly for a few years. Robert kept the pool heated fall and winter when pools at the Highgate and other clubs were closed. Not many kids showed up. Halloween still brought us over, a tradition of meeting at the Aronson’s after we’d scoured our street. Robert would load us in the back of the truck to drive to mansions of people he knew in the older part of town, down dark driveways no trick-or-treaters ever went, and where Robert knew they would have to give us money. There was also a fantastic neighborhood ski trip he organized. Seven families willingly dragged themselves, along with ski equipment and luggage, to the Aronson’s house at five in the morning to board a bus, a coach complete with a professional driver who took us to the Olympic Village at Squaw Valley where, amazingly, we slept in the same dorms used by athletes a year earlier. None of us kids had ever ridden such a fancy bus. I remember being impressed by Robert’s son, Charlie, who must’ve been only nine at the time, sitting on a folding chair, clip board in hand, checking our names as we boarded the bus in the dark. Later, while Scotty Davies and I settled into our cushy recliner seats, Charlie went down the aisle making the final count. But this was not unusual. While the rest of us played in their yard or swam in their pool, Charlie and his sister Elly were often finishing up their chores, carrying out responsibilities inconceivable to most of us.

I went on my last dump run when I was thirteen, about to enter High School. The back of the truck was full of kids so I sat up front with Robert. I remember thinking how his nose hairs had grown over the years and how his habit of twitching his eyebrows seemed less a tick than an exercise in keeping his eyes wide. I rode up front both ways, down to the dump and back. On the way back, I said something about how, whenever I get my first car, I want a stick shift.

“Like the truck,” I said.

“Come see me in a couple years,” Robert replied, “I’ll teach you.”

When we drove by a street in the older part of town, I remarked how Willie Mays wanted to buy a house here but couldn’t. Robert said he’d heard that, too.

“Why?” I asked “why can’t Willie live here? Why can’t the greatest baseball player in the world live in our town?”

“Neighbors,” was all he said.

As I grew, I wandered farther from home, slipping the confines of the neighborhood, an outward movement that lasted years. First, on a bike. Then in a car. By the time I got to college, my town had become my hometown and the people I knew my childhood friends. My parents, the Roses, the Davies, and the Haskins became longtime neighbors waving remotely to each other in cars or meeting, by chance, in a grocery store. I continued to visit Robert on breaks from school, he loved watching all of us become adults. Later, I’d see him every few years, mostly when I was in town for Christmas at what I now called my parent’s house. He’d show up, without fail, on Christmas day to catch up, always remembering the last time he saw me, and what I was doing. And, every time, amazed to hear that I still wasn’t married.

I continued to move outward, by planes, now, across an expanding universe to other continents and cities faraway. Five years had passed when I saw Robert for the last time. My wife Carolyn and I were in town to visit my mother. I took Carolyn next door to meet our neighbor who, it turned out, had received a diagnosis of cancer that very morning. Sitting on his patio near the flag pole, the Stars-and-Stripes waving occasionally in an unsteady breeze, Robert talked briefly, very matter-of-factly, about the treatment his doctors were devising. Then, pushing his glasses back and twitching his brow, he turned to me to inquire about the career change I was contemplating the last time I saw him. He also asked Carolyn a few questions, and was delighted to learn I’d married a woman with a dozen grandkids. He and Nan, he said, were going to have Elly’s kids for a few days at Tahoe where he was going to show them how to sail. Robert sat with us a whole hour.

His memorial was a year later, with several hundred people in attendance. Carolyn and I went with my mother and two of my sisters. Lots of old neighborhood kids showed up: Scotty and his sisters, as well as a few Roses, Haskins, and others, all of us gathered at a community center to hear family and friends speak from a stage. In our hearts, joy wrestled with sadness, Robert had been a giant in our childhoods. As we listened, we learned things we never knew about him. Like his part in the landing at Anzio that pushed fascists out of Italy, something we couldn’t have known because Robert, like all our fathers, never talked about the war. And since I didn’t think of the Aronson’s as particularly religious, I was surprised to learn of his work with Jewish charities, and how that involvement grew over the years. I don’t recall the Aronson’s going to temple, or Charlie being bar-mitzvah’d, or Robert ever wearing a yarmulke, only a vague recollection of a menorah in their hallway at Christmastime.

As Charlie, now in his late fifties, spoke of his dad, I pictured Robert’s son at eight years old doing weekly pool maintenance: skimming leaves, emptying the filter basket, getting out a test kit to check the ph before adding chlorine. I thought how my parents were pleased if, at that age, I didn’t lose my new football after a week. Concluding his tribute, Charlie took from his pocket a handful of B.B.C.C. patches which he waved and offered to anyone interested. Afterwards, I went looking for Charlie in the sizable crowd. I wanted a patch. I also wanted to tell him how much I appreciated his father for always remembering the last thing I was doing, even if I hadn’t seen him in years.

We got to talking about the B.B.C.C.

“I guess the country club scene really wasn’t for him,” I said, “since he didn’t play golf or tennis, and I can’t imagine him sitting around playing dominoes, drinking beer and bourbon.”

“Oh, no,” Charlie corrected me, “he wanted to join. He applied at the Highgate and others, but didn’t get anywhere.”

Charlie paused. “We’re Jewish.”

“I had no idea,” I fumbled.

“Yeah, my dad tried to find a sponsor but I guess they all knew it was futile. So they didn’t try.”

“They? You mean his neighbors?”

“Yes.”

Charlie asked me about my life, I asked about his. We exchanged broad outlines. I couldn’t shake what he’d just told me, and was still thinking about it when I rejoined Carolyn and my mother. My sisters soon appeared. They, too, had found Charlie and got patches.

As we got in the car, I laid my patch on the console between my mother and me, understanding, for the first time, the truth about belly buttons.

“Because everyone’s got one,” I said out loud.

“What?” my mother asked.

I pointed to the patch, wondering what more I might say.

“Everyone’s got one,” I said again.

My sisters laughed. Lee said she was happy to get one. Mary said she couldn’t believe there were any patches still in existence. As I drove, they talked about the ceremony and poor Nan Aronson and the size of the crowd and how good Scotty Davies looked. We rode in sunshine down the beautiful avenue through the gorgeous neighborhood to my mother’s house. The place I grew up. My childhood home. Native ground.

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