Neighbors

The Sunday before Super Bowl 48 I competed in the Gracie Nationals, a submission-only grappling tournament held at the Los Angeles Convention Center in Downtown L.A. I’ve been training Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu on the regular for about a year and a half. For most of my life I never had an interest in grappling or wrestling or roughhousing in general. But then I turned 30 and suddenly I wanted to squeeze other men—but never orgasm from it. It’s been an odd type of coming-out party.

I weighed in close to 9:30 the morning of and was surprised that the dairy I had cut out of my diet for the three weeks leading up to the competition hadn’t shed any pounds off me. The Convention Center was abuzz that day with freaks—and not just the BJJ variety. The convention hall was split up into separate sections for Crossfitters, powerlifters, and arm-wrestlers. There was even a Parkour setup located nearest to the grappling mats. Had I known I’d have to wait over seven hours before competing I would have gone for a stroll around the fitness expo, taken in the other sideshows, maybe chatted up one of the salesmen who was hawking life-changing protein powder.

I was able to sit in on a seminar with Javier Vasquez that was all about head-and-arm chokes. Javi showed us the techniques he had mastered—what he described as “really head-and-shoulder chokes.” The drills left me lightheaded, one of my training partners during the seminar—some guy from Calgary—cranked my neck (so unnecessary), but I imagined pulling off one of Javi’s techniques in my upcoming match(es).

I got a bye the first round. Maybe there was an odd number of competitors or someone had been forced to drop out, I don’t know. But when I finally got to compete I was matched up with a guy I train with at 10th Planet HQ. It was a bummer, because you enter tournaments to test your skills against competition you haven’t met before. To be matched up against someone you know, and so early on, in a single-elimination tournament? It felt like going to an orgy, but only being allowed to sleep with your spouse. Oh, and he submitted me in about a minute and 30 seconds.

1 minute. 30 seconds.

He went on to place second in our division. I went on to stuff my face with hamburgers and fries from the Umami in Los Feliz. Although I had deprived my body of such comforts for three weeks, the food gave me no joy. It felt like I was eating with a different man’s mouth.

It was dark when I drove home—a dark that seemed darker than normal. The cars parked on my street reminded me that Monday was street-cleaning. I crept along, looking for a spot that would let me sleep in, but spaces were not looking good. Even for my Smart Car, the two-door piglet, which will gobble up whatever parking scraps are thrown to it.

Near the end of my street I found a scrap behind the bumper of a sedan. I pulled into the spot, but there was a driveway behind me, so I got out of the car to see if I could squeeze in a few more inches. A man was watching me park. He stood behind a picket fence that came up to his waist—it was his driveway I was trying to avoid.

I got back in my toy car, rolled it forward a touch, powered it down, grabbed my bookbag, exited onto the street, and was about to walk down the block to my house when the man said, “Do you think you have enough room?”

I looked back at my car. “I think so,” I said. I noticed he was holding a tiny dog on one of his arms. He must have just come back from walking it—or carrying it.

“Because I have a two year old daughter,” he said. And it was here that I noticed his accent. It was some kind of British: intimidating in a Guy Richie-film kind of way, with a glob of Liam Neeson. “And if something should happen, and there’s an emergency, and my wife has to back out of the driveway in a hurry…Do you think she’ll have enough room?”

The gravitas of the scenario he described puzzled me, but I looked back at the car, and concluded, “I think if she just goes straight out it shouldn’t be a problem.”

“You know,” he continued, “if there’s an emergency with my daughter, and my wife has to back out in a hurry and she smashes into your car—it’s on you.”

There was no lightening up in his tone. He wasn’t physically imposing. And he was standing in his front yard, holding a dog I’m sure his daughter loved dearly.

“Is your daughter OK?” I said.

“She’s fine,” he said. “But if—”

I understood that he was being protective of his family. I also found it interesting that in all the scenarios he painted for me it was his wife that was backing into my car. Obviously he was confident in his driving skills.

He pointed out that my bumper was trespassing—hanging over the technical part of his driveway where the curb curves down to meet the gutter. He had a point.

I told him, “I’m not from around here—I’m from New York.” I didn’t say it to try to intimidate him. Not only do I hate when people do that, but I had just gotten my ass kicked in less time than it took me to park the fucking car—I didn’t feel like I could intimidate anyone that night. But he must have thought I was trying to scare him, because he assured me that he wasn’t from around here either. I wanted to say, “Yeah, man, I know. I can hear you speak,” but instead I just showed him how maybe my shitty parking—and not my toughness—was a product of where I was raised.

“This is the second time it’s happened,” he said.

I didn’t know I was a repeat offender. This was our first time meeting after all.

“I’ve seen cars towed for less,” he said, and pointed to the other asshole who had parked his ride too close to the other side of the man’s driveway.

There was a knot in my stomach. My heartbeat was elevated. I get that way when confrontation looms. It doesn’t happen when I’m grappling, because my sparring partners and I have already agreed that this is going to be a fight of sorts. But the unknown of a street fight is another story—especially one escalating over a parking spot, with a man who was just taking his dog for a walk and is now standing behind a white picket fence…

“I apologize,” I said. “But you don’t have to give me an attitude.”

“I’m not giving you an attitude, mate,” he said. “Trust me: you’ll know when I’m giving you an attitude.”

His statement was amazing on a couple of levels:

1) The cliché attempt to intimidate me with a rhetorical counter punch.

2) It also didn’t make sense. Because if I mistook his initial dealings with me for attitude, then chances are I wouldn’t be able to tell when he’s “really” giving me an attitude. I’ll just figure he’s continuing to give attitude.

Finally, I just said, “Hey, man, I’m your neighbor. My name is Lou.” I held out my hand, and instantaneously the atmosphere changed.

A look came over his face. He was no longer dealing with some stranger who drove an annoying little car and was causing havoc in the community. He shifted his dog to his other arm and shook my hand. I told him my house number, which was about halfway down the block from his house.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m your neighbor. I didn’t mean anything by this.”

I walked back to my car, and he said, “You don’t have to move it tonight. It’s OK.”

No, I had to. He was right and I was wrong. “I don’t want to get towed,” I said. “You’re helping me out. I appreciate it.”

“It’s all right!” he assured me.

I backed out of the spot and pulled a U-ey before he was in his house. I found another space with more than enough room that I’d have to be out of by 8AM the next morning.

Back at home I took a shower and thought about the incident. I thought I had handled it well. Yet, with baby blue shower gloves on I lathered my body and plotted my revenge. Revenge for me, I decided, was to write the man a note, which I would drop in his mailbox the following morning. Perhaps after moving my car.

I was going to apologize again—this time in writing—and promise that it would never happen again (the parking spot squeeze). I was going to mention that I often train at night and come home when it’s dark. I have shitty night vision and after sparring sessions, during which blood and oxygen are being cut off from my brain, it doesn’t always make me the best decision-maker. I was going to tell him about the heartbreaking loss at Gracie Nationals—leaving out the whole losing-in-one-minute-and-30-seconds detail, of course—and the hamburgers that failed me. (It turns out I even added up the tip incorrectly on the check.) In spite of all that, if there was anything I could do for him, my neighbor, he knew where to find me. (I’d include my house number in the note—to be sure that he did.)

I got dressed, while my shower gloves dried in the bathroom. Content with my next course of action, I sat in my living room, waiting to watch a new episode of HBO’s True Detective (which, like the hamburgers, would end up disappointing me).

One of my roommates stepped out of the house for a moment, but then came back in. He said there was a bag of oranges for me on the porch. Inside the bag was a note, with the following, written in all caps:

LOU,

APOLOGIES! YOU JUST CAUGHT ME AT A BAD TIME. ORANGES FROM THE TREE. ENJOY. (PEACE OFFERING).

HIS NAME (HIS HOUSE NUMBER)

I almost cried. Because I thought about how something so silly could have escalated into a fight—or, at the very least, the lame note I was going to write.

I almost cried. Because in the end he and I were two human beings—neighbors—recognizing our own faults and each other’s humanity.

I almost cried. Because, honestly, he probably saved me from another ass-kicking.

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