Beans and Cornbread

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In the past, I have been very bad about getting to know my neighbors. It’s not because I’m reclusive or timid, but because there’s seldom any reason to interact with them. We Americans lead pretty independent lives nowadays. It’s not like I need to run next door to ask old Mr. McGillicuddy to help me get the livestock inside when there’s a twister a-comin’, or to get my mule out of a ditch after a carting mishap. Even the proverbial cup of sugar is no longer passed between neighbors, what with the fact that no one bakes anymore, and that “sugar” could be a code word that undercover cops use for drugs.

When I lived in a condo in Orem, Utah, I had neighbors who I never met but whose voices I recognized because I frequently heard them through the wall when they were engaged in marital relations. One time their relations were so clamorous, they woke me up. But I never met these people in person.

Next, when I lived in an apartment building in Salt Lake City, I knew my neighbors across the hall were from Mexico and that they were not afraid to hold very festive fiestas until the wee hours of the morning. I also knew that the people directly above me let their kids stay up really late, and that the woman whose bedroom was above mine communicated mostly by shouting. But again, I never met any of these people.

So now that I’ve moved again, to an apartment in a “quaint” (i.e., dilapidated) eight-plex in Portland, I’m trying to be different and actually get to know my neighbors. I always lived in such big complexes before, but now there are only seven units besides mine. I should be able to manage that.

My first effort came not long after I moved in, when I wanted to make burritos for dinner and found I lacked a can opener with which to free the frijoles from their tin prison. This struck me as odd. Not the bizarre terminology I just used, but the fact that I didn’t have a can opener. I know I had one when I lived in Salt Lake. I specifically recall using it to open cans on a number of occasions. Why hadn’t it made the trip with me to Portland? Had I intentionally left it behind or thrown it out while packing, perhaps in an attempt to lighten my load, perhaps thinking I would never need to open a can again? If that was my reasoning, it was extremely short-sighted, for here I was, not a week into my new location and already in need of a can opener. I suppose next you’ll tell me I shouldn’t have thrown away all my socks, either.

Anyway, I really had a hankering for those burritos, so I went over to apartment No. 5, where there appeared to be someone home. A Hispanic man in his early 20s answered the door. I told him I was the new guy in No. 8 and briefly summarized my plight for him. He retreated straightaway to the kitchen to fetch me a can opener; I used it on the spot, having brought the beans with me. Then we had this conversation:

ME: Thank you very much. So, do you like living here?
HIM: Yeah, it’s OK.
ME: Cool. I’m Eric, by the way.
HIM: I’m [I don’t remember what he said his name was].
ME: Nice to meet you.
HIM: You too.

So you can see that already I am doing better in my attempt to befriend the neighbors.

The people in No. 7, right next to me, made it easy to be friendly. They were a couple in their early 20s, and the woman was a heavy smoker, which meant she was outside a lot, because Landlady Peg won’t let tenants smoke inside (which is unfair, because the way Landlady Peg controls the heat, sometimes lighting a cigarette would be the only way to stay warm). When I’d been here a few days, the woman saw me one afternoon and introduced herself. (Tonia? Tawny? Something like that.) She said she lived there with her boyfriend, J—- (Jason, I think, possibly Jeremy), and that they were from New Jersey. How they managed to be from New Jersey, I don’t know. They were both artist hippie vegetarian Macintosh types who listen to jazz music and don’t own a TV. I was surprised they weren’t born in the actual forests of Oregon, having sprung up from the earth itself with Mother Nature and Father Hemp as their parents.

Anyway, Tammy (?) was very friendly and chatty and said if I ever needed anything I should come over, and if their music was ever too loud I should let them know, and that I should stop by sometime for some cornbread, and that they liked to be good neighbors, and wait a minute, did she just say to stop by for some cornbread? But the conversation had moved on before I could say anything.

Cornbread? Usually you’d say stop by for a drink, or for a snack, or to watch the game, or something. But cornbread? She wasn’t from the South. Do people from New Jersey even MAKE cornbread? Does she always have a pan of it lying around, in case company drops in? Some people have a candy dish or a bowl of fruit. Maybe she has a plate of cornbread.

I spent the rest of the evening trying to figure out what she might have said that I had mis-heard as “cornbread.” But not very many words sound like “cornbread,” or at least not ones that make sense in this context. “Stop by for some corporate” isn’t a complete thought. “Stop by for some cord wood” is even more baffling. “Stop by for some porn; bed” is a logical statement, albeit an indecent one, but there had been no semicolon in her voice, I’m sure of that. I was forced to conclude that she had, in fact, offered me cornbread.

Alas, I was never to take advantage of her hospitality, because she and J. moved out a week later. It was a shame, because I really like cornbread.

What a fun coincidence that the two food items featured in this column combine to form one of my favorite down-home meals: beans and cornbread! It's the hillbilly in me. (I think there's a little hillbilly in all of us.)

The new tenant in No. 7 was elusive for a long time. I knew someone lived there because I saw lights on and occasionally heard the shower running. But I never saw anyone enter or exit for several months. Then I learned that the new tenant was the girlfriend of the cousin of one of my best friends here in Portland. What a small world! I still never talk to her, though.

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