It was the the hottest day of the year when the old man came over to mow my lawn. It was not the first time. Bing was our neighbor, a small elderly man with dark gray hair and a ready smile. He would not say his age, but his heavily wrinkled face and stooped back gave credence to the rumor he was in his 80’s. He walked the neighborhood every day with his fat chihuahua, Bijou. He knew everyone’s business, and regularly checked-in on the home- bound seniors, many of whom were younger than him. Bing had lived on the street for over 50 years and had been taking care of his own yard and the front yards of the neighbors on each side of his house for most of those years. And he was the strangest gardener I had ever met.
He loved lawns, and really nothing else. Flowers maybe, but only in their spot. I heard he was neat and tidy, once, but that had long passed. His eyesight was failing, and he had some back issues, so pushing his lawn mower became difficult. His mowing swerved into wavy, uneven lines.
I am scared of power tools, even the idea of a weed eater or a hedge trimmer gives me goosebumps. I know I would cut my own fingers off. So when Marcia and I found out our neighbor took care of our front yard, we were ecstatic. Who didn't love a bright, green lawn!
We thought about offering him some money, but when we brought it up to another neighbor, Nancy, her mouth dropped open as if I cursed her out.
“Oh no, he would be very offended.” Nancy put her hand on my arm. “You can't disrespect Bing. He’s retired, and his wife Georgia passed. This gets him out of the house, and I think it gives him a purpose, something to focus on that he can control. Offering him money would turn it to something, common.” She spit out the last word.
It was so much easier in San Francisco when all the neighbors just ignored each other! We wished we did pay him, then we could have some say in what he did. Because soon after we moved in, we realized Bing did not pay much attention to what he was doing. The first sign was when the two trees in the sidewalk cut-outs fell over on a windy winter day. Nancy pointed out the scars along the bottom of the thin trunks.
“Bing used the weed eater too close, cutting into them. Over time they weaken, and boom!” She clapped her hands together. She helped us get two new trees, and even planted them for us. As she directed me to dig out the grass around them to give them more space, she leaned in, whispering, “don’t let Bing get too close!”
What really fired Marcia up was our sprinklers. Each summer we wondered why the lawns were so green on our corner of the street, when everyone else's were turning brown. California was in the middle of a multi-year drought, and Marcia was focused on conserving water. But not Bing. We eventually found out he was running our sprinkler system every week while we were at work.
“You have to talk to him, Marcus!” Marcia said to me one evening as we stood on our bright green lawn, barefoot. Straight from work, we both had our dress slacks rolled up to our calves. The damp grass was cool and refreshing in the warm evening.
“There’s a drought, and we can not just pour clean drinking water into the ground!” Marcia’s hands flew up, waving at the grass we were standing on.
“This is just a status symbol, showing we have so much money we can grow this useless weed, instead of -vegetables for food!”
I squeezed my toes in the grass and felt the soft, earthy coolness rise up through my feet into my legs. As if Marcia or I could grow anything edible even if we tried. “Ok, I’ll try to say something…”
“-This is just not acceptable! What will people think of us!” Marcia stomped back and forth on our useless weeds.
I came home one afternoon and saw Bing fiddling with my sprinklers. This was my chance. I sat in the car for a few extra moments building up my courage.
“Bing, the lawn looks great.” It was another hot day and I felt sweat drip down below my shirt collar. “I was thinking maybe we don’t have to water- this week.”
Bing looked up at me. “Hello, Marcus!” You're home early, playing hooky huh!” Bing laughed and the sprinklers started up, I felt the cooling mist on my face.
“I mean there is a drought, so we should conserve water…” I squeezed handle of the briefcase in my hand, the leather slippery with sweat.
“Water?” Bing turned the sprinklers up even higher. “The golf course up the hill is still green. Do the golf players deserve the water more than us?”
I shifted my weight from one foot to the other, not sure of how to answer. A stream of water overflowed off the lawn and into the street.
“You don't want the grass to die do you? It will look bad." He shook his head. “It is not good to have brown grass." Bing nodded at me as he ambled off. “ Not neighborly at all.” Our grass, along with the other yards Bing cared for, stayed green and vibrant all summer.
“He’s out there again,” Marcia said, looking through the curtain at our front yard on a clear Saturday morning. The weed eater buzzed in a low hum, I had hoped the noise was from some other house, on some other block.
She leaned forward, looking directly below the window.
“He is destroying all my flowers!”
I put my face in my hands. Marcia’s friend had encouraged her to plant this flower, nasturtiums, her first attempt at planting anything and she was extremely proud of the green circular leaves that had popped up. There were not flowers yet, but the ground cover plant will have pretty yellow and orange flowers, according to the seed packet pictures. Or would if the plant was not cut to smithereens.
“Didn't you tell him to be careful of my flowers?!” Marcia looked at me as if I had done this to spite her.
“Of course, of course.” I lied. “He just must have made a mistake, took those big green leaves for weeds or something.”
Marcia's glare suggested I would end up chopped up like the plant if I did not get outside. “Ok, ok!”
“Um, Bing,” I shouted over the buzzing noise. “Those are Marcia’s special flowers, if you could leave them alone…”
Bing stopped the motor and smiled big. “I’m almost done! He pointed with pride at the three quarters of the border strip plants cut to the ground. He leaned against the weed eater as he slowly unbent his back.
“Oh I'm getting too old for this! I should stop, let you young kids do it!”
Guilt shrunk me down, who was I to tell this man what to do? I was capable of taking care of my own lawn, but was glad not to. I was standing in my yard on Saturday at noon, still in my pajamas. Bing was just doing what he thought was best out of the kindness of his heart. He was doing me a favor, and I was going to tell him he was doing it wrong?
‘Thank you?…” I said, staring at the torn plants, littered over the yard.
“It is the neighborly thing to do.” He started up the weed eater and finished shredding the last of the nasturtiums.
It was over a hundred degrees outside, the hottest day of the year, and I was working from home. Without air conditioning I had several windows open to capture what little breeze there was. Right below my window, I heard the unmistakable zing of a gas lawn mower rip cord. He might as well have been in the room with me.
The motor caught, and the loud rumble drowned out my video call.
“There is someone mowing the lawn, outside-" I shouted into the microphone before finally giving up and shutting the windows, and moving to another part of the house away from the sound. Why did Bing choose today to do yard work! I found the only room where the noise was tolerable, but I still heard it. My guilt was a sharp nail, poking me hard. In the cool shade of the closet I was hiding in I looked up the outside temperature on my phone- 103 F. An old man was taking care of my lawn and I am sitting on my ass. I should tell him to stop!
I stepped out to looked through the window and saw Bing pushing the lawn mower, slow and stumbling. I knew I could not tell Bing anything. What else could I do, maybe I could bring him water? He deserves more than plain water. Should I make lemonade, or-
“I’ll make him an arnold palmer!” I shouted my great idea into the closet. I just need to make it, both the iced tea and the lemonade.
I scrambled in the kitchen, happy with myself for finally doing something for Bing. It took longer than I thought, but I prepared a tray with big pitcher full of arnold palmer, half sweet tea, half lemonade. With ice and a few glasses, I opened the front door to the furnace heat of that September day. That was when I saw his prone body lying face down on the freshly cut grass, the lawn mower idling next to him.
I sat down next to him while I waited the ten minutes for the ambulance to come, and then watched as the medical technicians jumped out with their bags. The arnold palmer tea went fast as the neighbors’ came by to check on the emergency vehicle lights flashing in my yard.
It was touch and go, but then he was gone. His heart, as big as they come, finally gave out. It was a huge loss, both for the neighbors, and the front yards. With Bing passing, the lawns fell apart in no time. In the hot summer sun, the grass died without Bing’s regular watering, the weeds taking over without his regular vigilance.
Marcia and I did what we had been talking about, and hired a landscaper to rip out the lawn and put in plants native to the area, herbs, shrubs and annuals that would not die during the long, rain-free summers. The neighbors around me liked the look, even the new young couple who moved into Bing’s house next door. I was able to offer some suggestions on the best plant types to pick for color and size. The green lawns were turned in to well designed native plant gardens.
Then of course, I started noticing the weeds in my yard. Bing was not here to do it, so I took a few minutes one morning, kneeling down on the soft dirt to remove the offending milkweed, dandelion and crabgrass. It was amazing, just like stepping barefoot on the green lawn, it calmed me, running my anxiety to ground like an electric charge. My hands are good for something else it turns out. I am going to get a hedge trimmer for the bigger shrubs, eventually.
I finished my yard, and saw a couple weeds peaking out in the yard next door. I walked over and kneeled down, it will only take a few minutes.
It was the neighborly thing to do.