The weekend before Americans elected Donald Trump, a masked figure or figures stole into my parents’ vacated house in South San Jose. The house was being fumigated, cloaked in a party-hued tent, and from the looks of it, the masked figures moved at their leisure. They searched shelves in each closet and upturned every drawer. They raided my dead grandmother’s costume jewelry, made off with decades-old paperwork, and lifted a trio of televisions. They took my uncle’s sole valuables: a duo of watches he tucked away unworn for years. My parents’ reacted in a way I know well: with sighs and sad tamped emotion. It’s just stuff, my mother shrugged, her eyes slightly watery.
The cops knocked on doors in their cul-de-sac, inquiring about suspect activity, and neighbors came calling to share their dismay. Unlike me, my parents have always known who inhabits their block. When one neighbor cast blame on another neighbor, my mother set her straight. I think it was a stranger, she tells her. There’s a lot of desperate people out there.
When neighbors come calling, you can invite them inside of your dwelling or you can speak to them curtly through screens. You can step out and chat on the porch during twilight, staring out on your shared patch of homeland. You can open your door just a sliver, never unlatching the chain.
These masked desperate figures did not bother knocking. They broke through the sealed tent and slid in through the cracked kitchen window. They lay hands on my family’s most intimate belongings. They submerged their wrists in their undergarments. And yet, what’s left for my loved ones to do now but shrug? They had their own reasons, we figure.
The line between neighbor and stranger is hard to discern. Who shows or who covers their faces? Who knocks and who barges in? Who should you love as yourself?
. . .
The evening of the morning that Americans elected Donald Trump, I join a sparsely attended march that I learn of on Facebook. I go in hopes of becoming emboldened; I want to press pause on my mounting despair. Though the event has 1.5K invitees, and a hundred or more marked as going, fewer than 20 folks turn up by its peak. Goddamn San Jose, a stranger bemoans. I should have gone up to Oakland where it’s already lit. The Facebook organizer never arrives, and the meeting place, the site of our city’s annual Christmas display, is a graveyard of animatronic santas and elves. It is hard to make out the protesters among their powered-off red-and-green bodies. As we roam downtown’s streets, the vibe of our pack is disunified. When one protester shouts out Fuck Hillary, another in a Nasty Woman tee calls back Hey! One marcher wears a bandana to obscure facial features; another records it all with a boom-box-size camcorder. I try out some nouns for my fellow protesters: community members / citizens / neighbors / instigators / strangers. I try the same nouns on the gawkers who cross us on the road, honking their support from car windows or capturing our scene on their cell phones.
. . .
Which of these acts are permissible:
following your neighbor on social media / following a stranger on social media / following your neighbor with your eyes / following a stranger on the sidewalk / entering a neighbor’s yard if the gate is unlocked / entering a stranger’s house if the door is wide open / peering into a window if the curtains are spread / from what vantage / for what purpose / filming a stranger on your cell phone to protect them / filming a stranger on your cell phone to clown on them / listening in on an escalating argument in a packed diner / tuning out an escalating argument through hotel walls / withholding a hand or an ear to a stranger in need / withholding a hand or an ear to a neighbor in need / calling a stranger a neighbor / calling a neighbor a stranger
. . .
Two days after Americans elected Donald Trump, a drunk driver struck and killed my literal neighbor in broad daylight. He was walking on 4th Street at Santa Clara in downtown San Jose. Our apartments shared walls for 19 months. He sang songs in both my ancestral tongues which leaked through the sheetrock most weeknights. His oeuvre included a Spanish version of Frank Sinatra’s My Way, the bossa nova hit Aguas de Marco, and On Eagle’s Wing, a Catholic funeral hymn my brother-in-law jokes belongs on Now That’s What I Call Church Music Volume 2. Sometimes I would whisper-sing along with his baritone. Over weeks we exchanged silent nods, and I admired his goth grandad style as he chain-smoked in front of our building, his waist-length ponytail slicing down his back. He was our eyes and ears, our building manager tells me, He was always out there watching. He took few visitors but lived with a charcoal gray housecat.
I learned his name was Douglas when our building manager told me of his death; I learned his now orphaned cat’s name was Tinkerbell from an article. I cannot help but notice the bright yellow tent enshrouding his body between crushed cars in the news photos. The article makes no note of his beautiful singing voice.
Douglas, I learn, worked at City Hall. Near the time of his death, hundreds of students from five local high schools assembled in front of his workplace, chanting NOT MY PRESIDENT while holding hand-painted signs and enormous Mexican flags. My heart burst as I watched along in video format and I shared and retweeted it with followers and friends on social media. I know nothing of Douglas’ politics, but I know that these students were likely among the last humans he beheld on his last stroll on his last day on earth.
I have wondered since hearing this news if I should have perforated the bubbles between us, become the kind of next door neighbor who swaps well wishes and casseroles. I hear calls to be neighborly now more than ever. I like to believe that he and I saw in each other a desire to keep our apartments our caves.
. . .
The Saturday after Americans elected Donald Trump, having spent the morning and afternoon reloading and clicking on social media, my partner and I decide to escape our apartment. With no better plan in mind, we drive to my grandparents’ old place on 16th Street. I have not stood before the house since Bush Sr. was president, and the looming brick porch in my mind appears shrunken in person.
Spotting us gawking the owner steps out: Can I help you? As she nears us, I tell her this was my grandmother’s house. I notice immediately her photorealistic pitbull tattoo, and the safety pin affixed to her t-shirt. (Among the articles I saw while reloading and clicking: several conflicting views on wearing a safety pin as a sign of solidarity against hatred in the world after Trump’s election. I take it to mean that she isn’t a monster.)
A neighbor by one definition is someone whose dwelling flanks yours. This woman’s relationship to my grandparents is more like an eclipse. My grandparents passed on, one then the other, and over painstaking months my father and uncle cleared their belongings, wiping our prints from the surfaces. In time their house was left vacant, and new owners moved in: first a family, and then the woman before me. The house is now filled with her dust and her things.
She asks if anyone died in the house, and tells me she occasionally feels an off energy. I imagine she means my dead grandparents’ residue. She at times sees a squat dark shadow streak through her living room. I tell her of Pepe and Schatzi, my grandfather’s dachshunds. Like my grandmother, the house’s current owner feeds cat food to possums in her attic. It’s probably the same family, she exclaims. She invites us to return another time and reminisce in the home’s interior (Once we clean it!) and see the bookmaking studio she’s made in the detached garage. I enjoy our exchange and I’m glad to have met her. Even as I add her on Instagram, I’m unsure if this invitation with ever transpire, and whether I even would want it to.
. . .
The weekend after Americans elected Donald Trump, I begin to dread the holidays. I click on the Facebook profile of a distant blood relation. My eyes catch on an image he reposted from Instagram. It depicts a large handpainted sign propped in a plot of dead grass—stark white letters against red—that reads TURN OFF THE “NEWS” AND LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR. There are no neighbors to behold in the photo, only asphalt, a sedan, some split-level homes, a basketball hoop, and a tree swing. The car in the background is a recent model, but the Instagrammer has applied a yellowish filter to make the scene seem old-timey.
I click through to the Instagram page and find that the image is an advertisement. Blond doll-like toddlers don t-shirts that read Strong is the New Pretty. Young, conventionally attractive white women wear tops that say Pick Flowers Not Fights. A pregnant person with Heidi braids sports a midriff-baring tee that reads MAMA BIRD. A splayed infant wears a raccoon-skin cap.
Our shirts aren’t just about fit and feel and fashion, the company’s website reads, they’re about reconnecting to a simpler time, a time before cell phones and apps and all those things that interrupt family time. I wonder if this stylized simpler time is what some Americans think of when they imagine when our country was “great.” It does not escape my eye that the company has 38K Instagram followers.
. . .
Which of these acts are permissible:
unfollowing your loved one on social media / unfollowing a stranger on social media / avoiding your loved one with your eyes / avoiding a stranger on the sidewalk / entering a neighbor’s personal space if you find them invading your property / entering a stranger’s personal space if you find them attractive / surveilling a stranger while they type out a text message / from what vantage / for what purpose / filming a stranger on your cell phone to incriminate them / filming a stranger on your cell phone to immortalize them / listening in on a teary confession on public transit / tuning out a teary confession in a coffee shop / withholding some change to a stranger in need / withholding some food to a neighbor in need / deeming a stranger your loved one / deeming your loved one a stranger
. . .
In the days after Americans elected Donald Trump, I remember a figure in my old East San Jose neighborhood.
Here’s how I recall him with a child’s eye:
He sat in the middle of his lawn in a folding chair. He lived with his mother, in a house at the center of our street. Since he came home from The Vietnam War, long years before I was born, his fellow neighbors called him not right in the head. He wore a horseshoe-shaped mustache and a starched white undershirt. Sometimes he sat with a broom across his lap and the chair’s plastic armrests, like a pioneer in a western protecting his shanty with a rifle. Mostly my neighbor looked out, scanning the asphalt in silence. Kids in those days said I had a bad staring problem, so I am sure my eyes locked on his face. Rarely he would shout without warning, wielding the broom like a weapon, gesticulating madly in the air. He saw something in shadows the rest of us could not see, but we’ll never know the particulars. I never saw him hurt a person, but us kids all crossed the street before we got to his house.
Though we both kept our distance, this neighbor was never a stranger to me. The moment he entered my narrative, our tales were forever entwined.