As good neighbors, we try to fill a vacuum

My wife and I are the worst kind of neighbors: We're bad neighbors, but we think we're good. We read our neighbors' magazines before they do. We wait until after midnight to drop very heavy things on the floor by mistake.

But we try hard to be good. And never did we try harder than when our barbecue grill cover fell from our porch into the private garden below.

For most people, this wouldn't be a problem. Holler down a "Sorry 'bout that!" Or leave a "Didn't mean to" message on their machine. But not us. Our solution was to dangle a major household appliance over the railing in a bold attempt to retrieve the wayward cover ourselves.

Things might work differently in the suburbs, but in the city gravity tends to pull things in a downward direction. And in a building where we're stacked four high, the people on the bottom get the worst of it. "Is this yours?" they yell up from time to time, holding up a plastic flowerpot or a paper bag. Or we'll find something outside our door with a note: "Thought you might be missing this." Each time it happens we blame it on the wind and promise not to let it happen again.

Our promise became a solemn vow the day our three-pronged garden cultivator fell overboard. We spent 45 minutes trying to hook it with a string, hoping our long-suffering neighbors were not at home to catch us. Or worse, at home watching us dip the string and miss, dip and miss....

If we wiggled out of that one, we told ourselves (and we did wiggle out), we would never let it happen again. Ever. We meant it. And then....

"Where's the grill cover, honey?" I call one evening.

"Must still be on the porch."

"I didn't see it there."

"Give another look."

I look. "It's not there. You sure you didn't grab it?"

I'm tempted to look over the railing, but it can't be down there. I swore I would be more careful.

I grab the flashlight, just to be sure.

There it is. Looks like my 45 minutes of string practice is about to pay dividends.

I grab some string, tie on a couple of 5/8" washers for weight and stability, roll up some duct tape (sticky side out), stick it to the washers, and lower it down. This will be easy.

OK, so it didn't work the first time. Try again.

Hmmm, what else could I try? Caulk. I'll just put a little caulk on the end.

OK, caulk doesn't work, either. Maybe the cover is caught on something.

Glue, then. I get the Elmer's.

Still not working. Maybe the gluey part needs to sit on the plastic for a bit to dry. Be patient. I am patient. It's not working.

This is where I stepped past the point of no return. I could easily explain a plastic cover to our neighbors. But I don't think I could adequately explain one decorated with caulk, glue, and pieces of duct tape.

My wife must have caught my desperation. "Try the DustBuster!" she yells from inside.

The DustBuster? What? I'm supposed to tie a string to the hand-held vacuum and lower it over the railing while it's making its horrible racket? Come on - no way! Besides, it doesn't even pick up the piece of paper I test it on.

Now we're into the second hour of frustration, self-recrimination, and adhesive-splattered trousers, my wife and I. So when she hollers "What about the vacuum cleaner?" I don't dismiss it out of hand.

The vacuum cleaner? Puh-lease. I mean, really, there is no way I'm lowering the vacuum cleaner into our neighbor's garden. That's absurd. The whole neighborhood could be watching.

Besides, the rope is way out in the car.

"I'll get it!" she shouts, and does.

We hatch a plan: Tie the rope around the vacuum cleaner and lower it over the railing. It's a canister vacuum with a six-foot hose, so it doesn't have to go far. We'll turn it on, but won't plug it in until we're certain it's sitting on pay dirt. Then I'll plug it in, the vacuum will vacuum, and we'll quickly haul it up. No one - especially not our downstairs neighbors - will be any wiser. Brilliant.

My wife is in charge now. She ties one end of the rope around her waist, the other end to the vacuum. She boosts it over the railing and inches it down, slowly... slowly....

It's all going perfectly: a well-rehearsed night rescue behind enemy lines. Slowly... slowly....

Suddenly, the backyard is flooded with light! They're home! Pull up! Pull up! My wife reels it in.

We hunker down, waiting for our neighbor's back door to slide open. But there's silence, except for our heavy breathing. The door doesn't open. False alarm. We must have tripped a motion-detector hooked to a floodlight.

Now the yard is awash in light, but there's no stopping us. We have lost all self-awareness. We are Lucy and Ethel in an "I Love Lucy" rerun. Our reputation as considerate neighbors is at stake. And our grill cover is counting on us.

My wife lowers away again.

"Plug it in," she whispers. I plug, and race to the railing.

"Unplug it! Unplug it!" she shouts. The vacuum is roaring, but it has slipped off the grill cover. Now the suction is performing a little unauthorized pruning on our neighbor's hostas. The hose is swinging wildly. I race back and unplug.

Perspective returns in a rush. We have a serious case of the giggles. If it had been me, I would have let go of the vacuum. I could have come up with a semiplausible explanation. (Sorry! We were, uh, cleaning the porch.) Thankfully, my wife held it together. But now we can hardly breathe for laughing.

"When it's sitting on the plastic, I said," I say.

As of now, the grill cover is back on our grill. Our reputation is mostly intact. And no serious harm was done to hapless hostas.

To us, we're pretty sure that makes us good neighbors.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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