We had a wave of arsons in our little town a few years ago. The first fires were small, one in a dumpster and one in the dry grass beside the highway. Then someone's shed burned down, then a garage and then, on Halloween night, one of the oldest houses in town. My daughter was 10--she went as a flower fairy that year, in a costume I'd put together out of some green tulle over a thrift shop dress, with a cap that looked like a stem growing out of her head.
The excitement of Halloween is so much about being out after dark, knocking on stranger's doors, Jack-o-lanterns flickering ghoulishly....and all while you're holding your mom's hand. When the sirens sounded that cozy scariness was interrupted by cold fear. Mothers picked up little dancers and goblins while the men in the neighborhood jumped into their trucks to head for the fire station.
This town was built in the eighteenth century: wood frame houses crowded along streets just wide enough for horse carriages. Strike a match and you can wipe out a block before the fire trucks are out of the garage.
That night the arsonist didn't have to use a match: the house he targeted was under renovation, and he climbed in a first floor window, found a blowtorch, lit it and walked away, probably along the beach, where, in the dark of an October evening he was unlikely to be seen. The fire was knocked down before it could spread. Ten days later, another house went up in flames--while the firemen worked to squelch it a grand piano fell through the weakened ceiling and very nearly killed a man.
Who was doing this? Why? We speculated endlessly, on the steps of the Post Office, in line at the coffee shop. Suspicion fell on a former firefighter, a troubled teenager, then on a homeless man who'd been found sleeping in the firehouse. But they all seemed to have alibis (Never mind the police, four women at the grocery checkout could figure this out based on where they bumped into who the day before.)
The State Fire Marshall, called in to help with the investigation, held a meeting for townspeople, partly to reassure us, partly to ask for our help. Arson is the most difficult crime to solve, and in a tourist town like ours, where half the houses are unoccupied in the off season, it's all too easy for a criminal to make his way from yard to yard without being noticed.
"What we need," the Marshall told us, "is a nosy neighbor."
Representatives from his office, in plain clothes, had gone through one neighborhood after another without so much as a single woman sticking her head out an upper window to interrogate them. What was wrong with us, he wanted to know, minding our own business this way? We needed to become a lot nosier, as fast as we possibly could.
This was it. Clearly my moment in the sun had arrived. I am one of the nosiest people I know. There is no little crevice of human existence that I don't want to peer into, preferably with a flashlight, a magnifying glass, and a notebook. And a small town, blessed with one main street (the better to see everyone you know as you head out to return a library book), and a stiff breeze (the better for your neighbor's divorce decree to blow out of his garbage and into your tomato bushes).
I went forth from that meeting charged with a mission. While I usually prefer the dignified term "curiosity," 'nosiness' does spell it out.
If your Cyrano-like proboscis has ever been caught in a slamming door, it may be that you share this calling. We're needed, we snoops! And I was glad to have someone beside me recognize this. I've always thought nosiness got a bad rap, mostly because it has become associated with scornfulness and sanctimony over the years. But the fact that I'm dying to see in your windows does not mean I want to denigrate you. It means I want to learn from you, to understand how it is that different people, all of them wishing for more or less the same things (health, love, safety, recognition for the good we do, forgiveness...the list goes on and on), take such disparate paths to their goals.
How is it that we are all as different and as alike as snowflakes?
I can read Freud and Tolstoy and Austen and Wilde for some answers to this question, but nothing will ever compare to that original text, the contents of my neighbor's trash. This has gotten me into trouble at times. I once complimented a painting newly hung over an acquaintance's couch; it was absolutely beautiful, but I'd only seen it because he forgot to close his curtains one night. In fact I wouldn't have known where he lived if he'd remembered to close his blinds, and now, when I walk past his house (as I do every time I head to the library) I add another little piece to the puzzle that this very nice man represents to me. He keeps his garden tidy, and grows an impressive variety of peppers-- is this because he grew up in a spicy culture, Mexican maybe? Or is he, like my husband, of such absolutely British descent that he never saw a garlic until he had come of age and has therefore a deep desire to Know the Peppers, in all their spectacular variety?
He would probably tell me it's because he likes peppers. Fair enough.
'Knock on any door,' a brilliant novelist, also a friend of mine, used to say-- meaning that behind every door there is plenty of beauty and of affliction, that we aren't alone in our peculiarities.
Fiction does that for us--knocks on a random door and reveals that we're in good company, whether we're exulting or grieving or just snooping through other people's lives. My last two books--The House on Oyster Creek and The Harbormaster's Daughter, have been set in a fishing, touristing town not unlike the one I live in, and I know they are better for the kaleidoscope of thoughts and images and understandings I've gained from thirty years of the ordinary daily world here. The Harbormaster's Daughter imagines the growth of a girl whose mother was murdered much as a local woman was ten years ago. The book is full of my sense of this place and its people, and though many, many others know the outline of the story, no one else would imagine or write it the same way. My nosiness-- my fascination, which originates in my own peculiarities-- makes it what it is.
That arsonist was never arrested. One week there were no sirens, then the next, and the next, and after a while we forgot to be afraid. People theorized that he had been a summer visitor, renting an unheated cottage. When the air got cold enough he had to move and we got to breathe easy again. I wonder where he is now--does he still set fires or was that part of some madness that took hold of him that year and has let go now? Maybe he just came to some understanding and stopped--I wonder what that understanding might be. Maybe he has a little family and feels terribly guilty, is making up for the arsons by joining his local volunteer fire department.
Or maybe there's a much darker answer. How I wish I knew. And how I wish my nosiness had been vindicated and I had spied the firebug out my window. I'd have run out to ask him what he was doing. I mean--I assume it was a him, but I'm not going to know.
I do believe that whether you call it curiosity or nosiness, our persistent interest in each other is ultimately a great thing-- that the first step to closing the gap between disparate people, and groups of people, is seeing, questioning, and thinking about those variations. Beneath the differences are much deeper layers of similarity. I'm never sure whether 'minding one's own business' isn't really a way of making sure one's assumptions go unchallenged, of failing to appreciate other lives and ways of life.
In my capacities as a nosy neighbor, and as a novelist, I will continue my investigations into this and many other questions, and keep you updated on my progress.