We have a couple of agave plants decorating the sidewalk on both sides of our driveway. They're sharp spiky plants, but that's not so unusual; there are a number of neighbors around the block who have a cactus or two.
We also have a couple of very prickly neighbors. They're an old retired couple living two doors down from us. We've been living at our current residence for nearly six years, and those folks haven't spoken a word to us in about five. Ginny says she smiles and waves at them and they scowl back at her.
When we first moved in, they were friendly and invited us to church, which we politely declined. We used to host a regular gaming night with our mostly atheist friends. They started asking "Why are there so many cars here on Mondays, and what are all those bumper stickers about?" So my wife told them. And that's about the time they stopped talking to us. I never felt like it was outright hostility, but she did. In any case, we haven't had much contact.
We have a couple of our own bumper stickers. She has a Darwin fish and a "Freedom from religion" sticker. Mine is more humorous; it says "Knowledge is Power. Power corrupts. Study hard, be evil."
This weekend one agave was cut. I don't mean carefully trimmed, I mean completely hacked up all across the front. Ginny has some pictures on her blog. We found pieces of spiny leaves in another neighbor's trash can on trash day, but we knew that they had been away on vacation so it wasn't them. Ginny was sure it had been this unpleasant couple. She was angry about it. Since I tend to have a bit of a more diplomatic approach to people than she does, she asked me to go over there and talk to them. I wasn't looking forward to it, but I wanted to hear their side of the story without prejudging them, hoping it was perhaps a big misunderstanding.
So I rang the bell and greeted them in as friendly a manner as possible, all smiles. I reintroduced myself to the woman and asked if she perhaps knew anything about the chopped plant. Despite giving me a fairly frosty reception, she invited me in and called her husband down. I had a seat on their couch, they took positions opposite me, and the husband had his arms folded the whole time and a very sullen scowl on his face.
Yes, he cut down the agave. I received a lecture on how dangerous it is to the neighborhood kids, and all sorts of gruesome scenarios about eyes being poked out. But what struck Ginny and me as weird later was when we realized that they hadn't cut any of the spines facing the sidewalk -- only the side on the street. (Again, see the picture.)
They then went on to lecture me about the general awful nature of our yard. Now, our yard may not be the most beautiful and well-kept in the neighborhood, but it is mowed regularly and there are quite a few houses that look worse than ours. I'm not a gardener myself, and I'm really busy with school, but I think Ginny does a reasonable job with it.
I took all this politely and said I understood their concerns, and is there anything else? Then we got into the bumper stickers. The wife said several times that they "make her sick" and she is very angry that we disrespect her religion. That she could never be friends with someone who doesn't "share her values." That she is firmly set in her beliefs and would never change them.
I said I don't want or expect her to change her beliefs, I have never asked her to. I don't proselytize to people who haven't approached me about the subject. And while I sympathized with her feelings, the very fact that she is willing to announce that the bumper stickers sicken her is unfortunately one of the chief reasons why we feel the need to express ourselves in this way. That Christians -- not you, I stated -- feel that it's acceptable to go door-to-door inviting people to their religion, and that we are expected to keep quiet about our opinions because they are supposedly offensive. We are sad that you view our bumper stickers that way, but we see it as a small but legitimate exercise of our free speech.
I then went on to state that while I understand the safety concerns regarding the spikes, it would have been polite if he had come over and brought them up with my wife. Then perhaps they could discuss the appearance and come up with an effective way of trimming it, or let her handle it. His wife restated the fact that they could never be friends with us. I said "I would never refuse to be friends with somebody just because of their beliefs. Only their attitude would make it difficult." Then I said I am not asking to be their friend; I'm only asking them to be friendly as neighbors and be a little more willing to open up lines of communication with us before taking it upon themselves to redecorate our property. I nicely asked him to come over some morning and discuss his concerns with my wife so that she can understand them as well. He agreed, but I'm pretty sure he didn't liked it.
As I mentioned before, I'm the more diplomatic one in the family. Just for good measure, this morning Ginny called the local police to talk about the incident, describing it as trespassing and vandalism. Before I left for work we were visited by a very cheerful and friendly cop, who got to hear all about the history and laughed at the notion that our yard would be an eyesore to anyone.
We didn't want to file charges. He offered to go over there and talk with them, even give a warning that they could be arrested if they were on our property again. We declined that too. I said I'm still hoping that the husband will come over and work things out amicably.
But I did happen to glance over at the neighbor's house while the cop car was in our driveway, and I saw the window blinds being pulled up. It was bright outside and I didn't get to see the expression on her face as she watched us talk to the policeman, clearly discussing our plant. But I have a pretty good imagination and I have to admit, it was kind of satisfying.