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Editor's Note: Neighbors 

click to enlarge DEBORAH DEGRAFFENREID
  • Deborah DeGraffenreid

Lee Anne and I moved into 27 Jarrold Street 10 years ago this month. Kingston wasn't our first choice for where to buy our first home. We had lived in the rural hamlet of High Falls for a few years and imagined ourselves setting down roots "in the country." But we found a 100-year-old brick house in a historically blue-collar Polish neighborhood, a short walk to the Hudson River and the restaurants of the Rondout. The place had three major things going for it: a cute wooden deck off the back of the house, being in move-in condition (I'm not handy, so a fixer-upper was out of the question), and we could afford it. Our new home also came with a hidden benefit, one we would only realize over time: Tom Rutledge lived next door.

The first thing I remember Tom doing was gluing the head of Aphrodite back on. Lee Anne and I had gone away for a weekend soon after we moved in, and a foot-tall plaster statue of Aphrodite had broken in the move. Lee Anne had artfully placed the head and body—separately—in planters, liking the effect of the bodiless head and the headless body next to each other, like Aphrodite had just been guillotined. When we got back on Sunday afternoon, the head was glued back on. Aphrodite was whole again. We called around to our friends who might have played this odd prank on us, but no one confessed. The mystery lingered a few weeks until Tom, our new neighbor, poked his head around the corner of our deck one day and said, "So I see your statue is fixed." That Lee Anne didn't want the statue fixed was not discussed.

The next thing I remember Tom doing was mowing our lawn. We had gone on vacation for a week in an unseasonably warm spring, and had left the grass high in the backyard. When we got back, the grass was cut. I wondered which of our friends had come over and done yard work. And there was Tom again. "Good looking lawn you got there," he said.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. The day we moved in, I had already developed misgivings about whether we would get along with our neighbors, the Rutledges—Tom and Jane—despite the fact that they were super-friendly when we met. (The welcome wagon award, however, went to Mrs. Rice, the widow who had lived on the other side of us. She baked us a Bundt cake.) It was the Rutledges' car that put me off: a blue PT Cruiser painted with red and white stars and a bald eagle that looked like it had God on its side and was ready to kick ass and take names. A humorous, if darkly earnest "9/11 hunting permit for terrorists" sticker was affixed to the window. In February 2004, we were almost a year into the US occupation of Iraq, a war I had vehemently opposed and written against. I worried that Lee Anne and I wouldn't get along with our new neighbors.

But I needn't have fretted. Tom and I never did end up discussing politics. Instead, we talked about what all neighbors talk about: the weather, our dogs, what we were going to eat for dinner. We also talked about home repair; a lot about home repair. A typical conversation went like this:

Me: Hey Tom, how you doing?

Tom: What's up, man?

Me: I can't seem to get the new gasket to set right on the toilet. Could you—

Tom: Let me grab my toolbox, I'll be right there.

The apotheosis of Tom's avuncular approach to my complete inability to fix anything on my own in my house occurred when our waste pipe—a hundred-year-old cast iron tube that ferried our bodily excretions out of our house like magic—cracked. When I told Tom that the plumber wanted almost two grand to do the job, he came over and gave the waste pipe a hard look and said, "You can do this for a hundred bucks in materials. I'll show you how." I was skeptical, but Tom said, "If you mess it up, you can always call the plumber later." And I have no doubt that Tom would have done the job himself if he hadn't torn his rotator cuff and had his arm in a sling. So he stood next to me for the better part of a day and taught not only how to do it, but to believe I was capable of doing it.

Add to this my serial borrowing of Tom's hedge clippers, his extension cord, and his pick-up truck. There was no favor you couldn't ask Tom for. I saw him give one of his fishing poles to a skinny kid from up the street who couldn't afford one. When that kid came back with a carp almost as big as him—and asked Tom to filet it—I couldn't tell who was happier, Tom or the kid.

Hell, everybody asked Tom for favors. The schoolteacher with three kids who moved in across the street asked Tom to give her away at her wedding.

Today is the day we go to print, the morning I put the finishing touches (and sometimes the beginning and middle touches as well) on my column before I head in to the office. Tom should be out doing the favor he also does me on this day, walking our dog Shazam to the park and spoiling him with treats.

But Tom couldn't make it. He died last week, after being diagnosed with cancer four months ago. He was 63. Tom Rutledge was many things—one of 11 children, Vietnam veteran, husband, father, grandfather, exterminator, lover of history, birdhouse builder, friend, busybody, small-engine mechanic, gardener, fisherman, hunter, and mischief maker. And he was my neighbor, the best goddamned neighbor you could ever hope for.

Speaking of Neighbors, Hudson Valley

  • Brian K. Mahoney's tribute to a man who exceeded all of his neighborly expectations.

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