“What do you think of those, neighbor?” cried Jim, holding up a champion for Potter to see.

By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, September 28, 1946.

“Neighbors,” submitted Jimmie Frise, “can be very trying.”

“Speak for yourself, Jim,” I informed him. “I never have the slightest difficulty with my neighbors.”

“Oh, I don’t mean I’m having any actual trouble,” explained Jim hastily. “It’s just about my potatoes.”

“Haven’t you got those potatoes dug yet!” I cried.

“The way the weather’s been…” muttered Jim.

“Why, my dear man,” I expostulated, “they will be rotten. They’ll be all scabs. It’s the end of September!”

“The last ones I looked at,” said Jim, “were about the size of marbles. Maybe a few as big as ping-pong balls.”

“Leave them in the ground,” I advised. “Dig them in as compost for next year. And next year, for Pete’s sake, plant asters or zinnias. The war’s over. You don’t have to grow vegetables now.”

“That’s where the neighbors come in,” explained Jim. “Potter, next door, as you know, is a real gardener.”

“He’s got a very pretty place,” I admitted, “but that’s all he does. He doesn’t go fishing. The garden’s his hobby.”

“That’s what I mean about neighbors,” said Jim. “They set a standard. And everybody around has to live up to it, or be shamed. If one guy paints his house, everybody on the street has to paint his house.”

“Keeping up with the Joneses,” I smiled.

“Well, in the case of Potter, it’s worse,” declared Jim. “He is always working in his garden. Wake up at 6 a.m. and there’s Potter quietly toiling in his garden. Twenty-fourth of May, Dominion Day, Civic Holiday, Labor Day, when you come home from fishing, there’s Potter’s garden all trimmed and weeded, the plants tied up neatly, the topsoil forked and dressed… looking like a show place.”

“It’s his hobby.” I insisted.

“Well, then,” hunted Jimmie anxiously through his mind, “it’s a way he has of standing, smoking a cigar, with a smug, satisfied expression, and looking into my garden….”

“You’re proud of the fish you catch,” I countered. “Don’t you ever feel a little smug, standing over a nice catch of trout laid out on the ground?”

“Yes, but Potter never looks at my trout, when I happen to take them out in the back yard when I come home from a fishing trip,” explained Jim. “If I call his attention to them, he just sniffs and says he can’t go for fish of any kind.”

“All right, why do you bother about your garden then?” I demanded. “Whenever you see Potter gloating over his garden, just sniff and say that gardening is for old maids.”

“Yeah, but…” worried Jim.

“My boy,” I proceeded, “I think the way we millions of human beings can live in complete harmony and indifference to another, cheek by jowl, is the greatest triumph of society. Here we are, all over the civilized world, millions upon millions of us, living not only in houses jammed right up against each other, but often in apartments and duplexes, on top of and underneath each other. Yet, to all intents and purposes, we act as if there were nobody living within miles of us.”

“It is kind of wonderful,” admitted Jim.

Sneering Across the Fence

“When you think of the natural warlike nature of all men and women,” I went on. “When you think how we struggle, hour by hour and day by day, to get ahead of each other in all kinds of business! When you think of the disagreeable characteristics we display towards members of our own families, towards our relatives, towards those we work with in office, shop and factory all day long, isn’t it a marvel the way we live in a community, without ever coming to blows? Why, a great many millions of us don’t even know the names of the people living three doors away from us, or directly across the street.”

“That’s a fact,” exclaimed Jimmie.

“Don’t know their names,” I pursued, “and don’t care. We respect each other. We are careful at all times to respect their rights. We keep quiet, so as not to disturb them. We keep our houses and premises tidy and in order. So do they. We cut our grass, keep our garbage cans hidden, and conform in every way to the rules of society. But we don’t know who they are, what they do – and don’t care!”

“By golly, that’s a fact…” pondered Jim.

“It may be,” I continued, “that the very man we gyp in a smart business deal is that unknown neighbor, four doors north. We might be so slick in business that we ruin somebody. And maybe that somebody we ruin is the elderly gent across the road, directly across, whom we’ve never spoken to in eight years.”

“And are careful not to speak to,” added Jim.

“Exactly,” I cried. “In business, in our trade or calling, the more people we know, the more people we contact, the better off we are. Then we come home at 6 o’clock to our homes and immediately change into a basically different creature, who doesn’t want to know anybody on the street.”

“A man’s home is his castle,” expounded Jim. “Maybe the secret of the success of society – if it has been a success – is this queer characteristic of walling ourselves up in our homes, though our homes are actually attached, like the cells in a bee’s nest, to all the other homes in the city.”

“All I can say,” I wound up, “is, when you consider the curious, inquisitive, greedy, possessive, intruding nature of mankind generally, it is a world wonder the way we have succeeded in building our towns and cities like bees’ hives, yet remaining as aloof from one another as though we all were hermits in the depths of lonely forests.”

“It would be a great thing,” sighed Jim, “if the nations of the world could mind their own business the same way…”

“Yeah,” I smiled, “but some Potter would always sneer across the fence…”

“He’s just waiting,” gritted Jimmie, “to see me dig those potatoes. I feel he’s watching every day, to see me dig them…”

“Why don’t you dig them at night?” I asked.

“And give him the satisfaction,” cried Jim, “of knowing I had ducked him?”

“How did you come to plant those potatoes anyway?” I demanded. “You’ve got no room for a vegetable garden. Your back yard is fit for nothing but a few little flower beds.”

“Well, in the spring,” complained Jim, “you know how it is. In April? The fishing season hasn’t opened. The air is sort of… sort of balmy and full of quivers and queer impulses. Well, there’s Potter, like a man in love, furiously at work in his garden. He’s raking, spading, forking. He’s trimming the climbing roses. He’s uncovering little muddy lumps in the earth and bending over them like a surgeon engaged in a major operation. Those little muddy lumps are his perennials, and he’s had them under mulch and straw all winter…”

“You shouldn’t let it get you, Jim,” I assured. “When you see Potter working in his garden in April, you should rush up to the attic and get your tackle box out and start sorting your fishing tackle out on the back steps, where he can see you.”

“Potter,” declared Jim angrily, “sets the whole block on fire. First, those of us nearest see him. Then we start raking and spading and tidying up. Then, farther up and down the street, others see us. And so it spreads, until the whole block is working like mad, in the moist April evenings…”

“Potter,” I submitted, “is a very good influence in the neighborhood.”

“Last spring,” pursued Jim, “he set aside the whole bottom end of his garden to tiny plots of very choice vegetables. On one side, some kind of great big southern tomato. Then onions. Then cress and pepper grass. In the middle, a little plot no bigger than a writing desk, to herbs!”

“Herbs, eh?” I inquired lively.

“Sweet basil, marjoram, parsley, fennel, a lot of queer herbs you never heard of…” said Jim.

“I bet Potter eats very tasty dishes,” I smacked.

“Well,” concluded Jim, “when I saw his vegetable garden, I dug up that patch in my place and planted potatoes…”

“You have no imagination, Jim,” I assured. “Potatoes!”

“Nothing I like better in this world, as I told Potter,” said Jim, “than a great big baked potato, big and mealy, with a little butter and French dressing dribbled into it…”

“French dressing!” I protested.

“Oil and vinegar,” said Jim, “about a teaspoonful of French dressing and a little bit of butter. You cut an X in the baked potato, loosen it up your fork, then dribble a little French dressing and butter down into it… man, at this time of year, you never tasted anything so good!”

“You told Potter this?” I inquired.

“Yes, groaned Jim, “and all summer, whenever we talked over the fence, he would inquire how the big baked potatoes were coming along…”

“They didn’t come along very good,” I recollected.

“By the end of August, hardly any tops left…” sighed Jim.

A Neighborly Jolt

I sat thinking about Potter, and his cigar, snickering over the fence at Jimmie’s poor sunburned garden.

“Jim,” I said, “I think the Potter type should get a little jolt now and then. Nothing worse than a smug neighbor.”

“He’s unjoltable,” sighed Jim. “He’s an expert in all he’s interested in. And he is totally uninterested in anything he isn’t expert in.”

“I know the type,” I mused. “Let’s see. How about this? How about us buying a bag of the biggest Idaho potatoes we can lay hands on. Tonight, when it’s good and dark, you and I quietly, veeeerrry quietly, go out and dig up all those poor little marbles of yours, and replant the big Idahos…”

Jim was on his feet cheering and waving his arms.

We went to the fruit market and hunted around until we found a bag of the most enormous, beautiful great big pallid potatoes you ever saw. They looked more like people than potatoes. You may have seen such beauties. A sort of Indian tan buckskin or rawhide color. They had eyes that fairly looked you in the eye. You could imagine them winking at you.

“Them,” said the potato expert from whom we bought the bag, “are the best potatoes in the world. They bake to the most beautiful flour…”

We smuggled the bag in the side drive, which is on the opposite side of Jim’s house from Potter’s. We took them down to the cellar and gloated over them. It was dim in the cellar, so we failed to notice that about every 10th potato had a purple trade mark stamped on it, a ring with the grower’s name.

After supper, we saw Potter and his wife leave in their car. To make certain, we waited until dark. And when no light showed in Potter’s house, we proceeded stealthily to the garden and set to work. With a garden fork, we opened Jim’s long-neglected hills, and found what we expected – poor little marbles, ping-pong balls and robins’ eggs of potatoes, most of them withered and mushy to the touch, many of them just a scab and a good many of them semi-liquid. We combed with the fork and by hand until we had found every last one and carted them to the back of the garden under the syringa bushes, where we buried them in a common grave.

Then, having carefully set to one side of each hill the withered remnants of the potato tops, we re-dug good big holes and planted the swollen and incomparable Idahos.

In some hills we put four, in some six, and here and there, nearest the Potter fence, we buried eight or nine.

“The earth’s a little moist,” whispered Jim, “and it’ll stick to ’em…”

After the planting, we set the withered tops back in realistic ruin. And we patted the hills into shape, and with the fork and a broom, as best we could in the dark, we roughed everything up to give it the characteristic appearance, of neglect it had originally.

During the night, a sprinkle of rain fell, and when I called for Jim in the morning, he took me around to behold our handiwork. If ever a few hills of potatoes looked unpromising, sad and forlorn, these did.

It developed into a fine afternoon, and Jim and I were in the garden about supper time when Potter came into his garden to stand, in appreciative glory, amid his still continuing flora: dahlias, zinnias and incredibly beautiful little throw rugs of nasturtiums, yellow, crimson, orange.

Jim proceeded to the potato patch, fork in hand.

“Hel-LO!” cried Potter, suddenly, over the fence. “Do you mean to tell me you’re going to dig your Idahos?”

“I don’t think I need to leave them in any longer, do you?” inquired Jim earnestly.

“Heh, heh, heh,” laughed Potter, coming over and leaning delicately on the fence. “This is going to be SOMETHING!”

“How do you mean?” inquired Jim innocently, while I arrived with a bushel basket and some smaller containers.

“I’ve been waiting all September to see you dig those spuds,” said Potter amiably. “Say, shouldn’t I call in some of the neighbors–?”

“Do you mean-” asked Jim uncertainly, “do you mean I won’t GET any potatoes–?”

“Look,” said Potter, “I told you last spring not to plant potatoes in that soil. You’ve got no soil at all there. You’ve never cultivated it or fertilized it. Besides, it’s totally unfit for potatoes.”

Out Popped the Idahos

He blew cigar smoke into the air and looked us both in the eye with the wisdom of the expert.

“But–” Jim protested, very dejected, “I remember the guy I bought the seed potatoes from, he said they’d grow anywhere-“

“It really gives me a laugh,” said Potter, kindly, “to see the efforts of people around here to try and make a garden. Why, gardening is an art. You don’t just stick seeds in the ground and expect… Why, look at my place here! There’s the result of art and science. And any amount of hard work. First, you take samples of the soil, at different depths, topsoil, subsoil, and have them analyzed by the government. Then–“

While he was talking, Jim, with the absent air of a man deeply disappointed, stuck the fork into the first hill, went good and deep under the dry and withered stalks of the tops straggling over the earth, and pried up.

And up popped four or five of the most magnificent ldahos any man ever cut an X in.

They seemed to pop, to burst, to bounce. out of the hill.

“HEL-lo!” cried Jim delightedly.

Potter so nearly swallowed his cigar that he had to grab for it with both hands.

“Well, well, WELL!” I exclaimed, kneeling and beginning promptly to pick the spuds up and toss them into the bushel basket.

Jim, as though it were just what he expected, forked carefully in the hill and turned out two more beauties. I felt into the loosened hill with my fingers and found no more.

“Ha!” I said casually, “if they’re all as good as that–“

Potter just leaned on the fence and glared. His face turned a slow purple.

Jim dug the fork deep under the next hill, heaved up, and out tumbled seven more great big Idahos, the moist earth sticking lightly to them in realistic style.

“What do you think of those, neighbor?” cried Jim cheerily, holding up a champion for Potter to see.

“Urp,” said Potter,” whaw, huff, it’s a… it’s a miracle!”

“Aw,” said Jim very off-handedly, “miracle nothing. You buy good seed and stick it in the ground, and OF COURSE it comes up. What else can it do? Some people go to all kinds of toil and trouble over growing a few things, a few vegetables, a couple of patches of pretty flowers–“

“Gardening,” I suggested to Potter as I knelt and heaved the murphies1 into the baskets, “gardening is a spinster’s game really–“

“Say,” cried Jimmie, “how about calling in some of the neighbors as you suggested, Potter–?”

“I’ve,” he said, in a daze, withdrawing his hold from the fence, “I’ve got to tie up a few dahlias, so big they are falling over… I’ve got to fasten them up…”

So Jim stood up and looked over the fences in various directions and called the neighbors to see his potato crop. And they came and exclaimed and yelled and made sounds of incredulous delight, while through the bushes, we could see Potter bent down, tying up dahlias and looking 10 years older.

But finally, he could stand it no longer and came around the side drive too.

And it was he, unbelievingly fondling and examining the beautiful Idahos, who discovered, about the fourth one he petted, the purple ink ring and the grower’s name printed on the pallid rawhide skin of the spud.

Which made everybody, including Potter, feel good. And we all went in Jim’s kitchen and turned on the gas stove oven and baked 20 Idahos and put French dressing, butter and salt in them and sat around the kitchen eating and talking about fishing.

Editor’s Note:

  1. “Murphies” are slang for potatoes. ↩︎