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Good Neighbors

Good Neighbors:

Jesus said only two commandments matter: Love God and love your neighbor. Notice he didn’t go with “Thou shalt love ice cream and boobs.” He purposely chose the two hardest things to love: a supreme being that lets everyone die and the guy who can’t park his car like a normal person.

Your relationship with your neighbors determines an inordinate amount of your happiness. When high school kids fret over picking the right college for their personality, I tell them to just pick the one that impresses people the most, since your school experience matters less than who your randomly selected roommate is. You get a Matthew McConaughey who appoints you his yearlong wingman, you’ll be all right, all right, all right even if you’re at the University of Alaska.

A bad neighbor, though, will ruin your life. I once attended a Coffee With a Cop event. Everyone came with questions about two things: traffic laws and what damage they could legally do to their neighbors. The trouble almost always starts with one of three things: noise, landscaping and parking. These are disputes two men can deal with reasonably—unless they have girlfriends. Man, by nature, does not really care about falling tree branches or late-night noises. But his girlfriend, by nature, does—not enough to deal with it herself, but more than enough to pester him incessantly to deal with it for her. So that otherwise reasonable man will scream and threaten his neighbor about these things, hoping the screaming and threatening increase his chances of getting laid. If the neighbor he’s yelling at also has a girlfriend, there’s no chance either side will back down. A neighbor dispute is just like a bar fight, only you can never leave this particular bar.

Since there’s no walking away, a small fight quickly escalates into lawn feces, dog murder and eggs thrown by Justin Bieber’s bodyguards. A reality show in New Zealand called Neighbours at War is going into its eighth season, having already tackled issues such as “Tim blames farmer Rodney for a series of injustices suffered by his pet cows” and “Fay and Merrill are outraged over runoff and think the neighbor responsible might have rabies.” The only surprising thing about any of this is that people in New Zealand sometimes have rabies.

You can’t buy your way out of these issues by assuming a good neighborhood means good neighbors. In fact, the nicer the neighborhood, the more likely there will be insanity. Rich people and poor people both make awful neighbors. They both tend to drink too much, get too close to their extended family, act entitled, smoke, sue, own guns, gamble, get arrested and wear bathrobes during daylight hours. The real estate website Curbed.com has a whole section called Celebrity Neighbor Wars, with headlines such as GLEE ACTRESS STRAIGHT UP PARKS ON SIDEWALK BY APARTMENT and ALAN BALL’S BIRDS GOING CRETACEOUS ON NEIGHBOR QUENTIN TARANTINO. Katherine Heigl and her husband called the cops after a neighbor yelled at them for being in their hot tub late at night. Replace “Katherine Heigl” with “Jazmine” and “hot tub” with “inflatable pool filled with baby oil” and I’m a lot more interested. The only rich person I’ve ever heard of who’s a good neighbor is Barbra Streisand, who bought the houses to the left and right of her own.

Neighbor issues aren’t just a suburban thing. In an apartment building you just have more neighbors closer together—including vertical neighbors. I spent 11 years in Manhattan without giving the apartment upstairs any thought until one night at two a.m. when I discovered that the guy who’d just moved in was a professional gay S&M bottom whose main gig was to dramatically crawl around on all fours for hours at a time. I don’t actually know if that’s what he was doing since I never met him, but based on the sounds, I feel 100 percent certain. I left him a note asking him to stop. He continued to do his chained-dog bit anyway. I moved, and I never told the new tenants.

Once, when I lived on a quiet, dead-end Hollywood Hills block in L.A., I had neighbors who put a huge skull and crossbones on their garage door. It was a tasteful metal one, but still not a signal that they’d be throwing block parties. I asked around and found out it was the headquarters of Suicide Girls, a punk soft-porn website. I decided to take preventative action and open a dialogue so if problems occurred, our relationship wouldn’t start with a complaint. My friend Michael and I baked some brownies and brought them over as a gift for the new neighbors. We did this despite the fact that neither of us knew how to make brownies or talk to punk girls. Months later I was at a party with Dave Navarro and my new Suicide Girl friend, Bea. For the rest of my time at that house, I was as happy to wake up and see a skull and bones as a junior at Yale.

Just a few days after I moved into my next Hollywood Hills house, however, a neighbor started our relationship with a complaint, knocking on my door and demanding I cut down a 100-year-old eucalyptus tree, fearing a bad storm could cause it to fall on her young son’s room. I had no idea if the 100-year-old tree was dangerous, but I did know it was the leverage I would need to deal with this crazy woman. I guarded the health of that tree like it was the Maginot Line. Years later, the neighbor’s son took up the drums. I trimmed the tree, and he doesn’t drum after eight p.m. I believe, deep in my heart, that’s what Jesus would have done.

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