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When Chaplin Was My Neighbor

Neighborliness is next to godliness. At least, that’s what my father might have said if he had been big on the Godliness thing.

I learned about neighborliness at a young age, when my family and I ended up as neighbors to Charlie Chaplin, the silent movie star. It was the summer of ’66 and I was just nine. We were staying in a little bungalow on the beach in Jamaica and our neighbor happened to be Charlie Chaplin. Yes, the Little Tramp himself was next door, working on the screenplay for what would be his last film. My father felt very respectful of Chaplin’s privacy and so, whenever the great man came out on the beach, my dad would quickly hustle us off to our bungalow, so that Charlie could be alone. After two or three days of taking these speedy exits, Chaplin sent a man over to our bungalow with a message: “Mr. Chaplin would like to know if he has done anything to offend you. You don’t seem to want to share the beach with him.” My father sent a message back explaining, and the next thing we knew, Chaplin had invited us over to have some tea.

My father, who died earlier this year, instinctively knew how to be neighborly: that being a good neighbor meant respecting his neighbor’s privacy but also sticking up for himself when needed. He believed that diffusing a thorny situation with humor and charm was always preferable to raised voices and/or raised fists.

That was the case when my dad was contacted one day by the managing agent of his Riverside Drive cooperative about a complaint from his neighbor, Mr. Valency. Apparently, Mr. Valency called the fire department to investigate an obsession of his: our gas fireplace. He had also written a letter to the board about our “fire hazard.”

The visit by the FDNY and the letter to the board irritated my father greatly, and he was especially miffed by the sanctimonious tone used by Mr. Valency.

But rather than show that he was mad, my father responded with a letter to the manager that began: “My, what a storm seems to have been raging all about us.” After recapping Mr. Valency’s complaints, he used a gently mocking tone to puncture them, first pointing out the irrationality of a claim that Mr. Valency’s walls became “hot enough to light a match” (“the volume of heat or flame created by the log, I would say it is about equal to the heat provided by the broiler of a gas stove”), showing his own reasonableness on first hearing of the complaint (“I suggested that I would request the fire department provide us with an inspection and an opinion. I also offered to consult with a specialist and to install some sort of asbestos backing to the fireplace, if that were recommended”), and then returning to his neighbor’s irrationality (“On the next evening – before I had the opportunity to do any of these things – three firemen... presented themselves to examine our fireplace. They said they had been summoned by the Valencys, who had not informed us of this step… They then informed us that the fire-log was in no violation of any fire department regulation or city ordinance.”).

My father later took a jokey and, finally, a firm tone, as he noted that, since the firemen’s visit, “our poor little concrete log, cold and flameless, has…been apparently blazing away with great intimations of catastrophe, not only in the minds of the Valencys but also at the conferences of the board of directors... Mr. Valency starts off his letter by writing ‘the fact is that the gas fireplace... constitutes a fire hazard.’ I would like to know how this ‘fact’ was determined. The only authority consulted so far on what constitutes a fire hazard has been the fire department, and they expressly declared it was not a hazard. (If it were, would they have left it functioning?) …The only ‘fact’ so far clearly established is that the Valencys are fearful of our fireplace. Although they have the freedom to be fearful of whatever they choose to fear, this does not give them license to transpose the ‘fact of fear’ into a ‘fact of hazard.’ I do believe in the ‘fact’ of their fear; I respect their privilege to voice it; and I will – at whatever inconvenience to my household – cater to their fear for the sake of respectful civility. None of this makes the hazard a ‘fact.’ (If it did, I’m sure my sense of community is at least equal to the Valencys’, and I would not need to be pushed into communally protective behavior.)’”

The result? Mr. Valency’s complaints were made to seem silly – which they were – and a potentially explosive situation (figuratively speaking, of course) was defused. The lesson I learned: a big stick may be more satisfying but, in the end, speaking softly – with wit, charm, and facts – can often accomplish more.

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