Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Flashback 2007: Suburban swine

     A stack of photographs tumbled out from a drawer. Pigs in a garden. Hadn't seen them in years, but I instantly thought of this column. The wonder is I haven't reprinted it long ago. The first item is oddly topical, with the internet allowing us to complain about everything all the time. This ran was back when my column filled a page and had a joke at the end, and I have kept the original subheads and the parting stab at humor.


     My wife and I honeymooned at a lovely spot—the Keeper's House, on Isle au Haut, in Maine's Acadia National Park. I still remember making the reservation, almost 20 years ago. The woman said that they had just one room available, but cautioned me that the room looked out over a dock, and at the end of the dock was a blue light, and the blue light sometimes bothered guests in that room, who complained that the light shone into their window, causing them dismay.
    I said OK, we'd just have to cope with the blue light, as the room was the last available, and we really wanted to stay at the place, a rustic inn made from an old lighthouse keeper's house, with no phone and no electricity, accessed only by the daily mail boat.
     So now we're stowing our luggage in the quaint room, with its mantle and candles and thick down comforter. Evening falls, and we look out the window, and begin to laugh, because the light is this little tiny cobalt blue light, way at the end of a dock, the size of a blue marble at this distance. The thought of someone being bothered by it, never mind complaining, was ludicrous.

     Though people do complain. They get bothered, and struggle like wolverines to make it right, forgetting that, more often than not, they'd be a lot better off if they took a breath and rather than try to sand off the rough edges of the world, instead adjusted their high expectations and repaired their lofty estimation of themselves and the perfection they consider their birthright.
     It was a dim blue light far away at the end of a dock, lovely in its own way.


     And now the story can be told. I've been champing at the bit to tell it, for well over a month now. But my next-door neighbors had not yet moved away—they left last week. And I didn't want to get them into trouble with the pig police.
     Which is an alien attitude, nowadays, in some parts of the Chicago area. Up in Lake Forest, for instance, where Robert and Kathleen Murphy sued their neighbor, Estelle Gonzales Walgreen, because she kept three pigs on her 2.3-acre property.
     The Murphys said the pigs were loud, dirty and threatened their safety.
     Which struck me as a joke. Because, as fate would have it, my next-door neighbor also had a couple of pigs—or so I was told, since I had never actually seen them myself. Never heard them. And never smelled them. Not once.
     And I tried, craning my neck over the nice cedar fence my neighbor built to contain them. I considered asking, "Show me your pigs." But that seemed nosy.
     Then one day last spring, around breakfast time, I blundered out the back door and, gasping, stopped dead in my tracks—there, in my neighbor's garden, which runs along the side of his house alongside my driveway, were pigs. Two big pigs, one pink, one black, nuzzling the greenery. I don't gasp often, but I gasped then because, really, one doesn't expect swine in the suburbs—well, not that kind of swine anyway.
     The first thing I did, of course, was call the boys, who hadn't seen the pigs either. Then I grabbed a camera. Then I knocked on the neighbor's door, but nobody was home. The garage door was ajar, however, and my first concern was that somebody had broken into the garage, releasing the pigs.
     I suppose I should have been thinking about filing my lawsuit ("discovery of said livestock caused an elevated heart rate and other as-yet-to-be-determined physiological conditions...") But really, my central concern was to get the pigs back into the garage before one of the 15 police cars that constantly patrol the streets of Northbrook slid by and my neighbor's pigs got busted.
     Having never shepherded pigs, I assumed it would be a simple matter of tapping them on the butt—with a stick perhaps—and they would trot in the intended direction. Wrong. It was like trying to herd a pair of fire hydrants. The pigs were happy where they were.
     By now, other neighbors were wandering over. One reached the wife on her cell phone, and she instructed us to dig into a tub of popcorn in the garage and use it to tempt the swine back into the garage. We did so, dropping a kernel a few inches in front of each pig. It would notice the kernel, eventually, lumber forward, snuffle up the morsel, and the process would repeat itself.
     It took about 20 minutes—one of the pigs balked—but eventually we got the beasts back inside the garage. It was about the most excitement the street had seen in a long time, probably since a few of us men removed an enormous wasp nest the summer before.
     The Murphys lost their case in Lake County court, and—all together now—are appealing the case to the Illinois Appellate Court.
     "No one wants to live next door to pigs," Robert Murphy told the Tribune. But that is not true—I wanted the pigs to live next door, had no complaint about them except for their reclusiveness, and am willing to testify in a court of law that I was glad that they were there, am glad I met them in their thrilling bid for freedom, and will miss them, and their owners, now that they are gone.


     I looked in vain for a pig joke that could be printed in a family newspaper.
     Failing at that, I noticed this coyote joke by Billy Crystal, which, given the packs roaming the city, is also apt:
     In L.A. we got coyotes in our garbage cans. Coyotes are just like my relatives -- they go out in pairs, they whine at night, and they go anywhere there's food.
             —Originally published in the Sun-Times, July 29, 2007


  1. I can't help but compare Neil's concern for his neighbors and their pigs with Billie Crystal's disregard for his relatives, assuming he actually has relatives. Some of us, myself included, will say anything for a joke, no matter how farfetched, impossible or insulting.


    1. Crystal told a joke. You have no sense of humor!

    2. I doubt very much that Billy Crystal cares what I say about his humor, but his relatives might care what he says about them, even in jest.

    3. No, they don't care, because they know they are jokes! Apparently, you don't understand the jokes!

  2. I can think of numerous annoyances that my neighbors seem to have but having a few pigs on their property just doesn't elevate itself to the list.

    And it's funny how they have annoyances but I have idiosyncrasies.

  3. Pigs are so cool; would welcome one living next door. Safely penned in, of course :)

  4. Pigs are cute, which makes me, as a carnivore, uncomfortable. I don't like consuming animals I think of as cute, which is why I've never eaten venison or duck (well, that plus I hear they're gamy).

  5. I've heard that pigs are among the cleanest animals. Mud keeps them cool and prevents them from getting sunburned. Now when it comes to goats...that is a whole different ballgame.

    I knew a guy who had a goat farm...the flies were unbearable, but the worst thing about the place was the stench...hence the expression: "You stink like a goat."

    The milk and cheese my buddy sold came at quite a cost to the senses. I spent one memorable night there, left in the morning, and never went back.

  6. I love this so much, because I knew those Lake Forest pigs and grew up with all of them, "Pinky" being the first swine addition. I was telling someone about the ridiculous lawsuit and was looking for the articles about it when I found your post here. Their pig "pen" was actually a smaller replica of the main mansion and they had classical music playing almost 24/7. (Oh, what I'd give to live that life.) And you are correct, they did not smell. In fact, being Lake Forest residents, they had their own handlers (on top of the family of course) that kept them more clean than the dog who routinely jumped in the pond out back. The only smell was if you got right on top of them and even then it was only the scent of the straw they slept on. The only trouble they ever REALLY caused was because they were large enough to trigger the sensor gate at the end of the driveway and they would occasionally take slow (very slow) strolls down the quiet road. Oh, the horror!

    1. It must be a Lake Forest thing — was it there that another resident topped all of her century-old trees so she could see the lake? I saw the aftermath — it was obscene.


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