Talk of the Town - Toolshed of the covenant April 29 2004

And other sacred mysteries

Leadership, like charity, begins at home. Who said that? Oh. It was me.

Trouble is, no one wants to be the daddy, the authority figure. In my neighborhood, the president of the homeowner's association plays that role. The post is soon to become vacant — and there are no heirs apparent, short of chloroform, a chair and some stout cord for binding hands and feet.

The president is the person who decrees that your house needs painting, the driveway requires pressure washing and, despite assurances it will be done all in good taste, that you can't build a toolshed that is an exact mini-replica of the Jefferson Memorial, right down to reflecting pool and dramatic nighttime floodlights.

Past that, the head of homeowners is the one who has to authorize letters of warning to miscreants who persist in violating the aesthetic peace of a street with nylon window-box flowers and Pantheon-sized playhouses that pit neighbor against neighbor.

For there are many tasteless desperadoes in the lawless dark heart of suburbia. H.L. Mencken touched on the phenomenon more than a half-century ago when he observed that Americans "have a positive libido for the ugly." Drive around here and you'll see it's morphed into downright nymphomania.

The energy expended in fighting this takes an executive toll. Across the years, our subdivision's presidents have cycled through office with the alarmingly regularity of Peruvian heads of state, minus the rioting, subsequent military junta and exile in Paraguay. The reasons for such change are twofold.

The first is organizational. In an age of double-income, "can't think now, gotta get the kids to lacrosse practice because otherwise we all might have an idle moment for reflection of family life," no one has time to wrestle with the petty complaints, Borgiaesque rivalries and excruciating minutiae that make up the agenda of a homeowner's group.

The second and more telling factor is philosophical. Many people heading households in Middle America right now are products of the baby boom generation, the 1946-'64 mass wave of humanity that surely ranks as the most analyzed, pampered and generally fussed-over generation in human history.

Most boomers grew up rarely hearing the word "no." As adults, they have trouble saying it to anybody else. And accentuating the negative is what a leader of the homeowner's association must do — with diplomacy, if possible, but employing an iron gardening glove when necessary.

I mean, there's no positive way to tell some gavone that he can't display steel-belted animal sculptures crafted out of old truck tires on the front lawn. Feelings are bound to be hurt.

So the problem is both grave and great: Across this nation, we have a real shortage when it comes to neighborhood command-and-control.

The one exception is Florida, where my folks live. Their neighborhood has a homeowner's association with only slightly fewer rules and regulations than the Prussian military manual of arms during the reign of Frederick the Great, an easygoing guy who used to beat soldiers senseless with his cane if so much as a coat button was out of alignment.

What's more, streets and cul-de-sacs in the Sunshine State are packed with people ready and waiting to enforce said statutes. They can't wait to inform you that your mailbox post is 2 inches shorter than regulation size.

What's more, they have all the time in the world to do it. Nobody in Florida is taking the kiddies to ballet class. They don't have to go to work. They're looking out of their screen porches and wondering what it is about you that violates section (d) subparagraph (9) of the neighborhood covenants.

I love that word — covenants. Makes you think of an angry Old Testament God, Charlton Heston as Abraham or some other heavy-hitter with only one name, and a species of highly flammable shrub. No, a covenant is forever. You don't hire a pony-tailed wiseass shyster to get you out of one.

Anyway, the answer to America's local leadership drought is simple. Charter a plane, charter a hundred planes, and fill them with thousands of seventysomething Florida retirees.

Ship them out to run homeowner's associations across the United States, in places where weakling, mamby-pamby baby boomers like me won't or can't tell the guy next door that he isn't allowed to keep his third Cadillac Escalade parked out in the street 24 hours a day blocking traffic just because there's no room for it in the garage.

The great thing about this geriatric talent pool is that they'll work for free. Because Florida retirees aren't in it for the money or the glory. They'll enforce rules for the sheer, cranky septuagenarian joy of exercising minor authority.

Starting with that mailbox of yours.


There's a homeowner's warrant out for Glen Slattery in lawless Alpharetta.