Sunday, July 12, 2015

A Burning Question

Normally, I believe in the principle that good fences make good neighbors. Take the case of our resident groundhog, for instance. Back when we first put in our garden, the furball was regularly getting in and chomping our veggies, rousing our normally peace-loving natures to such wrath that we talked more than once about shooting, poisoning, or trapping him (as we were eventually forced to do with the rat). But once we'd managed to install an effective groundhog-proof fence to protect our plants, we were able to coexist peacefully with the groundhogs, and even enjoy their antics.

Unfortunately, we have another neighbor who's creating a nuisance that can't easily be fenced out. Namely, an offensive smell. No, we don't now have a skunk living in our back yard as well, although the odor is nearly indistinguishable; instead, we have a college-aged neighbor who smokes a lot of really bad pot.

Let me say here, for the record, that I'm not anti-pot on principle. In general, I feel that if people want to use a mind-altering drug in the privacy of their own homes, that's none of my business. However, as the old libertarian saying goes, "Your right to swing fists ends where my nose begins." And in this particular case, our noses happen to be stuck right in the middle of a cloud of nasty-smelling smoke emanating from our neighbor's yard. (He seems to smoke only outdoors, probably at his mom's insistence.) The smoke from his yard gets into our yard and, from there, into our house if the windows are open.

To make matters worse, our house does not have central AC, so opening windows and running fans is our primary means of staying cool in the summertime. But if we simply open up all the windows in the evening to let in the fresh air, we know that at some point that air is inevitably going to turn not-so-fresh. So then our choices are to swelter with the windows shut or choke with them open. (We can usually manage to air the place out early in the morning if we get up early enough, but we have to be prepared to close everything up again at 7 or 8 am when our neighbor steps outside to light up his first joint of the day.)

I keep going online to search for a solution to this problem—some sort of good fence to enable us and our next-door pothead to be good neighbors once again. Unfortunately, the suggestions I've seen so far haven't been very helpful. They include:

1. Just get over yourselves and live with it, you #*@%ing puritanical hypocrites.

This is the advice I seem to run across most often on pro-drug discussion boards, although it pops up often in other places as well. Basically, the folks offering it take it as axiomatic that pot smoke is harmless, so anyone who claims to have a problem with it is obviously lying and just wants to stop anyone else from having a good time. For me, naturally, this advice is both unhelpful and highly offensive. As I've said, I don't care what people put into their own bodies, but I don't think I should have to let them put it into mine as well.

2. Just talk to them about it. They probably don't know it's a problem, and once they do, they'll be happy to accommodate you.

Here's my response to this one: hahahahahahahaha. These people have obviously never attempted to talk to my neighbor. This is a kid who once literally stole the recycling bin out of our yard right in front of me. I'd just gone out to take in the bins, and I was standing not ten feet from him as he picked up the bin from our yard—having walked right past his family's own bin, which was sitting in their yard, to get to it—and carry it back to his own. I didn't see how this could possibly be an honest mistake, but I gave him every possible chance to correct it if it was, making a big show of standing there in the yard with the bin lid (which he hadn't bothered to pick up) in my hand and a puzzled expression on my face, looking very theatrically back and forth along the street as if to say, "Gee, where could it have gone?" He ignored me completely as he headed back into his own yard and retrieved his family's own bin, stowing it alongside the one he'd just taken from us.

Finally, I figured nothing but a direct approach was going to work, so I walked straight up to him with the lid in my hand and said, "Excuse me, but is there a chance you might have taken our recycling bin by mistake?"—still going out of my way to give him a face-saving excuse. And his response was....nothing. He looked straight past me like I wasn't even there and then turned around and went into the house. So basically, even when I had asked him as politely as possible about something he'd just done right in front of me that he very clearly had no right to do, he was not only uncooperative; he refused even to speak to me.

Despite this unpromising precedent, however, I did once work up the nerve to go and knock on my neighbor's door when the smoke started pouring into our house. His mom answered, and I said, perhaps a little awkwardly but with perfect civility, that I was very sorry to bother her, but the smoke from her yard was getting into our house, and was there any chance she could ask them to put it out or take it inside? Now, she didn't refuse to respond as her son had done, but she did give me a blank, uncomprehending stare, as if I had just uttered a completely random collection of syllables that made no sense whatsoever. Clearly it wasn't the case that she literally couldn't understand me, because she said, "Uh...okay...I'll talk to them," but it was pretty obvious that she was only saying it to get me off her porch. I don't know whether she actually did speak to her son and his friend, but I do know that the problem has in no way abated since then.

3. What they're doing is illegal. Just call the cops.

Since recreational marijuana is still illegal in New Jersey (and I'm pretty sure this kid and his buds aren't lighting up for medical reasons), this is technically an option, but it's one I would consider only as an absolute last resort, for several reasons:
  • Calling the cops on my neighbor is definitely not going to improve relations between us. At the moment, we mostly ignore each other; I don't want their attitude to become openly hostile or even aggressive. I already know this kid is capable of taking stuff from our yard with no provocation whatsoever; I don't really want to know what he might be capable of if he saw us as enemies.
  • As I said earlier, I'm actually not anti-pot. If I narc on my neighbor, I could possibly get him arrested for possession, but I don't really see that as a victory, since I don't think possession should be a crime in the first place. What I'd like to bust him for is polluting our air, but I don't think there's actually any law against that. (If he were smoking tobacco in his back yard, for instance, I don't think we would have any legal recourse.)
  • I don't think it's likely to work. Even though it's technically illegal for him to be smoking pot, even on his own property, I doubt there's much chance the cops would do anything about it. The comments I've seen online seem to suggest that the police generally won't act against marijuana smokers unless they actually catch them in the act of lighting up, and merely being able to smell the smoke—as you certainly can from the street—is not probable cause to march onto someone's property and conduct a search without a warrant. And actually getting a warrant is almost certainly more trouble than they'd be willing to take.
None of these suggestions really fits the definition of the "good fence" I'm looking for. What I want is something that will allow him to smoke in peace, and also allow us to breathe in peace, without having to bother each other.

Now, the thing is, such gadgets do in fact exist. There's a simple device called a sploof, for instance, that you can easily make with a toilet paper roll and a couple of dryer sheets, and blowing smoke through that supposedly traps it and neutralizes the odor. There are also commercial "smoke eaters" that do much the same thing with more sophisticated filtration systems. And a couple of sites note that smoking weed via a water pipe (a.k.a. a bong) or a vaporizer produces far less smoke and odor. But the problem with all of these solutions is, they're tools to be used by the marijuana smoker, not by the innocent bystander. I suspect that even if I were to buy one or more of these devices for my neighbor and present it to him as a gift, he would refuse to use it. I suppose I could make it a carrot-and-stick proposition, with the gift joined to an open threat: "Please use this from now on, or else I'll have to call the cops." But then I'd have to be prepared to follow through on the threat, which brings me back to problem #3.

So what I really want is some sort of system that will somehow allow us to cool our house without drawing in all the smoke from our neighbor's yard. Central AC would obviously be one such tool, but it's an awfully expensive one, both to buy and to run—particularly since our house doesn't have forced-air heating, so we'd have to install a whole separate system. I know from a previous summer when my in-laws came to visit that running a window air conditioner in just one room, for just one week, nearly doubled our electric use for that month; I shudder to think how much it would cost to cool our whole house that way all summer long. And from an ecofrugal perspective, it also bugs me that we should be forced to abandon our green lifestyle just because our neighbor is choosing to pollute the atmosphere.

We have noticed that when our neighbor is smoking, we can still keep windows open on the far side of the house without any noticeable odor problem; it's only the windows on that neighbor's side that are letting in the smoke. So a possible solution would be some sort of fan arrangement that lets us draw air in through all the windows on the opposite side and blow it out through all the windows on the smoky side—thus creating a reasonably good breeze through the house while blowing all the smoke back toward the yard from whence it came.

Brian has already made one attempt at rigging up such a system with materials we had available around the house. He took an old desk fan that we'd stopped using because it was stuck on "high," removed the base, and mounted it in a frame he cobbled together from scrap wood to fit our window. This is certainly better than no ventilation at all, but even running constantly on high speed, it just doesn't generate that much airflow. It's on the right track, but I think a truly ideal system would have to be a good deal more powerful.

Since I haven't been able to find a good fence for this particular neighbor problem, I'm turning to you, my readers, for help. Do any of you know of some kind of system that can ventilate a house in one direction only, so as to keep out smoke from the upwind side? Do you know of some other energy-efficient way of cooling a house without air conditioning? Can you offer suggestions for approaching my neighbor about the problem in a way that might make him more tractable? Or can you think of some other approach to the problem that I haven't yet considered?
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