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I moved to San Marcos about six months ago, and since these aren't exactly Rockwellian times, I've made no effort to meet my neighbors. Most of them I never see. The old geezer across the street lets his dog run around without a leash. That dog has charged me, barking, and crapped on my front lawn. The third time the dog charged at me, a friend and I were on our way to a wedding, and I dropped the gift. The woman I was with tactfully told the old man that there are leash laws. "I've lived here a long time," he yelled, which I guess means his dog can run wild in the neighborhood. One day I noticed my next door neighbor had balloons strung up and a sign that read "Happy Retirement." I had happened to be on my way to another "retirement" function. A teacher friend was presenting his last student musical. I figured if my neighbor's party was still going when I got home, I'd crash it.

My friend's musical was a take-off on reality shows and American Idol . The Sanjaya character came out and said something about "setting the world on fire." A minute later, the ceiling was on fire. Since the sets were so elaborate, we had no reason to think this wasn't part of the production, but it wasn't.

The fire was put out, smoke filled the room, and while they were airing out the auditorium to continue, I snuck out.

I got home around 10:30 p.m. The retirement party next door was still going. I heard karaoke, swimming, and lots of dancing. I put my things in the house and walked over. No one heard the doorbell, but the front door was open, and I walked in.

Their living room was not what I expected. At Christmastime, they had such elaborate decorations out front, including a huge, inflatable snowglobe. It seemed a contrast to see walls filled with prints by Peter Max and Kandinsky. You can't judge a book by its cover...or a neighbor by their front lawn.

When I got to the dining room, I saw a few people around a large cake and chocolate-covered strawberries. I asked who lived there. They said, "Lew and Lizz. They're outside."

The back yard was packed. There were a few couples in the Jacuzzi, while several people danced to the music. Not knowing who Lew was, I just called out "Lew?" When a guy turned around, I stuck my hand out and said, "I'm Josh. I'm your neighbor from right up there." I pointed up to my house and as we shook hands he said, "Do you need us to quiet things down?" I said, "No, no I don't. As long as I can stay here and party with you." He laughed and said, "That's a deal."

He turned around to tell someone what we'd just negotiated. That person said, "Hey, at least the guy isn't calling the cops. And, he shows up with cigars."

Lew then said, "I see lots of girls in and out of that house. What goes on up there?" I said, "I don't know what to tell you. I run a brothel.... No, my sister was visiting once. My mom came over one day and we went to dinner. When I had a girlfriend, she came over." He laughed like he didn't buy it.

"You're from down the street?" one guy asked me. "No." I said, "I'm from up the lawn."

Another woman said, "If you want to party, come to our place. It's in Temecula. We have some insane parties." I talked with her husband for a while. His father was a POW in Vietnam who had to kill six guys to escape. He received a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star. He and his wife kept giving each other a hard time, but you could tell they were just teasing. He said, "We've had our share of fights. She's kicked me out a few times. You know how that is. But, our kid, and his baseball... it's really brought us together."

I asked them how they met, and she said, "He was dating my friend when I worked at Godfather's Pizza in Vista. It's a bail-bonds place now."

One woman came over and asked me, "Are you the neighbor who isn't going to call the police? It wouldn't matter if you did. There aren't noise laws in San Marcos. So there's nothing the cops could do."

"That doesn't make sense," I said. Several other people chimed in, "It's true."

"If I get a heavy metal band to play on my back deck at 3:00 a.m., the cops can't do anything? Because there are no noise laws?" Someone said, "Well, they'd probably make you shut that down."

Lizz then said something about being friends with city councilmen and a few police officers. Lew added, "We had a few of the Secret Service guys here earlier tonight, too."

I asked him what the deal was with their trucks that have Merlin painted on the back. He tells me they perform at Renaissance fairs as Merlin and Lady Elizabeth. Lew called Dave over. Dave painted the trucks, and he looked a bit like Otto from The Simpsons, with his long, black, curly hair. I asked him what else he's painted. He told that he's painted murals for the women's fitness center Curves, Pipes Restaurant, and a few schools in Cardiff. I asked him if any of his murals have ever been tagged with graffiti. "No, not yet."

I asked Lizz what she was retiring from. "I was a teacher for 30 years.... I've taught all different levels over the years. I was teaching sixth grade at an elementary school in Cardiff."

We walked inside so she could show me scrapbooks that the teachers and students had put together. One contained a letter she sent a parent in 1977 about a child's "positive behavior." She told me the former student now has a kid going to the same school.

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