One Wednesday night in January, George and Lara Moynihan, both 39, were watching Modern Family on their TiVo when the doorbell rang. George, a plastic surgeon, went to the door and greeted the man who maintains their neighbor’s often empty Kenwood home. He was accompanied by a Secret Service agent. “The president is coming by to say hello,” the agent said. “It’s going to be in about 30 minutes.”
“Who was that?” Lara asked when George returned to the living room. “The president is coming,” he said, shrugging. “In 30 minutes.”
Lara, a business consultant and attorney, leaped off the couch, ponytail whipping around. The Moynihans had moved into the three-story Prairie-style home at 5040 South Greenwood Avenue—a.k.a. The House Next to the Obamas—in September 2011 and had yet to meet their neighbors. But now? It was 9:45 on a weeknight, and their three boys were asleep upstairs. Dirty dishes littered the kitchen. Worse, Lara had worked out that morning and never bothered to change from her gym clothes. A day’s worth of dried sweat covered her body. “You have to change!” Lara yelled. “I’ve got to change!”
George, an unflappable New York native, refused. “This is what people look like in their house,” he said. Then he looked down at his rumpled dress shirt, tucked into a pair of sweats over pink-and-purple-striped socks, and trailed Lara upstairs.
A desperate conversation followed in their bedroom closet. Did Lara have time to shower? Could George put on his Villanova 2009 Final Four T-shirt as a conversation starter for the basketball-crazy president? Should they wake the kids? “We have 30 minutes!” Lara said. “Put on a pair of pants and go clean the kitchen!”
Three minutes later, roughly the time it took George to slip on a pair of slacks and shoes, the doorbell rang again. He assumed it was the Secret Service agent coming to cancel because his boss needed to deploy a carrier strike in the Persian Gulf or something. “So I come down the steps,” he recalls, “and there’s Barack Obama, through the door, smiling and waving.” George opened his door to find the president of the United States—accompanied by roughly 15 handlers, bodyguards, and photographers.
The neighbors shook hands, and a camera flash lit up the porch. “I’m really sorry about the inconvenience of living next to me,” said President Obama, alluding to the barricades and guards that block the street 24 hours a day. “I know there’s a lot of security.”
“Actually, I could use one more guy on the property,” George said sarcastically, since, in reality, the Moynihans had found the omnipresent security team nonintrusive and easygoing from day one. “When you get back, see what you can do.” The president laughed. He’d work on that.
From the bathroom upstairs, Lara heard the commander in chief’s familiar rich baritone echoing in the vestibule and panicked. Should I go down? Should I just pretend I’m not here? I can’t meet the president looking like this. I can’t meet any neighbor looking like this! Finally she put on a pair of pants and a sweater, took a deep breath, and headed down.
A camera flash greeted her entrance.
“Hi!” said the most powerful man on the planet.
“Hi!” Lara replied.
The conversation improved from there, despite the fact that the president’s last 13 hours had seen him hosting a jobs forum at the White House, delivering remarks to business leaders, flying to Chicago to glad-hand at three campaign events, and dropping in on his campaign headquarters in the Loop—and now he was about to hop Air Force One back to Washington.
Obama teased that he would keep his girls, 13 and 10, away from the Moynihans’ three rowdy sons, 11, 9, and 5. “Then again,” he said, “Malia is at the age where she’s starting to baby-sit. And it’s a good deal, because she only charges $7 an hour, and she comes with a medic and a Secret Service person.”
If it was a canned joke, the Moynihans didn’t mind. Though they sensed from Obama’s body language that this was nothing more than a quick pop-in, neither got the impression that the president was acting out of obligation. Either he authentically wanted to meet his neighbors or he was a master at pretending. With a politician, you never can tell. The whole visit lasted perhaps five minutes and never moved beyond the vestibule. “We must be pretty square, because the Secret Service didn’t even bother to search our first floor,” George recalls.
“We just met the president!” Lara said after they closed the door. “In our house!” Flying high, she called to wake up her sister in Texas. George finished Modern Family and went to bed.
The Moynihans’ oldest son had once made a Lego White House in hopes of giving it to the president personally. The morning after the surprise visit, he was crushed to hear that he had missed the whole thing. It turned out he had been awake in his bed and heard voices downstairs, but he assumed they were “Dad’s work people.”
While George is eager to meet the rest of the Obamas someday, he scoffs at his circumstantial proximity to the president. The Moynihans didn’t buy the house for the novelty; they bought it to be closer to their kids’ school, and frankly, George can’t imagine anyone whose presence at his door would cause his pulse to quicken. Derek Jeter, maybe. “I imagined we were going to meet Barack at some point,” he says. “It just doesn’t get me all that excited. Supernice guy, though.”
Many of us resent our neighbors if they don’t shovel the sidewalk. Imagine if yours were blamed for the high unemployment rate, a moribund economy, and gridlock in Congress. But the Moynihans are not particularly political, and after the impromptu summit in their vestibule, they have concluded that the Obamas could well be the ideal neighbors: pleasant, responsible, and almost always out of town.
Illustration: Matthew Woodson