Essays > Can a neighborhood confront crime gracefully?

I’ve been reading David Shields’ book about writing called Reality Hunger, in which he contends in essence that all memoir is fiction, but that in the “lies” we tell when remembering, we sometimes get to a semblance of truth.

So, I’ve decided to tell you a story about something that might or might not have happened.
It’s about a late-middle-aged woman named Jan Worth-Nelson, who lives in your neighborhood.
Mrs. Worth-Nelson (yes, she is twice married and on the second round, adopted this hyphenated name, both to honor her second husband, whom she considers the major achievement of her life, and to cleave to her own name, which she loves) is often alone at night. Her husband has a business in Los Angeles, the City of Angels, and the price of their unconventional arrangement is that he is often there, instead of here.

Why does that matter? If he were here at night, she would feel more safe. He has no particular taste for violence, being, according to some viewers, “old;” he himself asserts violence is a young man’s impulse, which is part of the problem these days, he says. But he is fiercely protective, and Jan Worth-Nelson has no doubt that if her husband were in the house when anything happened, he would bonk the intruder to within an inch of his (or her) life with a baseball bat. If one were handy.

And why does that matter? Because one of her greatest fears is that someday she might wake up alone in the dark in her house on Maxine Street and find somebody, a bad person, a thug, or maybe even a cat burglar, which sounds so glamorous, in her bedroom stealing her stuff.

Why should she worry about that?

Because in fact it has happened recently in her neighborhood, which you know well. It happened twice to her best friend on the street three years ago; once the guy was lifting her new flat-screen TV delicately off the wall, and the next, he was scooping her jewelry out of a drawer. “I’m not gonna hurt you,” she heard him say as he darted down the carpeted stairs, leaving a crumb trail of pearls and gold.

But that was three years ago. Why should it matter now?

Because some of the people in her neighborhood say it is happening more than it used to. They tried to get answers from the local police department, but the city resisted. Their assiduous city councilman, a fine man named Dale, took it on as a specific project, but was rebuffed. The same for a local judge.

In fact, it happened just a month ago to her neighbors across the street, Vickie and John. Mrs. Worth-Nelson feels somehow personally liable for this event. She had just been at their house to see their new baby, and on a lovely, warm late spring Saturday, they had unlocked their front screen door to let her in. And just after she left, smiling and pleased by the beautiful baby they call Franny Pants, Vickie and John, now in the basement, heard somebody walking around upstairs.
They thought it was Jan Worth-Nelson. But it wasn’t. It was a young man, who’d come right in their front door.

“What are you doing in our house?” they asked. He said he was raising money for sports at the Flint International School. A paper crinkled in his hands, his proof. But Vickie could see it was an ad for a phone company. She backed him out of the house and he shot down the street where everybody was out, raking maple seeds and filling their planters and pots with flowers. After the kid left, Vickie and John realized John’s cell phone and wallet were gone.

Here there are two thorny parts to the story.

• The kid was black.
• John and Vickie had been saying things like, “we don’t want to live in a neighborhood where people of color feel targeted.”

That very day, another of Jan Worth-Nelson’s neighbors put up motion sensors on his house and on his giant silver maple.

His name was Shane. He grew up in a tough neighborhood and couldn’t care less about the color of a thug. Obviously, Mrs. Worth-Nelson thought, he had a point. He had two little kids himself and wasn’t about to let any person of ill intent come near his house, his wife, his kids.
He even showed concern for Mrs. Worth-Nelson. They had been friends for several years and she respected him greatly. He helped her with her website, and she thought he was an incredibly talented representative of his generation. Even though they disagreed on political matters, they were fond of each other, and it made Mrs. Worth Nelson feel good to know Shane was looking out for her too.

In fact, though, Mrs. Worth-Nelson had been worrying about Shane. An insomniac by nature, Shane had been following people at night…people who wandered onto their street for no good reason in the evil hours of 2 or 3 or 4 a.m. Mrs. Worth-Nelson was afraid Shane would get hurt some day. And his zeal for catching the bad guys made her nervous.

To try to lighten the mood, she once tried singing “When You’re a Jet You’re a Jet All the Way” when Shane told her about his latest escapade. He suggested she might have had little too much to drink. But she protested, she was only just saying…it can go too far.

In fact, she told him she didn’t want to be part of his cell phone brigade, because she didn’t want to be waked up at all hours of the night by breathless vigilantes. She knew, of course, that “vigilantes” is an impolite term, demonizing people who are only trying to do right. So, pretend she didn’t use it. Shane, she told herself, was just trying to protect himself, and his family, and his house, and Vickie and John, and her.

But what if the good people in her neighborhood DID go too far? She dreamed up an example. What if there was a black surgeon who couldn’t sleep after a day of fixing people’s hearts? What if he took a walk at 4 a.m. on Maxine, savoring the fresh night air and collecting himself, taking comfort from the dark, gradually relaxing? And what if somebody saw him and called the police? And what it (unlikely, but possible) the police showed up and put him in the back seat? What kind of neighborhood would that be?

So she went to two meetings of her homeowners’ association, where it was clear that there were many points of view. She knew these were all good people, but invariably, it seemed very hard for them to agree on an action plan. Not being a person who liked meetings, she felt guilty that she was only now coming onto the scene. Still, she piped up a couple of times trying to say she did not want “walking to be criminalized,” and hoping the neighborhood might find a way to participate in a larger confrontation of their troubled city’s problems.

One of her other neighbors, giving her the stink eye, loudly mocked her call for compassion and said, “I’ll be damned if I’m gonna have compassion for somebody stealing my stuff.” Which Mrs. Worth-Nelson could understand, until he said, “I think we should build a goddamn wall to keep them out.” Maybe, she thought, he was merely being sarcastic.

Eventually the group came up with ideas and plans – some for what to do if bad people showed up, and some with how to prevent crime, and some with those larger issues of community and healing. Mrs. Worth-Nelson was impressed when one of the association leaders called for patient determination, saying, “this is an organic process, we are growing it from the ground up.”
Since that woman actually grew tomatoes and herbs in her own front yard, Mrs. Worth Nelson liked what she said, and was comforted.

But nonetheless, Mrs. Worth-Nelson developed her own routine. Every night she locks all her doors, closes and locks all her windows, and checks and double checks every possible point of entry. She put a bell on a string on one doorknob, and sometimes she pushes an easy chair up against a door and the trash barrel in front of another. She keeps her cell phone right by her pillow, and prays to the goddess (ironic of course because she has not believed for a long time) that all will be well. And for whatever reason, she really hopes that the next miscreant Shane catches, if there is a next time, is white.