Just to be safe

David Feela - 10/27/2016

My bicycle takes me through the neighborhood. The same houses, the same barking dogs. I wave to my neighbors, watch the seasons change, notice which houses have yard sales, are undergoing repairs or remodeling, and which come up for sale.

Recently some new folks moved into a home with a few acres surrounding it, one that must have become a burden for the older couple who used to live there. Over the years the house had slid into a steady decline.

The first thing the new owners did was erect a privacy fence that cordoned off the large back yard. A black sign with bright orange lettering appeared on the freshly stained boards: Beware of Dog. I haven’t seen a dog or heard one, but I do appreciate people who take dog ownership seriously and prevent them from lunging into the road, especially if they display a voracious appetite for a cyclist’s ankle bones.

Next they set new posts and wire for a perimeter fence around a couple acres to the east of the house, presumably in preparation for pasturing a small collection of livestock. On the fence post nearest to the road another black and orange sign declared, Private Property: No Trespassing.

Three other privacy signs materialized overnight, each of them along the front of the house, nailed to trees, not more than 50 feet from each other. Either a meth house was in the making, or these neighbors have spent too much time living in an inner city where life is allegedly – if you listen to the election news – dire. That neighborhood isn’t where I live.

When people tell me what they learned yesterday through a sound byte or a video clip, I usually just listen. What I prefer is authenticity, when it’s passed along as a story, like the one an old man once told me when I felt like complaining about the world.

A stranger passing through a small town stopped at a gas station on its outskirts. He pointed toward Main Street and asked the attendant, “What’s that town like?” The attendant stooped to peer into the driver’s open window. “What’s the town like where you come from?” The man gripped the steering wheel so hard his knuckles turned white. “Oh, it’s a crummy little town, full of bad tempered, vindictive people.” The attendant nodded his head sadly, “Yep, that’s exactly what this town is like.” Later that day an- other tourist stopped for gas. He made the same inquiry and the attendant responded with the same question, “What’s the town like where you come from?” “Oh,” the driver replied, “It’s a lovely little town, full of folks who take the time to get to know you.” The attendant straightened up, “Well I’ll be, that’s exactly what this town is like.”

I can continue my bicycle ride a few miles south of our new neighbor and pass yet another property where someone sleeps with one eye open.

On the outside of the house, under the eave, a security camera is fastened and pointed toward the street. Beneath it is a white sign with bold, black letters: Smile, you’re on camera. And I do, confident that my winning smile will eventually earn me an invitation to their family reunion. It would be unneighborly to give them the finger every time I pass through their insecurity zone. No sense feeding other people’s fear and paranoia. In my gene pool, I have enough of my own to deal with.

My father owned a hardware store on a stretch of Broadway in downtown Minneapolis while I was growing up. The neighborhood was not populated by wealthy trendsetters, and the fact that he lived in the suburbs probably skewed his view of the inner city and made it all the worse. He installed two security cameras, mounted them near the ceiling in opposite corners of the store. Of course, I knew they weren’t real cameras. He’d built them out of sealing wax and other fancy stuff. Any customer with a lick of sense could have figured his ruse out, but to shift the focus off his cameras he labeled them. Below one he posted a sign: Camera #1. Below the second one: Camera #3. In his mind, customers would scratch their heads and search for the spot where he’d hidden Cam- era #2. I’m still scratching my head, but heredity is at the root of that itch.

America is also my neighborhood. When I think about the divisive, fast- approaching November election I can’t help feeling tense, because the future is always uncertain, but I refuse to let fear govern my judgement. I see by the political rhetoric stuck on bumpers and posted in yards across the county that some of my neighbors will disagree. I can live with that.

The sign on my doorstep says, Welcome. A good place to start.

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