Growing up, I was always a little bit nervous when I brought friends over for the first time. My house is right on the edge of an older historic neighborhood and an older, well, falling down neighborhood in downtown Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Most of my friends lived in matching houses in the local suburbs where they’d look out into the backyard to see wicker Pottery Barn garden furniture, a golden retriever, and a pristine green lawn. You walk up to my house, and while your eyes are drawn upwards by the soft gray of the Victorian architecture, you are simultaneously caught off guard by the speed at which cars race by the front door, the troops of teenagers walking up and down the street, and the sirens whizzing by at a pace of two to the minute. And by the man walking down the sidewalk suspiciously talking to himself.
To my family, this was home. And this man, Fred let’s say, was just part of our everyday life. He walked up and down the road rambling to himself and would often stop right in front of our house and start yelling expletives at a telephone pole planted in the sidewalk. We’d see him, perhaps for a moment show interest, and then turn around and walk back into the house. Of course, my friends would be horrified. They’d want to call the police or know if we were going to do something about it. No, we’d explain, just let him be. He’s not really hurting anyone, and well, he’s fun to watch.
This kind of scene was quite commonplace for my family. One lazy summer afternoon when I was fifteen, I remember sitting out on my front porch with my parents scanning the local newspaper for movie showings later that evening. In the time it took for me to look down at the paper and look back up, four police cars, two coming from one corner, and the other two from the opposite, skid at 70 miles per hour to a parked position in front of the house. Two officers jumped out of each car, and as this happened, the nameless brown van, necessary for every action film and apparently part of this moment as well, pulled up as well and four officers jumped out of the back. All officers ran towards a car that had been parked on the opposite side of the street for an hour or so. I looked at my parents and simultaneously, without even having to say anything, we all silently declared it a major drug bust. While most of my friends would have run inside to avoid the scene, shepherded by shocked parents, my family sat eagerly anticipating and watching the action for the next hour. This was the best drug bust we’d had all year.
As I got older, most of my friends got used to Fred, the drug busts, and the echo of gun shots. However, to my neighbors a few blocks away, the shock value of neighborhood happenings just never quite went away. The year I moved out of the house to attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a neighbor started a “crime watch” e-newsletter which would span the area of four blocks adjacent to my house.
While, in theory, this kind of thing might work to prevent small crimes, the newsletter worked much better as an email to forward onto my grandmother as a joke of the day. At first, it was used sparingly, and almost, justifiably. Every two weeks or so, there might be activity on the chain with a legitimate concern, perhaps a car break-in in the area. And then the abuse of the newsletter began. One very concerned, very aware, and very, apparently, bored woman started sending out emails on a daily basis.
“I read the police report and someone broke into a house. It’s four miles away from here, but I wanted to let you know,” Ms. Cathy would write.
The following day, “I don’t think they’ve caught the people who broke into the house four miles away yet. Make sure to keep alert at all times.”
Soon, the emails began digressing even further.
“I saw on the news that there might have been a case of arson in Kernersville. Make sure there is no one lurking around your house when you leave for work in the morning. Thanks, Ms. Cathy”
And then they started coming on an hourly basis.
“This is Ms. Cathy. I just saw a man in a blue shirt walking down the road. Wanted to give everyone a heads up.”
The following hour, “This is Ms. Cathy again. I think the man with the blue shirt walked down First Street. The shirt was actually a sweatshirt and it had a hood.”
And thirty minutes later, “I think the sweatshirt was actually green. It did have a hood. Oh, it’s Ms. Cathy again. Please let me know if any of you see this man.”
Her intelligentsia insight into neighborhood activity was more than my parents could stand. “Oh,” my parents would think, “there’s a man outside in a sweatshirt with a hood.” Maybe it’s cold out today and I should wear a jacket. You might guess that soon after Ms. Cathy took over the chain, their feelings of annoyance and indifference to the e-newsletter turned to disgust and pity. “She must sit all day looking out the window with her computer in her lap just waiting to send out the next update,” my parents would shake their heads and sigh. And, after the short two-month stint on the chain, they decided they no longer needed the crime prevention benefits of the newsletter and requested to be removed. Miraculously, our house hasn’t been broken into since.
Perhaps the most ridiculous part of this email chain was that people walked up and down and all around these four blocks. It was less common to look out and see no one on the road than it was to look out and see a man wearing a green sweatshirt with a hood. Not only were there always people walking all around, but we lived downtown. Of course there were always cars on the road, sirens going off, drug busts down the street, and men talking to themselves.
The e-newsletter, I hear, is still in existence and as catastrophe-preventing as ever. There are still lots of mysterious men, women, and children walking up and down the road at all hours of the day. Ms. Cathy’s sole purpose and mission is to make sure these people don’t ruin the neighborhood livelihood. Never mind the drug busts, or the people talking to themselves, or the gun shots. Clearly, these nameless people walking around were, and continue to be, the most serious threats to our safety.
And as for my friends, most of them managed to stay over at my house despite the threat of people walking about the streets. The ones who were scared away probably wouldn’t have enjoyed the favored family pastime of drug-bust watching anyway.