Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Decomposition of Humanity in an Urban Neighborhood

My family lives in a low income housing neighborhood. Some of the houses on our street are rented, and some of them are owned. We own our house. My husband purchased it when he was single, the housing market took a dump, and here we are. This isn't where we will be forever, but it is where we live for now, and living here has given me a unique perspective on racial and socioeconomic stereotypes, the reality of crime in low income areas, and how it feels to be "othered". My family isn't better than any of the other families, but it is different. My neighborhood is mostly black, and I know of only a few families that aren't black among easily a hundred of other families. We are the minority, here, and the experience has been eye-opening.

There are townhouses and apartment complexes. There are playgrounds and basketball courts. There are good neighbors and not so good neighbors. I am immensely thankful for the good neighbors, and find myself still thankful that the bad neighbors and/or their visitors aren't as bad as they could be. My family and I have everything we need and plenty of what we want. We work hard, but our compensation is fair. Many of my neighbors don't have enough of what they need or want. Some of them work harder than we do and have less. What has been made abundantly clear to me is that life isn't fair, and that people generally try to do the best that they can, even if that best seems extremely wanting to someone as privileged as me.

I understand that privilege, and though I may become angry when my son or I is spoken to rudely, I still try to be patient. I am responsible for being a good neighbor, no matter what other people may say or do. I am responsible for being mindful of my chances in life and how very good they have been. I it is my duty, as a human, to use my privilege to try to make my neighborhood better and to try to be patient, tolerant, and kind. I have to tell myself that every day. And on one very, very bad day and the weeks to follow, I learned just how important that patience really is.

Mark and I were one week out from having taken our nuptials in his home state of Michigan. Our house was still littered with boxes from the wedding, boxes from my parents' house, and in general disarray from a week of neglect. There was dust and dog fur covering everything. It was a Saturday, and we needed to go see my parents to collect up the rest of our wedding stuff, as well as liking the idea of just being able to spend some quiet time with them. Hurricane Sandy was on its way up the coast, and it was a little windy, but other than that, we didn't see any reason not to make the 75 minute trip to Annapolis. After giving our german shepherd a good scratch behind the ears, Mark, Johnny, and I hopped into the car, and off we went.

We went out to an early dinner, read our wedding cards, and reminisced about what we thought was the best decision either of us had ever made. Mom and Dad were happy and Dad's jokes were spot-on. On our way home, we laughed and listened to music. I told Mark that we should take Roscoe, our german shepherd, for a walk. Pulling up into our driveway, all seemed right with the world. One of our neighbors walked out of her front door and waved at us. She seemed a little distressed, and I thought she was going to talk to us about the coming storm. The wind had kicked up a bit by this time and I wasn't sure what to expect with all the hype that the hurricane was getting on the news. The three of us got out of the car and approached her.

" lord...this is so hard."

I had no idea what she could have possibly been talking about, but she could be a little over the top sometimes, so I thought she might still be on about the storm.

"They shot Roscoe." Mark and I blinked, unable to take in what she had just told us.

"What?", Mark asked, incredulous. I could feel my heart beat faster, the lump rising up in my throat as I hoped that she meant anything but what she just said.

"The police. They shot him. Right there." She pointed to a rusty splatter on the road behind our driveway that we hadn't noticed until this moment. "He shot him right there in the street."  

"Is he...", Mark trailed off for a moment, and I felt the shape of my nine-year old filling my arms. I gulped back the gelatinous mass of emotion rising from my gut.

"Is he dead?", Mark finished, somewhat matter-of-factly, his face seemingly made of stone as he looked to our now quivering neighbor.

"Yeah...he's dead. They took him away. It just happened this morning."

There it was. We didn't understand how it happened, but the local police shot and killed our dog. Roscoe wasn't just our dog. He was our friend and our guardian. He scared some of the neighbors and barked at anyone that walked in front of our house, but the neighborhood was a little rough, anyway, and he made us feel safe. He never hurt anyone, and he was nothing but loving to his family and people that approached him with a friendly demeanor. Our good neighbors knew him and appreciated him for the steadfast companion that he was. He was a good dog.

Johnny had his head buried in my chest and was sobbing. It was all I could do to not utterly lose my own composure.

"I'm so sorry," our neighbor said. "I saw him. He ran back in the house after. He lay right there on your couch. I looked in and I saw him. I said good-bye to him and I blew him a kiss. Poor baby..."

She looked down at Johnny who was trembling as I rubbed his back and soaking my shirt in his tears, then to me, then to Mark. We were speechless.

"I had to take a xanax, after. It was so terrible," she continued. The silence wasn't just awkward, it was painful.

"I wonder how he could have gotten out," Mark mused quietly.

Mark and I decided to go into the house and try to figure out what happened in the midst of our despair, neither of us showing much emotion at the moment. Our neighbor asked if Johnny would like to stay with her while we called the police and examined our entryways. She had a son a little older than Johnny, and he was watching cartoons. Johnny reluctantly parted from me and was soon distracted by Spongebob Squarepants.

We checked the downstairs windows from the outside and found them to be secure. Upon opening the front door, we found that it didn't require a key. It swung open easily. We didn't even need to turn the knob. A gentle push revealed a scene from something out of a nightmare.

The first thing we noticed was the blood. There was so much of it, everywhere. Our couch was covered in it, with one large, dark, ominous spot spreading out from where we knew Roscoe liked to lay the most. The dining room floor, by the sliding glass door in the back of the house was also covered. A dark, dried up crimson pool spread out from under the table like a rug, and there were tracks of it everywhere.

I finally let go and heaved a sob. Mark and I stood in our house, having been married only a week before, and beheld the wreckage. Not only was there blood everywhere, but the general disarray that existed previously had been overturned into complete chaos. Our boxes looked like they had been pushed around, and some of our electronics were missing. We went upstairs and found the rest of our house thusly ransacked with more items missing, including Mark's handgun.

Johnny stayed with his dad for a few nights, and Mark and I stayed with a friend. In the previous void that were our emotions, we spent the night inundated and consumed with grief, fear, betrayal, anger and just flat out empty sadness. Hurricane Sandy sideswiped us as we cried and lay sleepless, moving north and wreaking havoc on the Atlantic coast while we attempted to make sense of it all. In our own little bubble of personal tragedy, we weren't thinking much of the thousands that would be experiencing their own at the hands of something even more vicious than human misunderstandings and disparity.

We spoke to the police that day and the next. Roscoe was out of the house not long after we left, and one of the neighbors had called to complain about the scary dog running loose. We still aren't exactly sure what happened. We think that we must have forgotten to close the door completely and then the wind blew it open. Once our noble defender was out of the picture, or maybe before, while he was joy-riding around the neighborhood, our door was wide open, and the theft was a crime of opportunity. We will never know for certain, but we are still faced with the fact that someone living close to use stole our belongings, including a dangerous handgun, and our local police misunderstood the excited or perhaps even agitated barking of our dog as an attack. 

It would be enough to make anyone bitter, and we were. It frightened us. We were terrified by the fact that a powerful weapon designed to kill was in the hands of someone that probably didn't respect it. We were angered by the fact that our house was intruded upon in broad daylight and that the police ignored the pleas of our neighbors to not shoot our dog. But, we didn't take to the streets with a gun and shake down any suspicious people that we happened upon, and we didn't launch a media attack against the police, either.

We did take the streets, however. We talked to everyone. We let everyone know what happened, and that we knew that whoever had our gun lived in this neighborhood. I talked to parents at the bus stop. I stopped and talked to gathered groups of people on the sidewalk. I told everyone that I saw.

Mark and I cleaned up the house, and we started to get our lives back to normal. We were still grieved by the loss of our dog, but we started looking to rescue another one. We filled our home back up with love and with laughter. Not even a week after the incident, Mark was leaving for work and found one of our Playstation units set very nicely between our cars in the driveway. Apparently, someone that we spoke to must have seen something. The gun hasn't turned up, yet, and the sound of a dozen odd gunshots rang out through the night air that month at various times. But, there were no injuries reported. I know, because I started attending monthly neighborhood crime meetings. I made sure the police knew my face.

I am wary of some of the people in my neighborhood. More specifically, I am wary of the ones that I don't personally know. I am wary of the man on the sidewalk that won't look me in the eye when I smile and wave at him on a morning walk. I am cautious. But, I still smile, and I still wave. I still hope for the best, and when someone looks like they are hiding something, I give them a wide berth. I have my local police phone number saved in my cell phone, and when I see something that I believe warrants attention, I call them. Even when I become angry by the memory of how impotent and afraid I felt after finding my home bloodied and violated, I don't turn to vigilante justice. I turn to my neighbors and my community. I use my voice, and I make sure that I am heard by everyone, and I encourage them to use their voices, too.

Terrible things happen to people every day in neighborhoods just like mine, and people lose more than their family pets and their belongings. They lose their humanity. They are brought up in circumstances outside of their control, and they become stereotypes and statistics for other people to shake their head at.

It just may have been a boy in a hoodie that reclaimed some small piece of our property and saw it safely back to us. It may have been a boy in a hoodie that stood up for us in private to a group of scared young kids. It might have happened that way. I'll never know for sure. But I do know that talking to that boy in a hoodie, to that suspicious character, has served to shed more light on his true nature than pointing fingers at him.
A boy in a hoodie isn't going to bite you for saying hello. The kids in this neighborhood are just kids, and they are still human, and still worth reaching out to. The people here are not their disadvantages or their crimes or social transgressions, and nothing is going to get better until the people that can do better reach into these communities with both hands. My neighborhood needs good examples, mentors, and acceptance. They've been pushed into a dark corner of town and left to their own devices, separated from the good, upstanding citizens who sneer at their baggy pants.

And why would anyone want to be a part of something that looks down on them? Why wouldn't they grow to resent the people that would judge and ignore them? It is time for that to change. It is passed time. It is time for those of us with more resources, power, and education to be among them, instead of above them. It is time for us to know them, as fellow humans, and to stop treating their setbacks as symptoms of their deviancy and start treating their setbacks as a symptom of our own apathy.