May 2, 2012

Neighborhood Watched

Yesterday I was on deadline and really didn’t want to be bothered.
Someone pounded on the front door and I peeked out the front window. A man stood there with a plastic bottle in his hand. At his side was an old-fashioned salesman’s bag.
While I’m aware that I probably shouldn’t open the door to strangers, I’m still not quite calloused enough to pretend I’m not home.
The young man practically pushed his way through the half-open door. My reaction was to shut it a bit more, almost on top of his outstretched hand. His attitude made me wary and I don’t like being this way.
He asked me some questions about cleaning products. I told him I was on deadline and that this wasn’t a good time for me to talk.
He said, “But I just made a deliver to Mr. XXXX (my neighbor) and he’s thrilled with this product.” Then he sprayed some of the cleaner on his hand and licked it off. “See,” he said and put his hand back through the open door, “It’s non-toxic.”
Growing up in the rural Midwest, we often had strangers come to our door. We lived on a state highway north of a town with a population of 1,200 people. The road brought many people from more populated areas to the many lakes north of us. It wasn’t uncommon to have people stopping by. Plus my father was a teacher and often parents and students or people from the farming community came by.
My brother and I loved it when a farmer brought Dad some fresh cream because we knew that we could make homemade ice cream later.
We often were prey to LDS missionaries or the Jehovah’s Witness group. My mother would always invite them into the living room, and offer them a cold drink of water. When the traveling zealots offered her “The Watchtower,” she would say, “Tell you what. Let me give you a copy of “The Lutheran Witness” for you to read, and I’ll read yours.”

And that was usually that.
There was always a Fuller-Brush man or someone selling magazines. I don’t know if my mom was “marked” but two or three times a year these salesmen in dark suits dragged huge case up the steps of our front porch and rang the bell. Ringing the bell was just a formality; if it was summer we were outside or the dog would bark. The door was usually open and always unlocked.

My parents kept their car keys in the vehicle ignitions and God only knew where the key was to the house. We would find it when we went on vacation. Long after I went to college my parents still weren’t locking the house. Only after some burglars sawed through the ceiling of the local grocery store to rob it did my parents lock the doors but upgraded the original 1966 locks to deadbolts.
As children, we weren’t suspicious of too many people. It wasn't that we knew everyone; everyone knew us. They knew our parents and they knew our grandparents. We could ride our bikes the mile into town if we wanted to with instructions to “be home by dinner.” All the other parents and grandparents always had an eye on us as well.

Things have changed on Walton's Mountain.

Residents of the rural Midwest now have to be wary of today’s more lethal version of a moonshine still, a meth lab. Or mail thieves. A popular event in the past few years involved criminals stealing outgoing checks from residential mailboxes and washing off the ink for reuse. Or home invasion (though any smart criminal would know this is "Guns and God" country.)

In my neighborhood, I’m very aware of who works at home and who is away during the day. All the houses directly around me have people at home during the day, which is reassuring. We have an informal neighborhood watch.

Yesterday after the young man licked his hand and told me he had just delivered an order to the neighbors, I told him I had to go. I’m sure he was harmless, another twenty-something consequence of a bad economy who has no other options at this point.
I later saw my neighbor and asked him if he bought something from the young man. He said that the salesman had told him the same story, that he had just finished a delivery for the neighbor on the other side.

Will you open your door to a stranger?