By David Feela
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, which 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 backyard. A black sign with 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, especially if they display an appetite for a cycler’s ankle bones.
Next they set new posts and wire for a perimeter fence around a couple acres east of the house, presumably for pasturing some livestock. On the fence post nearest to the road another black-and-orange sign declared, Private Property: No Trespassing.
Three more privacy signs materialized overnight, each of them along the front of the house, nailed to trees, not more than 50 feet from each other. These new neighbors may have spent too much time 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. 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 another 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.”
If I bicycle a few miles south, I pass yet another property where someone sleeps with one eye open. On the outside, under the eave, a security camera is fastened and pointed toward the street. Beneath it, a white sign with black letters: Smile, you’re on camera. And I do, confident that my winning smile will 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. I’ve got enough of my own.
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 trend-setters. He lived in the suburbs, which probably skewed his view of the inner city, making it all the worse. He installed two security cameras, mounted them near the ceiling at opposite corners of the store. I knew they weren’t real cameras. He’d built them out of sealing wax and other fancy stuff. Any customer could have figured his ruse out, but to shift the focus off his cameras he labeled them: Camera #1 and Camera #3. In his mind, customers would scratch their heads, searching for the spot where he’d hidden Camera #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 all the divisiveness spawned by this election, I still feel tense, but fear only closes eyes and hardens hearts.
The sign on my doorstep says, welcome, a word that gives me the courage to open my door and start again.
David Feela, an award-winning poet, essayist, and author, writes from Montezuma County, Colo. See his works at http://feelasophy.weebly.com/