Not long ago, Miss Sumi and I were up late one night. Greg was out of town, and I’d been out all day at a long series of meetings. Instead of sitting down at my desk when I got home I sat down on the bed to work on a writing project until it got dark. Frustrated with my work, I eventually changed into my nightshirt and crawled under the covers.
As I was contemplating whether to continue working or turn out the light I heard the front screen. Odd. I glanced at the clock. Who would need to come by at 1:00 in the morning?
I tried to picture everyone who has a house key and wondered what could possibly have happened where someone needed a place to go so late at night unexpectedly. The screen door continued to creak, but I did not hear a key trying to find its way to the lock in the dark. My throat dropped into my stomach when I realized it was probably not anyone I knew.
Did I even lock the door? I had been pretty fried when I came in earlier in the evening, and sometimes I get a little flaky about it when I am at home where I can barely hear a knock from my desk in the basement. I tried to re-trace my actions in my mind, but I could not recall. Best case scenario I locked the door out of habit and my guest would go away quietly. But even in that scenario a moderately motivated intruder could get in with a healthy shove on the door.
I reached for my phone and dialed 911. Back in the bedroom no one would be able to see me from the front of the house. I strained to listen for the door while I waited for a response. I could hear the latch move.
“I think someone is trying to get into my house,” I said to the dispatcher. “There is someone at my front door.” The creaking sound continued.
“Do you know who it is?”
I paused at the silliness of the question. “No. I did not open the door and ask. I have no idea who it might be. You know it is 1:00 in the morning, right?” I’d rather hoped she would send a patrol officer to find out who it was.
“Do you know if the person is male or female?”
“I have no idea. I did not go out and look, and I have no intention of getting up to ask or even look. It is 1:00 in the morning and I am home by myself.” I would not have called emergency services if I did not think there was a problem.
“We have to ask these questions,” the dispatcher explained. I would imagine that most people who try to let themselves into a stranger’s house without knocking and being invited probably do not have the best of intentions, regardless of the time of day. Perhaps I was being presumptuous that I needed to call for police just because it was 1:00 in the morning and I was home by myself with the cat.
I hung up the phone and put it back beside the bed when the dispatcher assured me an officer was on the way. As I collected my thoughts I realized that my adrenaline had kicked into high gear. My heart was pounding so hard I am sure the US Geological Survey must have detected the tremors.
“Well I don’t know about this,” I thought to myself. “I hope that is not fear. Fear won’t help you at all right now. Anger, fine, but fear, no.”
Like a switch, my blood pressure and breathing instantly went back to normal. “Well this will not do either,” I told myself. I had no intention of being reasonable and understanding about the situation. I wanted to be at least a little pissed off, but no response even with concentration. Calm as a placid lake on a sunny day with no wind. Oh great.
I was sitting in bed, out of site, with no bathrobe in reach. If the door had been completely unlocked I would have met my guests by then, otherwise, once my guest decided on a technique I had a couple of seconds lead time at best. Most, though certainly not all, intruders are more interested in not getting caught than whatever it was they wanted to begin with. Sociopaths who rehearse their crimes are often deterred when things do not go according to plan. I looked around the room for any self defense tool that would make a burglar feel caught or force a sociopath off plan. As I took a drink from my glass water bottle I realized I was holding all the self defense I needed. With a broken lid I would not be able to swing it, though I did not want to so anyway. I could easily surprise any unexpected guest with a face full of water, without ever having to come within touching distance.
The creak of the screen door eventually stopped. I listened in silence. Had my visitor gone away, or simply to get friends so they could work efficiently? Miss Sumi sat tensely at the foot of the bed. The tiniest sound was as loud as a rock concert. I could hear the hum of the digital clock. Then I heard the screen again. I got up with my water bottle and stood just at the end of the hallway, ready to move, though still just a little too calm and cool to be useful if things came to sudden blows. The creaking continued, but this time, was accompanied by a knock. I called 911 again to confirm it was the responding officer, then gladly set down the water bottle, put on a bathrobe, and strutted out of the bedroom showing my face in full view.
To my horror, the unlocked door fell open easily with a slight tug. The switch on the side of the door had been set, disabling the latch. Any pocketknife would have made the latch fully functional and popped the door open with no effort. Fortunately my unexpected guest had been easily dissuaded. The officer assured me he looked around in the yard, along the sides of the house, through the nearby shrubs, and up the block in either direction, but did not find anyone.
“Make sure you keep your doors locked and call us if you hear anything else.”
I thanked him, waited for him to get into his patrol car, closed the door behind him, and locked it slowly and carefully. I gave a firm tug to make sure the bolt slide into place. Before going back to bed I checked the back door. Closed but not locked.
I go about life with the assumption that I cannot prevent anyone from doing harm who is truly determined. At the same time I impose on myself a “don’t be stupid” policy. I’ll do whatever I want, whenever I want, but don’t trust anyone. I may not be able to stop a determined person who is up to no good, but I do not need to provide easy opportunities either. I left the easy opportunity a little too close for comfort that night.
The next day when my dad called I almost withheld my late night Scooby-Doo scene. It really was not a big deal. Someone walked up the front steps in the dark, opened the screen, and looked through the tiny window in the front door for several minutes. Whoever it was must have strained to see anything. After a few minutes, the person checked to see if the door would open, looked for a minute longer, and then left. Whoever it was, was not very determined to see what was inside, because that door would have popped open with just a smidge more effort.
“Do you need me to show you how to make a shotgun sound really threatening?” Dad asked.
“No, Dad. I don’t need a shotgun. I don’t need to know how to make it make a big noise. I just need to keep the doors locked.”
“Well it doesn’t need any shells to make a big noise. You wouldn’t even have to know how to load it.”
“No, that’s okay Dad. I appreciate your concern. I pay my taxes to the city so that when something like that happens the police can come and take care of it for me, and I don’t have to deal with it. In fact, I’m pretty sure even if you don’t pay your taxes they’ll show up anyway without even looking to see if you are current.”
The conversation continued that way, as I had anticipated. It is just Dad’s generation, his personality, and his way of solving problems. We’ve had our go-arounds about it on many occasions. I’ll never change how he thinks about guns, threats, and bullying, but I will never let it slide by unchallenged. I firmly believe there are always other, better ways of solving problems that do not involve threats of violence in any form.
With the most difficult conversation out of the way I started to make the rounds to the neighbors to let them know that someone had been prowling the neighborhood, albeit someone with very little motivation.
No surprise, my next door neighbor was gravely concerned. “Do you have my phone number programmed into your phone? Call me next time and I’ll come over with a baseball bat.”
That was not quite the response I had anticipated, but I don’t know what I expected from a young father with very small children. I suppose if the intruder had gotten in it would have been better for my neighbor to come help chase off whoever it was than for me to do it myself with a bottle of water. The officer was pretty quick to arrive, but even in a few minutes a determined person can do a lot of damage.
As we were discussing security and watching out for each other, another neighbor pulled up on his way home. I explained what happened and emphasized that it was probably nothing to worry about as long as they remember to lock the doors.
“Do you have a shotgun?” he asked, much to my surprise. He has such a gentle demeanor I tripped over my own presumptions. Surely he must be jesting.
“No, no, I don’t need a shotgun,” I replied in complete astonishment. My neighbor explained that I did not need an actual shotgun. They had a friend who kept a recording of a shotgun by the front door.
“Nothing scares anyone away faster than the sound of a shotgun,” he said with great glee.
“No, I don’t think I even need a recording of a threatening sound. My phone worked just fine.” I progressed from startled to downright flabbergasted. “It was just someone looking for an easy opportunity, and the person was not looking very hard.”
“You can probably find the sound on YouTube. You can also put out a big grungy dog dish by your front door. People think you have a giant dog.” I refrained from saying that I have no reason to try to intimidate anyone. I actually want people to feel comfortable ringing my doorbell, even if it is a stranger in need at 1:00 in the morning. If I was unwilling to accept strangers at my door I would not live with neighbors less than ten feet away on either side and a front door welcoming distance to a busy sidewalk. If I were experiencing stalking, or had an active restraining order on anyone I might feel differently.
My neighborhood is notorious for being ultra liberal, open-minded, easy-going, and active for social justice. We’ve laughed with neighbors about what a neighborhood covenant might ever look like for us: You must participate in a certain number of progressive political protests per year; display a certain number of progressive lawn signs per election cycle; contribute to or volunteer for a certain number of progressive causes or candidates a year.
I have always assumed that the reputation brought with it more than clever bumper stickers about vegetarianism and climate change. I thought we actually practiced active nonviolence, prioritized nonthreatening and critically deep communication, and held a more a nuanced understanding of U.S. criminal justice than most folks. We do not buy into the culture of fear, or so I thought. I tried to recall any experiences that supported my thinking that my own beliefs were so strongly shared by my neighbors. While I am sure there has been talk, in that moment it became clear that my assumptions were nothing more than a projection of my own beliefs.
I thought of Theodore Wafer who, just seven days after my call to 911, was convicted of murdering an unarmed black woman who pounded on his front door in suburban Detroit in the middle of the night. Wafer told the jury he feared for his life. I’m not sure how – he was inside the house, the stranger outside. Wafer did not have to open the door. It never occurred to me that I should fear for my life, but neither was I willing to show my face or open the door without the police present. If my guest had pounded on the door as Renisha McBride had I probably would not have answered. If the individual persisted the officer on the scene would have provided any necessary help before checking in with me. Had my guest been a very determined intruder who could not be deterred by a face full of water, but instead physically attacked, then I probably would have feared for my life. At that point there would be nothing that anyone could do to stop it anyway.
If this feels like there is no ending, it is because I am not sure there is one. My brow is still furrowed trying to find resolve. I am not at all confused by someone trying to find an easy opportunity to make an unearned gain at the expense of another. Some people try to do things that feel wrong, for whatever reason: addiction, desperation, immaturity, sociopathy. It is what it is, and I cannot stop it. I do not have to respond with fear. I do not have to be afraid of anything. Though I looked for anger, I could not find it, though I have certainly been known to have a red-headed temper. I do not know where it was when I needed it, but maybe that is because I did not need it.
What confuses me is the normalization of fear, and of gun violence. I do not know how to make sense of it because I do not understand how fear could be so pervasive, or how gun violence could ever be okay. With the guilty verdict at Wafer’s trial in Detroit, and the unrest subsequent to the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, I have certainly had a lot to contemplate recently. I know exactly what I would have done if I were Wafer; McBride would still be alive, hopefully getting the help she needed. I do not know what I would do if I were a resident of Ferguson right now. I don’t know how often I would be able to talk to my dad without finding my anger directed toward his personal viewpoint, which he has just as much of a right to as I have to my own, pacifist perspective. I don’t know what I would expect of my neighbors if we were all teleported directly into the St. Louis suburb. I know how I would want to respond, but sometimes that is easier said than done.