I am a New York City girl.
Never mind that I have now lived here longer than I lived there. Never mind that I do not know if I could go back and live there again. I was born and raised in NYC for the first twenty years of my life and that experience made me who I am. I love the place and in my heart and soul, I will always be a New Yorker.
So decades ago, when a quirky turn of life events plunked me down in this geographic region, I felt like Alice in Wonderland falling through the rabbit hole. Life here was certainly different from life in the Big Apple. Among other things, it felt really strange that the local folks regarded me with suspicion because I came from the “big bad hood.” I suspected they thought I carried concealed weapons, did drugs, and it was obvious they thought my tendency to speak up when things needed saying, crossed the line of what they thought proper.
But in truth, I was just like the local folks. Their perceptions of New York City as something akin to the Wild West, with gang battles on every street corner, were born of unfamiliarity and fear. Sure, with a greater population density making space tighter and movement tougher, New Yorkers might be aggressive about darting between lanes when driving; they might be more aggressive when squeezing onto a crowded subway train, and they might speak up loudly to be heard over the crowd. But never once in all my years of wandering those supposedly “mean streets,” did I ever experience or see an episode of violence, a weapon, or even a physically aggressive argument. And certainly I found the same to be true here, where at a slower pace than in NYC, people went about their daily tasks being polite, if not exceedingly friendly, when interacting with “foreigners” like me.
Perceptions of Safe Life Compensate for Loss of Urban Perks
Although I had never thought of my hometown as anything but safe, as the years passed I began to “drink the (local) Kool-Aid” and I came to believe that life here was totally safe and free from the crime threats that plague urban areas. I came to appreciate a host of simple new experiences like growing vegetables and shopping for fresh foods at a farmers’ market. I was happy in the feeling that I lived in a healthy and safe community, although there was a downside to living in this once –upon- a- time rural area. I always felt that I was living 20 miles in any direction from someplace I might want to be or something I wanted: 20 miles from Reading, from Allentown, from West Chester, from King of Prussia.
I yearned for a grocery store with more choices and ingredients for less ordinary recipes; I wished for a crispy egg roll from a good Chinese restaurant; I wished there were plentiful theater offerings and concerts. For a long time I yearned for the conveniences and choices available in urban areas and now, decades later, those things are suddenly here-- and I wish they would go away because with those conveniences, have come the ANGRY people, people with an inexplicable rage simmering barely beneath the surface, people who think that they have the right to live as if they truly are in the wild west. And suddenly, I feel less safe here than I did in my thriving metropolis of 8.3 million people.
Concerns for Animals Motivate Investigation
My loss of innocence came about a week ago on a sunny afternoon that was a harbinger of the spring yet to come. My husband decided it would be nice to visit a local dairy store for some ice cream. After we consumed the deliciously fresh and creamy concoction that is another perk of living in an area like ours, we decided to take a drive through a new housing development we pass on the way home. It is interesting to check out the architectural styles of the new construction, to see what people are doing with landscaping, and to assess how the economy seems to be improving.
The development appeared to be recently completed; some homes were surrounded by dirt and mud waiting to be tamed into green lawns. Most homes were clearly inhabited, but a few were awaiting final touches. As we drove slowly past one house, two dogs lunged at the windows in two different front rooms. It was obvious that they were reacting to the presence of our car passing and their reaction seemed to be excitement and joy at seeing people. As we passed by, I had a vague sense that there was something troubling about the scene and a moment later, my brain processed what I found troublesome. Only one window in the house had a window blind, but all the other windows were bare. And because they were bare, it was obvious that there was no furniture in the house. There was no car in the driveway. There was a wreath on the door but it had seen better days and looked as though it had been forgotten there a long time ago.
Through my mind flashed the multitudes of articles I have read, the TV shows I have seen, depicting the impact of the home foreclosure epidemic throughout America. I recalled the many articles describing how owners angry at losing their homes and having nowhere to go, vandalize the home they are losing and often leave pets abandoned inside. Fearful that these dogs that seemed so desperate to see a human face could be among those who have been abandoned, I asked my husband to back up so that I could see if my impressions were accurate and possible cause for concern.
Ugly Encounter Brings Reality Check
As the car moved slowly backwards and the dogs continued to howl and scratch at the windows, my quickly formed perceptions were verified. Concerned for the animals inside, I asked my husband to please get out of the car and check on them. Walking closer to a window, he yelled back to me that all he saw in addition to the barking dogs were a few wooden stools. “Could you please ring the doorbell and make sure someone is there,” I implored him as I watched from the car, window open.
Knowing that my heart would never rest and neither would I until we were certain the dogs were all right, my husband honored my request. Suddenly, an obviously angry man yanked open the door. He was holding a shotgun. “What do you think you’re doin’?” the man bellowed.
Shocked at finding himself confronted by a gun and a hostile man, my husband slowly backed away and attempted to politely explain that we were driving by and became concerned about whether someone was caring for the dogs that seemed to be in an uninhabited house. “It’s time for you to get the hell out of here. Go NOW,” the man yelled menacingly, watching my husband retreat as he still attempted to explain that we had meant no harm and were simply concerned about the dogs.
The man still holding the shotgun and watching his every step, my husband finally reached the car. He was clearly shaken. I was dumbfounded, shaken, and angry. When had it come to pass I wondered, that people living on a paved street in a housing community, answer the doorbell on a sunny afternoon with a shotgun and a threatening demeanor? Based on my personal experiences, people did not do that where I grew up and they didn’t do it around these parts either. Sure, I knew there were crazy people lurking here and there, but surely not in nice houses on community streets on sunny afternoons.
Danger Lurks Behind Ordinary Landscape
I immediately wanted to report the episode to the police, but my husband was opposed. He conjectured that in the eyes of the law, the man would be seen as simply defending his property from an unknown threat. While my husband could be right, I felt the police ought to know that a crazy vigilante was living in the community. For me it is easy to envision this guy with his shotgun on the car seat next to him, ready to shoot the next person he gets peeved at on Rte. 422 or the person who beats him to a desirable parking space at a local store or the principal who disciplines his kid at school.
Over the last few years local headlines have taken a direction that I never envisioned. Road rage shootings, parking lot shootings, midday robberies at gun point, school shootings-- all are signs of a society full of angry people who never learned coping skills. All are reflective of narcissistic people who believe they are the only ones with the right to inhabit the earth. All are reflective of people who pose a horrific threat to society because they have no respect for life.
During this last week, this incident has often occupied my thoughts. As Dorothy says to her dog Toto in the “Wizard of Oz,” “I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” Things are changing and the changes are not hospitable to healthy living. In the wind, I can hear my city of 8.3 million calling to me. “It is safe here; people are more civilized here,” the winds seem to whisper.
[ One article summarizing local episodes of road rage between 2001- 2010: