Secure in [Our] Persons, Houses, Papers, and Effects

From the get-go, I think I should say that this is not going to be an anti-NSA screed.  I think worry about excessive government surveillance has been the fear du jour that has replaced all the worry about alien abductions and cattle mutilations in the 1990s.  (In fact, last year, under the Freedom of Information Act, I wrote to several Federal agencies for any information they may have on me.  Instead of being relieved, I was insulted that there was none.)

The emphasis for this entry is about safety and security.  I was at a loss for any other way to title this entry, so I decided to lift a line from the Fourth Amendment.  Living close to Ohio State, the subject of being safe comes up quite often.  It has been on my mind since I went to WBNS, Channel 10‘s Website earlier this week and learned that a woman was raped in Taylor Towers on the campus.  The Facebook page for the SoHud Blockwatch often carries videos of people roaming around the neighborhood at all hours (particularly in the nighttime) looking into the windows of parked cars.  Less frequently, but just as unnerving, is the news about smash-and-grabs from these cars.

Worry about car safety is moot for me, of course, since I don’t drive.  However, I have had a trike stolen from my front yard.  At that time, I supposed that the front yard was an extension of my front yard, especially when “a man’s house is his castle, et domus sua cuique est tutissimum refugium [and each man’s home is his safest refuge].”  Castle and refuge, I take comfort in the idea.  Yet, it should not have to be a fortress.

In the last few years, I have been much more cautious.  I was mugged twice during the year we lived in Weinland Park.  The first attempt was at night, and the ending was rather ironic.  A low-flying airplane, on its way to or from Port Columbus, flew low enough with all its lights on for the two losers who attacked me thought it was a police helicopter.  The other time was in broad daylight.

Until these incidents, I would stroll anywhere, day or night, as if I was crossing my own living room.  I have worked many third-shift jobs, which often meant I was on my own about how to get home, since public transportation had stopped for the night, and I was often not flush for taxis.  When I worked at the Cincinnati post office, my quitting time during one stint was 3 a.m. unless there was overtime.  This would either mean I stayed at the main post office until the buses started running (a little after 5), or a two-mile walk through the West End, which was a dangerous neighborhood at any hour.  I made it home without incident every time.

Ironically, at the post office itself, many people worried about safety.  Carriers worried about safety while delivering their routes, mostly concerned about dogs, but sometimes worrying about attacks from beings who walked on two legs.  During orientation, the supervisors told carriers that if they ever felt they were in danger, they did not have to deliver.  One rookie asked, “How will we know if we’re in danger?”  I don’t think the supervisor’s reply was particularly helpful.  In fact, I thought it was quite condescending.  “If you turn the corner and you see this huge mob waving baseball bats and guns, and they’re all shouting, ‘Kill the mailman!’, don’t deliver there.”

And, in the mid-1990s, we had to worry about the violence in the post office as well.  Our supervisors and officials in the Postmaster General’s office kept trying to assure us we were worrying over nothing.  The fatality rates for convenience store clerks and taxi drivers were much higher than for postal workers.  What they neglected to mention was that a postal worker had a greater likelihood of dying at the hands of a fellow worker than any other job.

Maybe since reaching 50, I have finally shed the fantasy that I am indestructible and can indefinitely walk between the raindrops.  I managed to extend my adolescence well into my 30s, and with it came the feeling that I was indestructible.  Part of that feeling changed once I became a husband and father.  If something happened to me, I was no longer the only one affected.

I am no athlete–never have been, never will be.  But, as I age, I realize that I no longer have the recuperative powers that I had a child or as a young man.  An assault or an injury can have much longer-term consequences than when I was younger.  I learned this during the winter, when I finally ended my lifelong (50+ years) streak of never having broken a bone.

And I take precautions.  I always make sure the door is locked when I leave now.  When Susie and I lived in Weinland Park (Steph had moved to Florida by the time this happened), Susie was away at a Unitarian youth conference in Dayton, so I decided to play “weekend bachelor” and go to a concert in Clintonville.  I came home to find our Wii (which I seldom played) and both Susie’s and my laptops gone.  Susie was distraught, because the manuscripts of several short stories and poems were on her hard drive, along with her journal and several  ideas for future projects.

The only thing that prevented her from a complete meltdown was my news that I had, that morning, gotten the keys to our place on E. Maynard Ave., and on the first of October, we would be out of Weinland Park and living in a much safer neighborhood.

As a pre-teen, it was both a blessing and a curse that I grew up in a small city like Marietta.  Since my dad’s life revolved around going AWOL for many hours at a time to be at the apartment of the woman who would become my stepmother, I had way too much free time.  During the summer, under the guise of “camping out,” two other boys and I would often wander the city until they collapsed from exhaustion as the hour of dawn drew closer.  (I was already quite nocturnal, so I was usually very frustrated that they had succumbed to sleep.)

We never committed overt acts, such as vandalism or theft.  We usually avoided downtown, because that was where the police station was.  It speaks volumes about Marietta’s police force that we never saw a patrol car during those many summer hours.  Certainly no police officer asked us what three boys, all of them 12 years old, were doing out roaming the streets.

The closest thing to danger that we encountered was one night when we were sitting outside on the front stoop of Riddle’s, the venerable candy store and soda fountain near the Washington School playground.  We saw a guy stumbling around in sine curves on the sidewalk by the Christian Science church diagonally across from Riddle’s.  According to the clock in the candy store window, it was sometime around 2:30 a.m.  This is the place where I’m supposed to recite the familiar refrain, “It’s a wonder we didn’t get our fool selves killed.”  I guess clichés are true, or else they wouldn’t be clichés.

Those of us who are now parents look back fondly on the days when the threats to children were much more tangible.  I can remember mothers in the neighborhood forbidding the kids to go to the playground because there was a man hanging around who was “scaring” the kids there.  (I could not conceive of the concept of sexual molestation at that time, so I did not conjure the stereotypical image of the pervert in the dirty overcoat.)

The ubiquitous presence of the Internet presented dangers all its own.  The way I would approach the problem of a pre-teen or very young teenager engaging in sexually explicit conversations online is not to condemn or scold them for sexual experimentation or curiosity.  (If a teenager is not exploring sexuality in some way, I would question that teen’s normality.)  Rather, my opening line would be, “Do you know why we lock the front door every night?”  I would approach it from the standpoint of safety–of the teen, of the household.

Chris Hansen and NBC News tried to convince their viewers (and maybe convinced themselves) that they had public service in mind when they broadcast their series of To Catch a Predator episodes.  However, I think the overall reaction out there in TV land was amusement, watching the losers try to explain away why they were coming to a strange house for liaisons with teenagers of either sex.  There is an instinct in everyone going through a crisis that there be someone to point to and say, “Well, at least I’m not him (or her),” and television like this fulfilled that need.

During my summers of nocturnal activity, my friends and I often found our ways into others’ homes through one unguarded entrance: the telephone.  Caller ID has effectively killed the prank phone call, but harassment is alive and well via the router.  (We never crossed the line into explicitly obscene phone calls, or heavy breathing, when we called people.  And we were too sophisticated to call with the usual, “Hello, is your refrigerator running?” calls, or calling the tobacco store to ask if they had Sir Walter Raleigh in a can.  Ours were usually benign: “Hello?”  “Shut up!”  Or, calling late at night, we often amused ourselves by calling houses on the block, and be in stitches at the sight of a light coming on in a bedroom to answer the phone.)  When I was in sixth grade, I even considered writing a book of prank phone calls, rationalizing it by pointing out the abundance of books by Larry Wilde that contained jokes ridiculing Poles, Jews, lawyers, and WASPs.

Marietta after dark, to a pre-teen, was a Santa’s workshop chock full of attractive nuisances.  I am not sure how many could be prosecuted had we injured ourselves (“Fate protects fools, little children, and ships named Enterprise,” as Commander William Riker said), but we explored many roofs, fire escapes, garages, and junked cars during the wee hours of the night during that summer.

As for being secure in our papers, the instances that hit closest to home are when I have found that someone has been reading my diary.  I have no illusions that the blog is the same as a diary–a blog, by its very nature, is meant for public consumption.  Whatever faith and trust I had in my own mother disappeared forever when I was visiting her apartment in Athens (I must have been about 12 at the time), and was coming into the living room after a shower and found her very studiously going over the entries I had written there.  I learned after that never to have the diary visible when I visited her.  I would write in it at night, under the covers, almost like I was sneaking a look at a Penthouse I had stolen from someone’s trash.  I even considered going to the library and taking out a book to teach myself shorthand, but I realized this would be a waste of time, since my mother had worked as a secretary several times in her life, and when she was in high school, it was common for girls to learn shorthand while their male counterparts took metal shop and/or mechanical drafting.

It was not until I was on my own that I felt secure in my own house.  I had reason for fear, mostly from my parents–no one told me that the fear in the house could easily come from within.  I turned the anxiety inward, which was not healthy since many of my mental health issues are biological in nature, and it added much unneeded fuel to the fire.  At the same time, I projected the fear outward.  Lying in my bed at night, even after my mother had moved out and there was something very vaguely resembling quiet and shalom bayit, any noise late at night worried and scared me.

After reading a large book on the kidnapping of the Lindbergh child, and hearing all the news stories about the abduction of Patty Hearst, when I was about 13 I became obsessed with the fear of burglars and kidnappers.  My dad’s explanation that I was not the son of a rich or famous person did little to reassure me, and this was long before stranger abductions (not for ransom) began to appear in newspapers.  And he told me that if there ever was a burglar in the house, stay upstairs and make no sound whatsoever.

It’s late.  Do you know where your blogger is?

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