Borders: Good Fences?
by Marlene J. Geary
Chair, Sunday Services Committee
Unitarian Universalist Society: East
Manchester, CT, USA
In considering our June ministry theme of “borders”, I offer this story as a way to think about the many borders in our lives–the ones that are often right in front of our faces – and how difficult it can be to navigate them.
In 1998, I purchased a home near Orlando, Florida. The houses were roughly 15 feet apart and my partner and I lived on the far edge of the neighborhood, within direct view of a vast field of grazing Holsteins.
We had a house policy of “ignore the neighbors” because my partner grew up in a tough neighborhood in Cincinnati and she felt that if you left the neighbors alone, they would leave you alone. She’d also been tossed out of more than one Orlando apartment for being gay. I didn’t like it but I was a road warrior and only home for the weekends, so not getting to know the neighbors didn’t affect me much.
That all changed when I stopped traveling full-time in 2001. I set up a home office and spent my days teleconferencing while I looked out of the windows and watched my neighbors. I noticed that the fellow with the Crimson Tide yard sign across the street had a different bathrobe for every day. I saw when his wife started spending nights with the mechanic who lived to my left; she walked home every morning just after sunrise. I heard the elderly lady to my right, Elaine, chain up her ancient, rickety dog each day on her front steps.
Shortly after I stopped traveling full-time, Elaine’s son Rob, roughly about 35 years old at the time, came to live with her. That was when the troubles began. I will say: this isn’t a story about drugs and whether or not they should be legalized. This is just a story about neighbors.
Rob had lots of visitors at all hours of the day and night. Men and women would come and sit on the outside porch with Rob for hours, talking, laughing, drinking beer. I wished for a big tall fence to separate me from them and their noise, but community rules didn’t allow it. I wanted to call the police several times, but my partner warned me to be afraid of retaliation.
Then the police started patrolling our quiet little outpost. I hadn’t so much as seen one police car on my end of the street in the years I’d lived there; now I was seeing police patrols two and three times daily.
One day there was an altercation between Rob and a police officer driving by. After that, Rob disappeared for six or seven months. I learned from my mechanic neighbor that Elaine’s son had been dealing drugs out of her shed. Marijuana, heroin, cocaine, crystal meth and maybe more. My mechanic neighbor with his contacts in town told me the police knew that Rob was dealing much heavier stuff than marijuana, but they couldn’t catch him. Rob had been in and out of jail for years and had violated his probation when starting the fight with the officer.
I was relieved that Rob was gone. I was quite glad that we hadn’t interacted with him at all. I was pretty upset to learn what had been going on so close to my home. Visions of drug dealers and machine guns ran through my head. I thought about what a crystal meth explosion in Elaine’s shed would do to my house: the rooms we occupied most were right near the shed. I believe that people should be left alone in their own homes, but I was conflicted on this particular drug issue. I wasn’t sure what to feel when that kind of drug use had put us in such potential danger. I thought to myself: if he comes back, I’ll apply to the community board for permission to build a fence. A big tall fence.
To my dismay, Rob reappeared one day with a girlfriend and three kids in tow. I learned from my mechanic neighbor that Rob and the family had been living in a local motel but they’d been evicted, so they’d come to live with Elaine.
Rob started up his drug dealing again. The police tried to catch him but that didn’t happen for about a year, until one night he got caught in a routine traffic stop, shot the police officer and ran across the fields to get to Elaine’s house. The chase ended up with an all-points search around our neighborhood to find Rob and in the end a savvy German Shepherd sniffed him out. Rob went back to prison and the girlfriend and children stayed.
As soon as the kids moved in, I saw that they did not go to school and they were clearly not being home-schooled. The kids played all day long out in the yard and went inside only for lunch. It was clear from the yelling at the kids to keep quiet that their mother spent the day sleeping before she headed out to work the late shift at the local Cracker Barrel.
And I was torn. These children were clearly raising themselves through near-total neglect. They were not getting any education. I thought long and hard about calling the Department of Social Services to report at the very least that the kids were not going to school. But I was afraid. And was it any of my business?
My partner warned me not to call. I mean, if we caused trouble for this family by calling the authorities, who knew what kind of trouble might visit us during the night in revenge? Again I wished for a big tall fence. I thought that if I couldn’t see the problem over the border, maybe it would go away.
But I couldn’t leave it; I had to help the children. I did call Social Services. Eighteen months later, the kind and weary lady who came to my doorstep told me that they’d been searching for the children for quite some time.
Not long after the social worker visit, the girlfriend and the children moved away. Elaine told me herself that the family was living in a local motel again, that the authorities had found them and threatened to put the kids into foster care. No one ever came to retaliate against us.
So, I stepped over my property border to interfere. Thought I was doing a good deed: reporting that the children were not being taken care of. And in the end, the children lost the steady home they’d had for two years. I still wonder if a fence would have been the right idea. If I’d had a fence, I might have left it alone; their problems wouldn’t have floated over to me.
Growing up, I always thought I’d want to get to know my neighbors. When I was a kid, neighbors brought you banana bread and box cutters when you moved into a new house. They helped you clear branches and you bought their kids’ Girl Scout cookies. Now I am wary.
I see fences and because I have been afraid about neighbors, I think “yes, smart idea.” I wonder about my neighbors, if they will visit fear upon me in the night. I hesitate to reach across the property line, my safety border. And yet, I still wonder. What will I do if I have another neighbor situation? What if the perception I hold about my neighbors does not have all of the information? What if the action I take outside of my own borders causes more damage than good? Should I reinforce my borders and forget what’s on the other side?
What if the neighbor was another country? What would I think if someone were digging a tunnel under my house? Would it matter to me if the tunnel was being used for both drug-running and for emigrants fleeing danger? Could I differentiate between the two? Would I ban the emigrants because of my fear of the drug-runners? Would I look at everyone like they were a drug-runner? Wouldn’t it simply be easier to build a big tall fence and stop everyone from crossing the border? I don’t have an easy answer. What I know simply is that it isn’t easy to cross the border in either direction in spite of fear, nor is it always right.