Archive for November, 2002

On Becoming a Crank

November 29, 2002 Comments off

I was walking home from work the other day, scrambling and unscrambling the day’s broken eggs. When I reached the dysfunctional three-way intersection about a block from our house, I looked up from my imaginary omelette to check the traffic before crossing. A large white truck was making its way down Longfellow, using that residential street as a business thoroughfare. From the truck’s speed I could tell that the driver had no intention of pausing at the first of the two stop signs he would encounter in the poorly designed intersection.

The street department rebuilt the intersection a few years ago and improved it, but since then I’ve still seen a few dozen people run that first stop sign as I’ve been walking past. Having kids of my own not far away and knowing that other people’s children play nearby, I find these careless drivers alarming. I have even, shall we say, “called out” to a few of them, reminding them in a loud voice that the red octagon whizzing past on the side of the road is actually a stop sign. Most drivers ignore me, but a few have lifted their right hand from the steering wheel to model a famous finger gesture, and a few others have demonstrated their bountiful contempt for civil order by running the second stop sign too.

I had just about gotten over my crank behavior, this habit of yelling at dangerous drivers in the neighborhood – I can’t remember the last time I “called out” to a driver – but something about that big white truck caught my eye. Who knows, maybe I had suppressed one too many emotions at work that day, but when I saw the open window, I knew that the passenger and maybe the driver, too, would hear me, and so I called out. I had time to say my usual “Stop sign!” as the truck passed. The driver did halt at the second stop sign, and by then the passenger had his head out the window and was hooting and laughing derisively.

After I’ve yelled at a driver, I use the last block of my walk home to bring my blood pressure back down, and I sometimes think about John Irving’s novel, The World According to Garp. The book’s main character, a concerned father named Garp, regularly runs after and scolds dangerous drivers in his neighborhood. But later Garp himself takes a playful, though reckless, lights-out midnight joyride down his own block, and he ends up killing one person and injuring others and all but destroying his own family in a collision right there in his own dark driveway. How many cranks hold other people to higher standards than they manage for themselves, I wonder? Even so, we may sometimes have a civic duty to be a crank.

I thought of that duty, too, during the fall elections. As you would expect, the national Democratic and Republican parties both wanted badly to win our up-for-grabs seat in Congress, and they sent out campaign advisors, advertising experts, and money. In addition, important national political figures from both parties flew into town, gave stump speeches at big public rallies and threw their weight behind their candidates. I heard fifteen seconds of one of those speeches on the evening news. The famous national politician was telling the buoyant partisan crowd that he liked his party’s candidate because the fellow didn’t tailor his views to match the results of focus groups. This was the moment where there needed to be a crank in the crowd, but there wasn’t one. In all the partisan excitement, nobody thought clearly enough to see that a modern major-party candidate surely uses tools like focus groups to decide what to tell voters. Nobody felt an angry surge of adrenaline at having been spoken to with such carelessness or perhaps even contempt. Nobody called out to that very important visitor. Nobody dissented. Nobody said, you’re lying to us and maybe to yourself too! Where are the cranks when we need them?

A Michiana Chronicles essay by Ken Smith, aired November 29, 2002 on 88.1 WVPE. Archived original and other radio essays by K. S.

Autumn in the Neighborhood

November 1, 2002 Comments off

This summer we remembered to pinch the buds off our chrysanthemum plants in late July, and so for several weeks now we have enjoyed a stout row of bushy chrysanthemums covered with rusty yellow and red blossoms below the front window. A couple of weeks ago, to top it off, our children painted a four or five-foot jack-o-lantern on that window. Each sister handled half the design, so Jack ended up with one side of his huge mouth smiling and the other side frowning. The kitchen light glows behind him on dark evenings, making a perfect contribution to the neighborhood’s Halloween traditions.

Not long ago, three or four bales of straw appeared in the driveway next door, a sign that our neighbors planned to make their usual contribution, too. They have grandchildren now, but they’ve been building an intricate and spooky Halloween display on their corner lot since their own kids were old enough to enjoy it. They have ghostly music playing, and wild, flickering jack-o-lanterns and spider webs and ugly creatures with stuffed shirts climbing out of graves and skeletons leaning on tombstones, and a couple of spotlights throw long shadows across the whole spectacle. Two or three adults in monstrous attire pace around the scene handing out candy and staying ominously in character the whole time. People all over the neighborhood make a point to come see the display each year.

I feel nostalgic for neighborhood customs in late autumn, seeing the gardens fade and knowing that several months will pass before we start hanging out in the front yard again, enjoying unscheduled visits with neighborhood walkers. I was out in the yard one mild morning a few weeks ago when the neighbors whose baby was due came very slowly around the corner. They paused in front of the next house, and by the way the wife leaned on her husband I could tell that she was finally in labor. Two women, probably the midwives, followed them. A few hours after their detour onto our sidewalk, in a long, successful home birth, they had their third son. Some afternoons I run into the little guy snoozing in his stroller, which helps explain why we sometimes see his bedroom window shining when we’re turning off our lights for the night. He’s still setting his body clock to neighborhood time.

There are other newcomers, too. A family moved in near the railroad tracks. The father is a firefighter, and on his off days he’s been tearing out a long row of yew bushes that circled the house. First he sawed off the tops, then plant by plant he dug down deep and chopped out the roots, leaving the soil clear for next year’s flower beds. I respect his hard work, his attention to detail, his desire to do a job right.

Other families have been squeezing in one last home improvement project before the cold sets in. Friends a couple blocks over managed to scrape and paint their house in September, which inspired their next-door neighbors to do the same in October, just before their first child was due. Now this week I see a flag hanging from that house, showing a baby bottle and a blue ribbon on a field of blue. They will be great parents. The last time I ran into the father, he was buying some lumber to use in mending the porch of an older woman from their church.

It’s been good to walk through the neighborhood, to see new people moving in and new children being born, people keeping up their houses and their holiday traditions. These things serve as an antidote to the hard news we’ve had this season from around the country and abroad. Snipers and bombs, war and rumors of war. Looking out at the neighborhood but remembering the news, I sometimes think, there but for the grace of God go you and I. The new father, the one who put out the blue flag, is in the armed forces, and soldiers like him will go into battle if the President leads us to war. When you know your neighbors, national and international news strikes closer to home.

A Michiana Chronicles essay by Ken Smith, aired November 1, 2002 on 88.1 WVPE. Archived original and other radio essays by K. S.