Handling the tricky stuff

Handling the tricky stuff

Sunday, January 3, 2016

We're All Not In It Together: Fantasy Trout Fishing in Delusional America -- 4

4: The Flower Thief

A parable and the cradle of the civil war

So. So far in this series of linked essays, I’ve babbled on about what I guess you might call the current psychic state of America and my political/social thinking about it. It’s been pretty boring for anyone trying to slog through this, I suspect, and pretty personal to me, as this isn’t  anything like the kind of science writing I usually do, with arguments supported by statistics and research findings. What I am saying amounts to my own opinion and grim worldview. If you are reading this, my apologies – but, though I’m addressing you, I’m really writing all this for myself and myself alone. These are “essays” in the sense that Montaigne used the word – these are formal mediations that I’m doing to try to help myself understand the world (and myself). You are welcome to keep reading if you like, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

So. After talking abstractly for quite a while, I think it’s time to add a little more tangible content, so now a story:

Walking the dog early this summer morning, the road already somewhat steamy, I crested one of the hills in my neighborhood and heard crows cawing gently, almost plaintively in the green, green branches overhead, blue sky above, and tangibly felt a breath of peace returning to my life, though much of the world is still not peaceful.

Summer is a good time to discover… peace.
It’s early summer, and it’s been abnormally, even freakishly hot and no end is in sight. Temperatures are forecast to stay in the upper 90’s, with little or no rain for the next two weeks. Lawns have turned brown. It’s hard, brutal weather for gardeners like myself, yet I feel this magical wisp of peace and beauty returning in the morning air.

I say “returning,” because almost exactly a year ago from this time I was far from at peace. No, no major tragedy had recently occurred and I wasn’t in the middle of any real personal or family or workplace crisis – it was all buried in the small, trivial happenings of everyday life. On the face of it, what was going on then was trivial, silly even, and I knew that but triviality of it all somehow made me feel even worse.

There I was, sleepy and damp, standing behind a bush in the pre-dawn hours, holding an unlit flashlight, watching the street where my night-vision, motion-sensing camera was also aimed…

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

As I’ve said before, I garden. It’s something I do (somewhat) passionately. I’m from the Northeast, but for 20 years I lived in the desert Southwest, which was a hard environment for me because it was bare, brown, dry and hot. To combat the brown sparseness of the landscape I began gardening fairly seriously there, trying to add, oasis-like,  some color and lushness into my life. I did this well, but I still found myself fantasizing about big trees, lush green hillsides, misty mornings and wild English gardens bursting with exuberance and color,  the way some people dream of an unattainable love, a life achievement or fame and fortune – the way Gatsby dreamt of Daisy and the green light across the Sound. I know, it’s pretty pathetic, but it was my life.

So, when we moved to Charlotte, green, green Charlotte it was a bit like a dream fulfilled. We bought a house in a quiet, friendly neighborhood, with a big, largely wooded lot and a great deck overlooking the woods. The place was cool and shady, but there was a section in the front yard, near the street, where there was enough sun for a garden, so I put one there.

I'm a passionate gardener, but…
And I took to gardening with enthusiasm, the way one does at a favorite activity when long-wished for opportunities finally open up, become possible. I visited nurseries and garden shops and ordered dozens of different gardening catalogues. I wanted plants that I couldn’t grow in the desert, plants that I remembered from my childhood, and gardens that you see in gardening magazines, full of lilies and peonies, and larkspur and dahlias and daisies and black-eyed susans. I think most of my neighbors – only a few of whom garden seriously – probably thought I was a bit nuts, turning part of the neighborhood-normal lawn into something from the English countryside, but it was not unsightly -- perhaps just a bit strange to people who grow grass, plant a few azaleas, hire a lawn crew to maintain it all and basically hate doing yardwork. Still, no one complained and a few were even complimentary.

Over the next few years, the garden went well -- I thought -- and it gave me great pleasure to work it. There were the usual disappointments – the plant that would not grow, the attack of Japanese beetles, the ravages of deer and rabbits and squirrels, the digging of the occasional dog, bad weather and plant diseases, but, as I have said in an earlier essay, these are expected problems, part of a nature that a gardener lives with and learns to work with. I managed my problems, sprayed for deer and rabbits, picked off destructive bugs, and my garden flourished. Peonies grew large and established, lilies multiplied. I bought specimen perennials, tried out wide ranges of annuals, enjoyed mixing and structuring the pallet of flower colors. I gardened, and sometimes rested. As the bumper sticker says, life was good. I know this is boring, but I really don’t need much.

Because what I was doing was benign and had not caused any criticism, what I did not expect was conflict or malice from people. Yes, because I had planted near the road, I would not have been surprised (or terribly upset) by damage from someone accidentally parking a bit over the curb, or the careless boot of an occasional workman or a neighborhood teenager chasing a ball. Like deer and Japanese beetles and heavy runoff from summer storms, this kind of problem was part and parcel with the location, and I could live with it. But when you live in a city with a lot of other people, things change, and people surprise you.

It all started innocently enough. We live on a hill, and a neighbor came around and politely asked for our permission (as she did with everyone nearby) to host a charity event on our street – a “slide jam” for kids doing longboard skateboarding. Her son was involved in this sport, and she thought it would be a good opportunity to raise money for breast cancer research. I said “sure,” as did everybody else, not really seeing any reason at all to be worried.

A bit of explanation, for anyone unfamiliar with what “longboarding” is. Longboard skateboards are different from regular skateboards in that they are longer and designed for riding on roads, rather than for doing tricks on skateboard ramps, swimming pools and park furniture. They are the boards you see kids riding on to travel from place to place, instead of riding a bike. But, like the regular skateboards, kids also like them because they can do acrobatic tricks on them – things that are fun to do because they require some athletic skill and have some danger involved. In the case of longboarding, the main trick is to do a “slide” while going down a hill: suddenly turning the board sidewise while going fast, so the board “slides” (“scrapes” is really more accurate) on its hard artificial rubber wheels and the rider tries to stay balanced. Since the rider may be going 30 miles per hour, it can be dangerous, with the rider spilling to the hard pavement and the 3-foot-long heavy board flying off like a missile, sometimes getting lodged up in the branches of nearby trees. It’s also a very noisy sport, as the boards slam and screech and the kids scream and yell.

Sociologically, longboarding is generally an upper-middle class suburban kid’s sport, practiced by middle school boys (before middle school it is too difficult – after middle school, boys start driving cars and lose interest) . It’s expensive – the boards cost several hundred dollars and the expensive wheels and bearings need to be replaced constantly… and then there are the helmets, pads and other gear. But unlike regular skateboarding, there are no public or private skateboard parks set up for the kids to go practice and play. In suburban Charlotte, with its lack of public sports facilities and playgrounds for kids, you simply find a street on a hill in a quiet neighborhood and go practice your slides. 

If you live in a similar suburban area, you might be saying “but I never see kids longboarding on my hill…” There is a reason for that – boys at this age like to hang out in groups, and certain hills become well-known and popular, while others are not. In Charlotte, some parents drive five miles or so to drop their kids off on some popular hill, while there may be perfectly acceptable hills in their own neighborhood. The kids like to hang out in groups and (if you are fortunate to live far away) any annoyance that your child and his friends may cause is unlikely to get back to you from your neighbors.

So this is what happened to me. Because of the charity event, we had a hundred or so boys (some coming from as far away as Atlanta, I hear) longboarding on the hill one afternoon. My garden sustained some damage (from loose longboards and from kids sitting in beds and throwing their trash there, etc.) but that did not did not upset me that much because, well, I’d said okay, and it was a one-time thing, like a storm, a landslide or something.

Except it wasn’t a one-time thing.  There was a second, even larger event a few weeks later, unsanctioned by my neighbors or the neighborhood. Apparently, now the hill was branded as a public longboarding park. From then on, there were always six to thirty boys longboarding on our small hill, scraping, slamming and yelling, leaving waterbottle and snack wrappers and generally being a troop of near-feral teenage boys. In summer, their parents would drop them off at noon and pick  them up at dusk, blissfully tranquilized by heat and exertion (and out of their house and neighborhood for the day, hooray!). My street had become a favorite Charlotte longboarding hill and a kind of public park.  A place to dump your sweet, sweet little boy who has suddenly morphed into a bored and possibly unruly teenager.

At first, having been a boy once myself, I was inclined to be tolerant about all of this. Sure, they were noisy and really dangerous to drive around, and, sure, they were a bit rude, leaving trash and sitting stubbornly on their boards in the road, refusing to move when we tried to drive in or out, but boys will be boys, right?

But there was another problem – my house (and garden) was situated in the middle of the hill, right in their favorite place for doing “slides.” Every third boy or so would wipe out and the board would go flying, like a two-by-six plank, thrown from a moving vehicle. Every day, several would smash through my garden like a scythe. Within a couple of weeks, I lost nine mature lilies and several other favorite plants that had been years in the growing.

I tried to manage this problem the way I would manage deer or rabbits. I put up a fence, which they smashed through almost immediately. I assumed that I would be able to talk to the boys and get them to stop doing slides in front of my garden. Wrong! I did talk to them, and they were polite: “I’m sorry sir it-won’t-happen-again-sir…” (these, I was told, were “nice” boys, a term I have since learned simply means that their parents are middle or upper middle class, and they know how to pretend to be polite) but often the same boy would go back up the hill and immediately slide in front of my garden again while I was still standing there.  I started going up to the top of the hill and talking to the entire group so I could get everyone to understand that I lived here and they were damaging my property and this needed to stop. They would gather and listen, and some of them would stand in the back of the group, cracking wise and snickering at me.  Eventually, I got mad dealing with this.

Only one boy in the group (my neighbor’s son) was actually from our neighborhood, and this was part of the problem. This boy (and a couple of his close friends) generally obeyed me, probably because his mother told him to. However, his mother did not see it as her responsibility  to control the rest of them, feeling I was over-reacting (she doesn’t garden), I guess. Further, I later discovered that another neighbor who also had a teenage boy (this child was not an active longboarder) also thought I was over-reacting and was being actively hostile (I’m known to her as “the flower man”). I’m not sure what was going on with that, but I suspect that she liked having the boys hanging out in the neighborhood because it was part of her son’s social life. In any case, these two neighbors made it pretty clear that my well-being as a homeowner and neighbor was generally irrelevant to them and they were on the side of all the non-neighbor boys. The kids, picking up on the adult alliance, became aggressively more hostile towards me and my garden. In some ways, this is a classic “disagreement with neighbors” situation,  except the main actors were not people I could really talk to and negotiate with. There was a large group of unsupervised teenagers involved, acting as a pack and knowing that there was no way I could go to their parents to complain. They weren’t riding Harleys or selling drugs, but they were behaving like a gang. If the problem was solely with neighborhood kids and their parents, I might have let it continue, because, after all, I’m just one house in the neighborhood.

But it wasn’t that way – these were not neighborhood kids, and the adults involved took no formal responsibility. After about a year of this (and a massive amount of damage to my garden) it became clear that the boys were deliberately vandalizing my garden and other property. My car, parked in front of the house one day, had one of its tires slashed. Another time, a boy ran into this car, put a big scratch in the side and then threatened to sue me because he got hurt and “the car was in the roadway.” I had a gang of strange boys hanging out in the neighborhood every day being a loud, obnoxious nuisance. They didn’t live here, but they felt like they had taken possession of the street and had a right to damage the property and terrorize me. But these were “nice boys,” my neighbor said.

I finally had enough and called the police. I had actually called the police a couple of times before (once when the tire was slashed), but the kids were never actively skating when they showed up and the officer involved was reluctant to take any action except to tell the boys to behave, advice they promptly ignored (skating by, giving me the finger) as soon as he left. But finally I was upset enough that the officer responding took the time to look at my garden and to listen to me tell the history of what had been occurring. At which point, I finally learned that there is an unambiguous city ordinance forbidding the use of all skateboards in the roadway, and I had a right to have the police order the kids off the road.

In fact, it was suddenly revealed to me, there were other neighborhoods where other crazy old people had also had enough and had the police order them off as well. My neighbor (the one with the non-skating kid) came out to complain that I was being an asshole and he told her the same thing. She was upset -- not that she had been in the wrong legally (or had been unfair to me), but that she had lost. The word finally got back to the kids’ parents and as Robert Browning says “all smiling ceased.” Longboarding disappeared off my street and I got to go back and re-plant my garden. End of story…

But, unbelievably, actually, no. While this might seem like a peculiar little social drama involving an old guy (I play the role of Mean Mr. Wilson) who is overly concerned with his landscaping and some unruly, badly parented teenagers just trying to have fun, I have since had more experiences that make me feel like there is more to it than that.

Though the longboarding park was known to be closed (and I have gained a place in local kid legend, I gather, as the arch-villain “Garden Guy”) at regular intervals, small groups of  kids would try to return and scheme to re-colonize the hill as if nothing had happened. I would go out and calmly tell them to leave and explain why. Each time, the kids involved would claim that they had “never been here before” (though I recognized them all). After a while, I had asked them to leave once or twice before, and was getting tired of being harrassed. Why they were bothering to come back to a street where they knew they would be ordered off instead of simply going to another hill ? (Charlotte has an almost infinite number of hills.) It was beyond me. I sensed I was being tested, prodded… and, finally, provoked. If these hadn’t been 12 to 16-year-old boys and it hadn’t been something as trivial as longboarding, I would call what was happening to me “being terrorized.”

In my weaker moments, it felt like that, and I’d have to take a breath. A number of the boys took to longboarding on a hill right around the corner that was equally fine for their activity, and  nobody objected (they didn’t go there as much and, I think, were afraid of the moms on that street – who knew their moms -- so they behaved better). But they also, at least once a day, made a point of skating over to the top of my hill, looking down to see if I was in my yard. If I was out there, I would see them come, look, see me, and hurry back. But if I wasn’t, they would come down and doing one extravagant slide in front of my garden, pointing out to any new boys exactly where to slide… and run off. This of course provoked me, and some other neighbors overheard them talking about it and told them to go away too. It didn’t stop though.

Since what was going on was hit-and-run and since, really, no damage was being done, I tracked them down a couple of times, told them they had better quit, but privately decided that I was just going to have to put up with this until these particular boys “grew up” and quit. It was annoying, but I had managed to stem the damage and the vandalism. But then something else happened.

It was a year ago this spring, and my garden, having a year to recover from longboard crashes, was looking really promising. My peonies, in particular, were looking like they were going to be really lovely. I grow about eight varieties, and some, because of a cold winter, were going to bloom strongly for the first time. I would go out every morning to look at their progress. One morning, I was shocked to come out and see… no flowers. On closer inspection, I could see that someone had come with a pair of scissors (neat cuts, made at an angle) and cut over 20 blooms.
What was a peony plant, covered with blooms.

St. Joseph's Lilies… minus the lilies.

Though this was more damage to my garden, I did not immediately suspect the boys. Boys, I reasoned, would simply smash or rip things up, not neatly cut them, and would have no interest in taking the flowers. Someone, I guessed, loved peonies and wanted some so badly that they decided to cut mine.

Fine, except a morning a week later I came out and discovered that someone had come and similarly cut a large amount of larkspur and poppies. And a week after that, all my amaryllis and St. Joseph’s lilies. I realized I was being deliberately vandalized, and, again, my suspicion floated back to the boys. I sent out an email note to my neighbors (there are about 60 on the list) with a photo showing the clipping, and asked if anyone had seen anything.

No one had, but what I did get back was like a Rorschach blot test revealing everyone’s perspectives. Several neighbors thought it must be The People from over in the projects “who don’t respect property.” Someone else thought it must be “ethnic” people who they had seen clipping flowers at public gardens and who they thought were probably “selling your flowers at farmers markets.” Several people insisted it had to be deer (no person would do such a thing!), even though I pointed out that deer never eat peonies, and the cuts were clearly made with scissors.

I was, at this stage, um, perturbed. (You can substitute “off my rocker,” “gone round the bend,” etc. – those phrases are also apt.) So I went “spy v. spy.” I did a little research and found a cheap web camera with infra-red “night-vision” and motion-detection capability and set it up outside in a hidden location. A neighbor offered me a sign that said “WARNING: this area under video surveillance” and I put it up. The weekly cuttings continued, happening sometime between 10 pm and 7 am. The camera took a picture and sent it to my email every time a leaf moved, but I caught no vandal because there were some technical difficulties. (Being a garden security consultant is not a simple matter.) I became convinced that one of the boys was coming by sometime just before dawn on his way to school and got up early to hide in my yard to catch him. (So that was why I was standing out behind a bush at 5:30 am. Yes, I was really that nutty.) I did see some strange things in the morning, but no boys cutting.

Then, the camera worked, and I caught her.  I was shocked by what I saw: It was a grown woman with a distinctive haircut and some other defining marks. I had captured a picture of her (along with pictures of a large number of other passersby) the week before, apparently just admiring the flowers at about 10:30 pm, which was strange, but... But here she was again, a little after 2 am, cutting a bunch of lilies.

I tracked her down. I won’t tell you how because it involves some sneaky internet skills and the help of other people, but I identified her as a 40-something woman who lives in a nice neighborhood about a mile from my house – all kinds of personal information that she revealed on social media. She had been getting up in the middle of the night once a week for seven weeks to drive to my neighborhood, park out of sight, and cut enough flowers to deface my garden. Think about that for a minute and let that sink in: Seven weeks. In the wee hours of the morning. A lot of effort and inconvenience was involved in this – even more than the crazy effort I put into catching her. She wasn’t just doing it because she loved flowers, which she could have bought for $5 a week at the supermarket and had a lovely bouquet. Or, if she really just loved the bargain of a “five finger discount,” she could have hit a house in her own neighborhood – I’ve been by, and there are plenty within walking distance of where she lives.

Crazy as it sounds, other people have had a similar attacks, though probably not from as dedicated a thief.
I called the police, and they came, and, after the officer got over my strange obsessiveness over horticulture, he looked at my evidence, agreed I had caught the culprit and went to the woman’s house. He found her and my flowers. She was abashed and somewhat terrified. He asked me what I wanted to do, as felony charges were possible. I had no interest in really doing something to ruin her life, so I demanded an in-person apology, which she promptly delivered (refusing to explain her strange behavior) and I had mercy and declined to press charges. After all, we were compatriots in nutty behavior, whatever her reasons. I simply wanted the attacks to end and they ended. We have never talked again.

I told my neighbors that the problem had been resolved, though I didn’t tell them specifically who the culprit was. The response, again, was interesting: many people were dumbfounded that someone like one of us (but not from our neighborhood) would do this. Several people insisted “it’s because your garden is so lovely and she must really love flowers.” Bull hockey. Seven separate times. Armfuls of flowers. In the middle of the night. In the middle of another neighborhood a mile from her house. Seven late-late-night flower runs. Think about that people – she was really trying to deface my garden and going to a lot of long-term trouble to do so. But some people still insisted it had to be “just a flower lover”… in a kind of mocking way.

I was being vandalized and the great unanswered question remains: why? I have never met this woman before in my life. Her political preferences (as revealed on the internet) are nearly identical to my own. She has no connection with my place of work or anyone in my family. She and I are total strangers to each other. Why did she target my garden and work so diligently to damage it (and drive me nuts)? What did I do to piss her off?

That question, to this day (a year later) remains unanswered and I don’t think it ever will be. But there are some interesting other details. The boys who had been doing hit-and-run harassment longboarding in front of my house abruptly quit and never did it again from the moment I caught her. Perhaps the fact that I can be a badass crazy person finally filtered down to them and they decided they had better leave me alone after all. But perhaps, just perhaps, she was a relative of one of them and, since I still had the option to press charges, they decided to leave me alone and keep her out of trouble. I have some reasons to suspect the latter – some I can’t go into but, mainly, the fact that only people (to my knowledge) that I have ever had a dispute with in this town that could make someone be mad enough at me to spend this kind of time and effort exacting vengeance on me are these childish teenage longboard enthusiasts and their allies. My garden – another ridiculous enthusiasm – happens to connect them both. If I’m right, it’s interesting to note that I’m not the only adult crazy person involved in this story. There are tons of us out there.

So why am I telling you all this? Why spend so much time and effort thinking about and re-hashing this personal, trivial, somewhat gothic/surreal (and, yes, personally embarrassing) incident? Well, as I was getting at in the beginning, I have now reached the point where I am able to hold the experience at a distance and get some perspective.  And when I do that, some things emerge.

First, it lays bare the fact that we are all so caught up in our own bubbles – our own struggles, our own intimate concerns, our own trivial-but-not-trivial-to-us issues that we are in danger of losing all outside perspective, rational or otherwise. The guy so caught up with his garden and the lives of his flowers that he gets drawn into a ridiculous war with pre-rational teenagers. The neighbors so caught up in their kids’ lives that they are willing to support a teenage social crowd exhibiting really bad behavior and committing vandalism… and to permanently sour relationships with their neighbors. A woman who is so caught up in a vendetta with a man she has never met and doesn’t even know that she is willing to conduct a two-month campaign of vandalism and expend a great deal of personal effort, not to mention risk a felony crime record and public shaming.  If this is really only about such trivial issues as gardening and longboarding, we are all truly insane. No, I think it became a kind of proxy war where the pro-longboard and pro-flower tribes each decided that the other was truly part of “them” (we all know who “they” are, don’t we?) and started plotting campaigns to win “the war.”

Second, reality is murky, and when your mind is working on its own unique operating system, murky reality results in even murkier thinking and chaos ensues. When kids smashing my garden morphed into someone conducting midnight vandalism raids in a place where a generation or so ago the Klan rode, it was (in retrospect) almost predictable that my imagination might actively begin to suspect some conspiracy going on amongst some of my neighbors, bless their southern hearts.  It was then also predictable that I would go all Spy vs Spy on them. And, if you go back earlier into the story, it is predictable that hyper-involved parents might not take it kindly when flower-obsessed guy (a Yankee to boot) starts objecting to their darlings doing whatever-it-takes to have fun, and might start encouraging and even participating in childish behavior themselves. In social psychology, what the experts call “ingroup-outgroup” thinking causes groups that identify as “other” from each other become even more polarized with disagreements. There are cultural tensions just waiting out there, ready to get involved, and, if people are already a little disconnected from reality then those come into play and little squabbles can grow into major fights and lasting conflicts. Given the way this story developed, I guess we all should be glad it didn’t end with someone getting arrested or committing some kind of serious crime.

As I’ve been writing this, the horrific Charleston church shooting took place, and, in the aftermath, I feel some resonance here. Everyone is horrified and perplexed that something like this could happen, but it really shouldn’t be surprising that a stupid and emotionally disturbed (“troubled,” as we used to say) young white man (barely beyond teenagerhood) could do something like this, should it? In a state that insists on still flying the Confederate flag at its legislative offices. In a culture that insists on guns for everyone. I mean, you have poverty, bad education, poisonous political rhetoric, mental health issues, drug abuse issues, a dysfunctional social network and a surplus of sidearms. What could go wrong? Just like the various protagonists in my little story got caught up in their/my own little bubble realities, this kid got lost in his  own too… and things went really, really south. And we’re all so caught up in our own little issues that we can’t see that this was predictable.
We all thought that the Charleston shooting was crazy, horrible and inexplicable. 

However, what I didn’t find predictable was the way members of the Emanuel AME Church reacted to having their pastor, their relatives, their friends and fellow church goers killed by in a deliberate hate crime: they forgave the defiant, blank-faced, insolent little killer. He wanted to start a race war. It didn’t work.  These amazing people believed in their religion – something beyond themselves – and didn’t surrender to the bubble world of their personal horror. More than anything else in this cruel, world-stopping event, this left me stunned.

Given the horror that has just happened and the bleak personal picture I’ve drawn, it might seem a little confusing to you why I should have begun this essay by talking about having felt a measure of peace returning. Well, I’m done fighting and have calmed down, I guess. Given time and space, I can put strange behavior into perspective, even when a lot of it was my own. I think I know myself and the people around me a little better, or at least I can hope that this is so. Charleston is tragic, socially damaging and will haunt us for a long, long time, but perhaps we can now talk about what led to it, and think about it. I know I will.

Waiting out there in the nasty, swirling events of contemporary life and the dark confusion we all feel when we wake up anxious in the middle of the night is … the possibility of learning something different. A miracle when that happens.

The summer is mercilessly hot, but the mornings are hazy and the sky is blue, so blue. I need to get out and walk more often.

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