Something recently happened in front of my house that has got me thinking hard about news, neighbors and life in America as we now know it. Since 1978, we have lived on the south end of St. Petersburg in a middle-class, racially diverse neighborhood. There are 20 houses on our block. Half of them occupied by white families, half by Black families. I tell people we live in a safe neighborhood, which does not mean that we don’t have crime. We assume that some neighbors have guns for protection, maybe most of them. Many years ago, there was an unsolved murder around the block. A couple of houses have been broken into. The Clarks had a car stolen from in front of our house on a Sunday afternoon by some joyriders. A teen was arrested and convicted for the crime.
But those rare cases have not stopped us from loving this place, a community where we cherish our neighbors and rely upon each other, as we did during Hurricane Ian. Picture me in the middle of a recent hot Florida afternoon. I see a young man walking down our street, maybe to or from school, not a strange sight. But he was acting in an odd manner. From a distance I could see that he was young, Black, bare-chested, with his shirt pulled up over his head like a turban. He carried a backpack, walking slowly, weaving his way down the block. About 10 minutes later I looked out my front window and saw that this person was now in my front yard, sitting on the edge of my lawn, in the shade of an oak tree that we had planted 30 years ago in memory of our dog Lance.
There is a stereotypical figure in American culture, the grumpy old white guy who yells at kids to “Stay off my lawn.” That’s not me. Having been the victim of an armed robbery in a motel once, I am certainly capable of hyper-vigilance. In an era of terrorism and mass shootings, I believe in the mantra “see something, say something.” I decided to look closer, and could see that my “trespasser” was quite young, about 14 or 15, and he appeared to be sitting, resting, looking down at his phone. I went into the garage and grabbed from the fridge a cold bottle of water. I walked across the lawn carefully and caught his attention. He looked up, a bit surprised and maybe scared. He realized he was sitting on my grass and began to stand up.
“No, it’s OK,” I said, handing him the bottle of water. “I’m just checking to see if you are OK.”
“Yes, sir,” he said. “It’s just so hot.”
“You can rest here as long as you want.”
About 10 minutes later he was walking back down the street. He waved and said thank you. I regretted I did not learn his name. I hope to see him again.
The purpose of this column is not to hold myself up as some kind of model of virtue. Isn’t common courtesy, the occasional act of kindness, something we might expect from anyone? But this encounter happened in the immediate aftermath of one of the most depressing cycles of news in memory. In Kansas City, a teen approaches a house to pick up his siblings. It turns out to be the wrong house. He is shot by an old white guy, whose grandson calls him a racist. In upstate New York, a car turns off a rural road into the wrong driveway. The owner fires a gun from his porch and kills a 20-year-old woman in the car.
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It appears we may have reached the point when a person can’t knock on your door, or drive up your driveway, or rest on your lawn without being perceived as a predator that must be stopped — by any means necessary.
Our plague of gun violence now falls largely into three distinct categories. We have the criminals who use guns in the course of achieving some other goal, such as robbing you. We have sociopaths who use weapons of war to slaughter lots of people, even themselves, in some disturbed effort to get revenge or gain attention. But now we have a third category. The stand-your-grounders. More well-armed than ever, they see the world as an increasingly dangerous place. Filled with the rhetoric of conspiracy and paranoia, they see their home as their castle, and anyone who approaches it as a potential threat to their life and property. My home is no castle, believe me. We just called the plumber — and he’s not checking on our moat.
Don’t get me wrong. I am ready to protect our home against real dangers. But I see this place I live as something beyond myself. Our home stands as part of a sturdy fabric, a community, whose principal value is the ability to help each other in a pinch. I thought of the three white guys in southern Georgia convicted of murder for the killing of a Black man whose crime was jogging through their neighborhood. I shuddered for a moment thinking what might have happened to the young man on my block if he had considered sitting in another neighborhood on someone else’s lawn.
Epilogue: About two weeks after this incident, I saw him again. It was an even hotter day, but he was walking briskly and greeted me with a smile. He gave me his name, told me that he rides the bus to high school and has a long walk to the bus stop. I asked him if he needed another bottle of water. He reached into his backpack and pulled one out. “No,” he said. “Today I have come fully prepared.”
Roy Peter Clark is a contributing writer to the Tampa Bay Times. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org