Stranger Danger and The Biggest Snowblower This Side of Shorewood
14 March 10:36amCaitlin Knudsen • Milwaukee
The 1970’s were a weird time. In 1976, Robert Chase entered the home of David and Teresa Wallin, who had left their front door unlocked. He proceeded to do incredibly heinous things to Teresa, including drinking her blood and something with dog feces I will not elaborate on. He was referred to as the “Vampire of Sacramento” and ultimately murdered 6 people before he was caught (Harper, 2019). I don’t need to get into any more horrific details, but my point is this: this isn’t the only case from this time period where a serial killer took advantage of an unlocked door. My boyfriend and I watch a lot of true crime shows and a lot of the cases from the 70’s we just look at each other and say, “WHY did they leave their door unlocked? WHY did she get into a car with somebody she didn’t know? WHY?”
Growing up in the 90’s, the concept of “Stranger Danger” was drilled into my head. I remember my school making us watch disturbing videos about ominous windowless white vans and how we were to run, RUN kids, in the opposite direction if we were to see one. Our lives depended on it. Even to this day, I get a weird feeling in my stomach when I see an unmarked, windowless white van. Does anybody else get this? The more disturbing video I recall watching was about little Susie being invited over for a lemonade by her neighbor, Mr. Smith, which escalated into him picking her up and putting her on the kitchen counter and then starting to touch her inappropriately. They made us watch this video when I was in elementary school and it is seared into my memory. I may have been young, but the message was clear: don’t trust anybody.
We live in 2019, a time when people don’t typically leave their doors unlocked anymore. Perhaps the 70’s had more of an impact on us than an appreciation for rock music and sexual freedom. This decade impacted our sense of safety in our own homes and neighborhoods. Crime happens. It does. I get updates from Nixel every few weeks that let me know if and when there’s a major crime that requires communication from the local police department to the citizens it serves. Last fall there were multiple updates, ironically, about thieves in the area looking for unlocked doors so they could come inside, find car keys, and steal peoples vehicles. But this is a departure from the crimes of Robert Chase. Most people I know lock their doors regardless of what neighborhood they live in. In fact, not only do people typically lock their doors at night now, but there’s an almost unhealthy suspicion of strangers. The news cycle doesn’t help by invoking fear, painting a picture of a crime ridden country on the decline. No wonder there’s been a surge in misanthropy.
In actuality, violent crime has decreased significantly in the past few decades (Gramlich, 2019). There is a dissonance between what we all think is happening outside our doors and what actually happens. We don’t live in the 1970’s anymore. Our inability to see our immediate surroundings for what they are has led to an unfortunate side effect: we don’t know our neighbors and we’ve lost a sense of community.
Part of why I like living in Shorewood is because out of any of the places I’ve lived in the city, it has the strongest sense of community. Since we moved here, our neighbors across the street came over to introduce themselves and invite us over (we didn’t go because I was sick), my boyfriend stopped and had a 10 minute conversation with a woman who lives around the block from us about dogs, and we’ve both chatted with our mail person. To be honest, when the neighbor came across the street to say hello, I totally froze at first because people don’t do this anymore! Recently, I was huffing around outside shoveling the nine plus inches of heavy, wet snow and our neighbors from just around the block stopped and shoveled a few shovelfuls with me while commiserating about how magnitudinous of a storm we’d had. What. Is. This. Talking. Thing.
When we lived in Bayview in a complex, I would try to smile or make eye contact with the people I passed in the hallway, but nobody seemed interested. Eventually, I gave up. By and large, I’ve noticed the people who seem interested in and willing to be neighborly are people a few decades or more older than me. People that were born in or grew up during the 1970’s. It’s like they never forgot what it means to be a neighbor, serial killers aside. The reason I wanted to write on this topic is because of something that happened this past weekend.
We live on a pretty large property. At least one with long stretches of sidewalk. One of the bigger storms this season, it took me two and a half hours to shovel and I still hadn’t finished part of the sidewalk. It’s hard work to shovel and since we rent, it doesn’t make sense to invest in a snow blower. Enter: mysterious neighbor guy.
I don’t know his name. I don’t know where he lives. The theories abound regarding his presence in our neighborhood. Most of the time, I don’t even see him. I walk outside the morning after a storm and there’s a pathway cleared via snowblower in the middle of our sidewalk. He must be up with the birds. It isn’t just at our house; I can see the pathway continues all the way around the block. My boyfriend thinks he may have just gotten a new snowblower and is just really excited to use it. That’s cute, but I’m not so sure. I think, and I want to believe, it’s more genuine than that. I want to believe he does it because he cares and because he values community. I want to believe he is choosing to spend extra time in his day clearing a pathway for our immediate block because to do so upholds his own values through action. Either way, I think he’s an angel.
I’ve only seen him once, during the most recent snow storm. He was bundled up with only his eyes showing and as he came towards me as I was digging our sidewalk out of the icy cold slush the plows so kindly bequeath us, I motioned to him to see which direction he was going, so I wouldn’t be in his way. He motioned back from whence he came (I had already cleared half our sidewalk making a trip past the front of our house redundant). Before I could articulate a “thank you” or ask his name, he was gone. Gone in the wind like everything magical. Santa Claus. Rip Van Winkle. The Weiner Mobile. It’s not that it would have been an effective time for a conversation anyway, as it’s hard to hear anything over the din of a snowblower.
We are moving to Walker’s Point in two months. I would stay in Shorewood if it made sense for our situation, but off we go to the land of old factories and sparse green space. I will miss living in this neighborhood because it actually felt like a neighborhood. I want to thank the people around us for being friendly, for helping each other out, and for acting in the interest of the greater good of the community. I hope we all move in a direction where we embrace community more in the next few decades. I think it fosters understanding and helps us feel more grounded in our lives. I think we desperately need that right now.