No One Will Steal Your Tools

On a cold Saturday morning, walking with my son’s Cub Scout pack as we collected cans of food for the needy, I saw a pickup truck I liked. It was early, and the few residents we saw out and about looked a bit the worse for wear, many hotfooting it out in pajamas across cold sidewalks to pick up the paper.

Polished metallic blue, the truck that caught my eye had a flat cover over the bed, rigid and the same shade as the rest of the vehicle. It made for a unified, sleek machine. I grew up in Detroit, where we appreciate a well customized set of wheels. The owner of the truck emerged from one of the townhouses, looking a bit bleary himself. His arms were filled with tools. He opened the pop-top and began placing them next to their neighbors in the truck bed. With all those tools, I could tell he was a builder.

Nice truck lid, I told him as we walked past. Makes it easier on the job site, he replied. No one will steel your tools.

The neighborhood we were walking through is one of some renown among community planners. It is an early example of “planned unit developments,” an approach to neighborhood-building that tries to incorporate recreation with living space. All different social strata are intended to mingle in this neighborhood. Some houses are pretty upscale, with lawns and fences, while other cul-de-sacs include town homes pressed together like you’d see in many other apartment complexes. Mostly built in the late 1960’s, the whole place has an integrated, ordinary feeling to it. Walking the sidewalks, it is the uniformity that strikes one, and that also gives a comforting sense that the folks here feel they belong. It’s as if, pressed close together, no one wants to appear too ostentatious. Having lived in a small, northern New England town for a few years, I can relate to the desire not to stand out too much.

In this experiment in encouraging people to mix together who might not otherwise, we in the Cub Scout pack gathered an astounding amount of food, filling our own truck bed and more.

Just up the road, there are newer developments, with bucolic sounding names, names that evoke the forest and sound vaguely British. These, too, are mixed use communities, planned with recreation centers and commercial areas. But, all is fancy-new. The smart, upscale homes have picket fences to mark their property edges, the cars are shiny and German. Private alarm companies have posted signs in front of many houses. The apartment units, set aside for the non-homeowners, even have a glow to them.

There’s no feeling of integration here. Each house is an island.

Driving through these neighborhoods (there are not so many sidewalks so one doesn’t necessarily walk), one sees heavy digging equipment and mounds of dirt down every street. New structures are going up all over the place.

It’s filled with the kind of job sites that the fellow from Saturday morning might drive his truck to. Carpenters, masons, foremen are everywhere. Work is getting done, a race against winter to get roofs sealed. And, so worries my friend with the pop-top, tools are getting stolen. These kinds of things happen in transient spots, where no one really knows anyone. Like many job sites including, evidently, the ones in these new places.

I can’t help but think those clever planners had a hand in the homey feeling from Saturday morning. It’s the sidewalks. The neighborhood is laid out so people have to see one another, have to mingle while on foot. A sense of place has built up — they hold a communal yard sale each year, and host an annual party at the rec center’s pool where dogs are encouraged to take a dip. People know one another. And, they remember to place their unused cans of food on the porch for those who may not have any.

Meanwhile, one of my son’s classmates lives in one of the new developments. With no sidewalks to stroll, his parents do not yet know their neighbors. They look around and wonder where the other kids play. Their street really seems an archipelago, with disconnected home-islands containing families stranded behind bay windows.

It’s not fair to judge the new developments too harshly. They haven’t had time to grow into real communities. How will these places feel in ten years? Will Cub Scout packs collect bags of food, and will neighbors know one another? Or, instead, will they glide by one another with windows rolled up?

The fences and ubiquitous alarm signs are hurdles to be overcome. And they could use a few sidewalks. Still, people have a way of developing an allegiance to where they live, and this comes out in ways small and large. Block parties, yard sales, and potlucks may yet thrive if these folks can get to know one another.

That’s all a ways off. For now, it’s job sites and islands of grass amidst newly-turned dirt.

Crowd Control

Time was when I traveled upwards of 100,000 miles each year for work. I spent a lot of time in airports, getting on planes, getting off of planes, waiting for planes. This spanned both before and after the many changes that 9/11 wrought on the experience of air travel in the United States. Security is now more important than ever.

But, really, it’s crowd control that continues to rule the day around the tarmac and the terminal. When I board the plane, what line I choose to check in, how many bags I carry, and more, all designed to most efficiently get me and my fellow travelers where we are going without too many hiccoughs. It’s meant to make things flow.

At the airport, we do what we’re told and, when things are busy and there are delays, we wait. We rely on the people in corporate uniforms — usually blue blazers and silver nameplates — to guide us, tell us where to stand, and when our plane might take off. When there’s a bottleneck at the security screening station, or at the podium taking tickets, we do not step out of line and pitch in. That’s their job, to control us. Our job is to get through it all and get where we’re going.

My children’s elementary school, with seven hundred students and just a handful of people over four feet tall in the building, must do a bit of crowd control, too. Walking the halls as a parent volunteer, and later hearing stories at the dinner table, this is all clear. So much of what I see and hear of are about things running smoothly rather than some fancy idea like “learning.”

In the lunchroom, where the kids have thirty minutes to eat, each in their various shifts, there is a large traffic signal helpfully broadcasting what one may do with one’s food: Green — eat; Yellow — pack up; Red — get out and make room for the next grade. When kids get unruly, teachers have a special clapping signal, long-long-short-short-short, that elicits an immediate Pavlovian response. The children repeat the clap back, and fall silent. It’s remarkable to watch five simple claps silence a loud, disorderly room, just as my sharp “sit!” will stop my dogs from bounding across the room to bowl over a visitor to my house.

At our local elementary school, the adults seem to have things well in hand, at least as it relates to keeping a placid atmosphere.

But, there is a strange in-between time. That’s in the morning, before the doors officially open at 8:30. My daughter has an early safety patrol duty (one of whose prime directives, to be memorized before receiving the patrol badge, is “The three main functions of the patrol are to instruct, direct, and control”), so I stand waiting with my son for the doors to open, along with the other kids who arrive early. There are rules to this time. The children must stand in two lines, on one of two seams in the cement sidewalk. They are to stand quietly, not push and shove, not run, and they are to keep the space immediately in front of the doors clear. The kids who arrive early every day usually stick to those rules. At 8:30, the bell rings, and a school administrator or teacher (they rotate) opens the doors and welcomes the children.

But, sometimes the buses arrive early. Kids pile off, and the sidewalk fills. Pushing, running, shoving, and other sorts of unruliness ensue. Not yet fully inside the school, the kids are not yet fully under the control of the tall people who run the place, so they play. This can go on for four or five minutes before the bell rings and the school opens its arms to them.

Sometimes other parents are present; usually I am the only adult standing outside. Yet, I have no school-vested authority. When kids are shoving or running, I ask them to stop and sometimes they do, but the way they look at me as they saunter off makes it clear that just being an adult is not enough, in their eyes, to really give me standing to tell them what to do. That would take a title from the front office.

Eventually, the doors will be opened, the kids will file in, go to their classrooms, and order will be restored. But, once, the doors were late in opening and the bell had rung. The official in charge of greeting on that day was delayed. We waited. One minute. Two. Three. Two more buses pulled up to discharge passengers. Each minute ticking by felt like ten as the volume mounted. Inside, I could see through the glass, the day was beginning like always and teachers were walking to and fro from faculty lounge to classroom. Only — no students. It was clear to me, having seen it many times, that opening the doors would quiet the kids down and allow the day to begin — it was exactly what was needed.

I marvel now at the courage it seemed to take for me to walk over to the doors, pull the handles, turn to face the throng, and file them into the building. The administrator in charge that day, just arriving at the lobby, thanked me. She seemed sincere. But there was a catch to her voice. I was out of my sanctioned character, and had stepped on the school’s turf. It’s one thing to volunteer in art class cutting out paper masks, wearing a “VISITOR” badge. It’s quite another to take over someone else’s job duties.

I have only done that once or twice since. And, those times, I asked first. The answer in each case had that strange catch to it. Each time, even though I knew I was doing the proper thing, the asking was hard. I felt I was stepping into a role where I was unwelcome, outside of the normal structures of control.

These structures keep the environment at our elementary school calm enough for learning to take place. I do not resent them, just as I do not resent the fact that, at the airport, we must line up to board our plane.

But, sometimes I wonder, why is it so hard for me to help my school out? These are our kids; it’s our school, not some government fortress like a jail or motor vehicle office. And yet, stepping forward to shoulder some obvious, tiny responsibility, like helping my school out by keeping the morning kids from overrunning the doors, I feel the same way I might if I were to stand next to the airport gatekeeper and frisk the passengers myself. Maybe, at the airport, that would get us through security faster but it is an unwelcome intrusion into the institution. Well, OK, that’s not MY airport.

But it’s my school, and my neighbors. What will it take for me to be comfortable stepping forward to fulfill the responsibility I have to it? And, what will it take for my school to feel comfortable with folks like me opening their doors for them?