The older one wears a red baseball cap with a pair of glowering cartoon eyes stitched into it. The younger one wears a black cap with some gold trim. I say "older one," but neither one has seen 30. They lean on their car all evening and long into the night, in front of the run-down apartment building where they seem to live with a woman or a group of women. People come and go; the apartment house door always is open.
All night long, they lean against the car, talking, spitting, listening to obscenity-laced rap, eating junk food and letting the wrappers flutter from their fingers to the sidewalk. Sometimes they walk up to one of the neighboring houses, open their flies, and urinate against the wall.
A man approaches them. He has a short conversation with the older one. The man hands a $20 bill to the young one, who hands him something small in return, something that fits in the palm of his hand, too small for me to see from the second floor window of my house two doors down. The man who paid the money moves on. Ten or 15 minutes later, a different man walks up and the same thing happens. This goes in far into the night.
The young man, sometimes, takes out the wad of $20s from his pocket and flips through it, counting. He also has a cigarette pack that he often opens and looks into. What's the brand in the white-and-green box? But neither of them ever smokes cigarettes.
Sometimes a group gathers around them and they spend hours talking and laughing loudly. They are lords of the street. They treat every property on it like it's their own. They will lounge for hours on any stoop or porch that appeals to them. People trying to walk down the sidewalk have to step around them.
When I moved to this house in 1990, there were seven owner-occupied houses on my half of the block. Now there are three. And the owners stay inside unless they're going toward their cars. Even one of these houses was a rental property for a time.
Some of the renters have been here almost as long as I have. They're as close to stability as this neighborhood gets. But most of the properties turn over every few months. You don't know people. In the winter, you see the Ryder trucks pull up the last weekend of the month. Furniture goes in, furniture comes out. You never see the people till the spring comes. Then, when the evenings get warm, you look around and see what's moved in during the cold.
This is the worst batch yet. I don't think it's a coincidence that my car's been broken into for the first time ever this month, or that I see more and more cars parked out front with men sleeping in them who look like they got in, sat down, and passed out.
I've called the police three times. A dispatcher answers. They take your name and your phone number, and they broadcast it, and by the time an officer comes around, the two young men have passed whatever it is they're holding back into the house. Or they're gone altogether. It doesn't take long to figure out someone in their house or their car has a police scanner. But the police haven't figured this out. And now the men know who's calling the cops on them.
Meanwhile, no doubt I'm getting a reputation in the dispatch room as the kind of crank who calls the cops out from whatever they're doing to scenes where nothing ever is going on.
It's a game, and the bad guys are winning.
I've tried to get a police officer to talk to me on the phone. The dispatchers say they won't do that. They won't talk to me on the phone. If I like, she tells me, she can have an officer come to my house -- in his squad car and uniform, with my two drug dealer friends watching -- and I can talk to him. I don't think I need more of a target on me than I already wear.
But there's one city official I always can count on. He's the one who has been hassling me for more than a year now to make improvements to my house. My house is one of the best-kept on the block. But there's a spot out in the back -- near where my car got broken into -- at the top of the porch, that I just can't reach with a paintbrush. It's about six square feet of wood above the back porch. I've tried laying on the roof and reaching down, I've tried a 40-foot ladder, but I haven't got to it yet. The paint is peeling. The city has initiated court action to fine me for this.
They have this policy; it's called "broken windows." The idea is, if you crack down on the little problems, like my six square feet of peeling paint, the big problems won't happen.
I have news for the city. You're trying to fix a broken window on a house that's burning down.
The old saying talks about a conservative being a liberal who's been mugged. There's more than one way to be mugged into it, though.
When I bought my house here in 1990, I found this was a town where you had to hire your own trash haulers. There were a dozen or so in the phone book, from the biggies (Waste Management, BFI) to the local guy around the corner with a big beat-up old stakebody truck that looked like Fred Sanford should be at the wheel.
I found one who offered the best rate for my household (we produce a minimum of waste; two bags a week tops), and hired him. Worked fine for a few years till one of his drivers ran over somebody, then they didn't have enough insurance, and the whole company folded in shame.
I hired another contractor. This one was a miserable failure. In a solid year they only managed to pick up my recyclables on time once. The other 51 weeks, I had to call them and tell them they missed it again.
So I fired them. It felt good. I hired one of the big boys after that. Not so cheap as the first, not so incompetent as the second. But, like Goldilocks, just right.
Then the city got a new mayor (Democrat) who finally pushed through the single-hauler plan that had been kicking around for years. Suddenly everyone in the city, including me, would have the same hauler. The advantages seemed obvious. Only one trash truck up the street per week, as opposed to 12. (When you work nights and sleep days, as I do, that is no inconsiderable advantage). Besides, a combined market of 50,000 people ought to be able to get trash pickup more cheaply.
So the plan goes into effect. And who wins the bidding? The same numbnuts outfit who could never get my recycling done on time. And now I have no choice. And this week, three weeks into the program, they missed the entire trash pickup for half my block. Which means it's now piling up like the Berlin Wall out there as the dumbass neighbors keep piling on more.