Robert C. Koehler: Reclaiming a lost sense of community
The first time it happened was bad enough.
“It” amounted to this: It was Wednesday afternoon, I had finished my column early and walked out to my car, parked in the alley behind my house. I was on my way to an art show — very excited. I got in the car — hmmm, why is it so cold in here? — began backing out, what’s that? It looked like there was something on my rear window. I got out, walked around back. Oh my God! My rear window has been smashed in! What I saw was a fragment of broken glass dangling in a corner.
Was this a robbery? I had two umbrellas in the back seat; they were still there. Nothing had been taken. Apparently it was plain old idiotic vandalism.
I almost drove down to the art show anyway, but soon enough realized I needed to get this fixed, so I swung back, drove over to my car-repair place. “What year is your car?” I almost couldn’t remember. Oh yeah, 2009, Toyota Corolla. They ordered a rear window, which arrived a day later. And the window was installed. Problem solved, life goes on.
My life was in quasi-normal mode for about a week. Yeah, I felt violated, but this was hardly the first time. Shit happens. I couldn’t avoid thinking about it from time to time, feeling a burst of outrage. What good does that do? The best thing — the only thing — to do is get back to work: read, dig for truth, write. And occasionally I’d walk out back, where I was still parking the car, and check on things. I’ve lived in this Chicago neighborhood for forty-plus years. I’d never felt the need to be so concerned. But everything was fine.
And then on Saturday morning, ten days after incident #1, I was planning to go grocery shopping. Oh my God . . .
The brand new rear window, in place for barely a week, was smashed in again. Crowbar? Baseball bat? This was different. This time I felt lost beyond lost, washed ashore in unknown territory. My community, my world — which I take so much for granted — is no longer safe? No longer livable?
This time it felt, not random but . . . personal. Who? Why?
I reported it to the police. They gave me a case number. The 911 operator asked me if I’d been feuding with any of my neighbors. No way! The neighbors I know, many for decades, are wonderful people. The ones I don’t know, I simply don’t know. But . . . as I say, something felt personal about this, even though that made no sense. I felt “chosen” — the winner of Shirley Jackson’s lottery.
Then I called one of my neighbors, explained what had just happened, asked her if she’d had any problems out in the alley. Our brief conversation — we spoke for maybe ten minutes — was stunning. I felt an inner bubble of tears. Tears of joy! She was so caring and concerned, so sympathetic, I felt something awaken in me, though I wasn’t sure what. It felt like something long forgotten.
Slowly I started to remember. This is community! And I thought about how little I had valued it, especially in recent years, as I grew ever more reclusive; indeed, since the onset of the pandemic, I’d started thinking of myself as Bob the Hermit: widower, bachelor, loner. I lived where I lived, but where I lived stopped seeming relevant to my life. I’d begun taking my community for granted as much as I took my car for granted.
Now, suddenly, I realized how valuable and crucial — how much a part of me — my sense of community is. It doesn’t matter that I live in a big city. Community is personal. We’re in it together. Your safety is my safety.
The next day I read about the Christmas parade in Waukesha . . .
“It was supposed to be a celebratory night in Waukesha, Wis.,” the New York Times informed us. “Dance groups and high school bands and politicians were marching along Main Street in the Milwaukee suburb’s Christmas parade, which was returning from a pandemic hiatus.
“Then, just before 4:40 p.m., the driver of a red SUV stormed past barricades and barreled through the crowd, striking dozens.”
Six people were killed. Forty or more injured. What?
It’s not as though my bashed-in window compares with this. But I couldn’t help but feel a kindred connection: This was a community-shattering moment. A Christmas parade! Unity, innocence, vulnerability. Then, out of nowhere, a shadow roars its engine, crashing wildly — simply because it can — into the vulnerable heart of the community. I absorbed the news unprotected by a sense of abstraction. The world will never be the same . . . not for those who live there.
I’m still aswim in a sense of lostness. What is safety? I may be less certain of this than I’ve ever been. The answer isn’t more brick walls, more armaments, the disappearance of trust. It’s impossible to live without trust.
But I’m parking my car on the street right now, not behind the house. Is it safe anywhere? My sense of distrust is an open wound, which I feel right now as I write.
I’ll call my neighbor.