Not all neighborhoods are the same. Rock Island Illinois is not what it seems. Such is life. Deep in the backwoods of rural Georgia as you ride your bike you can smell pine trees; you can smell smoked neckbones and fresh baked pies as you approach your grand-aunt’s house, lug your bicycle up the steps and park it on the back porch.
You can knock, so as not to startle her, and then walk right in and take a seat. Her door is never locked. You can safely bet that both lemonade and sweet tea are on hand. You can fall asleep after “supper” and the cicadas will make sure you awaken just in time to pedal home as darkness settles.
But in the Quad Cities of western Illinois, the cicadas signify a different type of curfew. They start singing when it seems darkness is still hours away. They sing of caution. Looking at the evening landscape, there’s a glorious view of Iowa in the distance. The sun sets slowly and the sky is still bright with a myriad of colors from purple to pink and grey.
You can see increased foot traffic each evening if you watch. At dusk you can smell dog food from Davenport’s Nestle Purina factory. You can hear sirens. You can hear the pop popping of pistols. And each night; whether it’s a domestic dispute, a shooting or a killing, it’s something. Until it’s you.
Your bicycle, parked on your porch just a second ago, is gone. A thief has climbed 13 steep steps, then four more to get to your porch, walked past your unlocked front door, grabbed your bike, lugged it off the porch and back down the first four steps and presumably ridden it down a steep, grassy hill and into the night. The audacity! You grasp your neck and thank God that all he wanted was the bike.
When darkness rises in Rock Island, you had better bring your bike; and more so your children and your self, inside. Although Chicago is a three-hour drive away, the Quad Cities have the same turbulence: The same wind. The gang culture, poverty, drug infestation and violence that typifies Chicago is mirrored here. Killings, shootings, police chases, fights and other violent phenomena persist, a mere five blocks away from police headquarters. It’s as if the neighborhood is an experiment to ascertain the dynamics of poverty and violence; a project made up of roughly five square miles of beautiful architecture interspersed with shacks.
And if you can’t accept the fact that someone robbed you, you can contact the police. You don’t even have to call them because they ride by often enough that you can flag them down. They will give you a report for your records and promise to contact you if someone drops a bike with said serial number in their laps.
Once you check the pawnshops to no avail, you figure the thief still has your bike, so you sit on your porch and wait. You drink your “pop.” You smell the dog food. You watch and listen as kids on your sidewalk talk the grittiest, most gutter talk you’ve ever heard. You are flabbergasted. They don’t care if you hear.
You watch the neighborhood and you can’t understand how so many volatile people happen to live in the same ten-block area. You wonder why they don’t move. You will move, you decide, if you are still alive at the end of your lease.
You sit on the porch and observe. You enjoy the sun and scrutinize every bicycle that comes within a mile of your house. You jump in your car and give chase to get a closer look at bicyclists who seem to be “avoiding” your street. No luck. Then, you search for your missing bicycle on Craigslist because it’s been a week and still; no sign of your bike.
You watch as a speeding car whizzes by, followed by a police cruiser, followed by three detective cars, followed by a K-9 unit–again.
You marvel at the quaint look of the neighborhood. It isn’t an inner-city. It’s a town. And it’s out of control. You look to your left and see a massive church built in 1912. You see the official look of its campus; the lavender and burnt oranges and crimsons in its lush and intricate landscaping, and marvel at its huge, brassy bell tower. It’s gorgeous! Stained glass windows; expensive cars parked in front. What a nice street this is!
You look to the right and see your daughter’s elementary school; built in 1858. It has two stories. It’s a nice school. Then you see teenagers in its parking lot; twerking and consequently drawing a crowd that includes adult males. You decide that your kids should come inside. You hear the cicadas. You turn on your porch light, sit back down in your rocker and resume your watch. You glare at anyone who makes eye contact without speaking. You wonder why everyone looks like a thief, drug addict or some other class of suspect. You wonder where the friendly people are. You are an Englishman in New York. You watch each and every walker and rider until one day, you see a bike in the distance and you get chills. It’s yours.
When you see your bicycle, you approach the subject as stealthily and swiftly as possible, and also as aggressively as you can, and you take it. You say, “Hey! That’s my [insert a comfortable expletive] bike!” And you reach out and grab it by the handlebars. At this point the rider jumps off; knowing he’s been caught. You get on your bike. You ask the subject, “Where the [insert appropriate second expletive] did YOU get MY bike. When he admits someone “gave it to him,” you act as you see fit.
You ride your bike home. You hope the thief is neither willing to kill nor be killed over the whole matter. You don’t park your bike outside again. Not even for a second. You wait for your heart rate to normalize. You hope it’s over. You think of how much you appreciate the good things about the Quad Cities, and you devise a master plan to purchase real estate on “Top of the Hill” where wealthier and wiser Rock Islanders dwell. You wonder if it’s possible to write your way to the top of the hill.