Mister Ashcroft’s Neighborhood

by Susan Davis

“There are Lots of Neighbors on Anxiety Street.”

(Illinois proverb, 20th-century)

Dear Mr. Ashcroft,

I am writing to you hoping that I can become a charter member of your TIPS neighborhood surveillance program. So you’ll know my qualifications, I’m a fiber optic cable installer for a major telecommunications company, and I spend a lot of time around other people’s houses, driveways and yards. Also, my granddaddy was a Pinkerton in Chicago, and my dad turned in his high school history teacher in 1953. I hope you’ll think I’m eligible for this work. I understand it’s a strictly state-run volunteer operation.

Ever since you made your announcement, I’ve been watching the Davis house on the 600 block of Kankakee Avenue here in Urbana. We’ve been installing and repairing on Kankakee for a few months now, and it’s just like you said in your testimony: we don’t really need to notice anything, sometimes it’s all right there if you just look.

External observation: Mrs. Davis goes out for walk every morning at 6 AM. She comes back at 7 AM. But she never picks up the newspaper. She just steps right over it. At 7:15, Mr. Davis comes out and gets the paper. It’s almost as if Mrs. Davis isn’t allowed to touch the Wall Street Journal. Isn’t that strange? It could be some kind of signal.

There’s a gray box on the front doorstep. Every Sunday night, a note is placed in this box. Every Monday at 4:30 AM, a note is picked up. I got a look at it once. It read “two gallons 2%, no ice cream, thanx.” Sure it’s a milk box, but who knows what else Mr. Milkman is dropping off?

There’s a yew hedge around the front yard with an alternating green/rust/green pattern — it took me a while to realize that this might be Morse code.

On the back porch railing, a woman’s two-piece bathing suit hangs for days at a time. Usually the bottom half is on the left, the top is on the right. But some days it switches to bottom on the right, top on the left. A sign? I feel a little embarrassed examining a lady’s bathing suit this closely, but I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t think it was my duty.

Five or six little boys, not all Americans, are digging a deep tunnel in the middle of the back lawn.

Neighbors: seemed very busy, but a resource to exploit. Remember the old saying “a neighbor is someone who knows more about your business than you do.”

Inside observations: (This was harder, but I made friends with the babysitter.) Babysitter thinks family is odd. There is no computer access inside the house; no modem. The children do not have Instant Messenger. Mr. Davis heard to say something about “keep the goddamn phone lines free.”

Mr. Davis does most of the laundry, and all of the dishes.

Mrs. Davis favors a grocery store owned by an Iraqi. She buys her vegetables from a Chinese woman. She will not buy meat from the local chain because she claims “it’s irradiated.” Paranoid?

Kids complain bitterly about music. Constant playing of only one Van Morrison CD. (A ritual? A signal?) Tenacious D. not allowed. Kids limited to half-hour of TV a day; no PlayStation. If kids aren’t getting adequate cultural orientation, possibly we could coordinate with Child Protective Services, to allow a closer look.

Other odd goings-on: A gangly, somewhat unkempt man comes over about once a week in a white truck to meet with Mrs. Davis. They always follow the same routine: they talk intensely next to a large rhododendron bush. Sometimes they examine rhododendron bush. Sometimes they argue. Mrs. Davis was heard to say “Viburnum is just not going to do it.” Could Viburnum be some uncooperative associate?

Today, a man named Marv spent four hours cursing in the crawl space under the kitchen porch. I couldn’t hear what the cursing had to do with, something to do with “parts.” He does this about once every two month. Mrs. Davis takes a tolerant attitude toward obscenity.

Swiss, French, Chinese, Indian, Belgian, Malaysian, and Barbadian children come and go at all hours. Mixed-race couples drop by. Pacifists drop by. Librarians drop by. Retired particle physicists drop by. Male high school students dressed in evening gowns drop by.

Other peculiar behavior: Mr. and Mrs. Davis are polite to Mormon missionaries and rude to Sierra Club missionaries. How to explain?

Conclusion: Sir, I think you’ll agree that if nothing is really wrong on Kankakee Avenue, nothing is quite right, either. This bunch of odd ducks bears closer watching, especially when you consider where they live — only four blocks away from the largest mosque in Central Illinois. I hope I can enlist in your program. You can count on my full support. Sincerely,

(Anonymous)

PS: Ran into one slight problem you might want to know about. The babysitter says these people read a lot of books and magazines, so I took the initiative to ask the local librarian if she had run a patron record check on them. She got uneasy and told me that she’d be violating The Patriot Act if she answered that question, yes or no, for me or anyone else. Does that mean that you guys at Justice are allowed to ask her to run record checks, but she is not allowed to tell anyone, even loyal citizens, that you’ve asked her? I think more coordination is needed in the library/TIPS interface. Just a suggestion.

PPS: I decoded the pattern in the hedge: I think it reads “COURGE MOM.”

Susan Davis teaches at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign. She is the author of Spectacular Nature.

She can be reached at sgdavis@uiuc.edu

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