I try very hard not to use the “n” word. “Nostalgia.” It’s depressing to say that life was better in the past. However, there is one trend that makes me long for the old days: the rising fear level among the American public — way out of proportion to the actual dangers we face. I see this firsthand because I’ve been knocking on stranger’s doors for over 30 years and I’m met with increasing paranoia and hostility.
When I started out in the private detective business, strangers were much more receptive. I was usually asked in, sometimes offered a drink, even invited to dine. However, after 9/11, the fear level skyrocketed. I thought it couldn’t get much worse, but now my visits are really freaking people out. Recently, I rang the doorbell of a large prosperous home. A teenage boy answered. I was looking for his older brother, who was a witness in an insurance claim.
The teenager left the door wide open but I knew from past experience not to enter without an invitation. The boy’s dad spotted me and immediately started screaming. He was a big guy and was accusing me of trespassing. He wouldn’t listen to a word I said and thundered that I was standing on his threshold (I wasn’t) and that I had put my hand inside his house (I didn’t). Then he lifted his phone and threatened to call the police. I encouraged him to do so.
The man put down the phone and came toward me, yelling for me to get off his property. In my younger days, I would have stood my ground. Instead, I sauntered — made sure to saunter — off his property. I wish I could say he was the exception but now he’s the rule in terms of the way I get treated.
It made me realize I’m one of the last of the door-knockers.
Nowadays, no one’s selling vacuum cleaners or encyclopedias, or anything else, door-to-door. The milkman and iceman no longer cometh; the newspaper boy doesn’t collect. The knife-sharpener and the Fuller Brush man are extinct. I guess only cops, private detectives and Jehovah’s Witnesses are still ringing the doorbells of strangers.
It’s a shame because I’m old enough to remember how pleasant the drop-in could be. Comedian Sebastien Maniscalco, a native of Arlington Heights, does a great riff on this theme. He harkens back to the days when unexpected company was welcome. He recalls his mom kept Sanka and Sara Lee on hand, just in case there was a knock.
“Company” was a big deal. The visitor would explain how he just happened to be in the neighborhood while the kids couldn’t wait to see that coffee cake finally cut. Today, Sebastien countered, if the doorbell rings, everyone hits the floor and does the army crawl to peek at what strange creature has approached their castle.
I loved the drop-in. I had an aunt who did it often. Her only warning was a musical “You-who” from the front door. Now, no one does it. We’re huddling in fear inside our homes. This is making my job increasingly dangerous. If I were working in one of those “stand-your-ground” states, I’d be full of bullet holes by now.
So this Memorial Day, when we honor the sacrifices made for our freedom, let’s ask ourselves. Is this the kind of freedom people fought and died for? The kind of “freedom” where we distrust our fellow citizens at home and in public places?
Back when we faced much greater dangers, FDR said, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”
He was onto something.
John Rice is a columnist/private detective, who has seen his business and family thrive in Forest Park. He thoroughly enjoys life in the village and still gets a thrill smelling Red Hots, watching softball and strolling through cemeteries.