Neighborhood Watch

Someone’s setting fires around Arboria Park, under the noses of the neighborhood watch and police sergeant Corky McAllister. Could it be affable dad Carl, who has a mysterious illness? Iraq War vet Ryan, suffering from PTSD? Grumpy Mr. Wong, determined to rid the neighborhood of beer-swilling teens? Or the punk-rock slackers of We Are 138? Cassidy can’t start her novel or finish her mental breakdown in peace until she finds the perpetrator.

Cassidy, 2004

The official start of summer is still four days away and already it feels like August. The humidity’s a tease, since it hasn’t rained in a month. The petunias I planted by the front and back doors have shriveled even though I try to water them every day. They were an attempt at cheer and normalcy (like my plan to thoroughly clean and maybe even decorate this four-room duplex on Pine Court) that just didn’t take. As the days lengthen leading up to the solstice, the extra light taunts me: Do something. Go outside. Walk to the store. Walk anywhere. Write something. Anything.

But I end up on the couch or on the bed, with the air conditioner and TV on but not paying much attention to either, until an urge overtakes me to run out the door. Because, as I’ve learned during this miserable June, it’s quite possible to be kind of agoraphobic and get cabin fever at the same time.

The clouds started to gather last summer. Things had seemed good at first. Jonny and I went to the beach on weekends and helled around DC; Jonny working hard at the Washington Post and me finishing up my MFA. It was Jonny who’d been unsatisfied, bored, and full of complaints. Two of his high school buddies were serving in Afghanistan and regularly sent him stories he couldn’t do anything with, because he was on the local desk and the Post had people to cover the war, after all.

In the fall he’d blown up, quit his job, and announced his intention to go to the Middle East, officially as a news service stringer, but really, we both knew, to practice being Ernest Hemingway and Walter Winchell and every other kind of throwback writer/journalist/adventurer he could think of. Jonny dreams of wandering the world with a camera and backpack; of slugging back whiskey and smoking cigars with soldiers of fortune and ex-pats and spies. It was part of what had charmed me about him at first.

Fast-forward to January and Jonny was embedded in Afghanistan, in danger every minute and loving it. Unable to afford the DC metro area on my own, with no plans, and a bad feeling that the Big D (my personal stalker) was hot on my trail, I’d washed up in Arboria Park (near Jonny’s hometown), alone, where rent was cheap and there were no real distractions. “You can finally start your novel,” Jonny had urged. “It’s good that it’s boring there. I’ll send you some money every month, so you can hold on to the place. And I can write my own book there when I come back…”

Jonny had made a perfunctory offer not to go when it became apparent that I was heading for another depressive episode, but I knew if I’d somehow persuaded him to stay, I could look forward to a miserable breakup in a few months. At least this way we’re still nominally together, but it’s also kind of a trial separation. There are emails, one or two phone calls. For someone who could be killed any second, he’s having the time of his life. While I sit mired in guilt over doing nothing.

It’s about ten a.m. and my beagle, Buddy, knows the routine. He’s at the front door. I follow him outside. As he sniffs the maple tree, I wander around the side of the house.

Carl’s there, like I knew he’d be. He lives in the other side of the duplex. We may not be good for much over here on Pine Court, but we’re punctual. As usual he’s smoking a cigarette. Carl has some kind of neurological condition; he can’t work anymore because he gets these violent headaches and has to stay inside, shades drawn, in bed for the duration. Because of that, he loves to be outdoors when he’s feeling okay. He knows smoking isn’t good for him, but he can’t quit. He won’t smoke indoors or within ten feet of his precious little toddler, Tanisha. Carl’s a house husband/daycare daddy. His wife, Diandra, is a nurse at the hospital. Carl lives for Tanisha. She’s playing in her sandbox, like she often does. Sometimes she’s in her baby pool. Carl watches her like a hawk, puts sunscreen on her, plays ball, and even lets her smear pink lipstick all over his face. They walk around the neighborhood a lot, T in the stroller or, lately, her cute red kiddie car.

Carl throws his cigarette butt aside. “Mornin’, Ms. Cassidy.” There’s a trace of the South in his voice, and an inability to call anybody by their first name without attaching a Ms. or Mr. It bothers me, makes me feel like I’m Scarlett O’Hara interacting with a self-effacing field hand, but it’s just Carl’s way.

“Hey, Carl. What’s new?”

“Quiet again. Too quiet. Nobody’s out at night when it’s this hot, at first. All inside with the AC. But you watch, they’ll be out, up to no good soon.”

He’s been saying this for a couple of days now. He hollers, “Come on, T,” to Tanisha, and she scrambles over to accompany us to the corner. Buddy, finished with his business, comes along.

Mr. Wong, who lives in a single-family house facing Cedar Street, is in his front yard, poking at some weeds with a hoe. He nods as we approach. Mr. Wong never says much.

“Working before it gets too hot?” Carl asks. Mr. Wong nods again.

I hear a screen door slam nearby. I don’t even have to look. It’s Ryan, who lives in the duplex directly across the court from me. He owns both halves, bought them as an investment before he was deployed in Iraq. He’s battling PTSD, taking a couple of college courses, trying to get himself together. He’ll give me a ride when I have to be somewhere, accompany me to do whatever I have to do, say he has my back. We often compare notes about what his shrink at the VA says versus mine at the clinic. I think helping me makes him feel less screwed up. So we each serve a purpose.

Ryan walks over. He pets Buddy and swings T up in the air. “Hey, what’s new?”

“Mornin’, Ryan,” Carl says. Recently he dropped the “Mr.” with Ryan, for some reason. “Just saying, it’s too quiet.”

Mr. Wong, who will always be Mr. Wong to all of us, jabs at a root. Now that we have a quorum, he speaks. “Those teenagers, down at the playground again. I found some beer cans.”

“Well, they’re not noisy, they’re bothering anybody yet, and they don’t stay there all night,” Ryan says. “We’ll keep an eye out, but I think they’re harmless.”

People call us the Neighborhood Watch. We’re among the few adults not at work during the day, and we take the night shift too. Carl has insomnia, so he’s outside smoking at all hours. Ryan gets restless and goes out walking or driving around. Mr. Wong and I are both light sleepers, prone to wake up if a car slows down or speeds up or kids make too much noise roaming the street. Most of them know now to keep it down if they want to avoid us. We even negotiated a deal with We Are 138, the college students who throw punk-rock shows in their basement at 138 Cedar, so they can let it rip until eleven thirty or so on weekends but are responsible for making their guests leave quietly. When somebody actually is up to no good (the all-night rager, complete with nudity and fireworks, across from Mr. Wong’s; the drunk driver who hit six parked cars in a row on Cedar; the dude smacking his girlfriend around in the street; the kids tagging people’s porches with spray paint), one of us, usually Carl or Mr. Wong, phones the police. We’re on a first-name basis with Sgt. Corky McAllister, the unfortunate state trooper who handles most calls in Arboria Park. We’re not in town, we’re no-man’s-land, so the state gets stuck with us while the politicians wrangle about whether the county needs its own police force.

The deal’s the same pretty much every day. We review the previous night’s activities (or lack thereof); maybe chew on a couple of news stories (Mr. Wong and I are particularly avid readers of the local paper). Carl shares any street gossip he’s extracted from Ms. Jennifer or Ms. Monique, whose kids play with T sometimes. Then we drift apart for a few hours. Around dusk we may gather again, see if anybody needs anything. Mrs. Wong is home from work by then, so sometimes she joins us, but she’s even quieter than her husband. We say good night, go in, and turn on the lights. And wait. For noise, for trouble, the bat signal. Whatever.


The night of the solstice, I can’t sleep. The air conditioner is on, but I still feel sticky. I kick Buddy off the bed, then feel bad and invite him back up. The AC deadens outside noise; usually it makes me sleep more soundly. I’m thinking of getting a white-noise machine for when it gets cold again. I wonder if Jonny will be okay with that. Ryan put central air in his house because it’s quieter; the roar of a window unit reminds him too much of the trucks in the supply convoy he used to run, or the generators they used. Maybe Jonny will be screwed up when he comes back, I worry. He’s seen a lot of shit. Ryan says he was fine while he was there, watching people get blown up or shot and never knowing if a kid or a woman with a baby was going to throw a bomb at him. It hit him when he got back, he told us. When things got normal again.

I get up and look out the side window, the one without the AC unit in it, for no reason. I see a lit cigarette in the darkness. Carl. It moves away and disappears.

I go back to bed. Constant insomnia must be awful. It’s rare for me; I’d sleep all the damn time when I’m depressed, if I could. The only thing that gets me out of bed sometimes is that I have to pee. Or Buddy does.

I’m dozing off when I hear a blaring air horn over the AC, and suddenly red lights flash. Through the gap between Mr. Wong’s house and the one next to it, I see a fire engine race by. What the hell, the rest of the gang will be up; I might as well be too.

I throw on some clothes and step outside. I don’t see Carl, but Ryan’s coming out, and even the woman who lives in the other half of his house. We catch up to both Wongs on Cedar, and a half dozen other folks. The engine, two police cars, and another firetruck are parked at the end of the street, where it meets Birch near the playground.

That’s where the fire is. Someone set the wooden play castle ablaze, and the swing set too. The firefighters have it out by the time we reach the end of the street, but the stuff is ruined.

Carl’s there. He phoned it in, he says. Went out for a smoke and saw the flames, was afraid the woods were on fire.

People stand around and talk for a while, even after the firefighters leave. A couple of cops are still there (not Corky this time), and Carl and some guy from over on Birch are giving them details of what they saw. It always takes something like this to get everybody talking and being friendly. Mostly folks around here just go about their own business, but a few wrecked cars or a burning swing set and it’s like a block party.


We post-mortem the whole thing again the next day, a little later than usual because some of us slept in after all the excitement. Mr. Wong insists it’s those kids he saw with the beer cans; Ryan counters that they wouldn’t burn up the stuff they messed around with and sat on. Carl’s upset because Tanisha liked to be pushed on the swings.

Jonny emails to say he won’t be in touch for a while; he’s going off in the hills. I hold Buddy and weep.


The homeowners’ association takes up a collection for new playground equipment. Things stay quiet for a few days, except for Carl breaking up a fight between two teenage girls. Ryan has a couple of bad days and calls his shrink about upping his Prozac dosage.

On the night of the 25th, I leave the windows open because there’s a nice breeze. I fall asleep easily and dream that Jonny shows up with a Pulitzer Prize and says he’s leaving me for Britney Spears.

Buddy wakes me up, pawing at my face. I smell smoke and run to the window. It seems to be coming from outside. Two fires in a week? I get dressed and run out again.

This time the field behind our court is burning. It used to be farmed but the owners are trying to sell it for development. It’s just a lot of scrubby grass and weeds, and it’s been so dry lately.

The Jamaican dude at the end of the court has his garden hose hooked up, but it’s too short. Carl appears. “I’ll get mine! Ms. Cassidy, get Ryan. He has one too.”

We string together three hoses. Everybody in the neighborhood is out now, and Mr. Wong and Ryan are hooking up another set of hoses. The punks from We Are 138 run out their back door with buckets of water, stumbling in the dark and sloshing it all over themselves.

We put out one section of fire before the firetrucks show up and deal with the rest. A police car arrives, and this time it’s Corky.

“It’s the second fire this week,” I tell him.

“It’s those kids with the beer,” Mr. Wong insists.

Corky shakes his head. “If it were closer to the road, it could just be somebody throwing a cigarette out of a car window. But not in the middle of the field.”

He takes Carl aside to talk. They’re used to each other.

Carl hadn’t been outside when this one started, though, so he didn’t know any more than the rest of us. The fire marshal comes over and says the origin appeared to be closer to Oakley Estates, the development on the other side of the field, and it had burned toward us.


Now everybody’s edgy. Carl gets a headache and stays inside for two days. Ryan’s snappish. Mr. Wong’s giving the stinkeye to every teen and college student who has the misfortune to wander by. And I’m not sleeping well. Depression has given way to anxiety. Panic attacks will come next, if I’m not careful. I force myself to walk to the shopping center to buy food, sweating all the way even though it’s not especially hot. I don’t ask Ryan to come along because he’s not in much better shape.

The penultimate night of the month, I’m lying awake again. There’s heat lightning on the horizon, but no storms or rain are predicted. Carl and Ryan have gotten their shit together and are going out a few times a night to patrol the backyard perimeter along Cedar and loop around Pine and Spruce.

I feel a buzzing in my head and my heart starts pounding. Buddy whines, and I sit up. I’m not surprised when I hear yelling outside a moment later.

This time it’s a wooden shed, behind the house next to We Are 138. It’s out by the time the firetrucks arrive because 138 have bought themselves a garden hose.

Corky shows up with another cop. By now, we all know the drill. The homeowner is alternately cursing in Spanish at the scorched shed and thanking 138, who stand there grinning shyly. They’re not used to being the neighborhood heroes.

Carl and Diandra are talking to Ryan’s tenant when the cop who isn’t Corky walks up to Carl. “Mr. Evans, please come with us.” He grabs Carl’s arm.

“I told you everything I know, officer.” Carl is polite as always. “Me and Ryan walked around at two, and everything was okay. We were going out again at four…”

The cop pulls on him, roughly. “Yeah, you’re always outside, and smoking like a chimney, according to everyone around here. Seems a little weird, huh? You’re coming down to the station.”

Diandra, holding T (who’s somehow managed to sleep through most of the excitement), asks, “Is Carl being charged?”

The cop flips out. “He will be by morning, if I have any say about it.” He pushes Carl. “Get moving or I’ll cuff you in front of your wife.”

Carl immediately kneels on the ground and raises both hands. The cop whips out the handcuffs, grabs Carl’s arms, and then kicks him. “Stand up.”

Diandra’s crying now, and people are running over. I step in front of the cop. “Well, is he being charged or not? Why Carl? Because he’s black? Because he smokes and has insomnia? You might as well charge me. Hell, I’m mentally ill. I go to the clinic downtown. Ryan’s got PTSD. Why not us? You have as much evidence…”

Corky walks over and touches my arm. I pull away and yell, “Get your hands off me, Corky. You know me, you know Carl. This is bullshit.”

Corky’s eyes are cold, and he’s all business. “Ms. Swanson, we are taking Mr. Evans in for questioning. Nobody’s being charged with anything yet, but we would prefer to do this without interference. Please step back before this gets ugly.”

“It’s already ugly.” Mr. Wong speaks up. “What right have you?”

Corky doesn’t answer. His fascist partner pushes Carl into the police car, but at least he holds Carl’s head down so he doesn’t hit it on the car roof.

We’re up the rest of the night with Diandra. She puts T back to bed and collapses at her kitchen table, sobbing. I put on a pot of coffee. Ryan takes charge.

“Diandra, you need a lawyer. I know a guy. Soon as it’s morning, we’ll call him, get Carl bailed out if we need to, find out what they’re doing.”

Diandra nods, calmer now. She calls her sister in town, asks her to come get T when it’s light. The Wongs assure her that if she’s worried about bail money or paying the lawyer, we’ll all chip in.


Carl’s back home by noon. They badgered him about his walks and the cigarettes and finally let him go. Ryan’s lawyer friend went with Diandra to pick him up and said to call if anything else happened.

Another part of the field is set afire that night.

Carl doesn’t even leave his yard. He’s been in the house all night; Diandra is prepared to swear to it. A different set of cops respond, and they don’t even talk to us.

I sleep late again in the morning, waking when I hear Diandra’s car start. I assume she slept late too and is heading for work.

I stay inside all day. Thunderstorms are predicted, and it’s dark and close-feeling. Just rain already, I think. Rain like crazy so nothing can burn.

A storm finally hits around three. Buddy goes nuts.

It clears off around five, and the sun comes out. I venture outside to check on things. Ryan comes out too, and we head for the corner without saying anything. I wait for Carl to join us, but he doesn’t. I assume he has one of his headaches.

Diandra doesn’t come home. Their house is quiet and dark as evening comes on.

Someone knocks on my door. It’s Ryan. He looks shaken.

“Cops came and arrested Carl this morning, while we were all asleep. Dude over on Cedar saw it, walking his dog. Says two cops led him out and put him in a car. Few minutes later, Diandra puts T in her car and takes off. I assume she must be with her sister.”

“Call your lawyer friend,” I tell him.

“Already did. Left a message.”

We head over to the Wongs’ house, and we all stand around in the yard, feeling helpless. Then I decide the hell with it.

“I’m calling Corky, personally. He left his card with me once.” I start back toward my house.

“Cassidy, wait.” Ryan looks awful. “He won’t tell you anything. And—I can’t believe I’m saying this—maybe we should wait and see…”

“I can’t believe you would say that either,” I say. Mr. Wong mumbles something about the kids with the beer cans and how the cops won’t listen to him. I go home and call Corky. I get his voice mail and leave a message, trying to be polite and businesslike, but I’m furious. At Corky, even at Ryan. Maybe Ryan’s the one hiding something. Or maybe he’s right, and Carl’s been fooling us all.

I can’t even pretend to sleep, although I’m exhausted. I lie awake, feeling incredibly vulnerable. It’s cooler now, after the storm. I hope the field is too wet to burn.

I finally sleep for a couple of hours toward morning, then Buddy wakes me to go out. I don’t see anyone, and then I stay inside again. Corky doesn’t return my call.

Despite my anxiety, I do fall asleep when night falls. I’m fried.

And then Buddy wakes me again. This time all the yelling and red lights are coming from over on Spruce Court, behind Ryan’s. By the time I’m outside, both Wongs are there and Ryan is running out of his house and motioning us to follow him over to Spruce.

The firetrucks are in front of an empty duplex, one side of which is on fire. It’s almost out, though.

And Corky McAllister and Trooper Fascist have a young man down on the ground. Fascist has his knee pressed against the man’s back. I’ve never seen him before.

The guy gets put in the police car, none too gently. Corky walks over to us.

“We got him. Saw him run from the house, tackled him in the field. Had it staked out for the last couple nights. I knew this guy would escalate, maybe try a house next, and we couldn’t take any more chances.”

Before we can say anything Diandra’s car drives up and she and Carl and T get out, smiling. Carl comes over and shakes Corky’s hand. “So, who was it?”

Corky grins. “Kid named Jared Vanderwende. I talked to Matt Halloran a couple days ago. He’s head of emergency services and coaches my softball team. Carl here and I—” he slaps Carl on the shoulder, “—came up with an idea to confuse the perp, and Matt gave me a lead to follow. Said where there’s smoke, there’s a Vanderwende. Crazy family, lived around here for years. Some of them are pretty respectable—you’ve heard of Vanderwende Realty? But others have been on the police blotter for three generations now. Sure enough, kid has a firebug uncle who’s in the slammer, so I thought there might be another one around. Did some digging, and those 138 kids said they’d kicked a Jared Vanderwende out of a show once for making trouble, and he waved a lighter at them and threatened to torch the place. Kid’s renting a room over in Oakley Estates. That’s why Carl and Ryan never saw anything; he was coming from that side, maybe up through the woods.”

Carl smiles and puts his arm around Diandra. “I was kinda disappointed y’all slept through my fake arrest. We wanted the neighborhood to kick up a fuss, hoped the word would get back to the guy.”

“We’ve been staying at my sister’s,” Diandra says. “Corky just called and told us they had their man. We didn’t want to miss it.”

“Corky, I’m sorry I gave you so much shit.” I look around to make sure Fascist is busy, talking on the radio. “But your partner’s got some issues…”

“He’s learned something,” Corky says. “When you people talk, we listen. We’ll keep listening.”


The next few weeks are pretty quiet. Ryan stays inside on the Fourth of July because he doesn’t like the fireworks. Carl has a couple of headaches. They install new equipment at the playground, and it’s not wood. The kids with the beer have found somewhere else to go. We Are 138 put on a benefit show and present the proceeds—all seventeen dollars—to the neighborhood association for its new project, putting “Neighborhood Watch Community” signs here and there around the neighborhood. Ours is on Mr. Wong’s corner.

Jonny surfaces in August. I find I’ve nearly forgotten about him.

He’s in a hotel in Cairo, waiting to fly to Germany and then home. He’s got enough material for the nonfiction book he’d planned to write, and maybe a novel too, he says. But he wants to know if I’m okay.

I write back. I’m fine. I’ve started writing a little. I’m walking around the neighborhood, meeting people. Every place has a story, after all, if you know how to look. Danger, intrigue, deceit. We have it all, right here.

An Open Letter to David Crosby & Bono & White Men Who Pontificate about the Death of Rock’n’roll

So this week David Crosby, who is no stranger to insulting other musicians on his Twitter feed, was asked about a Titus Andronicus video, “A More Perfect Union.” Crosby’s reply was thus:

He then doubled down by adding this:

He backed off a little when a Titus Andronicus fan suggested to frontman Patrick Stickles that they title their next LP “Loud Thrashing Around.”

So, David, here are my thoughts:

It’s interesting that you would use turns of phrase to insult Titus Andronicus that are straight out of the cliché playbook of parents like yours and mine, from the 1950s and 1960s. It is truly sad to see baby boomers turning into the generation that they rebelled against and swore they’d never become. You were probably fighting with your dad as he turned up his Glenn Miller LP and asked you to turn down your Chuck Berry or Bob Dylan. And yes, I know you come more from the folky end of rock, but hell, you played with Neil Young and there is a pretty blistering guitar solo on “Almost Cut My Hair” back in the day. So I know you can rock, or at least liked to in the past.

And let’s face it, there would have been no room for the folk rock of the Byrds and CSN if folk music had continued to be made up of earnest men in suits singing “Tom Dooley” and ladies with crystal-clear voices strumming along with “Barbara Allen.” It was people like Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs who ignited folk, and eventually folk rock, in the 1960s. Were you mad at Dylan when he plugged in? Did you attack Ochs for the gold lamé suit?

But let’s get back to Titus Andronicus. So maybe you can’t stand hearing blistering guitars anymore. Fair enough. Are you disavowing all the loud rock of “your” day as well? Are you saying only acoustic music counts? That’s pretty sad.

Is it because, to bring up another one of our parents’ clichés, you can’t hear what he’s singing over all that goddamned noise? If that’s it, I urge you to READ some of TA’s lyrics (Google them). Patrick Stickles is one of the finest songwriters of our day. The Monitor, the album from which “A More Perfect Union” originates, is a breathtaking compilation of songs that explore Stickles’s mental state and battles with anorexia and depression through the prism of the U.S. Civil War. That’s a pretty heady concept, and the fact that he succeeded in pulling it off (not just me talking; Google all the reviews when it came out) set a high bar for whatever he and the band did next.

One thing about the punk bands you disparage so much, David: They are meant to be heard live. I can’t tell you how many bands I had never listened to or was lukewarm about that I became ride-or-die for after seeing them live. That includes TA. I had heard and liked some of The Monitor before I saw them the first time (as their next album was coming out), but it took a live show, one of the best I’ve ever seen, to really appreciate this band. And every TA show I’ve seen since is a marvel of one kind or another. Stickles is a mercurial frontman: At one show he may remove his shirt and “move like Jagger”; at another he’s wearing sweatpants and sullenly complaining about his life (while taking it all out on the guitar and putting on a blistering set); at one he’s genial and erudite and another testy and combative. I arrived on time for a sound check at a show he did for a local radio station that is better known for playing and putting on shows by the likes of, well, David Crosby. Patrick trolled the waiting audience outside the venue by putting the band through some really great covers of classic rock songs from the 60s and 70s, but then did the usual TA set at the show itself (and won over many of the aging boomers in attendance), plus a Stones song for an encore. He can hold his own in a large venue like a true rock star and tear up a small one like a force of nature.

There is some social commentary in Patrick’s lyrics, which I know you used to like. Other songs are personal. One of my own favorites, “No Future (Part 3)” (which incidentally is always an incendiary singalong number live), lays out a description of recovering from depression with a clarity that cuts to the chase in a way the DSM-5 and William Styron could only dream of pulling off. Attend a TA show and stand up front (have those earplugs ready; there are often THREE guitars thrashing onstage) and see if you’re not jumping up and down yelling “You will always be a loser” 33 times at the end of that song.

But you may want to back off a bit if Patrick does “The Battle of Hampton Roads” for an encore. It’s easier to hear vocals if you’re not up front, and it helps if you are familiar with the lyrics ahead of time. It’s a long song (remember those jams you used to do with the guys, like “Suite Judy Blue Eyes” and “Country Girl”?) that starts out with just Patrick and a guitar and builds to a passionate crescendo that will leave you wrung out at the end. This is performance, and it is songwriting, and it is rock’n’roll. I dare you to say otherwise once you’ve seen this band live.

Of course, if you believe you’re too old and prefer yelling at clouds, go ahead. But I’m trying to give you the benefit of the doubt; maybe you haven’t been to a real rock show in a long time. Last chance, though, before you go on my Hopeless Old White Coot list for good.

My argument with Bono may be more sociological than musical, but his recent comments hit the same nerve as Crosby’s.

Bono, I think you are conflating a couple of things, for starters. “The charts” and pop are not what they were back in the 1980s and 90s. I won’t disagree there’s a lot of schlock out there, and it is easy to argue that there used to be more room for different kinds of chart hits in the old days, like during the MTV era when U2 came to prominence. But the absence of rock’n’roll in this limited sphere does not mean it is gone or dead or not any good anymore or any of the other crap I hear from older white men ALL THE TIME. Rock is back where it belongs: underground, in smaller venues, with passionate players and believers.

U2 are among the last of the great stadium/arena rockers. But frankly arenas helped “kill” rock in the first place. Henry Rollins put it best in a recent appearance. He’s from the same generation as you and I, Bono, and he went to those arena shows as a teen, hoping for transcendence. He loved the records and identified with the artists and longed to complete the circle through attending a show. Instead, he and I, and maybe you, ended up in nosebleed seats somewhere craning to see the band, surrounded by drunks who might as well have stayed in the parking lot tailgating for all the connection that had with the concert. We didn’t feel the love of either the band or our peers; it was, indeed, simply a “show.”

You posed the problem around the concept of “anger.” Yes, anger drove much of rock and is what drove many of us to embrace it. Not just “young men,” though. We young women had to make do, in many cases. We couldn’t express our anger or acknowledge it or even dare to strum an electric guitar unless we were prepared to be total warriors (and be accused of making music that was “girly”–I can’t believe you said something so openly misogynist).  So we filtered our anger through that of the “young men” you celebrate, who were expressing some of our feelings for us–lyrically or through the sound of a guitar. And for what? So Bono can tell us our presence in the scene is, was, and will ever be nonexistent or suspect, because the anger of (probably white) young men is all music is or should be about?

And you mischaracterize hip-hop, or rather you view it through the same 1980s/90s lens as you do rock. There is controversy in hip-hop over the many directions it has taken away from the “pure anger” of its origins. There are old-school rappers who don’t think much of the current generation; just as there are new innovators who are taking the work of their forebears to new heights. Anger drives some of it, but there are plenty of other emotions at work as well. And it is not solely a “young man’s” outlet either. Women in the early hip-hop days may have had to fight for the mic, as did women rock’n’rollers, but nowadays there are plenty of artists identifying as female who are standing on those women’s shoulders to put themselves front and center in the scene. If they share the mic with a male artist it is as collaborator and peer, not as a voice used to sweeten a track. And some of them are angry as fuck.

And, as I tried to express to Mr. Crosby, there are plenty of angry men and women, boys and girls, and people who don’t identify as either gender, of all ages, making some great music of all kinds that doesn’t appear on the charts or get recorded by major labels. They may be playing in basements or tiny bars or back rooms or on the Internet, and they may want to go beyond that someday but not necessarily to play Madison Square Garden or a football stadium. They know their audiences personally. They interact with them. Audience and artist are part of the same whole. You may remember that from your early days and even miss it at times.

All hail the end of arena rock! It’s tough for fans of you or Springsteen because we know we are unlikely to see you in the kind of venue that would give us the transcendence we seek (although Bruce is trying to do that onstage in New York now). It’s probably tough for you in some ways as well. I doubt I’ll ever get to shake your hand, Bono, or tell you in person how much I love “All I Want Is You” and “Desire.” But I get to shake Patrick Stickles’ hand instead, and hang out with some of my other favorite bands, and know that if I drop them a fan-girl email they’ll probably respond patiently and kindly (and gratefully). Sure, I’m kicking myself I didn’t see you in the 80s because I’d sworn off arena shows. I spent a 20-year exile from live music because I fell for the fallacy of charts and arenas and rock as mainstream entertainment at football games. I went back in the basement some time ago, and life and music have never been better.

The only fly in the ointment, Bono and David, is I occasionally run across white men there who identify themselves as “old” (whether they’re in their 30s or my contemporaries at 60), who want to lecture me on what rock is or should be or how there’s an age limit or a time limit or gender limit or how much better the scene was in 1968 or 1979 or 1985 or 1997 or even 2004. Not coincidentally they also have strong opinions on what “counts” as rock or hip-hop or pop or punk. It’s fine if they want to narrow the parameters of their own lives, but when they try to limit the rest of us, it’s time to speak up. I’m starting here.

Chapter 14: Stacy, 2007

2007. Arboria Park is 56 years old; Stacy is 52. She and Greg are happily living in New Jersey, near Philadelphia where they both work. Stacy has found a wonderful job, and she loves her home. But Arboria Park is never far from her thoughts.

Sophie is attending college and living in the Arboria Park house with friends when she lets her mom know some bad news: The state highway department is planning to put a road though the neighborhood, to benefit the increasing population west of town living in the luxurious subdivisions that Evelyn coveted and envied. The neighborhood association (led by Mr. Jennings, the man who helped Sophie when she was bitten by a dog) is fighting the proposals. Stacy rallies her family to help out, but as they plow through the various highway studies a friend of Autumn’s is surreptitiously passing along, they realize things do not look good for the neighborhood.

This chapter centers around a song by Living Colour, “Open Letter to a Landlord.” I played the song on repeat constantly as I wrote the final three chapters of the novel. It had popped into my mind as I drove down the street in Rodney Village, looking at the houses that had been boarded up and marked for demolition. Though the song was written about an urban environment, I think many of its lessons apply to what happens to Arboria Park in the novel, what happened to Rodney Village in real life, and what is currently occurring in my own neighborhood and our area of the county. (We are losing our last significant green space; the county had an opportunity to buy it for parkland, which we lack, but did not do so.) Vernon Reid of Living Colour was writing about racism and classism in this song; these things are the reason why some people and some neighborhoods have more clout than others and can fight off things like road projects or development (and fight for them if they affect areas other than their own). Urban neighborhoods are destroyed in favor of gentrification; or the needs of aging suburban developments are pitted against those of newer, wealthier enclaves; farmland and wilderness are sold to the highest bidder despite the preponderance of vacant, unused commercial and industrial properties and empty houses in existing neighborhoods. Who benefits? Usually not the people who are already there.

Once again I thank Vernon Reid and Living Colour for the privilege of using some of their lyrics in the book. I have had the pleasure of seeing this song performed live from the front row and talking to lead singer Corey Glover about it a couple of years ago as I was writing the book. My respect for them as musicians and commentators on issues of racism, poverty, class, and the power of music knows no bounds.

Chapter 13: Stacy, 1999

As the 20th century draws to an end, big changes are afoot for Stacy and her family. For one, her widowed mom Evelyn has been “living la vida loca”—she’s become a hoarder who isn’t taking care of herself. The family finds her an assisted-living facility that provides a lot of choices for its active residents, but Evelyn isn’t cooperating and spends all her time closed up in her room.

Meanwhile, Stacy is busy fixing up Evelyn’s house for sale and finds that she loves selling her mom’s unused possessions at the local flea market/auction. Close friend Mona also has a table nearby, and Don and his new wife sell antiques and clothing there as well. Stacy loves the multicultural hustle and bustle of her weekly days spent at the flea market.

After a busy day selling junk and defending the local Amish from the complaints of upper-middle-class interlopers, Stacy arrives home to find 11-year-old Sophie has been bitten by a loose pit bull and needs medical attention. Afterward, Stacy and Greg meet Mr. Jennings, a neighbor who helped Sophie, and try to find the dog so their daughter will not have to undergo a series of painful rabies shots. Sophie shares her awareness that part of the neighborhood has been overrun by drug dealers and other shady characters, whose landlords turn a blind eye to their activities. Stacy worries about how to sell Evelyn’s house in such a climate.

The director of the assisted-living facility shares a bit of good news: Evelyn joined in a bridge game and later had tea with one of the other participants, a doctor’s widow. Stacy is excited for her mom and offers to help Evelyn reciprocate with an elegant tea party of her own. But Evelyn is strangely reluctant to follow up on her new friendships—and when Stacy finds out why, it shatters their relationship.

Meanwhile, other bombshells are going off: Mary and JC are moving away, and Greg has a tempting job offer in Philadelphia. Stacy fears everyone, including her own family, is abandoning Arboria Park in its hour of need.

The auction house where Stacy is selling Evelyn’s household goods is based on Spence’s Bazaar, a local institution in Dover, Delaware. Unlike Evelyn, who sees the farmer’s auction and flea market as dirty, my parents were huge fans of Spence’s, and biweekly trips there were a staple for our family for many years. I still own and use a lot of housewares my mother and I bought there during my early adult years. Along with basics and junk, you can stumble across some beautiful and even valuable items. During the spring, summer, and fall, there are always tables full of fresh produce. Inside, you can find fresh meat and baked goods, as Stacy does. These pictures show Spence’s as it is nowadays:

And this one, taken by a photographer friend of my mother’s, shows the original Spence’s building, which burned down not long after the photo was taken:


Spence’s remains a hub of diversity in Dover; many races and nationalities are represented as customers and sellers. You will often see horses and buggies hitched up in the parking lot, as the local Amish and Mennonite communities are a strong presence. There’s not much you can’t find there, if you look hard enough. But local fans of the business often worry about how much longer it can keep going, as more and more area farms go out of business and are developed for housing and shopping.

Music isn’t discussed too much in this chapter (though Sophie has followed in her mom’s and cousins’ footsteps and started playing guitar). But a few songs from 1999 will suffice to illustrate Stacy’s confusion, as she navigates the hard changes confronting her family and neighborhood,

her own fight-or-flight desires,

and even the loss of her relationship with her mom.

Chapter 12: Ruby, 1993

It’s 1993 in Arboria Park, but although 16-year-old Ruby has learned from her dad to love all kinds of music, she’s not really into grunge, like her peers, or hip-hop, like her brother Jason. Like her older sister Autumn and Aunt Stacy, she likes to go to basement punk shows. Her life changes when new neighbor Duke (an older man who has been making noise complaints about Ruby’s favorite basement venue, Syrup Space) is invited to catch a show featuring a punkabilly band.

The show turns into a late-night jam session with Duke, who turns out to have been a 1950s rockabilly artist who toured with country with the likes of Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins. As Ruby sings and plays guitar with the other kids at the show, Duke singles her out and compliments her voice. Soon Ruby and her pal, Chris, are spending all their free time with Duke and his wife, soaking up lessons in music and history. She’s especially interested in women singers like Janis Martin, Wanda Jackson, and Lorrie Collins.

But as Ruby dives deep into the 1950s scene and introduces Duke to her family, she realizes that he is a product of the racism of that era. Musicians of color and women’s voices were exploited for hit records, but ultimately white men ruled the charts and reaped the benefits. She realizes she can’t face Duke again until she and her dad have researched the real roots of the music she loves and figured out her place, as a mixed-race woman, in the scene.

This chapter was the most challenging and the most fun to research and write. If I had time to become part of another scene, rockabilly would be it. Like Ruby, I especially enjoyed learning about the women and black musicians whose names are no longer household words but who helped build rock’n’roll from the ground up. Starting with Rosetta Tharpe:

Ike Turner, with his Kings of Rhythm band (credited on the record as Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats), made what was arguably billed as the first rock’n’roll record:

Janis Martin, the “female Elvis” was a teenage girl who wrote and sang rockabilly in the mid-1950s. Her career was wrecked after a secret teen marriage led to pregnancy and exile from the business.

Wanda Jackson is still going strong as a rockabilly singer:

Lorrie Collins performed with little brother guitar whiz Larry as the Collins Kids and as a solo artist:

Ruby discovers black performers like Ruth Brown:

And Ray Sharpe:

And of course there would be no rock’n’roll without Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Little Richard, and Fats Domino. Ruby confronts Duke with her research, and he acknowledges the debt owed to all these musicians—and his regrets about the past.

Ruby and Jason begin to build their own musical alliance when he makes her a birthday mixtape containing his loves and hers, along with all the music their parents have taught them about through the years. Ruby’s still ready to take on the rockabilly world—but on her own terms.


Chapter 11: Stacy, 1987

Stacy’s happily married now and expecting a child. She and Greg have moved to the section of Arboria Park near the creek, the area that was Evelyn’s dream back when Stacy was a child. But now Evelyn’s upset because Stacy isn’t living in the elegant new neighborhood Olga has moved to with her wealthy second husband.

It’s hardly the only thing Stacy and Evelyn are at odds about. Matt and Jeff are together, also living in Arboria Park. Evelyn blames Stacy, and right when Stacy would most like her mom’s help and guidance, they’re not getting along.

Stacy has found a new friend and mother substitute in neighbor Mona, JC’s aunt, who teaches Stacy how to garden. And she continues wandering the neighborhood and making new friends, so she’s not lonely. But it still stings that she can’t count on her mom.

On a walk one day, Stacy finds herself drawn to passing by the old Ramsey farm. She stops to admire a riot of colorful azaleas, when out marches Edith Ramsey, the “witch” who chased Stacy and her friends away nearly a quarter century before. But this time, Stacy finds yet another mother figure and true friend in Edith, whom she helps with plans to keep her farm from ever being developed.

Stacy’s new friendships help pass the time until her eagerly awaited daughter, Sophie, is born. And she wants Sophie to grow up knowing the area’s history, appreciating the farm, and ready to try anything.

This chapter was based a lot on the real farms around Dover, Delaware, that I wrote about in a previous post. Many of those local farms ended up being developed for housing or commerce, a few still exist as farms, and even fewer are being preserved.

Music doesn’t play a huge role in this chapter, although Stacy is still dropping in on the latest local punk house and presumably trying to expose Sophie in utero to her favorite songs. 1987 ran the gamut from debuts by Whitney Houston and Guns’N’Roses to U2’s The Joshua Tree and The Replacements’ Pleased to Meet Me. Here are a few songs from the year Stacy might be listening to that reflect her life during months of waiting:

Take a ride down the road that inspired Arboria Park!

The road that inspired Arboria Park recently opened in Dover, Delaware. It’s called the POW/MIA Parkway. This gives me mixed feelings since my late father was a POW during World War II. He’d be happy that he and his fellow POWs were being honored but dismayed at how the project destroyed part of our former neighborhood.

Here’s a video that takes you from Rt. 13 (“the highway” in the book), past the shopping center (in the book, the road project was more elaborate and the shopping center was torn down). You next pass the neighborhood that inspired the book. On that road used to be 13 houses, two of which I was familiar with as a child (one a home of schoolmates and the other of my mother’s best friend). It then passes a farm I used as inspiration for both the Ramsey and Oakley farms. The road terminates at an existing road near the Kraft Foods plant (Fine Foods in the novel). It was General Foods when I grew up, and our air often smelled like chocolate.

It’s odd that after so many years of construction that the road is only one lane in each direction (there currently is a discussion of this on a Facebook page I belong to that is about downstate Delaware–everyone thinks it’s a mistake). It seems like a project designed to relieve congestion and that no doubt will spark more excessive development along its path should be four lanes, at least. My guess is that within a few years, it will need to be expanded and there will be more disruption and destruction along the route.,-formerly-known-as-the-West-Dover-Connector?utm_content=bufferff157&utm_medium=social&