There’s No Such Thing as a Bad Neighborhood


    There Is Good Everywhere If You Can See It

I expect to get comments on this post telling me I’m out of my mind, wearing rose colored glasses, naive, gullible, and probably just plain blind to the realities of the world. That’s okay. There are places where people feel at risk, where violent crime counts are high, where you might be safer sleeping in a highway culvert than in a local hotel or apartment house. Likewise, I do believe in trusting in God and tying up my camel. I lock my doors no matter what neighborhood I’m in at the moment.

Even so, here are a few places I’ve found help and no harm, more or less in chronological order:

1. My own car. From the time I acquired a driver’s license, I’ve picked up hitchhikers. I’m 64 now, and this has been my practice since I was sixteen (and looked twelve). Some passengers have been dangerous enough–one fellow wanted to be dropped off on my way through Missoula, Montana, where he was hoping to murder his ex-wife and her new man–but no one I’ve picked up has ever directly threatened me.

True, there have been times when I felt it best to make my policy clear: Make a move on me while I’m driving, and we simply die together. No big. I learned that attitude from my Dad, I think. Driving his stock truck back to the ranch from Missoula one day, he picked up a hitchhiker…who pulled a knife on him. We saw him roar past the house, pedal to the metal.

He never drove like that. Six miles later, when he spun the 2 1/2 ton stock truck to a sideways, sliding halt in front of the only local cop car, the knife man had gone white in the face and offered no resistance to being arrested. But still.

2. The Blackfeet Indian Reservation at Browning, Montana. Other folks warned me many times: No white guy was safe anywhere near Browning, especially after dark. In my case, I did spend one night on the rez as the only non-Indian to be seen. Of course it helped that I was a rodeo cowboy at the time, and this took place on a ranch.

Totally exhausted, another (Blackfoot) cowboy and I took off our boots and tucked our knees up under our chins. Back to back, in and out of sound sleep, I overheard a comment by one of the men who had come in from talking in the kitchen. He saw us propping each other up and stated: “Now THAT’S integration!” This was several years prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

3. A low income neigborhood in Hartford, Connecticut. I lived and worked in Spokane, Washington, at that time (1971), but had been sent by my employer to Hartford to get 3 weeks of advanced training in commercial insurance underwriting. Company trainers warned us against going into one particular area for any reason. When several of of us were observed driving around in that area a few nights later, the police warned us with these words:

“We don’t want to have to drag your dead bodies out of there!”

So naturally I went back the very next night. On foot. Where I met with a group of people who had been calling our company dormitory for days with a planned hustle. None of my roomies would consider going back, and I didn’t have a car. I went to meet the callers. Access to their house was through a pitch dark alley.

Three hours later, I walked out with nothing but gratitude for the experience. The house was home to a young lady of 26 whose fiance had wrecked a car with her in it, some seven years earlier…and then dumped her when she survived without legs. Her life was lived atop a hard table for a bed with nothing for entertainment but the telephone and a seven-inch black and white television.

The worst thing about that neighborhood, I came to believe, was that none of the young people who lived with her could even imagine escaping the poverty trap they were in. In their minds, the world literally ended at the Hartford city limits

Never have I set out to walk the streets of an inner city or any other area just for the challenge of the thing. Had that been my habit, it would have served me right to get mugged or worse. No, nothing like that. Every time my surroundings have qualified as potentially risky, it has been “just one of those things”. A need to save a mile or two on the way to work. A classified ad selling something I needed. Stuff like that.

Even so, the total list of “hot spots” has added up over the years. Besides those listed above, a few inner city examples include:

East Los Angeles…Detroit…Chicago…New York City…Elizabeth, New Jersey…Philadelphia…Pittsburgh…Spokane…San Diego…Seattle… Denver… Houston…Dallas…San Antonio…New Orleans…Pensacola….and more.

Which I freely admit is a strange list for a country boy raised on a Montana ranch and whose graduating class counted a staggering fifteen students. (There were 25 of us when we got out of the 8th grade, but from there to high school graduation, the dropout rate was 40%….)

Nor am I belittling the horrendous experience of one young married couple who left Chicago in 1972. One or the other or both of them had been mugged eleven times in one year before they decided to get out. We met in Eugene, Oregon, where the wife worked as my assistant in an insurance office. Oddly enough, they returned to their home town some three years later. Such, apparently, is the pull of home turf. Have they continued to average eleven muggings per year? One can hope not!

Yet every neighborhood–every neighborhood–has shown me a “good people” side where others swore it did not exist. To wrap this up, I’ll mention two specific experiences:

1. Elizabeth, New Jersey. Driving an 18-wheeler, towing a 53-foot dry van as a long haul truck driver, I was trying to find my company’s terminal one fine day in 2001. But I’d gotten out of route. Instinct had stopped me just in time. Pulling the truck over to the side of the street, I’d set the flashers and gone ahead on foot to check things out. Good thing, too: Coming up in the very next block was a low bridge with only ten feet of clearance.

My rig was thirteen feet, six inches high.

Not a good fit. The only option I had–unless I wanted to jam up traffic at the bridge, which would probably cost me some nasty fines and my job–was to turn around, which meant going around the block. Through a residential neighborhood. Packed with cars parked on both sides of the street.

Predictably, my long tractor-trailer combination could not make the second right. I set it up correctly, but there just wasn’t quite room enough. I was stopped in the middle of an intersection, needing just one car to move ahead a few feet to let me finish the turn. I was outside the cab, looking at the problem from all angles and seeing far too few possible solutions, when a man parked his car nearby and jumped out to help.

He’d been a fireman, knew about tough turns in tight spots, knew exactly what I was up against. He flagged traffic, soothed both me and the other (civilian) drivers, and even calmed the owner of the car that needed to be moved to help me out. SHE came running up in a panic-rage, convinced I’d already creamed her precious sedan, which I had not (I was paying attention!).

Thanks to his help, I cleared the turn within minutes and was on my way. I hear fellow westerners state with seeming authority that Atlantic coast residents are cold, heartless monsters (or words to that effect). Sorry. I don’t get it. I just don’t get it.

2. New York City. Curiously, my experiences in New York City alone would be enough to make one wonder about reincarnation. What else could explain my absolute comfort in downtown Manhattan, in Chinatown, and/or wherever else in The Big Apple I’ve ended up over the years?

One evening just after dark in October of 1976, my second wife and I were returning from a three-day church seminar in Hartford, Connecticut. We decided to route through NYC. When we returned to the car after a fine supper in Chinatown (on whose streets she was nervous but I, strangely, was not), we found a $46 parking ticket on the windshield.

We were headed out, but once we got back to our South Dakota home, I wrote to the Court in New York, explaining why we had believed parking was authorized in that spot. I further stated that we did not believe we should have to pay the fine, but that if they still considered me guilty, I would pay it… and asking the Court to please let me know.

The paperwork came back by return mail, stamped NOT GUILTY.

Town without pity? Sorry. I don’t get it. I just don’t get it.

Or…could it be…me? Is that why I find locating a “bad” neighborhood impossible? After all, if I can travel halfway ’round the world to Malaysia, sharing Chinese food with a Hindu ex-cop at a sidewalk cafe in Kuala Lumpur while rats run around our feet…and still the surroundings seem pretty groovy….

Oh my. I must have caught it. You know, that terrible disease? Sure you do. It’s the one where people go around saying, There are no strangers, only people I haven’t met yet. Or, if reincarnation is considered as a real factor, maybe I have met them….

Huh. Well, don’t be a stranger, folks, and–

Thanks for reading,


P.S. My wife, Pam, is one who totally disagrees with my viewpoint as stated above. She does have a point, of course, and carries rusty bullet shrapnel in both feet and ankles to underscore that point. A fellow shot her. Twice. And claimed it was an accident. At the very least, I would admit he was not a very good neighbor!

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