Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Innocence lost -- Gone were the Good Old Days

"He Lives" 16 x 20 acrylic on canvas
I came from a small town where doors were left unlocked, people waved and chatted over fences, and children were allowed to roam the streets at will. In winter, I walked a few miles across town to ice skate, returning in the dark of night, never worrying about the shadows or the fruits of my overzealous imagination.

My innocence was shattered one evening at a movie theater. The woman who sat next to me called my attention to a stranger’s arm that dangled over the back of his seat.

 “You’d better watch him,” she said in a hateful tone. “You never know what they’ll do.” She pulled her purse close to her, keeping it a safe distance from the stranger’s limp hand.

To this day, I don’t remember the movie. I was terrified the whole time, checking the foreigner’s hand, making sure he didn’t touch me. Had he done something to the woman, I wondered?  Was she upset because he was different; an Iranian student, a foreigner to our town?

It was dark when I left the theater. I usually skipped home, knowing my mother would have supper waiting. Attending a movie, walking home alone at night had never bothered me before; but that evening, everything changed.

 I heard footsteps clicking behind me. When I turned, it was the man in the theater. Fear overtook me, the fear born of one woman’s hatred and my own insecurity. I walked as fast as I could. When I quickened my pace, he quickened his, or so it seemed.

I reached the safety of home several yards ahead of him. He took no notice, but continued his nightly walk, likely returning to his own apartment. But if he had gained on me, what then? Prejudice breeds fear.

So does the influx of strangers and the changing dynamics of a diverse and growing population. That year a baby sitter returning home from a job was murdered on her own front porch and time stopped. Our safe structured world was shattered.  People started locking doors. Parents were more cautious about letting their children go out at night. Our town changed. The whole world changed.

The culprit was a young man, a troublemaker who had recently come to live with his aunt and uncle.  Bouncing from one home to another, he finally landed in a place that offered hope and love. He hadn’t meant to killer her. He only wanted to talk to her, perhaps kiss her, but her frightened screams wouldn’t stop. He covered her mouth a little too long, and then it was too late. He fled in fear.

The town not only mourned the girl, but the sad young man who never had a chance. Foreigners, who first drew suspicion, breathed a sigh of relief and went back to minding their own business. Others covered up their misplaced blame with excuses, and life was never the same.