The Mountain Times

°F Mon, April 21, 2014

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Everything was fine ‘til they invented air conditioning

I listened to a panel discussion tonight consisting of law enforcement, the state prosecutor and the public defender. The crime statistics they quoted were scary and the prognosis for the future is not a consoling one. How did things get so out of control?

I remember a few years ago when we met with the Sheriff's Office in our quest to create a Crime Watch in our neighborhood. The officer spoke about the history of crime. He asked the audience, what was the number one factor that caused a spike in crime in this country? The answer - air conditioning.

We all got a puzzled look, but he explained. Before air conditioning, people sat outside on their front porches at night. The kids all played in the street and neighbors talked across the lawns to each other. They watched each other's homes, and they watched each other's kids, and they watched each other's backs. Criminals didn't have a chance. But once air conditioning was available, people closed their doors and blinds in attempts to keep the house cool. Nobody was sitting watch any longer. 

I remember our house pre-air-conditioning. When it was really hot in the summer, we would sleep in the living room with the front door open and just a screen door. This room offered the best possibility of a cross breeze. We never thought twice about the door being open. We didn't need to - all the neighbors were doing the same thing. If anything was amiss, everyone would hear it.

It all changed when my mom purchased the large bulky air-conditioner that was installed in our living room. They actually had to break through the brick to install it - it was permanent. Once again, the living room was the place to sleep on a hot night, but now the front door was shut tight along with the windows. The blinds were drawn to keep out the hot sun. The early model air conditioner was so loud, you could barely have a conversation in the same room. If something happened at a neighbor's house, we would have never known.

Raised by a single mom who worked full time, I spent a good deal of time with my grandparents during the summers. I don't know if there was such a thing as daycare centers back then. Children were cared for by relatives, neighbors and older siblings. I loved spending time with my grandparents. They lived in "the city." It was actually on the border of Queens and Brooklyn, but to us all five boroughs meant "the city."

During the day, I would help my grandmother with the chores. Clothes were washed by hand in the sink against a scrub board and hung out on a wash line that was strung between the tenement building and a telephone pole. They lived in a railroad apartment with linoleum floors that were washed with a scrub brush on your hands and knees. The living room had a rug and was kept clean with a carpet sweeper. I liked that job.

Grandma would always make a homemade dinner. My favorite was her chicken fricassee. It was the most tender chicken I ever tasted. She served it with mashed potatoes and gravy. My grandfather ran a bar on the first floor of the building - the Naugatuck Democratic Club and membership was required. He would come upstairs to fix himself a plate to bring back downstairs. He didn't have to worry about leaving the bar unattended, no one was going to help themselves to anything. Of course if someone came in while grandpa was upstairs, one of the regulars would go behind the bar to pour their beer or fix their drink.

Once grandpa got his food and we cleaned up the dishes, grandma and I would head downstairs. We would grab a couple of chairs from the meeting room and set them in front of the building. And there we sat. There were always neighbors or bar patrons who would come by to chat. Sometimes one of my aunts would come over to sit with us. We could sit outside for hours and never get bored simply watching cars and people.

There was an events hall across the street. On the weekends they held dances. We would watch the couples arrive, the women in their best hats and white gloves, wearing strands of pearls. The men were always in suits and sometimes walked funny when they left. You would think I would have understood the concept of being drunk since my grandfather ran a bar, but I didn't have a clue.
Times have certainly changed. People still put fancy rockers and gliders on their front porches, but they often go unused. Instead we choose to park in front of the TV or the computer inside perfectly temperature-controlled houses. And the criminals are having a field day. No one is keeping watch.

Next time you shake your head at the latest crime statistics, take action and do something about it. Pour yourself a glass of wine and take a seat out on the front stoop. I do it often and sometimes I see my neighbors when they step out to get the mail. We chat, we catch up, we have a few laughs. And then we retreat to the air-conditioning. I'm looking forward to cooler temps.