I spoke to Mrs. Stephenson in her home in Cascade, Trinidad, one week before her 95th birthday.
Some Trouble With the Neighbors
The view from the porch is spectacular. A panorama of blue-green mountainside. Mist slung across rooftops like sagging cobwebs. A melt of pink and blue sky crests to meet us on the opposite side of the valley. From our perch we look down on the steep drop of terraced hillside into Mrs. Stephenson’s garden - a conference of aged fruit trees, barks stained whitish and greenish with lichens and moss. Unpicked limes and mangoes heavy and bobbing noiselessly on branches in the breeze. Somewhere in this Caribbean picturesque an unseen bird is chittering musically. But Mrs. Stephenson notices none of it. She is standing at a right angle to its majesty, staring uneasily into her neighbor's yard,
“I have some very troublesome neighbors,” she says, “Very troublesome.”
Just over the wall is the neighbors house, bone white with a barren yard scorched brown in places from neglect. He’d moved in just a couple of years ago. On his porch is an old metal chair, a small reclaimed end table and a glass ashtray holding yellowing cigarette butts which, from this distance, looks like a saucer of aging teeth.
Mrs. Stephenson will turn 95 years old this week. She is still limber, though she naps more often now, and still a firebrand, though there are less people to witness it than before. She lives with her youngest daughter, and a husband who lies bedridden on a separate floor. There are a cadre of nurses who tend to them both, and make tea and sandwiches daily. Her wrinkles have concentrated in the middle of her face, between the eyes and above her nose. And now, as she speaks, they tremble effortfully under the strain of something like rage, or worry,
“You see this orchid? Look, look at it.”
She gestures to a dying orchid hung from the second floor porch,
“I know he did something to them, I can’t prove it, I have seven cameras all over the property and so far I haven’t caught him, but I know it's he that did something to it. This used to be so beautiful, same with the Bougainvillea out in the front. Somebody told me that’s where he hides his drugs, under my plant, so you see? Suppose they come and arrest me for that now?”
This was the first stop on a tour that would last the next hour - the grass he’d killed that was once so lush, the places where his dogs had messed the yard, the place where he’d let them loose in the road to attack her when she left the house.
“I think this is killing her - worrying about that man,” her daughter says while we’re alone in the kitchen, “it’s making her sick. I beg her, ‘Mummy, forget about him,’... but now every crack in the wall and she’s convinced that the neighbor did it. It’s killing her.”
“You see this?” Mrs. Stephenson says later, staring steely faced at a long crack in the wall that runs from ceiling to floor in the living room, “I suspect he did this too, I know. One night I was laying in bed and I wake up to this loud noise - BODOW! And then a second noise - BODOW! Like somebody hitting the house with something. I was so scared I hid in the room. I didn’t come out - what if he had a cutlass or something, you know? The next morning, I see this.”
She speaks like a woman testifying at trial, measured, straining to sound reasonable, practiced. Yet she seems traumatized, a woman under siege.
“Mummy, you have to stop talking about this you know- one night Daddy will pass away and the last thing he will have heard you talk about is this man. Is that what you want?”
A look of fierce defiance comes across Mrs. Stephenson’s face and her central wrinkles tremble,
“I live here since 1970, I never had any problem with anybody... and you know that man accuse me of encroaching on his property? I here since 1970, but I encroaching. He say I broke down his wall...”
Something else had happened here since 1970 - the neighborhood had become more dangerous, much more dangerous. Indeed the country had become more dangerous. Things, unimaginable things, even if they had not happened here on her street, were now within the realm of possibility of happening everywhere. The front pages of major newspaper routinely featured dead bodies of children and parents lying out in the sun, unabashed. Few people had remained untouched in one way or another by the crime or murder rate that has only continued to rise, year after year.
“What are you afraid of?” I ask her.
“That he would kill me! Those two people, the ones they found in Tobago, you heard about that? Well, is envy why they killed them you know - out of envy. Trinidad is not like it was before. That man is wicked... wicked.”
“You really think he could kill you?” I say.
“Yes!! Yes.” she says.
It was true that the neighbor had accused her of encroaching on her property and of breaking his wall. He did call the police to accuse her of poisoning his dogs, a particularly damaging event for her. But the insurance company ruled that the cracks in the wall were the latent result of an earthquake. Accounts vary as to whether or not he’d let the other dogs loose deliberately that day. Much of this happened over a year and half ago. What is significant is less whether her “wicked neighbor” is a real danger to her now, and more what he has come to represent - what matters is what his existence has come to mean about the world, and about what she now believed was possible. Her fears had become manifest in her neighbor, a man she now believes could kill her.
In her bedroom, handwritten in enormous lettering on large poster-board is: BELMONT POLICE STATION, and their phone number. It hangs beside her bed. There is a small TV in one corner of the room - right now it is tuned to a religious station, 24 hour mass and scripture. But there is a special channel, she shows me, that plays a continuous feed from the seven cameras stationed all over her property,
“I’ve been watching them, but I haven’t been able to see anything yet. A technician is supposed to come and adjust it to see why that would be.”
On a bureau off to the right and surrounded on all sides by black and white photos of loved ones, is a stack of funeral pamphlets (Hymnals and obituaries given out at a funeral), seven inches high. Almost everyone she once knew was dead.
The fear represented in her story is not unique. What struck me about Mrs. Stephenson’s paralysis was that I’d seen that same paralysis in other people before. Her worries were echoed in laments I’d heard across the country:
“It wasn’t always like this.”
Those who can afford it have security cameras, alarm systems, armed guards doubling as chauffeurs. Others have guard dogs and high fences. There is an app that allows families to track the location of their loved ones in real time. There is the practice of calling someone whenever you leave or return home. You avoid going to places at night if possible or book flights that land at odd hours to avoid driving through the bad areas to get to the city. There is a certain intersection where my own mother would break a red light after dark to avoid coming to complete stop there. People don’t sit on the front porches of middle class homes in the evenings anymore. And in poor areas you check the police reports like most people check the weather, before deciding whether to let your children leave for school in the morning. One woman in her 70’s told me she doesn’t worry about walking in the road because she carries an icepick.
What we remember and how we remember, reveals not just what has happened, but what we believe may happen in the future - it reveals what we believe is possible.
“Trinidad used to be safe place,” one woman tells me, “Now people are just nasty, You can’t trust nobody anymore, no no no, people are not for other people anymore.”
Whether it is true, or to what degree it is true, that every person is less safe than they used to be, or that people have become less trustworthy, is a matter to be debated. But perception is a powerful thing, independent of the facts. The belief in this new inherent vulnerability is enough to generate to new behavior. The newspapers and stories remind us everyday of what is possible. I can’t help but wonder in what small or large ways does this create a kind of self fulfilling prophesy as well. How are our fears shaping who or what or where we perceive as dangerous? Does this make its way out of our personal practices and into public policy as well? Into the kind of policies, (around policing for example), that would find ready support? Or even the kind of politicians that might gain popularity? If you believed that the system was corrupt, and felt legitimately afraid, would you object to, say, a police officer using corrupt means to protect your family? I don’t have answers to these question yet.
The nostalgia for better days that I hear everyday is connected to the fear, to the sense that something has been lost, a kind of lingering grief for the world as it was imagined to be. Somewhere along the way, community has broken its contract and we’ve lost the ability to feel safe, to trust - so we are afraid. Anything can happen to anyone at anytime-- our neighbors might just kill us in our own homes.
I spoke to to Mrs. Stephenson about this, I told her that I thought that the fear could hold us hostage, that maybe what I saw in her was a grief that I recognized, that even felt familiar. I told her that I hoped she wouldn’t let ‘That Man’ be more powerful in absentia that he could ever be in person.
“But I am so frightened!” she said loudly now, “I’m frightened. So so so frightened... Trinidad is changed.”