(Introductory Note: I wrote this essay back when my wife and I lived in a two-family house in Providence. Whether or not the pipe still remains in the closet I cannot say.)
A recent nightmare got me thinking about it again. I was paid a visit by James Arness—not as the reassuring western hunk of his Gunsmoke days but as that darkly disturbing alien hulk portrayed in The Thing. He was trying to come through our front door. Lacking an M-1 rifle (which, come to think of it, didn’t work all that well in the movie), I hit his arm with the only weapon at hand—a book. I can’t recall the title, but it didn’t slow him down in the least. I tried another and another, but he kept right on coming. Just as that awful hand was about to clutch my throat … I woke up. There was no monster, except perhaps the one staring back at me from the mirrored closet across the room. And it was then that I remembered that other thing which still resides there.
A handy piece of iron pipe, about three feet long, it had been in that closet ever since we bought our house in Providence, RI. The only time it wasn’t there was during a brief period of bedroom remodeling. That would have been a good time to remove it from my life, once and for all, but no. Quietly I put it back, obeying some strange impulse. And it sits there now in the darkness, waiting to do my bidding.
As to what I would actually do with this pipe, I’m not sure. I can just imagine myself, faced with some nocturnal alarm, reaching for my weapon from the place where it has always been. With two shaky hands I will grasp and absorb its iron strength. Fierce and invincible like a great Lithuanian knight of old, I will swish it about. And most likely, I will smash the closet mirror, drop the pipe on my toes and pass out on the floor.
Admittedly, it is not the best home security system. The fact that I considered the need for security at all is just one of many psychological adjustments a person makes in moving to an urban neighborhood. In our former suburban and country digs, the possibility of some drug-crazed, homicidal maniac trying to break down our front door had always seemed a remote one. Now it doesn’t seem quite as unlikely, thanks to daily police reports and the occasional grim rumor from skittish neighbors. But this was our new home. My wife and I had chosen to live here because it offered us an environment more stimulating than the cloistered purity of the countryside or the boring nothingness of the suburbs. Part of that stimulation, however, as with life in general, comes from our awareness of the dark side—knowing that we share the same streets and rub elbows with a few individuals whose backgrounds and values are so vastly different from our own as to think nothing of bashing in our front door, or worse, to rob us of what little wealth and peace of mind we still possess.
This is not to suggest we spent our nights cowering in the living room, with all the lights on, awaiting some cold, cruel visitor. We took reasonable precautions, such as installing dead bolt locks (and remembering to use them) and not leaving things like money, furs, or jewelry on the front porch.
Once, however, we did consider taking more drastic measures, though not quite as drastic as that in a newspaper ad. Beneath a picture of a “395 security system”—a handgun, actually—the ad promoted a popular electronic system that is both cheaper and more effective, since the gun “can’t call the police.” That is the trouble with handguns. They aren’t very smart. They can’t do much of anything except to hurl a bullet into the living body of some person, quite often the wrong person. But such is the price of security, some would say.
And the trouble with at least some electronic security systems is that they do call the police, over and over, like the boy who cried wolf. Or they inflict their raucous signals on entire neighborhoods, shattering the peace far more effectively than any heavy metal music. Having to live with these noxious car and house alarms, which seem to go off at the slightest change in temperature or humidity, and most frequently in the wee hours of deepest, hard won slumber, I would prefer that the owners of these infernal contraptions just stick their heads out the window and scream as long as they pleased. At least it would be more human than the electronic whine that slices through my spine like a filet knife. And the screams would stop a whole lot quicker, I suspect, than the eternity it takes a siren to be turned off. As for me, I would rather not own such things as require an alarm, having more than enough alarms in my life already. Indeed, I would rather have all my worldly possessions stolen right out from under me than to inflict such torture upon my good neighbors.
Yet, as the security ad reminds us, “one in four American homes is victimized by crime.” So what are we to do?
Well, we could buy a dog, says my buddy from Boston, a victim of one too many break-ins. Get one that barks at the sound of leaves falling. Not a yap, mind you, but a full-throated, hound from the heath kind of bark—one that would make an intruder think twice. But since nearly every house in our neighborhood, not to mention the city, seems to have at least one canine inhabitant, why bother? If I got a dog, even a dog that barked every second, who would notice? The only thing one might notice in our neighborhood would be the sound of no barking.
Which brings me back to my pipe. While it may seem primitive or foolish to some, there is much to recommend it. First of all, it’s cheap. Ours was left there by the previous owners. I wonder if they, too, kept it there for a similar reason. Also, it doesn’t require bullets or electricity. And no maintenance is ever required, except perhaps an occasional light coat of Rust-Oleum.
Furthermore, there are no buttons to push. No codes or instructions to forget. Picking up a pipe, or as in the case of our fossil ancestors a club, is not something you easily forget. We’ve had clubs in our caves far too long to forget.
This violent, primitive image of myself does give me pause, however. Why do I, a grown man, still feel the need to keep a pipe in his closet? As a boy, I played with wooden swords and toy guns. Later, as a young man, I played with real knives and guns, indulging my Western fantasies. Fortunately, I grew out of them before hurting anyone. Yet the pipe’s still there.
I suppose the pipe represents some last vestige of primal reaction to an ancient and very real fear. Would I actually use it if the time comes? Who can say? Perhaps, rather than marching down the stairs to confront the attacker, I will merely hide under the covers or, better yet, send my wife down in my place. But one thing I know. If I do go down those steps alone, I must have something in my hands. I am just not strong enough to face the midnight terror unarmed.
I must have my prop to convince me at least, if not the attacker, that I will defend our home with the proper fervor. But a book, even the most ponderous tome of metaphysics, simply will not do. And neither will a gun, for then I might actually shoot someone, and that is a price I will not pay. So I’ll grab my trusty pipe. If forced to use it, most likely I will, for then it won’t be a shot in the dark but a last ditch attempt at survival. Not that I would get to use it. Someone determined or crazy enough to break into our house will not be deterred by the sight of a middle-aged man in his underwear with a pipe. He’ll probably laugh till he cries, then calmly kill me. But at least I won’t wake up the neighbors. © Gene Twaronite 2012