This excerpt from Luke O’Neil’s book “Lockdown In Hell World,” which is now available in paperback, is published with the permission of OR Books.
I’ve been sleeping with a shovel under the bed. It wasn’t my first choice. I rifled through the shed out back selecting potential weapons one by one like a montage in a shitty zombie movie: the metal rake the rusty garden shears the Weedwacker. The lawnmower seemed impractical. An important consideration when deciding which weapon to go to sleep with isn’t just what you could use it for on the off chance you have to but also how much damage you could do to yourself when you inevitably stub your fucking toe on it in the middle of the night after you wake up to piss from a dream about how your high school football coach is disappointed in you or whatever it is men dream about. Indignities you’ve suffered. Glories that fell just out of your grasp but if only you had the chance to do them over again. Assorted pervert shit.
It’s been a couple weeks now and mercifully I haven’t had to swing the shovel at any intruder’s head but for a while there I wasn’t so sure. It was a warm evening and I’d just gotten back from a sweaty humid march in Cambridge through streets that are so familiar to me but that seem transformed now in the way a place you used to go every day changes on you the second you turn your back. I came home angry and emotional but invigorated as one does from any march to my new neighborhood that still doesn’t seem familiar to me and heard someone outside blasting Rush Limbaugh on the radio and yelling to themselves. ALL LIVES MATTER! he said. ALL LIVES MATTER! Just gassing himself up about the thugs and looters and what have you. You know the script. My own private live performance of a nightly Tucker Carlson monologue.
When we first moved in we hooked up the WiFi and saw a nearby network was TRUMP2020 and we were immediately demoralized. Goddamnit who’s this fucking guy I thought. Kind of wish I never found out.
Naturally being me I went outside to tell the yelling guy to go fuck himself and eat shit and fuck off and things of that nature. It devolved pretty quickly from there as you can imagine. It wasn’t exactly my most trenchant oratory performance. He said he was a veteran and I called him a baby killer and he said any of them that he did kill had it coming. Picture two tired idiot dogs barking at each other from the perimeter of their leashes. THIS TYPE OF SHIT IS NOT WELCOME HERE I yelled.
Thankfully it ended after a while when other people came out to inspect what the fuck was happening. This area isn’t exactly a hotbed of street fights as best I can tell so far. I woke up embarrassed that all my new neighbors had heard me talking like that.
The next afternoon the solo porch ranting continued from his end but strangely it was me that felt bad about my role in the whole thing. I had been so fucking cruel to this stranger it was weighing on me. To be sure I did nothing wrong per se I simply told a racist to shut the fuck up but I didn’t like who I was when I was doing it. I was some much uglier person. Righteous and correct but still ugly. Even if someone has it coming you might not like how it feels to deliver it to them.
The day after that the police arrived. We did not call them to be clear it was another neighbor who felt threatened. Apparently they had seen the guy waving a machete around and spouting off in our direction. Four police cars pulled up outside his house and he ran inside yelling back at them from out the window. He has rifles inside he said.
Jesus Christ I thought am I going to have to side with the guy who wants to kill me against the cops now just out of political principle? Leave that guy alone you fucking cops!
The police left after about a half hour because I guess it’s not technically illegal to wave a machete around in your own yard even if you’re doing it in such and such a way. It’s not technically illegal to yell to the police you have guns inside although tbh that particular detail seemed to merit further investigation in my opinion but what can you do. It’s not technically illegal to film your neighbor’s house and say these people called the cops on me over and over either.
I am pretty certain I had told him how much I do not like the cops the night before and I tried to explain to him from across the way that it wasn’t me who called them but apparently he wasn’t in the mood to talk. It was pretty hilarious to me that I had to hurriedly try to explain to a guy I was in a potentially violent conflict with not to worry I am not the type of guy to call the police. I’m cool man. Fuck you though but I’m cool.
Isn’t this kind of fascinating I said to Michelle. Here we are presented with our very own conundrum about what to do when it comes to calling the police for help or not. Again I didn’t call them but when they appeared they basically poked around the block for a while then said eh nothing to be done here and peaced out. Michelle did not find it a particularly intriguing ethical quandary at the time. Or at least that wasn’t the most salient issue at hand what with all the worrying about being killed in the air.
That night I got the shovel and we went off to restless sleep. The next few days and nights we did the same peeking out the window hoping we wouldn’t hear the telltale harbinger of conflict that the sound of a right-wing radio talk show came to symbolize.
A day or so later when I saw him outside I went out to try to talk but he avoided me. This is no way to live I thought. It felt like what it feels like to live in a physically abusive home like there was a heavy weighted blanket draped over everything. Maybe if we make ourselves small and silent he won’t notice us and we’ll stay safe this time.
We had been managing fine enough during the pandemic but constantly stressed like the rest of you are too. We had been gnashing our teeth at the news every night at the dozens and dozens of images of police brutality but through it all we at least had a home to feel safe in until we didn’t.
More than anything I wanted some sort of resource for conflict de-escalation. I didn’t want the police to break down his door and engage in a shoot-out. I didn’t want the guy to go to jail or get in any kind of trouble. I just wanted someone to be able to mediate a discussion. Not that I imagined we would become friendly or find common ground despite our differences or anything dumb like that but more to turn down the heat somewhat so that we could all go about our business without looking over our shoulders. Someone said to call the local court and ask if they have some sort of victims services thing and I did and they had me call some other District Attorney guy or whatever and he had me call someone else and the long and short of all that was ah that’s too bad ummm don’t know what to tell you see ya.
I am not afraid of fighting a guy. I don’t want to especially when I’m thinking clearly but I’ll do it if I have to. It’s likely in very many of those hypothetical scenarios I would get my ass kicked but that is just how it is. I am on the other hand definitely not interested in being shot to death or having my dick hacked off with a machete. Men spend a lot of time envisioning themselves as John Wick dispatching assailants easily but I’m not stupid enough to think there’s anything I could do in a situation like that besides die and then as I’m dying think ah I fucked up on this one.
The absurdity of this all happening as tens of thousands of people marched and clashed in the streets was palpable for me. I had felt badly some days not always being out there and being more or less safely tucked away in the suburbs now. I felt badly about not getting my head stomped in by the cops and for not placing my body in the grinder often enough. Maybe this was my way of doing penance for that by bringing conflict to my neighborhood? But after a protest or riot you can at least if you aren’t arrested usually go home and sleep soundly in your own bed. Don’t shit where you eat I guess.
Throughout it all I still felt badly about being mean to this fucking guy though. What is that? Is that empathy? Perhaps there’s some PTSD type of situation going on over there and if so we did that to that guy. Not us specifically but all of us. We train these dudes to go kill for nothing and then when they come back we say fuck you good luck out there.
What a weird internal conflict to have. To feel like you bullied a MAGA guy too harshly. Does that make me a pussy or just a human being?
On top of it all I felt terrible about potentially putting Michelle in danger with my big fucking mouth.
Ok so here’s the real humiliating part. After feeling like I was living inside of a delayed sneeze for a week or more I decided I had to put it all to an end one way or another. I noticed the neighbor seemed to enjoy gardening with or without a machete so I drove down to this sad little dusty flower shop around the corner with about five plants total in stock and asked the lady what one in particular was. This plant uh doesn’t have any kind of menacing symbolism to it or anything does it I asked. It’s not the I’m going to kill you plant by any chance is it and she said no it was a peace lily and I thought that’s a little on the nose but I bought it anyway and brought it home. I wrote a note saying I was sorry for starting a fight and let’s just try to live quietly and peacefully. I tried to put myself in his shoes. After all I was the one that came storming over to his property trying to start shit. There’s nothing in the rules that says you can’t talk back to racist radio shows on your own porch right? That’s the American dream baby! Maybe I was the bad guy?
How fucking shameful though lol. I bought my MAGA neighbor a housewarming gift and basically said sorry I was mad that you were very loudly racist.
I left the plant on the porch and we watched through the blinds as he brought it inside and considered it then promptly put it back out on the street. Shit shit shit.
But then later on that night it was gone. Did they think better of it and take it back in? Did they throw it out? No way to know at this point. But things have been quiet for about ten days now and it feels a lot better than how it felt before. Now we just live in a country with a rapidly accelerating pandemic and constant police violence everywhere to worry about. It feels like the good old days of a month ago again. There’s always a more uncomfortable and menacing level of Hell World to dig down into that makes the last one seem like a vacation.
I’m not sure what the lesson is here or if there’s a lesson at all. There usually aren’t lessons or at least not discernible tidy ones. Apologize to more racists?
I asked Michelle what she thought the lesson was just now and she said something about how people who always ask what are you going to do if you need to call the cops someday should know that they’re probably just gonna come poke around and play with their balls for a bit then leave having solved nothing. Not in those exact words but like that. And then she said maybe the lesson for me personally is to learn not to escalate things with anger despite how I might feel about confronting white supremacy or being an ally or something like that but that part was about me changing so I didn’t really pay attention.
Or maybe the whole stupid affair just reminds us of the most American lesson of them all which is if you get enough guns you never have to say you’re sorry. If you’re capable of enough potential violence much like the police themselves then you get to be the scary one and the victim at the same time. It’s the perfect system.