No gap should be more than 4 inches.

by Hugh Gilmore

Spring has finally arrived, bringing us warm evenings and the temptation to leave our bedroom windows open as we sleep. There’s nothing quite so soothing as a gentle breeze wafting across the room. Fresh air, ah!

But, of course, nothing out here on the Chestnut Hill peninsula is ever as simple as Country Living magazine would have you believe. To begin with, my last household chore each night (after double-locking every door and window) is to make sure “the stick” is in place.

The stick came into our life as a result of a conversation in my bookshop one afternoon with Chestnut Hill architect Andrew Jarvis. He said his firm was designing a penal institution. I asked him if he might know the answer to a question I’d wondered about: how close together the prison bars had to be, and in effect, what was the minimum distance a human head, attached to a nimble body, could not squeeze through. He said, “Four inches.” That number was in the specs they’d been given.

Unfortunately, my wife was present and she swears he said, “Four and a half inches.”

We have sliding windows and I sawed the blocking stick to allow the window to open no more than four inches. Every now and then though, I notice unfamiliar sawdust at my workbench. When I check, sure enough, the window bar is a half-inch shorter.

Madame G regards fresh air as a need, rather than a luxury, even though we live in a city. I make the corrections, only to find new sawdust. These surreptitious long-to-short alterations should keep us busy till we go to “the Home” in the not-too-distant future. Perhaps even after that.

She’s slightly less worried about urban crime than I, partly because of personality, but also because she has not read as many true crime books as I have. I’ve read several hundred, possibly half of them in the form of prison memoirs, written by everyone from the cons to the wardens, including psychologists, executioners, doctors, sociologists, relatives, and crime victims.

When I was young, and read the Classics Illustrated Comic Books versions of “Les Miserables” and “Oliver Twist,” I learned there was a strong link between poverty and thievery. I learned that stealing was the only way poor people could get bread. I felt sorry for them and understood and accepted their need.

As I grew older, cognitive dissonance started kicking in: Wait a minute – middle-class and rich people steal too. And poor people in America rarely steal just to get bread for their families. They mostly steal to get dope or bling, two things that temporarily lighten the crushing shame they feel from being poor. But, wait a minute: Rich people steal to get dope and bling too. Round and round we go.

So, every night the air is sweet, I draw the curtains, lock the doors and set the bar in the window. Though we live in a “nice” house in a “nice” neighborhood on a “nice” peninsula, we live in a not-so-nice city. I’m putting on my nightcap as the professional criminals are pulling up their hoodies and saying, “Let’s go get paid.”

They come out to cruise the side streets, parking lots, darkened houses, parked vehicles, jogging paths, woods, lovers’ lanes, bus stops, train stations, public markets, restaurants, malls, subways, campuses, locker rooms and public restrooms. Probing. Relentlessly, everywhere.

Nevertheless, once I’ve set the bar in the window and climbed in bed and settled under a light cover and picked up a book, I enjoy that sweet breeze coming through the window.

“Doesn’t that feel great?” I say.

“Mmm, yes,” the Queen of Ambience replies.

Of course, with the window open we can now hear sirens all through the night – emergency vehicles coming up Germantown Avenue or Bethlehem Pike toward Chestnut Hill Hospital. I pause for a second whenever I notice them (I don’t always ‘hear’ them – sirens are the auditory urban equivalent of wallpaper) to wish the passenger good luck. Some people I knew and loved deeply have taken such rides. I may take one myself someday.

Six weeks ago I had a conversation with a lady who lives in the western suburbs. She was selling her house and considering moving to Chestnut Hill. But, oh, the city wage tax. That seemed awful. And the crime. You have a lot of crime in the city, don’t you?

Despite my being a writer for the Chestnut Hill Local, I defended our peninsula as a good place to live. If you live here for 21 years, as we have, and get involved a bit in community activities, and shop, and eat locally often enough, the neighborhood starts feeling like a village. Move here, you’ll enjoy it, I said.

Then the latest bank robbery happened this week. At gunpoint. In broad daylight! (Though, when else would someone stick up a bank?) It seems like every bank on the Hill has been robbed that way in the two decades we’ve been here.

And the United States Post Office station farther down the street was robbed this spring. Federal crimes. Despite camera surveillance. Possibly the same team of baddies. (That would be the consoling thought, rather than consider that several bands of criminals are working our neighborhood simultaneously.)

What’s to do? Is there somewhere in America you could place a bank that would be immune to stick-ups? I doubt it. Not even on the Main Line.

Are there places to live where you might go jogging and leave your purse or computer in plain view and never have it stolen? Possibly. Or not have your house burglarized? Possibly. Probably unlikely.

I think most of our heads start spinning when we try to weigh factors such as safety, aesthetics, vibrancy, cultural opportunities, friendliness and the rest of the factors that influence where we choose to live – if we are lucky enough to have a choice.

So, we urban veterans tell ourselves that these crime waves are just that: waves. When they crest, we demand more police and community vigilance. When they subside to their customary urban-nuisance levels, we go back to earning our daily bread, raising our children, having some enjoyment with our friends, and leaving our windows open, hoping the 4-inch gap isn’t too wide. will lead you to more of Hugh Gilmore’s writings.

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