This past May marked a minor anniversary for me, one I did not at first remember. It was 30 years ago that two of my friends and I signed our first lease. I was 20 years old and no longer relying on my parents (at least not entirely) or the university's housing system for a place to live, it was one of those steps taken to reach adulthood. The house we found was within a few minutes walk to school in what might be referred to as one of Norfolk's transitional neighborhoods, of which there are still many. It was a small bungalow with three bedrooms, one for each of us, and the rent was very affordable, even at 1981 prices of only $300 per month for the whole place. The house had a roomy front porch and sat on a large-for-the-area double lot where mature azaleas, camellias, dogwoods and figs grew sheltered by huge oaks and sweetgums. It was an ideal yard for beer fueled parties.
We rented the house from an elderly woman named Loretta Zoby; she and her late husband had it built and raised two sons there. My first conversation with her on the phone was a long one, but it was quickly clear how much she loved her house and how unhappy she was to not be living there. She said she was anxious for us to see it, and also anxious for young men to rent it, not young women. After seeing the house we soon signed the lease, even though the place had a few quirks. One of which was security bars on all the windows, not uncommon in some places, but it was a first for me. The house also had several small silver saint medallions nailed to each interior window and door frame. On the walls hung Holy Mother icons, several chained crosses were left in the house, and an out of date calendar with a very graphic picture of Jesus parting his chest to reveal the Sacred Heart was hanging in the kitchen. Mrs. Zoby asked me to leave all of this, and I said that I would, even though to this boy raised as a no-frills Protestant, they were as foreign to me as prayer rugs, menorahs and statues of the Buddha.
About two months after we moved in we could have used some of the portecion Mrs. Zoby thought the house needed. We came home to find the back door knocked off its hinges and our television, stereo equipment and a moped missing. We suspected our neighbor who we knew as a harmless drunk, but he ran with a younger, less impaired crowd who were not above a little breaking and entering. We tried to get out of our lease after that, but Mrs. Zoby's son, who handled all the business details, would not let us. In talking with her after the incident, Mrs. Zoby reluctantly told me that before she moved out, the men next door would pull their cars into the yard at night, headlights aiming at her bedroom window, yelling at and taunting her lewdly. I could only imagine how frightened she must have been. Using the break-in as leverage, we were able to persuade Mrs. Zoby's son to change the lease and let us get a guard dog. We ended up with two young puppies and a kitten instead, not an ideal crime preventing trio, at least not at that age.
Over the Christmas holiday I had the house to myself. Out partying with friends one night, I came home to find a very scared puppy and a house that had been robbed yet again, but at least there had been less stuff to be stolen. This time we were allowed to break the lease without penalty. We soon found an apartment further from campus, but in a much safer neighborhood. A few years later I learned that Mrs. Zoby's house on 42nd Street had caught fire and had to be torn down. I drove by later to look at the spot, and all that was left were front steps leading to nowhere. Today the site sits under a parking garage for the university's new convocation center.
I have lately been thinking a lot about that old house, and where I was in my life when I lived there. What has prompted all these memories are recent local headlines. In May of this year at another house on 42nd Street, one block east of where I once lived, a young man by the name of Chris Cummings witnessed two people brandishing a gun trying to enter his home . He was able to startle them into fleeing. His parents of course urged him immediately to move. On June 10th the same house was the scene of a double shooting. Chris and his roomate Jake Carey were shot during the early morning hours; their other roommates were not home. Jake was seriously injured, though survived, but Chris was pronounced dead at the scene. By the accounts I have read and from the interviews I have seen on television, 20 year old Chris Cummings was an outgoing guy, fraternity member, had a large group of friends, volunteered at a local homeless agency and was studying criminal science. His uncle is Elijah Cummings, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Maryland, who is also active on gun control issues. Like the death of any young person, it makes you wonder what they would have brought to the world's table if given more time.
Unfortunately murder is not uncommon news in this area, but it is no different here then any other large American city, some may be worse and others better. These local stories usually catch my attention, but I don't normally respond to them the way I did with this. It's just that this one took place a short walk away, three decades apart and too close to home.