"People say, 'You're so nosy, Ms. Bitner. When are you going to mind your own business?'" says the 85-year-old granny with marshmallow-fluff hair. "It gives me a bad reputation, and I love that reputation."
Just last week, during her morning constitutional at Crestview public housing project, Bitner happened to notice that somebody burglarized the residents' storage lockers. The padlocks were gone, the hasps hanging by their hinges.
Clipping down the hallway in her wheelchair, she swiftly spread word of the crime to everyone in her path. Then she wheeled back to her cozy little kitchen, slipping off the black leather driving gloves she always wears on her excursions. There, amid the frilly curtains and giant wooden fork-and-spoon wall decorations, she called the cops.
Within 10 minutes, an officer was on the scene, scribbling a report and serving as living proof that, when Del Bitner's around, people tend to stand up a little straighter and fixate a little less on their imminent coffee break.
A former professional bowler who, incidentally, has excellent posture, Bitner is one of those unofficial "go-to" people who live in public housing. A longtime resident of the western Cleveland high-rise, she successfully campaigned for a nonsmoking lunchroom and handicapped parking spaces. She's also been a good friend to the cops, helping them catch thieves, drug dealers, and other up-to-no-goodsters.
"I'm not gonna tell you she's the only one," says Terri Hamilton-Brown, director of the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority. There are Del counterparts in many projects, sprinkling around the fairy dust of civility. "But she's a wonderful advocate and a great neighbor. People like her really help build a community."
Last year, Bitner spent months documenting the comings and goings of a neighbor, who wasn't making trips to the parking lot to check his oil. "A horn would honk, and he would go out to this car that pulled up, laugh, and shake hands with the driver," she recalls. "Always laughing. He was a happy guy. I got my yellow legal pad out and started to write what day, what time."
After a few months, the signal and car changed, "But it was the same people again." Bitner wanted to be sure the police had enough to go on, so she spent five more months getting down the particulars. "I'm not gonna call the police unless I need them," she says brightly. "They're busy."
Thanks to Bitner, the handshake guy was ultimately arrested in the middle of a big drug party. His prosecution was written up in the paper. "I clipped it out and put it in my special book," Bitner says.
On another occasion, she outmaneuvered some crackheads. They had tried to sneak in the locked main door, on the coattails of unsuspecting residents. Unable to get past Bitner, who was keeping watch in the lobby, they left. Hours later, she was surprised to see them inside the building, roaming the halls. "I couldn't figure it out," she says. "How did they get in?"
Grabbing her coat, she wheeled out to the parking lot. Just as she suspected: There were footprints in the snow, leading to a sliding glass apartment door. Someone had let them in!
The police dispatcher brushed off the incident as a non-emergency, but Bitner set him straight. "I said, 'No, honey, you're not gonna slough this one off,'" she recalls. "'Sunday or Monday, the evidence will be all melted!'" The cops arrived in time to make several arrests.
An avid sportswoman who frequently worked two or three jobs at a time, Bitner grew up on a farm in Strongsville, then moved to a spacious Lakewood home with her husband, raising three daughters. But she was forced to leave all that in 1984, when she went to the bank and realized her husband had "drunk up all the money. I knew he drank and gambled, but I didn't know to what extent. Talk about a shock!"
Penniless and on her own, she applied for public housing. With the help of a CMHA superintendent who was also an avid bowler, she landed a one-bedroom at Crestview.
Eager to make friends at her new home, she volunteered to bake lemon meringue pies for Crestview's Welcoming Committee. On New Year's Eve, she'd break out the hats, horns, and Honeybaked ham, putting the leaf in the kitchen table for a 12-hour penny-ante poker marathon. After several knee operations, she eased up on the revelry, but not on the neighborhood watch. She recently helped track down a living-room set stolen from the Crestview lobby and put the screws to a resident whose grown children were terrorizing elderly tenants.
For her efforts, the CMHA police awarded her a retired officer's badge. It hangs in a prominent spot in her apartment.
Bitner is spunky, all right, says Hamilton-Brown. Sometimes, maybe a little too much so. "We want [residents] to enforce the rules, but we also want to make sure they're tactful in how they do it," she says.
Bitner says she tries to be tactful, but it doesn't always work. One time, in very firm but ladylike fashion, she told off a drug dealer who threatened her.
"I had to say something," she says. "The young lad used lots of special words. He put on a real vaudeville act right there. But usually, I don't respond. If you're gonna sit here and 'F' me and all that, I don't respond."
She didn't know it then, but in a few short hours, the young lad would be hauled off to prison for a drug violation. As he rests his head on the hard cell pillow, perhaps he can take comfort in the fact that his nosy neighbor is no longer on his case.
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