"We try not to provoke people. Which for me is pretty hard," says Keith Lane, commander of Tremont's BOBCAT: Citizens on the Prowl patrol.
Building Our Block Clubs All Together is a CB convoy of 10 Tremont residents. They troll the neighborhood in their cars, alert for unseemly activity and burnt-out streetlights. Though the patrol was established more than a year ago by the Tremont West Development Corporation, a debate still rages over what's worth calling in and what isn't, with voices clashing and knuckles rapped on tables at meetings.
The difference between "fighting crime" and "bullying somebody who's really just minding their own business" is in the headlights of the beholder.
Chain-smoking and wearing a black knit cap, Lane, 34, is a recovering alcoholic with a thirst for heroism. He wants to be a cop and hopes that providing "an extra pair of eyes and ears for the police" will earn him brownie points.
Once, he tackled an "abusive" 16-year-old neighbor with one hand while cell-phoning police with the other. "He was an asshole, but that's not relevant," he says of the teen, who committed suicide a short time later.
"I've had several physical confrontations with people down here," he says. "It's very hard to hold back. But if you don't keep your composure, you're apt to get killed."
"A little bit paranoid" is how BOBCAT patroler Rachel Day describes Lane. "I've lived here two years, and nothing's ever happened. Yet he's had all these terrible things happen to him. He must have a bull's-eye on the back of his jacket."
Those terrible things include having to sit and wait for drug deals to go down during his drive to work. ("That is really starting to irritate me," he says at a meeting.) And drunken Greeks partying in front of his house. And the Rally's bags.
"I'm not the kind of person that will sit down to somebody trying to intimidate me," he warns. "I'll go right back at 'em. If somebody tries to do something to me, I don't stand for it."
As he drives, Lane, who grew up in cow-tipping Columbia Station and moved to Tremont three years ago, scours the streets for prowlers, drug lookouts on bicycles, kids defying curfew, and during lulls, real estate. He's got big plans: A former club DJ who now works as the "freezer dude" for a food service, he wants to invest in Tremont property and open a coffeehouse called Bean Bags.
"See this building here," he says, noting a brick ghost on Professor. "They want $190,000 for this. I wouldn't mind buying it. That would make a niicccee little coffeehouse."
In the past three years, crime has declined slightly in Tremont and throughout Cleveland. But the increasing gap between rich and poor makes the gentrifying neighborhood ripe for theft -- and a citizens' CB patrol -- surmises Scott Nagy, a BOBCAT who's famous for squeezing his Ford pickup through back alleys. "We have the new residents coming in with better incomes, so they have better things to steal."
Lane's 60-year-old patrol partner, Marion Jones, doesn't have better things to steal. A resident of Manhattan Tower, a senior-citizen high-rise on West 14th Street, she's the only BOBCAT who actually lives in the public housing that patrolers watch extra-carefully.
Jones has been robbed twice. Walking home once, she accepted a ride from a stranger. "He took me way out in the doonberries, off the freeway," she rasps. "Then he got my purse and said, 'Now you can get out.'"
The second robbery came seconds after she'd cashed her Social Security check. "Luckily, the landlady let me slide for a month. I was paying it back $166 a month. To come up with that was hard. I ended up going to food shelters, things like that."
On their two-hour patrol, Jones plays sidekick, cackling at Lane's jokes and switching CB channels when their frequency is muddied by trucker talk. Lane reports "a dude beating up a girl" (holding her by the lapels and shoving her) and several undesirables loitering on the corner of CMHA's Valleyview Estates.
"I've always been into law enforcement," he elaborates later. "I tend to know a little bit more than a lot of other people. About what goes on where. Whereas, with some of the other patrollers, it's like 'I didn't see anything!' Sheesh. You're sitting right there."
A nephew of two cops, Lane graduated from a citizens' police academy, where he got to see "the two thousand packets of heroin that were taken from our neighborhood." He's not paranoid, he says, just streetwise.
"She talks stupid stuff too much," he says of Day. "She's under the impression that nothing ever goes on. That people are just basically good people, and there's no crime. That shit happens."
Jones thinks she and Lane make a good though unlikely pair: a gnarled grandmother who sells handmade afghans and a brash young upstart bruiser.
"When I go out with Keith, I don't take my walker with me. I don't need to. He picks me up on the other side of the drive. If I need anything from the store, I'll give him the money, and he'll go in and get it."
On patrol with Jones, Lane admires a batch of new townhomes and rashly remarks that the adjacent public housing should be torn down. That's where, he claims, the "majority of drug trafficking, theft, and graffiti is coming from."
"Nah, I shouldn't say that," he adds, remembering his manners. "There's good people that live there, too." A sunny moment in Gotham City.