We have a doorbell on the outside of our gate. It hangs on the wall next to our courtyard door and anyone who feels like ringing it can walk right up, press the shiny silver button several times in a row, and let me know that someone is waiting at my door.
This is the first time in my adult life I've had a doorbell accessible to anyone who would like to ring it. In the States, doorbells are often an afterthought. My parent's doorbell is right next to the door-sized window, so if you're going to ring it, there's a pretty good chance we saw you pull up in your car, walk up the front walk, and press that little lighted button before we waved at you through the window. Maybe someone didn't see you - it was Saturday movie night after all - but that's never a guarantee. Doorbells are for politeness. Or when someone is in the bathroom. But there not really there for surprise.
Our first apartment in Cairo theoretically had a doorbell, but it was always guarded by the ever-vigilant, ever-jealous boab. His job was to keep unauthorized doorbell pushers from pushing the doorbells they were unauthorized to push. We paid him fifty pounds a month to keep the riffraff from smudging our shiny brass doorbell. And so when that doorbell did ring, it was a surprise. Who could it be? Someone dropping by unannounced? The McDonald's delivery man? The garbage man asking for his salary (no, he always rings the back doorbell).
In Baku we lived in a gated compound guarded by security guards who vetted the doorbell ringers. If you didn't look like the right sort of person, your finger would not be bothering our doorbell. Our branch met at a member's house in the compound, and a filipino brother had to call the branch president one morning to get him past the guards. So our doorbell was usually unmolested, save for the occasional neighborhood kid who got bored and decided to play ring-n-run. Our doorbell phone was off the hook for three weeks one time before I realized it.
Our doorbell here, however, is open to anyone and everyone who feels like ringing it. We live on a major road, with a public alley running down one side of our wall, a bus stop twenty feet from our door, and a Chinese business next door that shares the exact same house number with only a little 'a' to tell the two addresses apart. This translates to a lot of people ringing our doorbell.
Sometimes the doorbell will ring, the children will rush to look at the picture (we have a camera because I'm not opening my gate for random people I don't know), and nobody will be there. Some child going to school will think it funny to walk by all of the houses ringing all of the doorbells (this is what I tell myself to avoid feeling like it was personal).
Other times the doorbell will ring and the picture will show a very Tajik man who I was very not expecting. I used to talk to them and tell them that I didn't know what they were saying, but this only made them vainly hope that if they ring more, someone who does speak Tajik will come and let them in to the house that they were expecting ours to be. So now I just ignore them.
Some times there are police men. Those I never, ever talk to and never, ever, ever open the door for. Ever.
Occasionally there are men with bills or letters. Those also get ignored.
In the summer, my berry lady will come with fresh strawberries, raspberries or both. We have no schedule arranged, she just comes when she has something to sell. Usually I open the door for her - I'm very glad I know the word for strawberry - but if we haven't finished our last pail, we're not home. Even though we're almost always at home.
There's also the milk lady. Or her sister. Or her nephew. She also has no apparent schedule, and comes early in the morning in summer and later in the morning in winter. I always let her in. You never offend the people that bring you fresh milk. Because then they might stop bringing it and where would we get our cream from? I'd have to start buying it again.
Then there are the young men looking for young women who gave them the wrong address. I tried to convince them that those ladies really didn't want to talk to them anyway, but they didn't understand me and insisted, as those type always do, that it was true love.
My favorite doorbell ringers are the embassy maintenance men. They have keys, and so ring the doorbell and then let themselves in. When I'm on the third floor teaching school and the door rings, Kathleen knows to check out her window to see if anyone is coming through the gate. If nobody's coming and there's only one ring I don't even bother to open the door. People who really want me will ring more than once.
Our gardener, Aurora, always rings the doorbell on Wednesday mornings and I always forget that she will ring. She comes right as school is gearing up and I'm too busy directing bodies and teaching reading lessons to remember that, oh yeah, it's Wednesday and the gardener is here again. I always wish for another key so I don't have to let her in, but never do anything about it.
The most frequent doorbell ringer is our generator. It always disconnects the house power when switching between city and generator power, and whenever the power comes back on, the doorbell rings. We took at least a month to figure that sequence out - power goes out, five seconds later power comes on, then doorbell rings - and Brandon did a lot of stumbling down to the door at three in morning until we got wise to the generator's tricks. Even now it will sometimes trick us - it's harder to notice the power flicking if you don't have lights on - but Brandon more than me because he's not home as much.
And every now and then, on rare occasions, people I don't pay but I do know will ring my doorbell. Usually they call before they show up and so I'm expecting them. But every now and then someone just shows up.
A few weeks ago, I got a call from a friend. Her husband would be stopping by after work to pick up that thing they'd left at our house earlier. Okay, I'll get it ready and hand it over to him. Then, like all things not on fire or actively whining for my attention, I forgot about it.
Several hours later, the doorbell rang. I decided to be curious and looked at the picture. A man stood there, looking very Russian. I watched him standing in the dark and admired his patience as he waited for someone to answer his ring. Silly man, I thought, you can wait there all night because I'm not answering the door. I don't speak Russian and I don't care to tell you that.
He kept standing there and the children crowded around the view screen, watching the very patient man. He rang the doorbell again. In a fit of pity, I called Brandon over. "There's this man standing at the door. Could you ask him what he needs?" Brandon picked up the phone. "Yes? Oh, hello, how are you? I'll be right out with that thing." Then he hung up. And I told him about the thing I was supposed to remember. Then I was relieved that I'd called Brandon over.
Moral of the story: don't assume that everyone who rings your doorbell is up to no good. Some of them might be picking up the car seat their wives sent them to get.