Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Neighborhood Watch

Last week it happened twice.

I was stopped on a sidewalk near home in the evening hours (between 10pm and midnight) by tall white men, confident and handsome, each a little angrier than the situation would warrant.

"Where do you live?" they say to me. They aren't asking in a neighborly way. They are the self-deputized neighborhood watch. Because I won't fess up my exact address, they usually end the conversation by telling me to get the hell out of their neighborhood and stay out.

They picture themselves as cinematic steely-eyed vigilantes.

Let me describe myself. I'm smallslightly under 5 feet tall on a good daywith long messy brown hair; I'm wearing jeans, a plain long-sleeved t-shirt (sans logos, pictures, obscenities, band names, affiliations), and Asics running shoes, the kind with reflective stripes. 

I'm no taller than the average 10 year-old and I'm dressed like one too, an unfashionable 10 year-old. I'm no Tavi Gevinson.

Did I mention that I haven't been 10 for decades and decades?

I'm also an insomniac, apt to be awake late at night. When I was very young I would lock myself in the bathroom and read Mad Magazine when I couldn't sleep. Or I'd lie in bed and balance a pillow on my feet. But as I got older, I started walking. I've been rambling around the neighborhoodwhichever neighborhood I happen to be sleeping infor many years now. 

The funny thing is that it's different when I walk several hours later, at 1 or 2 AM, when it's truly late at night. At 1 AM these guys are usually snug abed, the hum of their air conditioners concealing my quiet footfalls. They don't lose any sleep over me, these opportunistic guardians of the neighborhood.

But this time, it wasn't so late. It was 11:30 at night on a recent Wednesday. I was walking in my parents' neighborhood, a peacock-infested suburb south of LAX. Gordita Beach-adjacent, if you will. The neighborhood has always been on the xenophobic end of the spectrum, a hotbed of surfer localism and long-time card-carrying John Birch Society membership.

I'd gotten as far as Plainfield Drive. Plainfield is a long, gentle descent: under the bright streetlights, you can see all the way from the top of the hill to the bottom. Blocks in this neighborhood can be almost a mile long.

Although there are a few mature treesthe houses are about 50 years oldthe view from where I'm standing is mostly unobstructed. Big shade trees just don't grow in the rocky alkaline soil around here. On one side of the street is a steep iceplant-and-ivy covered hill, on the other, midcentury houses. The side of the street with houses has a sidewalk; the iceplant-and-ivy side doesn't.

I'd actually noticed a house midblock on Plainfield the night before. A small grave marker near the sidewalk had caught my eye. I'd hoped it was a memorial for a hamster or a goldfish; the thought of the family German Shepherd buried so close to the sidewalk made me shudder. I'd also clocked new artificial turf, matching ram's head ornaments on either side of the driveway, and an American flag affixed to the front of the house. 

I love spotting this kind of stuff when I walk, but I know better than to pause or take a photo (although I might allow myself this luxury around Xmas time, when the decorations are lavish and strange: crèches with a giant baby Jesus and itty-bitty wise men, inflatable Santas and spooky 12 foot tall snowmen, moving merry-go-rounds and animated reindeer).

Anyway, I was walking downhillpurposefullylistening to a several-year-old episode of Catching Up on my mp3 player. A white Mercedes passed me and swung over to park behind another white luxury car on the iceplant-and-ivy side of the street (the side without houses). A third car was already parked directly across the street, in front of the house with the tiny grave marker. It's rare to see so many cars parked on the street here. By this time, I saw that the trunk of the third car, the one nearest me on the sidewalk, was popped open.

A tall figure got out of the Mercedes and started moving stuff in fancy shopping bags from the backseat of his Mercedes into the open trunk of the other car.  

Even so early it's unusual to see other people out when you're in this part of LA. We're all of 270 or 280 blocks from downtown. 

In San Francisco at this hour, I might see someone having a smoke, walking a dog, staggering home from a party, or getting out of an Uber, rolling suitcase in hand. 

Here I rarely see a soul, even at 11:30. 

I kept walking. The figure had resolved itself into a man, well-dressed. Perhaps he lived in the house with the pet grave and statuary out front. Normally I would've tried to avoid him, but really unless I wanted to turn around and go back the way I came, I couldn't. 

In my ears, Joe was telling a story about his cousin Richard's Instagram feed.

I drew even with the man. He'd stopped transferring shopping bags and was saying something to me. I reached up and took one of my earbuds out. I could still hear Joe talking in one ear. The other earbud leaked podcast into the night air.

"Having a nice evening?" the man asked. His voice was aggressive.

"Yes. I am." I said. "And you?" I turned to face him as a 'see? I mean no harm' gesture.

But the man wasn't satisfied with exchanging greetings; he evidently decided to get to the heart of the matter before he let me get back to the podcast.

"Where are you going?" he asked.

"I'm on a walk," I said. "I grew up around here." I smiled at him. 

There. I'd given him enough information to reassure him. No funny business. I'm not writing on the sidewalk or peeing on the artificial turf. Maybe he'd even be delighted by this fit of nostalgia (for who doesn't walk around their childhood neighborhood, marvelling at how memory exaggerates things?). Or perhaps he'd even say he grew up around here too.

"But where do you live NOW?" he said. His face was angry. I realized he'd decided I didn't belong in his middle-class professional neighborhood. 

Do these pants make me look poor?

"Around here," I said. "I live around here." I didn't want to explain that I was visiting my parents.

"Then what's your address?" He was a nice-looking blond dude, but now his face was contorted with rage.

"What's wrong with you?" I said. "You're asking a small woman, walking alone, where she lives? Get a grip, mister!" I noticed that my voice had developed an edge too. I always feel like I'm back in high school when stuff like this happens. I had to tell myself that I wasn't doing anything wrong, because somehow I felt like I was.

He started saying something else, something angry, but I didn't want to keep listening. I put my other earbud back in. Joe was still talking about Richard's Instagram feed, but I couldn't focus on the story. I walked away fast, willing myself not to run. I wondered if this man was going to call the cops on me, or whether he had a gun stashed in the glove compartment of one of the cars. 

The trouble with these mile-long blocks is that you can't turn off on a side street and take a different route. You just have to keep going. So I kept walking. My heart was pounding. I thought he might be watching me, but I didn't want to turn around and check.

I hate confrontations. As I said, I usually walk much later, when the skunks and raccoons are rifling through the black trash toters and the humans aren't out. By the time I go out, the recycling scavengers have already sifted through the blue toters, careful not to leave a mess. The skunks and raccoons aren't so careful; they just flip over the bins to see what's inside. But the skunks and raccoons never ask me where I live.

What's wrong with these crazy white men? Is it so outré to take a walk at night?

I turn left on Monero to check out the view. The moonlight cuts a wide white swath across the dark ocean. You can see the outline of a palm tree. 

It looks like a fucking postcard. 

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