Thursday, May 9, 2013

Strangers Among Us

My family lives in a pretty close-knit neighborhood: we barbecue together, we chat over fences, we do regular happy hours, our kids are in and out of each other's houses so much that all the kids feel like siblings, and the adults like globalized parents. I mean, it's about as close to Mayberry as you can get.

And yet: I have neighbors who live kitty-corner from me whom I have never seen. As close as I am to most of my neighbors, there is no getting close to people who want to be alone.

Every neighborhood has their Boo Radleys. Most of them, of course, end up being as utterly harmless as Boo himself. Another neighbor moved in recently, and for several months we actually called him Boo Radley. Not to his face, because we never saw his face. But eventually his girlfriend made him come talk to us: she was visiting him (she lives elsewhere), we were having a happy hour on my patio, and between her nudging and our welcoming, we got him to sit down with us. Turns out he's quite a bit younger than most of us, and a bit shy, but we stayed up late into the night getting acquainted. He's come over a few times since.

Not so the Boo Radleys across the other way. I see cars coming and going sometimes, but I don't think I've ever caught sight of the person or people living there. They must get their mail and put out their trash, but when the heck do they do it? Midnight?

Anything could be happening behind those doors.

Boo Radley's House

So you know where I'm going with this, right? After Charles-Ramsey-As-Hero, the second narrative of the Cleveland story that's got my attention is The-Neighbors-Should-Have-Known.

Three women, held captive in a house (not a cellar, not a bunker), for a decade, and nobody noticed. People passed that house every day, walking their dogs, riding their bikes, eating their apparently-ubiquitous McDonald's, completely oblivious to the horrors inside. 

How can this be? The neighbors seem just as baffled as the rest of us, or more so. “I just thought he was odd,” said one neighbor, Hector Lugo. Now, he added, “you get chills walking past the house.”

Neighbors hung out with the kidnapper, Ariel Castro, and look back on these seemingly ordinary interactions now with a tinge of horror. “I barbecue with this dude,” said Ramsey, recalling his exchanges with Castro over the past year. “We eat ribs and whatnot and listen to salsa music ... He just comes out to his backyard, plays with the dogs, tinkers with his cars and motorcycles, goes back in the house. So he's somebody you look, then look away. He's not doing anything but the average stuff. You see what I'm saying? There's nothing exciting about him.”

Another neighbor, Edwin Garcia, said he noticed Castro heading into the house “with these big ass bags of McDonald’s in his hand. We always just thought he was getting himself a big breakfast and lunch.” We tend to look for the explanations that are both simple and soothing. And that usually works out pretty well. Even if Garcia had decided those big-ass bags of fast food meant something terrible, what could he have done? Called the police to report junk-food overload?

Still, the neighbors can't help blaming themselves, and the media seems happy to join in: you should have known. The women were right there. You missed it, it's your fault, too. Or, we self-incriminate: we all are too separated from our communities, none of us talk enough anymore.

Hey, maybe in some parts of the world, you can just barge in on hermits — make sure nothing untoward is taking place. My husband was born and raised in the US, but has family in the Middle East and spent a year in Nazareth. He tells me that one of the biggest culture shocks was how nosy everyone was there: there was no concept of privacy. Everyone was all up in everyone else's business, all the time.

In the US, though, we have a strong expectation of privacy, and the most private place of all is our home. We can't just bust into someone's house to see whether something fishy is going on; and even for the police to do it, they have to have powerful probable cause. Generally, we like it this way.

This strong value on privacy and property means that nefarious activities will continue to occur in people's homes. In our last neighborhood, a meth lab was discovered just around the corner. And one day I went outside, baby on hip, to find an officer vaulting my backyard fence, gun drawn: he suggested I stay inside 'cos he was just about to arrest my neighbor. No indication before this that anything criminal was happening in that house. (I never found out what the guy was arrested for, either.)

So I just don't see any way around it. We tend to want to cast wide nets of blame after incidences like this, but given our strong penchant for privacy — I think we need to be very hesitant about blaming Castro's neighbors.

How about you? How well do you know your neighbors? 

Bill Pugliano, Getty Images, May 7, 2013


  1. I really thought this post was gonna be a slice-of-life, Steph. I had to do a bit of a double take when it went another way.

    We've been in our neighborhood for almost nine years and we're like you guys. We know the ones across the street, next door, two houses down, six houses down (child our squirt's age lives there) and caddy-corner.

    1. Sorry! I did try to keep it slice-of-lifey, since I know I get too theoretical sometimes. :)

      But your response begs a question: you say caddy-corner, I say kitty-corner. How the heck did *either* of those terms come into use? What do corners have to do with either caddies or kitties?

      The mind. It boggles. (And no, I'm not going to google it. Too easy.)

  2. Like everybody else, I only know my neighbors to the extent that they let me. If someone hides behind a false facade, how can we know it isn't real if that's all we ever see?


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