Gladys Kravitz often suspected that something was “up” at the home of her neighbors, Darrin and Samantha Stevens. She’d notice weird comings and goings, people who were often dressed in period costumes, farm animals that appeared from nowhere. She was right; something was going on. Her neighbor was a witch, the mother-in-law was literally a witch (“Hello, Joke Museum…?”) and many of the relatives were warlocks. And the house itself was a giant prop since it was the TV series Bewitched.
The humor of the “nosy neighbor” scenario hinged on what it would take to finally push Gladys’ button. She might simply shake her head in witness to Tabitha riding a unicorn around the front yard. Maybe she’d gasp when Abraham Lincoln was seen manning the barbeque grill and enjoying a beer. But it would take something astounding, such as Napoleon wrestling Hitler (and winning!) to finally pull Gladys across the street to start snooping for real.
So what did it take to get the neighbors and then the police agitated enough about a tent and shanty complex in the backyard of Philip Garrido’s Antioch, California home? I guess we’ll never know, since for 18 years Garrido and his wife imprisoned a young woman and the two children she bore by Garrido in that hell dump… and all the while the neighbors and the cops were never rattled enough to really check things out. To be fair, a neighbor did call police after hearing girl’s voices. But the cops never searched the backyard. Where’s the relentless Gladys Kravitz when you need her?
Had Kravitz been “nosy” enough in Antioch, she might have discovered that three other sex offenders lived within blocks of Garrido and that more than 100 sex offenders share Garrido’s ZIP Code. According to an AP story, justice experts believe relatively isolated communities with low housing prices tend to attract sex offenders who are living on tight budgets and looking to keep a low profile. The Antioch Chamber of Commerce web site offers this three-word slogan for their town: Vision. Connection. Education. Maybe “privacy” should be added to that litany.
What a contradiction that at a time when anybody can view your home on their computer via a satellite in outer space, when your junk mail verifies that data centers know your likes and habits, when anyone can interrupt your home conversations at will with a phone dialing robot, and when many Americans blithely shout the private details of their lives into a cell phone while standing in a crowd… nobody was getting the signal about Garrido’s backyard horror compound.
A few years ago I ended-up calling the Santa Monica Police twice in close proximity. I don’t remember what the first event was, but it was a non-emergency type of “Hey, you might want to check this out…” kind of call. The second time, some youths were climbing up on the roof of a building in our neighborhood. A drug party? Or were they getting into the building, which happened to be a school… and I’d feel terrible finding out later that they had vandalized it. So I called, and the police came quickly and the whole thing got handled and I never heard what the deal was. But now I had dialed the police twice in the matter of a few weeks. I worried that something serious would happen, and on their end the computer would read “He likes to call the police.”
I’m sorry that story does not have an exciting conclusion. I’m just pointing out that at one moment we can feel that we must get involved, and at another we don’t. We see something, and we might stop our car and try to help. Another time, we keep going. What made the difference? I once picked up a friend who was waiting for a bus. “Jump in, I’ll drive you. It’s not out of my way.” Not too many blocks later, I let him out. The car behind me pulled up, and the person driving sincerely complimented me on doing a good deed. You see, my friend was slightly handicapped. But I remember thinking that the driver behind us might have been concerned that I was about to do harm to a stranger. In another scenario, he might have been more than a casual observer: He might have been a hero.
There is a contemporary code that asserts we must now watch out for children with increased mental engagement. Sometimes that code becomes life-saving. Other times it results in bizarre shouted arguments where one stranger is, essentially, telling another stranger how to be a good parent. In public, in front of others. There’s also a version of this that applies to dog owners, but it’s less pressurized and usually involves picking up where your dog left off. How much we pay attention and get involved may oddly contradict modern trends such as the level of digital nudity –real or informational– we readily agree to via the Internet. Gladys Kravitz always knew something was up across the street, whereas Darrin’s boss Larry Tate never had the foggiest notion. Larry ran a big advertising firm. He was supposed to be aware, hip, informed. You wonder if he’d ever look out his window and go, “What’s with those tents in the next yard?”