The doorbell interrupted dinner for the second night in three weeks, but this time it wasn't a stranger at the door. It was the police.
Two black-uniformed bookends stood there manning opposite sides of our apartment door, their manner all business. I don't remember any amenities being exchanged, just the nature of their first question: Did I have any children? It was an inquiry that under different circumstances might have scared the hell out of me, because I am the father of two girls--4-year-old Courtney and 20-month-old Erin. But on this night both were safely inside with their mother.
So I let the expression on my face ask a question of my own: What was this all about?
The man on my right, the older of the two, said that they were investigating an anonymous report of a child "screaming" in our apartment, making all the sounds of someone in terrible distress. Child abuse was suspected.
Ah. Now I understood. And, relieved, I began to grin. Erin had done it again.
Erin--a beautiful, joyful bundle of fun--is a screamer. She screams when she's hungry. She screams when she's thirsty. She screams when she's tired, and she screams when she's wet. And when she screams she gives it her all; no victim in any horror movie has ever sounded more terrified, desperate, anguished or pained. It is something that my wife and I have managed to live with.
But our neighbors have not, apparently.
The first time that our dinner was interrupted by the doorbell, about two weeks before the police visit, I had found a woman at the door--a neighbor whom I had never met. She wondered if our kids were OK; she kept hearing these impassioned cries from our apartment . . . . I told her that they were fine, and laid the blame for the racket firmly where it belonged: with Erin. I apologized and thanked her for her concern, and she went away. But I could tell that she didn't believe me.
Thinking of her again as the police stood before me, I laughed and invited the officers in, realizing that they would need to see the girls in order to be reassured that someone had merely made an innocent mistake. Erin came to the front room on cue, curious to see who our visitors were. They looked her over first--playfully, politely. Her big sister had picked a small scab off one of her eyelids the day before, and one of the officers noted the mark that it had left behind and asked her about it. She pretended not to hear the question.
Next I took them back to the bedroom to meet my daughter Courtney. My wife was somewhat startled to see me escort a pair of policemen through our home, but reacted just as I had when I explained the purpose of their visit. Us, accused of child abuse? The parents once voted "Least Likely to Spank" by the maternity-ward nurses? Anyone could see that our children were healthy and happy.
In time our friends from the Los Angeles Police Department agreed, but not before they had given our girls a thorough inspection: shining their flashlights on cheeks and thighs, elbows and bellies, looking for anything out of the ordinary. They asked Courtney if we did much spanking of her or her sister. She shrugged and shook her head, smiling; it was like asking her if she had ever gone for a ride on the space shuttle.
When they were finished, they did the best job of apologizing that anyone possibly could do without actually offering an apology. They were, after all, only doing their job. They had to see the complaint through. In the wake of this odd experience, I initially was not sure how to feel about it. Someone in my building had thought me capable of harming my children, or at the very least tolerating my wife's abuse of them. We all like to think that we appear to others to be exactly what we are, that our goodness and moral character are clearly visible to the naked eye of even the most casual observer.
But with time I came to understand that all too often the truths seen by the naked eye turn out to be lies. Smiles hide demons, and warmth masks madness. External appearances and perfectly rational explanations cannot always be trusted. Clearly, then, the overzealous neighbor who had blown the whistle had acted on the only concrete evidence that she had: the semi-regular cries of a child. And it was not enough to be told that they were harmless. She had to know.
So my ambivalence regarding the subjection of my girls to police scrutiny has turned into something far more positive: relief. And gratitude. Because I find myself sleeping better now, knowing that not everyone out there is afraid to take responsibility for another's child, or to risk a little embarrassment on the chance that those cries in the night mean something more than an empty Playtex nurser.
She was wrong, this time, yes. But she could have just as easily been right.
And if someone similarly inclined toward acting on his or her suspicions had done so, perhaps little Elizabeth Steinberg, the New York 6-year-old who was allegedly beaten to death by "nice" middle-class parents, would be alive today.