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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS | VENTURA COUNTY LIFE

It's a Wary Day in the Neighborhood

May 07, 1999|STEVE CHAWKINS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dear Friend? Neighbor? Fellow Resident?

I'm sorry this letter has to start so impersonally, but I didn't get your name when we met last Sunday in the quiet minutes before twilight.

Maybe a name would have taken the awkwardness out of our encounter. You could have said something like, "Hi, I'm Ted (or whatever), and--now, don't tell me--you must be . . . a stinking, drooling, depraved, degenerate, bug-eyed pervert."

Or you might have tried Mister Rogers' gentle greeting--"Welcome to the neighborhood." But you didn't. Allow me to refresh your memory.

I'm the guy in the blue jacket who was striding down a quiet lane when you pulled up alongside me and lowered your window.

"Can I help you?" you said.

Frankly, I was surprised. I'd worked up a nice sweat on my walk, but I thought it would be taken as the glow of health, not as a raging fever. I didn't think I looked as if I needed help. I also know that when strangers ask if you need help, they either want to help you or kick you around the block.

So, as you might recall, I said: "No."

Still, your desire to help was unabated.

"Looking for someone?"

I began to get uneasy. Don't people in America have the right to walk down the street for no reason at all? What happened to the freedoms of religion, speech, peaceful assembly and aimless wandering?

Besides, if you must know, I wasn't aimless at the time. I was looking not for a person, but for an answer. I was wondering: Would members of a street gang composed of grammarians refer to themselves as "whomboys"?

I know I was thinking about that because I think about it on most of my walks. But because I wasn't looking for a person, I told you: "No, I'm not looking for anyone."

For a few seconds, we stared at each other. Then you got me mad.

"You live Up Here?"

You might as well have demanded my birth certificate, my draft card, my bank statement and my credit record. No question more chillingly underscores the difference between insiders and outsiders: "You live Up Here?"

In this case, Up Here is a terrific place. It's a neighborhood of tall palms, cascading bougainvillea and spacious old homes with heart-stopping views of the Pacific. I have friends who live on this steep, lush hillside, and I envy them. Oh, the talks we've had as we gazed out to the islands from the picture window.

But I didn't think your "You live Up Here?" was intended as sociable.

That's why I snapped: "No! I live Down There!" I gestured at the region below Main Street, where our homes are smaller, our streets are flatter, and our views are up the hill, of the people who have the views.

I'm sorry I rattled you. In a voice that wasn't as certain as it had been just seconds before, you told me that your girlfriend had complained of someone going through the neighborhood "looking in windows."

Ah, the things I could have said!

I could have pointed out that from any public thoroughfare in this great, hurly-burly country of ours, you're allowed to open your eyes as wide as dinner plates and look anywhere you want.

I could have lectured you on the history, use and value of curtains, drapes and mini-blinds.

And I certainly could have noted the literal impossibility of strolling through a neighborhood of showplace homes and keeping your eyes right-down-there-on-the-asphalt, buddy.

Instead, I just grimaced and shook my head, too angry to say much of anything. As I stalked toward my lair on the other side of Main Street, I looked back over my shoulder and watched you, watching me.

Now that a few days have passed, I feel bad that your girlfriend lives with such fear. Maybe something horrible happened to her once. Or maybe there really is a peeper crouched in the shrubs of the hillside homes--a scary prospect for anyone, anywhere.

But fear is also a symptom of our times. If you were a police officer (Are you a police officer?), would you be one of those who stop minority men only for showing up at night outside "their" neighborhoods? If you were a parent (Are you a parent?), would you force your son to end his friendship with the boy in the black coat?

That's why I'm reaching out to you, Ted, or whatever your name is. Maybe we can have a beer. I know a nice place Down There.

Steve Chawkins is a Times staff writer. His e-mail address is steve.chawkins@latimes.com.

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