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Home (In)Security

An alarm symbolizes fear of, even contempt for, the outside world. Why then does it feel so right to key in the code and feel the electronic barrier descend?

November 27, 2005|David L. Ulin | David L. Ulin is Book Editor of The Times.

For the first few weeks after my home alarm was activated, I could not bring myself to turn it on. Instead, I eyed the keypad warily, treading softly through the foyer, as if an errant step might set the siren screaming, might mark me as a trespasser in my own home. Before going out--either alone, or with my family--I'd stand at the doorway, weighing options, trying to decide. It wasn't the leaving that had me worried, but the returning: What if I forgot the code or somehow couldn't shut the system down? I had visions of the police arriving, of my neighbors peering out from behind half-closed curtains, wondering what the commotion was.

Even with the alarm off, there was no avoiding the spectral clicking of the motion detector in the living room or the electronic bleating by which every open door or window announced itself, three sharp hiccups that meant no one could get in or out unannounced. "I like this feature because it helps me keep track of the kids," said the man who came to connect us, as he knelt in the front hall, touching wires to other wires. It was a telling comment, although hardly reassuring, with its implication that the system was designed as much to keep us inside as to keep intruders out.

This is why I hadn't wanted an alarm, why I'd resisted, even after moving into a place that came wired. "We're capitulating," I grumbled to my wife, Rae, as the technician explained security codes and passwords. Then I spent the rest of the day muttering about all that we were losing, the price of our illusory security.

Security has always been a loaded issue in my universe, a source of both reassurance and discontent. I grew up in Manhattan during the 1970s, when fiscal meltdown rendered New York a three-dimensional symbol of urban blight. This was the era of "Death Wish," of "Dog Day Afternoon" and "Serpico," movies that still evoke how the city felt at that moment, a desolate streetscape of crumbling buildings and peculiar rape-lit darkness, beneath which you could literally sense the heat, the frustration, barely contained and boiling over, a volcano about to blow. My parents, raised in what John Cheever called "a long-lost world when the city of New York was still filled with a river light, when you heard the Benny Goodman quartets from a radio in the corner stationery store, and when almost everybody wore a hat," found this to be uncertain territory, and they approached it with a disconcerting ambivalence. On the one hand, they routinely handed over "mug money" so that if anyone tried to rob me, I'd have a few dollars to give up. (Since I went to school in the borough's busiest police precinct, this was no abstract concern.) On the other, they let me roam the city from an early age--I was soloing the subway at the age of 9--and to this day, they live in a doorman building and do not lock their front door even when they're at work.

For me, it was the first of these two points-of-view that lingered. When, after college, Rae (at the time my girlfriend) and I moved to a one-bedroom apartment in SoHo, we bought an armor-plated Medeco lock and iron window gates and sealed up every port of entry. I have never felt as safe as I did tucked into the third floor of our building, behind a steel door with triple locks.

In Los Angeles, of course--where Rae and I moved in 1991--security was more elusive: vague, intangible, amorphous, an article of faith. When we landed, two months after the beating of Rodney King, L.A. still clung to the fantasy of itself as a place outside history, where the customary rules of engagement might not apply. Every apartment we saw seemed wide open, including the one we eventually rented, the upper of a duplex in the Fairfax district, which had slat windows and a security gate a child could breach, as well as a single deadbolt in a wooden door. It's not exactly fair to say I felt insecure in that apartment. Rae and I had two children there, made lasting friends and became part of a community, marking out, on some essential level, a sense of Southern California as our home.

I even began to think of Los Angeles as a city, and of living here as an authentic urban experience, ideas unimaginable to me when I'd arrived. The turning point was the second night of the 1992 riots, when I realized Rae and I were on our own in a chaotic landscape, the darkness thick with ash and the sound of choppers, and no one on whom we could rely. We hunkered down, drew the shades and watched TV until the live footage grew too overwhelming. Then we went to bed. In the morning, it felt as if we'd been through an initiation, like the scant security of our apartment might be enough.

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