About a year ago I got a call at two in the morning. As anyone knows, when the phone rings at that hour, terror takes hold. I grabbed the cell I keep beside me, sure something bad had happened to my aging mother, who lives nearby. Indeed, it was her young nighttime caregiver, Myra, sounding remarkably composed while announcing that someone had just broken into the house. Is he gone? I asked as calmly as possible. Are you two OK?
He left, she said, and they were both fine. I told her I would call the police and be right there. I hung up, threw on clothes, looked at the sleeping form of my husband—who has had his own health issues—and decided he should not be the token male on the scene. But I didn’t want to arrive at my mom’s without some backup in case the intruder was still lurking. I called a couple who lives in the neighborhood, and they came with me. Even as my heart was pounding, I couldn’t resist a small internal smile over the fact that when danger appears, the reflex is to enlist a man—certainly that is mine.
When we arrived, the cops weren’t there yet, but Myra told us what had happened. My mother was asleep and Myra was fitfully dozing in the small room next to hers when she heard footsteps in the kitchen. Brave far beyond what I would have been (and some would say foolhardy, though I am touched to the core by her determination to protect my mother), she tiptoed into the kitchen. She didn’t see anyone, so she padded into my mother’s room, where a tall young man was leaning over the bed and peering down at her. When Myra appeared in the doorway, he bolted past her, down the steps and out the front door.
I quaked at the idea of someone standing over my tiny mama, who fortunately had slept through the whole thing. What was he thinking? What was he intending to do? The police came, and the story was repeated. They listened and looked around. They were nice and thorough yet quiet so as not to awaken my mother. They figured the guy had managed to jimmy the front door and that he was looking for money or valuables to swap for drugs. He won’t be back, they said. He’ll try somewhere else. But get better locks. Check everything.
That’s what we did: We bought bolts and new keys and fixed any loose window closures. As the weeks passed, I exhaled again. There the matter rested until a few weeks ago, when a neighbor turned up at my mother’s door in the middle of the day to say someone had tried to break into his house a few nights earlier. He heard him, yelled, and the man took off. He said the same thing had recently happened to another resident down the block who came home one afternoon and found a back window ajar and his mother’s jewelry gone. I talked to all parties concerned and became concerned. Whoever this was—whether or not it was the man who had gotten into my mother’s house—clearly someone was making the burglary rounds. The rotating caregivers were scared, each night barricading the front door with dining room chairs. Enough, I thought. It was time to summon one of those companies that would secure her house.
I had not felt compelled to place that call in a lifetime of living here and had hoped never to make it. We have had periods in which there is an upsurge in crime, when we all get collectively spooked. There was one 12 years ago, if memory serves. Everyone was jittery. People swapped stories about home invasions. A group of friends had been held hostage by a gang of gunmen at a restaurant on San Vicente and stripped of their watches and jewelry. I was aware, as I took my afternoon walk, that many of the houses in my neighborhood had suddenly sprouted those little lawn signs that said Moore Protection—Home Security or Bel-Air Patrol: Armed Response. I understood the impulse to sign up for one of these services but resisted it (as did my mother). A friend chirpily said, “You don’t have to worry. No one is going to try to rob you. You live in Brentwood’s smallest house.” He was being funny, but there was truth to his observation. Our bungalow is nothing splashy. It would not be your first choice if you were looking for expensive stuff to steal. We also have a big Lab that barks loudly when anyone approaches. So I felt relatively safe, always have—even in those times when a contagion of fear seems to wash over L.A. There was a practical resistance, too; I wasn’t keen on shelling out the $1,500 alarm system installation fee and $30 monthly monitoring bill.
But surrender I have. It began with my mother. I called one of the leading security companies, and out came this attractive, efficient woman with fancy brochures and a shiny laptop who sold me an alarm system without breaking a sweat. I put aside my quibbles because, after all, this was my mother, and the idea of anyone hurting her in the ninth inning—or threatening the loving women who have been taking care of her—is odious. It’s not fair for them to be scared. So I could easily rationalize putting a system in her house, though I didn’t like it, and if she were aware of what I was doing, she wouldn’t like it, either.
Gutsy and independent, my mother has lived alone from the day I went to college until about two years ago. She was never swayed by an uptick in reported crimes, never tempted to move to a building where there was more obvious security. Now I’m making decisions for both of us, and the woman who sold me the system for my mom is paying me a visit in the next few days. I am decidedly susceptible. I am on alert. I want someone, somewhere somehow, to protect me.
Here’s the irony—and it is not lost on me. Crime in L.A. is way down. Violent offenses are as low as they have been in half a century. The number of burglaries during the first three months of 2011 dropped 12 percent from the year before. But we react to anecdotes, not statistics, and I have heard too many of the former. Another friend in a well-secured condo building called to say that someone had used a crowbar to get into a fourth-floor unit. With so many people hurting financially, I had been expecting a surge of break-ins and thefts. My mind is saying, So, the crime spree is finally happening. It comes at a time when my once strapping husband is in bed more often than not—an additional factor nudging me toward a feeling of vulnerability.
She is coming, the competent woman with her slick pamphlets and gentle hard sell. I am debating with myself, wondering if I have the courage to resist my current jitters and say no, not now, not yet. I don’t want that decal out there besmirching the enchanting front of my white clapboard cottage, which has been standing here inviolate since it was built in 1924. I want to live as I always have, with no fancy security system, no alarms, but I am not sure I can hold the line.
Illustration by Gracia Lam