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February 28, 2010

The Stranger

Fear My home town - Los Angeles - does not have a reputation for friendliness.

I think this has more to do with geography than anything else. Our city came of age with the automobile. Yes, we have public transportation, but it is more trouble than it's worth in my far flung suburban neighborhood... and so we rely on our cars to get where we have to be.

That's one reason why we don't have a lot of pedestrian traffic -- and consequently, there are few opportunities for folks to interact in public. We are self-contained in our own little automobile pods and tend to socialize only with the people we already know.

My teenage daughter was a baby when we moved into our home, so we've lived on our street for a long, long time. You would think I'd know my neighbors.

You would be wrong. 

I do have a cordial relationship with the older couple living to the left of us, and the nice widow who lives to our right. But I've never met any of the families who live beyond our immediate next door neighbors. How could I? The only times I see them are when I drive past their homes... and notice that they're either getting in or out of their cars, too.

And that's pretty much when our neighbors see us, too.

This situation is starting to change -- ever since last month, when we acquired a dog.

Mac loves going on walks through the neighborhood, and  I'm finding that it forces me to get some much-needed exercise. Even better, I am getting to know some of the people who reside on our block. That's what I was doing at 6:30 in the morning, when I first met the stranger.

This in itself was odd; I don't usually run into other people that early -- unless they are dashing into their cars so they can hit the 405 before the traffic gets really bad.

The other odd thing was that this man wasn't moving. He was just standing on the sidewalk, straddling a bicycle and fiddling with a backpack.

When I encounter a pedestrian on these walks, I usually stop so the other guy can pass us. You never know when someone you meet will have a fear of dogs. But since this man was stationary and I was almost home, I needed to go past him.

The dog lunged, and the man looked scared.

"It's OK," I told him. "He's friendly."

I was immediately sorry I told him that, but I concluded he would have figured it out, anyway. Mac is just a big furry marshmallow.

We passed the stranger and now he was following us. Something about that was creeping me out, and even though I was only a couple of doors away from my own house, I decided to cross the street and continue the dog's walk around the next block.

As Mac merrily forged ahead, I glanced back at the other side of the street. The stranger seemed to be tracking us. When the dog stopped to sniff some ground or lift his leg, the man stopped, too. When we continued, he continued.

 As I turned the corner down the next street, I saw the man peek into one of the blue recycling bins lining the street that morning and I breathed a little easier. I concluded he was merely looking for bottles and cans, and probably harmless. By the time I looped back to our place, I figured he'd be well past our address and near the middle school up the road.

But on my return, I was dismayed to discover that he was still standing on a lawn two doors from our house. It was now past 7:00 AM and I needed to get inside and wake up my daughter. (I knew she was still in bed because I had been calling the house throughout the unscheduled portion of our walk and she never got up to answer.)

As I crossed the street back to our house, the man started towards us. I tried not to look afraid, but I was. I unlocked the door as quickly as I could and entered the house. Thirty minutes later, as we backed out of our driveway to go to school, he walked into the middle of the street and stared at us.

At that point, my daughter was feeling a bit creeped out by him, too.

Later that morning, the man and his bicycle were still parked outside my neighbor's house.

"You should call the police," my husband said. The previous week, a local radio station had reported the presence of a serial rapist who had attacked women in a zip code nearby.

I understood his concern, but I was reluctant to make the call. The man was African-American, as is the family who owns the house he was hanging out at. I knew he didn't live there - but what if he was a family member or house guest? What if I was the West Coast version of the neighbor who called the cops on Henry Louis Gates for breaking into his own home? 

I would be embarrassed beyond belief if he turned out to be a member of that family, here for a visit. What an awful, unfriendly neighborhood, he would tell them. How would I be able to look my neighbors in the eye after that?

But if he didn't belong there, they would want someone to come and check the situation out -- wouldn't they?

I felt like I was getting a preview of the old woman I'll someday be, and I didn't like it. You know, the one who clings to her handbag the minute she gets on an elevator with a person of color. The one who is afraid to go out at night. The woman with bars on her windows because she's terrified of being robbed.

The vision of myself as a helpless, defenseless, older female was even more frightening than the (I presumed) homeless, harmless (I hoped) man who had just taken off his shirt in my neighbor's yard.

I called the police and was relieved to find out that they would take my report anonymously. They said they would send a car to the house to investigate. I don't know if they did; I never saw one. The man remained outside the house for the rest of the day. The next morning, he was gone.

I haven't seen him again - but the glimpse into my future haunts me every day.

Original post for Los Angeles Moms Blog and 50-Something Moms Blog by Donna Schwartz Mills - who tries to fend off the fear of aging at her personal site, SoCal Mom.

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