When My Neighbors Called the Cops on Me
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because maybe the cops aren’t always the problem.
By Eugene S. Robinson
“I had an uncle who lived in Palo Alto. He lived there for 14 years and when he moved out he realized he had never talked to his neighbors even once.” The speaker was Jello Biafra, the former singer for punk rock stalwarts the Dead Kennedys, and he was holding forth on that almost distinctly California weirdness where “the neighborhood” is more a premise than a real thing.
It should be said now that it’s a weirdness I kind of like, coming from New York, where neighborhoods had been like religions.
But I swore I’d miss it a little when I left Palo Alto four years ago and moved back to its more troubled sister city to the East, East Palo Alto. Though its worst days are behind it — it was once dubbed “the murder capital of America,” largely because of the ’90s pox of crack cocaine — it has some of the last affordable real estate in Silicon Valley and very much a neighborhood vibe. Bordered by Facebook and Google, and housing Amazon and IKEA, East Palo Alto is attracting a passel of hipsters and young families. Partially for the “cheap” houses, short commutes to aforementioned companies, and definitely the neighborhood vibe.
Saturdays and Sundays, mariachi music mixes with the belled sound of indie ice cream vendors, kids skateboarding and soccer games at local fields, and a polyglot plays on my passage through the neighborhood: Tongan, Tagalog, Spanish, Hindi, English. So yeah, I knew what the gig was when I took it and so was game, befriending the first neighbor who approached when we moved in, a contractor named Eduardo, who, in a burst of enthusiasm, helped me with a lot of the heavy lifting to get the house in shape.
Sunday, 11:30 p.m. I check the screen and see the world’s smallest horror movie: The street in front of my house is now disco lit with the lights from two police cruisers.
My house sits kitty corner from his and we enjoy an easy relationship of chatting with each other about boxing, home repairs and, yeah, the neighborhood. A woman, Norma, who I assume to be his daughter, a UCLA grad, has moved back home for a bit with either her husband or boyfriend. Which is to say, we’re friendly but not personal. I’ve not inquired and he’s not offered, but they seem to be solid people. And they’re connected to a guy I dig so, via the law of association, I figure they’re OK.
Right up until my phone calls me. Someone’s rung the doorbell. Sunday, 11:30 p.m. I check the screen and see the world’s smallest horror movie: The street in front of my house is now disco lit with the lights from two police cruisers.
“Can we talk to you a minute, sir?”
Sure. And shuffling out in house slippers, shorts and a T-shirt, I see two cops in a car, two cops in the street, Eduardo’s daughter and her man. They’re standing by the back of her Mercedes SUV, their brows knitted with concern.
“What’s going on?”
“Is this your car parked behind hers?”
“Well, it seems there’s been an accident.”
“Oh. What kind of accident?”
“She says you crashed into her car and it’s damaged.”
“Hmmm…I have no memory of crashing into anyone’s car. Can you show me the damage?”
“Um…” And the mag-light flashlights are dancing around her rear bumper trying to find the concerning damage. “There’s nothing there.”
“She says there is.” He’s a Latino cop, backed with a white woman cop.
Then, from me, a flash of anger. “She could say lots of things, but empirically her bumper doesn’t support this fucking ridiculous fantasy that’s dragged me out of bed on a Sunday night.”
And because anger begets anger, this starts to spiral, the woman cop, heated now, raises her voice and says, “That’s not for you to say! License and registration!”
I look at the woman and her man. She won’t meet my eyes. He looks away.
“Sure. Let me go back inside and grab it. While you try to find ‘damage’ from the ‘accident.’” I go inside, grab my wallet and return. My wife asks what’s wrong and I tell her as I head back out. When I get back out, they’re still trying, unsuccessfully, to find the specific scratch, distinct from other scratches and assorted pieces of dirt, where my bumper presumably touched theirs.
But something else: Everyone is now hot. Possibly as a result of my parting comment. But who knows? The woman starts talking about insurance, the female cop is edging closer, hand on her pistol, the Latino cop when I produce my wallet to grab my license and registration is turning a gimlet eye to the innards of my wallet. Suspecting contraband, or maybe just the conflict contagion. The only one calm is now me, and the woman’s man.
I keep repeating though that this is “a ridiculous waste of time and police resources” while looking at the woman’s man, who, I am sensing, feels a little shame. He never would have called the cops, but he’s also got to sleep at night, so he backs the home team. I get this.
But if we’re all going tribal, my feelings that this is going to get worse for me worsen. It’s three Latinos, one of whom is a cop, and a white woman cop, all angry. All for maybe different reasons. Maybe class reasons, or caste, or gender and race, maybe all and whatever present paranoias kick in when dealing with a 220-pound African-American male are all kicking in now in this distinctly American melange of morbid, self-defeating obsessions.
They don’t know it, but I can see they’re all getting closer, and though I’m cooled out now in a kind of calm, I can feel this is somehow an affront and their voices are raised and they’re seeking some kind of redress for something that needs no redress.
Then magic: My wife appears. She’s a professional photographer and has a camera to document the woman’s license and registration and the supposed damage, but more than that, it’s clear when she speaks that she’s not from America and just as quickly the spiraling spell of almost violence was defused.
The cops wander off. The woman’s man shrugs and makes a move back to their house. The woman, grousing, follows him. In the passing weeks, I hear from no insurance company, or cops again.
Now I don’t know if it’s the pressures of being Latino in Trump’s America or a Silicon Valley sickness connected to material goods, or some sort of a race-fueled panic. But I do know that while I still speak to Eduardo, he’s the only one in his family I still speak to. And in that way, a certain antisocial balance has been restored to my life.