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Loud voices and alarums in the night


MY MOTHER recently had an alarm system installed in her house. Now she can only enter the house through the back door. Whenever she comes in, she has 30 seconds to cross the kitchen and punch in a code on a little panel of buttons on the wall near the refrigerator. If she doesn't make it in time, an ear-splitting voice booms out through the house: YOU ARE TRESPASSING ON PRIVATE PROPERTY! THE POLICE ARE ON THEIR WAY! PLEASE LEAVE IMMEDIATELY!

Of course, the voice is intended for criminals breaking in through a window. But, as might be expected, it is usually my mother who sets it off. She is very embarrassed by this but I don't see why. Most of her neighbors in the affluent suburb where she lives have similar alarms that they regularly set off. On a typical afternoon, an intermittent chorus of booming voices, loud beeps and whining blares fills the summer air like the mating calls of some species of giant locusts.

My uncle persuaded my mother to install the system, despite her balking at the cost. My uncle lives down the street in a big house full of valuable possessions, so he's had an alarm system for years. There have been several break-ins in the neighborhood recently, but I don't think my mother has a lot of valuable possessions. She has some nice furniture, but she doesn't wear expensive jewelry, the VCR is old and battered-looking and my mother doesn't have a computer or stereo system.

Any burglar would be sorely disappointed by what he found in my mother's house. However, he wouldn't know that beforehand, and he might decide out of anger to avenge himself on my mother, a small gray woman who lives alone. So my uncle's advice was probably a good idea.

These days, many people who don't live in big houses or own expensive things have alarms in their cars. A walk across any large parking lot is like walking through a swamp when the spring peepers are noisy -- cars are resting in their spaces, contentedly beeping and blooping to each other -- unless you come too close to one, at which point it begins frantically to screech or scream. At the high school where I teach, it is de rigeur for students to have a loud alarm system on their big sports cars.

Occasionally an errant student will stroll through the parking lot in the middle of a class period, setting off all the car alarms at the same time. One young man particularly impressed his peers by installing a voice alarm similar to my mother's in his Camaro. A light brush against the fender elicits a terrifically loud announcement: YOU ARE TOO CLOSE TO MY CAR! PLEASE STEP BACK!

Of course, giving such an order to a group of adolescents inevitably results in their doing just the opposite. The day the young man first brought his car to school, I came out of the building in the afternoon to find a small crowd around it merrily pushing each other onto the hood while the voice repeated its stern warning over and over.

As soon as I began opening windows in my house this spring, I noticed the sirens. At night, when my kids are in bed and the house is quiet, the sirens down on the avenue are more or less constant -- some fire engines and ambulances, perhaps, but BTC mostly police cars, judging from the "crime log" in my local paper.

Usually, convenience stores are being held up. But there have been plenty of car thefts, purse snatchings and muggings recently. House break-ins are on the rise, too, even though it's not an expensive area. The worst was last month, when three women were abducted and raped in three weeks.

So, what used to be thought of as "'inner city crime" has moved to the suburbs, accompanied by an excessive and worrisome din. I know lots of people count me as fortunate that drug #F dealers' bullets aren't flying up and down my street. But that may not be far off, either, and I wonder if there's anything I can do about it. I get many phone calls from people selling home alarm systems. But wiring my windows with a loud electronic voice doesn't seem to be an answer.

For now, I'd rather rely on my own voice. I have a fantasy -- a ridiculous one, no doubt -- about waking up in the night, finding a burglar in the house, and talking to him. Maybe I'd begin by offering him a cup of coffee or a beer, or asking him what kind of gun he was holding. I'd ask him if he'd ever robbed a house before, and if he'd ever killed anyone.

Of course I'd let him know that he was welcome to anything I owned, but that, like my mother, I really don't have many valuables. I'm sure I'd plead with him not to harm my wife and kids, or me, but I hope I wouldn't cry or act terribly afraid of him. After all, burglars and muggers are people, too.

Many of the teen-agers I teach, coming from impoverished, broken or abusive homes, are likely candidates for criminal activity. But while in school they look and act just like all the other kids. Maybe if I could show my burglar that I believed he had some worth, some humanity, he'd just take my cash and leave me alone.

I know this is pure fantasy, to be greeted by actual crime victims with howls of anger and derision. Anyone breaking in my house would most likely be a drug addict, a crackhead, for whom murder or rape is easier than carrying on an intelligent conversation.

But what's the alternative? To live in a continual state of alarm, to have screaming daily reminders that people are to be feared and frightened away? I guess I'll just keep talking -- to students, burglars, to anyone who'll respond.

Or maybe I should take up martial arts.

Andrew McBee writes from Baltimore.

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