My friend John (not his real name, incidentally, because he’s become notorious enough for reasons I’m about to explain) decided that he wanted to please his future bride. He made a rather big mistake.
A gregarious, religious and deeply smitten man, his error was in failing to appreciate how differently others see the world. John is eternally well-meaning. He insists on saying a prayer before each meal. And when his betrothed says jump, he doesn’t ask how high, he assumes she wants maximum effort. In other words, as my spouse is quick to point out, he’s the polar opposite of me. For point of reference, I’m the type who assumes the worst of human nature. In theory, this allows me to be pleasantly surprised. I rarely am.
The couple, in their second half of life, are in the early stages of building a new home, their first together, near the Atlantic Ocean. It is quite the project, a labor of love. One of the hundreds of decisions they had to make was how to design an entrance. Two doors or one? Glass panels? Wood, fiberglass or steel? They went back and forth until Jane (again not her real name because, you know, she’d kill me) casually remarked that she really liked the front door of a recently renovated house no more than a block and a half away. While Jane was occupied with other matters, John borrowed her pickup, drove to the house and knocked on that very door. Nobody was home. They had met the owners, a young couple, weeks earlier so he thought nothing of pulling out his cellphone and snapping a photograph of the entrance so it could be shown to their contractor.
What neither person knew was that the owners had one of those doorbell security cameras. And John had set it off. And so the owners came home to discover that someone whom they did not recognize (his face was partially obscured by his cellphone) had taken a picture of their front door without their permission. Was it a tax assessor? No identification. Was it an insurance salesman? A real estate agent? Those seemed unlikely, too. Here’s another possibility: Might it be an evildoer casing the joint to decide how best to break in at some later date? Aha! A distinct possibility, at least enough so that they posted a copy of the photograph on Nextdoor, a popular online message board used, according to its advertisements, to “get local tips, buy and sell items, and more.”
In reality, or at least in our little corner of suburbia, Nextdoor is mostly used for “and more” — to find reliable contractors and to report suspicious behavior. John fit the second category rather neatly and so, not long after his photo hit the web, the comments starting stacking up like the police tip line at the informants’ convention. These are the inexact quotes: “I think I’ve seen him around.” “He looks familiar.” “Have you called the police? You should.” “Can you make out the truck’s license plate?” “How awful for you.” And on and on. Many openly speculated about just how far downhill society had slid to produce such a monster. He was, perhaps, part of a gang. Might they be coming to my door next?
Eventually, Jane heard from a friend who thought the person looked an awfully lot like her fiance. She checked the app and was instantly mortified. She called the couple and apologized profusely. They took down the photo and the accompanying comments, but John’s fame had quickly spread. Soon, he was getting funny looks while taking walks around the block. Friends chided him for his new notoriety on the internet. A lawyer suggested he should not make a habit of taking front door photos while standing on someone else’s private property. Take it from the street, was his First Amendment-backed advice.
As for me, I instantly recognized that this was the perfect encapsulation of the social media-fueled angst and paranoia of our times amplified by the isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic. In a different era, there would have been no doorbell cameras, no mass panic. And if a neighbor had seen this, he or she would simply have approached John and asked him what he was doing. Instead, technology helps work us up into a lather. Our worst thoughts roam free bouncing around from cellphone to cellphone, computer to computer, brain to brain. We don’t know our neighbors by sight. We don’t gather along our block or street. We don’t even call. And we don’t always think the kindest, most generous thoughts of those around us whom we don’t really know.
I would comment further on this ugly trend, but my security system just now texted me with the image of a man sticking his arm into my mailbox. I have no idea his intention but he drove off rather quickly in what appeared to be a government-issued vehicle. You can’t be too careful. It might have been John. Or Jane. On further review, they do seem like the type.
Peter Jensen is an editorial writer at The Sun; he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.