Tuesday, October 30, 2007


I considered doing Fun Monday this week, but I really couldn't come up with anything interesting that I never leave the house without. The fact is, I routinely leave the house without important things, like keys and money. I don't carry a purse and if I change pants without swapping out the contents of my pockets, I can end up in trouble. Plus, I have to admit that I'm not great at organised participation in things, unless it involves running around and hitting things with sticks.

Then I read Laurie's post and the Rotten Correspondent's post and realised I could probably use the Fun Monday theme as a writing prompt, because it got me thinking about security.

In 1994, I was mugged at gunpoint in Camden, New Jersey. (If New Jersey is the Garden State, then Camden is the compost pile. I do not recommend it for your next vacation.) The experience was traumatic even though I was so lucky. The thing is, for about three minutes that felt like three days, I really thought I was dead. I was just waiting to be dead. It's hard to explain what it feels like to come out of something like that. In fact, it might be impossible.

I lost a lot that night - not monetarily but emotionally. My sense of security, of self-confidence, of youthful invincibility were taken. I also gained some Major Issues, a veritable library of safety-related phobias.

I carried those issues with me for a very long time. The first year in Chicago was especially rough, getting used to living in an urban area. Our neighbourhood was decent, but I had nearly no ability to go out at dark by myself. We never lived on the ground floor, either, so I always felt okay in the apartment. When we started looking for a place to buy, we started out looking at condos because I wasn't sure I could live in a house, with all the ground floor windows that seemed to me to just be begging someone to break-in.

Eventually, we decided we didn't want to live in a condo, that we were sick of having only walls separating us from our neighbours. We found a great little house in the heart of Republican DuPage County. Peter and I talked about how I was going to manage my security issues. I was absolutely terrified of home invasion. I did some research and proposed getting an alarm system installed. Peter told me to pick out exactly what I wanted - that we would pay whatever it cost so that I could feel secure. My security was his peace, as well, since he was the one who would have to bear the brunt of the inevitable freakouts and meltdowns.

I spent ages doing research and determining what I wanted, pricing out the most extensive home security system I could imagine. Then I made an appointment with ADT. The guy they sent out was nice, if a little bumbling and lacking in the people skills department. He had been a computer programmer for years but then a series of layoffs and the dot-com bubble burst had forced him into a career change.

He talked to me about the types of robberies that occur in suburban areas. According to him, the majority of burglaries happened during work hours, were done by male perpetrators in the 14-24 age demographic, and involved front-door entry, a dash up the stairs to empty out the jewelry boxes and cash stashes in the master bedroom and then an escape through the front door. He said these burglaries took 2 minutes to perform and resulted in a few thousand dollars of loss.

Based on this, Mr. ADT Guy recommended that we get sensors put on the three house doors and a motion detector on the stairs. That, plus an ADT sign planted in the flower bed, would buy us security for the low-low price of $300. I told him to take out his clipboard and write down what I wanted:

  • sensors on the three doors

  • sensors on all the basement windows

  • sensors on all the ground-floor windows

  • sensors on all the accessible second-floor windows

  • a glass-break detector in the back of the house, in case someone tried to brute force their way in through the enormous picture window

  • battery backup

  • cell phone backup

  • heat detector near the furnace

  • carbon monoxide detector

  • He looked at me like I'd just suggested that we hop in his car and drive to the moon to get milkshakes. He tried to reason with me, providing me with the statistics on burglary that supported his minimal setup. Then he asked me if I knew how much this was going to cost. I looked at him and said "Close to $2000, probably $1700, but it could be more depending on whether we're able to go the wireless route. All that drilling and wire running if we can't go wireless will add a fair bit to the price."

    He opened his mouth, closed it, then opened it again, looking a little bit like a befuddled goldfish. I could see him wrestling with his conscience - I was clearly overreacting but he did get paid by commission. "Are you sure? Really sure?" he finally asked. I assured him that I was positive and then to absolve him from feeling like he was taking advantage of me, I told him about getting mugged and how I was afraid of home invasion, that I knew I was being irrational but that this $2000 was an investment in peace of mind for me and peace and quiet for my husband.

    We lived in that house for nearly three years and I loved it. When Peter was out of town, I felt so secure barricaded inside with the steady red Alarm light whispering reassurances that ADT was just seconds from riding to my rescue in the unlikely event of home invasion. My favourite feature of the alarm system was the coercion code. If someone busted in or pushed in behind me while the alarm was on and then demanded that I turn it off, all I had to do was enter our regular code backwards. The alarm would get shut off and the bad guy would think that he was safe. But an alert would get sent to ADT that there was trouble in the house, and the SWAT team would be dispatched without the customary phone call.

    I knew that my security system had one tiny weakness - one of the window sensors, the one in the guestroom, didn't work. I kept meaning to get ADT out to fix it, but the window was nearly always locked and was hardly ever opened at all anyway. The hassle-risk ratio just didn't rise to the level of waiting around for a guy to fix it. When Peter was out of town, I slept in the guestroom, partially because it offered the best escape route and partly because if someone tried to get through the weak point, I'd be awakened immediately. (As would my 100-pound dog.)

    When we decided to move to Ireland, Youngest Brother (YB) happily volunteered to fly right up the next weekend and help us get the house ready for sale. A couple of my barn friends also agreed to come over and help with the preparations. So on a cold, windy Friday, YB and I got up early and decided to go up to the White Hen Pantry to grab coffees and a newspaper before my friends arrived. Somehow, I managed to leave the house without my keys, although I didn't realise it until we got back.

    I used YB's cell phone to call a locksmith, who said he'd be there in 20 minutes. Which stretched to 30. Then 40. Then 50. Then one of my friends arrived, so at least we were able to sit in her car and wait. YB kept asking me if there was another way into the house. A hidden key? Of course not - anyone could find and use a hidden key. An unlocked window? No way. Were all the doors locked? Of course they were. Did I mind if he broken one of the glass panes in the back door? Yes, I minded. How about jimmying open a lock? No, there's no way you could do this. The house is 100% secure.

    After an hour, I called the locksmith again and was assured that someone was on the way. YB was sick of waiting. He popped open his wallet, extracted a credit card, and marched confidently to the front door. I waited, smirking, sure that he wasn't getting in. Within 10 seconds, he had the door open.

    So much for my impenetrable fortress. Maybe all security is just an illusion, I thought. But at least I still had ADT to protect me. At least when I turned on the alarm.


    At 30 October 2007 at 19:34, Blogger laurie said...

    wow, -ann. wow.

    that was a profound event, that mugging.

    when we bought our house in st. paul it came with a security system already installed--door sensors, and glass-break sensors, and a keypad in the kitchen.

    the woman we bought the house from had lived there alone with her 5-year-old son, and i understood why she wanted it.

    one day ADT called me at work to tell me that the glass-break alarm was sounding and i'd better get home. it was my birthday, and i had planned to have lunch with a friend, so instead she drove me home.

    we approached the house cautiously--what would we find? how many windows had been broken? was the perp still inside?

    we walked all the way around the house and could see nothing amiss.

    inside the storm door were some birthday packages, delivered by the mailman, so i scooped them up and walked inside. the dogs were inside, wagging their tails. nothing seemed amiss.

    it took a few weeks and many phone calls to find out what had happened.

    the glass-break alarm picks up not just the sound of glass breaking, but any sound of that magnitude and at that frequency....such as the sound of two dogs barking at the mailman when he is delivering packages.

    we got rid of the damn thing shortly thereafter.

    At 30 October 2007 at 19:35, Blogger laurie said...

    ps--i meant to say, that's an excellent use of "fun monday." i use it as a writing prompt, too.

    if the assignment triggers a story, i'll tell it. if not, i'll skip a week.

    At 31 October 2007 at 01:35, Blogger Kaycie said...

    I've been robbed, but mugging seems so much more intimate, like a personal attack. How awful that must have been for you.

    I've never had an alarm system in my house, and I don't know how I'd feel about it. I had a friend who had one, and she was forever having to go home because hers had gone off. It was always her lab that set the thing off. She finally had it taken out when they changed the law in the city to fine those who had a certain number of false alarms. It was either that or get rid of her dog, which just was not going to happen.

    At 31 October 2007 at 07:26, Blogger -Ann said...

    Laurie - Wow, I guess I am lucky the glass-break never went off.

    Kaycie - Thanks. It sounds like your friend had motion detectors. I didn't get motion detectors because I knew that they would just end up getting set off by the dogs. Most alarms with motion detectors will have 2 alarmed settings - home and away, so that you can set it to home if creatures are going to be moving around. I just didn't see the point of motion detectors. My whole desire was to keep people out - if they got in, I would know about way before the motion detectors did.

    At 31 October 2007 at 07:41, Anonymous Conortje said...

    What a captivating story. I love the idea of the coercion code - that's really clever. Do you feel safer in Ireland by the way?

    At 31 October 2007 at 15:27, Blogger wakeupandsmellthecoffee said...

    We have an alarm and motion detectors but because of the animals only turn it on when we're out of town.

    When I was 17, I walked into our house from the garage as burglars were walking out the front door. They'd ransacked my room, overturned the mattress, found my stash of Kotex, took some necklaces that probably didn't have much value but meant a lot to me. It was an awful feeling. But they hadn't had time to get to my stepmother's jewels. She never did thank me.

    At 1 November 2007 at 07:24, Blogger -Ann said...

    Conortje - Yeah, I loved that coercion code. I didn't feel any safer in Dublin. (In some situations, I actually felt less safe.) I feel much safer in the Middle of Nowhere, although I do find some lonely stretches of road a little creepy when I'm running. Overall though, I worry much more about getting hit by a car than anything else out here.

    WUASTC - I'm so glad you missed them. I think sometimes a house robbery would much worse than a mugging - to have your living space invaded like that, even if you weren't hope. At least i've always been able to feel safe at home.


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