Our house in the middle of our streetIt's come to the point in our culture where nearly everyone has to wrestle with the issue of privacy in relation to the Internet - mostly in terms of photographs and video. But there is also the issue of location. Not in the Foursquare, "I just became mayor of [insert pizza place here]," sense. Or in the social media, "mobile device" sense (why do I find the phrase "mobile device" sinister?) I mean location in the traditional, snail mail sense of where you live.
This became a fraught topic in my household the other day when I saw the layout of a piece I did for the New York Times about going back and forth between New York and New Orleans. It included a shot of the family standing on our porch in New Orleans. It's a pleasantly vague picture of us squinting in the sun taken from a distance. We are framed by the front door. And on the white trim, highly visible, is our street address.
When my wife saw it her immediate reaction was alarm. She wanted the house number removed.
I teetered on the verge of poo-pooing her concern. I thought the numbers themselves - a wonderfully curvy mid-century font - looked cool.
"What about that piece Michael Lewis did for the Times Magazine?" I said. "They ran a picture of his parents' front door and you could see the address."
"That's Michael Lewis's problem," said my wife.
"Everyone and anyone with an Internet connection can find out where we live," I said. "They can find out where anyone lives."
She wouldn't budge. Beyond the basic wisdom of not dismissing something your spouse is worried about, I did have to acknowledge that there is still something primal about your own address. This is especially true if you live in a house.
I grew up in an apartment building. An apartment building is like a fort. A house, by contrast, is like an outpost. I generally disdain the phenomenon of gated communities in America, but it does make sense that developments plopped down in the middle of nowhere feel vulnerable. The landscape where the Trayvon Martin tragedy unfolded seems more terrifying to me in its desolation than almost any bad urban neighborhood, where one can at least usually find various beacons of civilization. Even if the people within are encased in Plexiglas. The city, in contrast, is protection. In those walking cities comprised largely of houses - San Francisco, London, any of New York's brownstone neighborhoods, most of New Orleans - you see an amazing amount of information on display through the windows. Yet there is a safety in the density of the urban grid that is not present in the wilds of newly developed suburbia.
I don't think my wife was thinking in terms of urban space. She had a visceral reaction. The simple fact of having our family standing beside our address unnerved her. I asked the newspaper to crop the photograph. They did. So for now we can put our respective morbid fantasies to rest without having to examine, discuss, or indulge them.
Hers, I am sure, involve 24/7 Amber Alerts, one of the many crimes against our civic life by 24/7 cable news culture. Mine run more towards the Alan Berg scenario. But that is paranoia.
In reality, we are here to be greeted if you pass our place at dinner time, if it's nice out and we are eating out front. If you are standing in front of our house, you can see our address and the numbers that spell it out. But for now my wife has drawn a line. The nature and form of those pleasing, curvaceous numbers will remain a mystery. Though it's possible they look just like the ones on your front door.
- By Thomas Beller
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Thomas BellerThomas Beller is the author of two books of fiction, Seduction Theory, and The Sleep-Over Artist, and a collection of personal essays, How To Be a Man. The Sleep-Over Artist was a New York Times Notable Book, and a LA Times Best Book 2000.