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Neighbors, Porches & Pumpkins


Yesterday was Halloween...and another occasion to greet the neighbors and admire the energy they've put into decorating their homes and their children. The thing about Halloween in the US is that -- unlike Thanksgiving or Christmas -- it's a holiday that's less about celebrating family than it is about celebrating neighborhood. So -- as far as I'm concerned -- it's a great opportunity to take note of neighborly interactions and the semiotics of material culture. Halloween is one of the few occasions on which neighbors welcome one another into their yards, up on their porches, to their front doors. Anyone who is willing to put on a wig and some makeup and make the rounds of the neighborhood can drop in on any neighbor indicating his willingness to receive visitors with a jack-o-lantern on the porch.

Halloween is a day of inversions; signs that we normally use to frighten and turn away trespassers are used to draw them in: mutilated bodies, headless bodies, bodiless heads, blood and suffering, bugs and bats.... I saw a house that was draped in yellow crime-scene tape this year. Territory that is normally considered private is opened to the neighbors' approach. And neighborly interactions (hand-outs, no less) are politely demanded under threat of retaliation by vandals. You gotta love it.

Of course, I didn't have a pumpkin on my porch. (I don't really even have a front porch.) My lights were off and my front door undecorated -- an unambiguous sign. And it's not that I don't like pint-size superheroes or political satire as performed by teenagers desperate to maintain their sugar high. It's just that...I think that a single guy handing out candy to children is kind of creepy if he doesn't have any children of his own. Or maybe it's just that I'm too lazy to run up and down the stairs every three minutes to answer the door for all those trick-or-treaters. So instead, I take my camera and wander the streets. It's hard to explain to the neighbors that I'm taking photos because I'm interested in issues of territoriality, privacy, and ritualized interactions in urban neighborhoods. Now I'm sure they think I'm really creepy.

November 1, 2004 in Private / Public | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

A Dark Vision of Vegetarian Pizza


I've resisted long enough; I've got to say something about the ACLU's dark vision of a world in which our government's policies on surveillance and invasive technologies erode personal privacy to the point where -- instead of being left to enjoy our double meat pizzas and Nancy Drew novels under cover of blissful anonymity -- we will all be shamed into eating tofu and sprouts AND paying extra for it. Now, I'm not one to be critical of the ACLU, especially when they are addressing important privacy concerns...but, come on, is that really the most disturbing scenario you can imagine?

Check out the Flash animation at http://www.aclu.org/pizza/, and then read on....

Actually, I think they had a good idea with tapping into the experience -- which most of us have probably had by now -- of calling up the pizza place and being greeted by some kid on the other end of the line who lets you know, within microseconds of hello, that she knows who you are and where you live. It's a creepy interaction. But mostly because it's handled badly. I mean, I was going to tell them where to deliver the pizza anyway. I just don't want them telling me they know my street address and what sort of pizza I usually order before I volunteer that information.

They've got the issue right: a general sense that it's probably a bad idea to let either governments or corporations pull together too much of our personal data in one place or have access to a complete picture of who we are. That's the kind of stuff we want to dole out in small amounts and on a need-to-know basis...and preferably to someone who's there in front of us asking for it. Yeah, it's scary to lose that much control over identity disclosure. But I'm honestly not all that frightened by the idea that the chick at Pizza Palace might know I've maxed out my credit cards, that I've got a problem with impotence, and that I bought a 48-pack of condoms (which, BTW, why if I'm impotent?).

August 18, 2004 in Private / Public | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Your Neighbors' Politics

I heard an interview on NPR the other day with a guy who does background checks -- to find out, among other things, if a potential employee has any criminal record. (See "Bill to Seal Some Illinois Criminal Records, Part Two.") It's amazing just how much information about us is, officially, in the public record. The thing is, it used to be that you needed to hire a professional background checker who knew how to get at it. Either that or have the time yourself to dig through dusty file cabinets all over the country. Say goodbye to all that. Now anybody with a browser and some free time at work can find out a helluva lot about you -- and follow the digital paper trail right to your doorstep. Today, in the NYT, there's
an article on Fundrace.org, where you can check up on your neighbors' politics. Most information about us that's in the public record -- like sex-offense convictions and political contributions -- is public for good reason.... But, you know what, now I'm glad I didn't give any money to that DNC fundraiser who knocked on my door last week.

May 20, 2004 in Private / Public | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Where Everybody Knows Your Name

The other night I went back to one of my old haunts: a bar down the street from my office, where I spent many a happy hour and where, for a couple of years, I was on a first-name basis with the bartender (who would serve me "my regular" without asking and who comp'ed me at least one drink from each night's tab). They have redecorated the bar and, I think, tried to make it look like it could be a hipster destination. The bar stools and high tables have been replaced with a row of short booths that all face the center of the room, and where they used to hang goofy caricatures of the regular customers on the wall, there are now mirrors. I'm not too happy about the change in decor, but I had stopped hanging out there a few years ago anyway, when my bartender-friend moved on.

So when we walk in, nobody knows us now, but they greet us anyway -- not by name like they used to, but more like the sales clerks do when you're trying to shop at Banana Republic: too many times and with the forced smile that lets you know they're only acknowledging you because it's company policy and they'll be fired if they don't. I paid (since I was the only one who was drinking seriously), and I put it on a credit card. And when the server returns with the receipt for me to sign, he says, "Thank you, Mister Melican." I'm only momentarily disoriented because, first of all, I've never been introduced to this guy, and secondly, because no one calls me that. My father's name is Mr. Melican. Mine is Jay.

I guess they think this is classy and maybe I'll feel like a regular or like a VIP if they interact with me as if they know who I am. But I know they don't know me from Adam. And it's not like they know my name 'cause I had called ahead to book a table. This guy read my name off my credit card -- which doesn't make me feel all warm and fuzzy and familiar; it's just a little creepy.

For the past few months, I've been working with Christena Nippert-Eng on a study of the stuff that people carry with them in their wallets, so I have been thinking a lot about credit cards and about the nuances of the little exchange that takes place between a customer and a cashier when you hand over a credit card to pay for something. It's one of those great everyday interactions that are just packed with all sorts of subtexts and protocols and posturing and opportunities to be embarrassed. I love that stuff. There's so much more that goes on there than just the financial transaction. And it all revolves around that little piece of plastic.

I've also been working on a paper about the interactions you have with your neighbors, so I sort of felt like I'd struck gold when I read this morning in The New York Times about the parents of one of the Columbine killers -- who still live in the same town -- and how they are coping with the stigma of their son's crime.

"In general, Tom [Klebold] said, 'most people have been good-hearted.' Their friends rallied around. Their neighbors call to warn them if an unfamiliar car lurks in the neighborhood. There is a moment of discomfort when they hand over a credit card at a store, but there have been few bad scenes. One clerk looked at the name and remarked to Susan, 'Boy, you're a survivor, aren't you.'"

Talk about some spoiled identity.

May 15, 2004 in Private / Public | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack


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Updated: May 8, 2004
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