Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Family of One Contemplates Peeping Toms

I recently had cause while chatting with a friend to think about peeping Toms. I had not thought of this subject in many years and I wondered if there are fewer peeping Toms because previous participants are now on the Internet gawking away or if increased home security programs prevent such predilections or if there is activity and I just don’t hear about it in Coconut Grove, FL.

At any rate, I was reminded of one of the most exciting evenings of my young life when a suspected peeping Tom was in our neighborhood. As a very small child, we lived on a most lovely boulevard, lined with beautiful trees and charming cottages and one-story homes.

One summer evening when I was about six, we got a call from our next door neighbor, Mrs. Collins, coincidentally the mother of my dad’s best friend, Paul Collins, and who was usually just called Collins in the neighborhood, but Mother insisted that we call her Mrs. Collins. She reported in hushed tones that the lady across the street two doors down had heard from another lady that there was a peeping Tom loose. She insisted that we come to her house immediately. “Popcorn is on,” she said.

Mother demurred as she did not want to risk being accosted by said perpetrator while we crossed the 25 feet to Mrs. Collins’ house. Mother and I were alone, per usual, because my father worked most evenings until 10:00 at his drugstore. After a little thought, Mother decided that we should not be alone in “this hour of decision” as she referred to any crisis. I was never sure what a decision had to do with the pending crisis at hand, but I sure understood the code. There was going to be much drama! And, Mrs. Collins always fixed Jiffy Pop popcorn in moments of stress.

I am sure that you probably know about Jiffy Pop popcorn, but just to underscore its fabulousness, I will tell you that it was a bunch of popcorn kernels in an aluminum pan with a foil lid and metal handle. You heated it on the stove and the aluminum foil would expand and expand in the most delightfully alarming way. Just when you couldn’t stand it any more, it would burst open and there would be this horribly acrid popcorn, but it was so thrilling that you didn’t mind.

Mrs. Collins had as her houseguest a cousin from “up in the country” who was mild and agreeable, but slightly agitated about the current state of affairs. There was much discussion about lights off or on, candlelight or flashlight. Did we want to see the fellow’s face? Did we want to risk being identified? The houseguest ventured, “I can’t wait to see him”.

While we were waiting, Mrs. Collins got to laughing. She said to her houseguest, “Do you remember when there was a peeping Tom in Cousin Bombay’s neighborhood and she went upstairs to get away from the windows? Well, sir, he pulled a ladder over to her second floor bedroom window and peeked in and she peed in her breeches and had to run to the bathroom while he stood there looking in.” Mrs. Collins reported this with so much pride and glee that it was hard to remember that an actual crime was involved

This accounting of a real peeping Tom titillated and horrified me all at once. Why would anyone want to run to the bathroom after they had already gone to the bathroom? Why would they want to miss one minute of this excitement? What urge drove this man to get a ladder and how did he know exactly which window? Also, you must remember that, at that time, the word “pee” was not bandied about like an after-dinner mint as it is today. That alone was shocking, so shocking that I would never even repeat that part of the story to anyone until recently.

Just after this anecdote was related, the phone rang and the neighbor announced that it had been a false alarm. A teenage boy was taking a shortcut and happened to glance in Mrs. White’s window while she was standing in her bra and girdle. We sat crestfallen in candlelight amid the ruins of the Jiffy Pop. Mrs. Collins insisted that my father come over and walk us home “just in case”.

This theme continued to emanate through the years. For example, when we moved into our more upscale home in a subdivision, I would often stand in front of the sheer drape that covered my bedroom window, lost in thought. If Mother happened to walk by and see me, she would go cuckoo and remind me that “insert neighbor boy here” would like nothing better than to see my unclothed figure at the window. She had a point, so I was more careful about closing the drapes, but I never tired of hearing her tell about the night we almost saw a peeping Tom.

Many years later, I lived in New York and could see across First Avenue into the gigantic UN Plaza apartment building where such stalwarts of NYC as Truman Capote, Bobby Kennedy, and Johnny Carson had owned living quarters. I could clearly see into many apartments and loved to see how they were decorated. One in particular that I took to be a relative of Diana Vreeland’s always fascinated me. The walls were all red and the furniture was all baroque. I could not imagine that someone really lived there, but I could see their shadowy selves moving around every night. What I enjoyed the most was seeing that these inhabitants of this, to me, magical building were doing just what I was doing—watching TV, eating dinner, chatting with each other. This was always very comforting to me and I greatly missed this diversion when I moved back to Boston.

Could I be considered a peeping Tom? I think not, only extremely curious. Let me know what you find out about any sightings in your neighborhood and remember to keep your curtains drawn.

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