Too close for comfort
November 13, 2012 9:58 PM   Subscribe

In a follow-up to this post, our neighbor has continued giving us bottles of alcohol, among other things. We came home to find an electric cord attached from our driveway to their house, and a note explaining their PG&E was turned off...

A dialogue was finally opened with our neighbor explaining the surplus of free alcohol. Apparently her sister works at a bar, and she gets a lot of free stuff from there. She has cancer, and therefore can't drink, but chooses to hook up the neighborhood.

She came over recently with an ipad, asking if we knew how to help her download things. When we looked into the settings (with her there), the linked credit card information and address were to someone a few cities away. She said she didn't know who it was, but that she's owned the ipad for months. My roommate and I just kind of looked at each other, and she defended that the ipad was hers and went inside to fetch us another bottle. Granted, the code to unlock the ipad is hers, and all the pictures are of her family. My roommate accepted the challenge to jailbreak it for her.

She came over later while we were having a party and brought her 11 year-old daughter along. She's very charismatic, and her daughter is a bright, sweet girl, and we had a good time joking around at the door. But she asked some odd (potentially nosy neighbor) questions, like who specifically lives in the room closest to their house (me). She insisted I come over and pick up some weed from her. I told her I don't smoke, and we left it at that.

We were always tense about the situation, and never really thought anything beyond it. But this note is giving us a creepy feeling. It mentions that their PG&E is out, their mom is in the hospital getting treatment for cancer (and therefore can't pay the bill), and if it's alright that they leave an outlet plugged into our driveway for the night. On the back of the note is a poem scrawled in a child's writing.

My roommate spoke to them and made sure it was just for the night, which they assured him it is.

I feel like Pandora's Box has opened on us, and we might be in for a rude awakening. Currently, we're sticking to the (accurate) narrative that we're broke college students and can't afford to hook things up if it begins to escalate.

Legally, what can we do to keep a safe, respectful distance without giving way to much? And has anyone experienced something like this before?
posted by Mach3avelli to Human Relations (56 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Unplug their shit. Call child protective services.
posted by empath at 10:11 PM on November 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

Boy, empath, that's pretty harsh. So far as I can see from either of Mach3avelli's posts they have been solely givers, so far. Maybe to an uncomfortable degree, but I certainly would give them the benefit of the doubt for a night's worth of electricity. Calling child protective services would be seriously outrageous based on the facts presented. The girl has an aunt, apparently close enough to be bringing things over to their house. You have no indication she is in danger or abused.
posted by uncaken at 10:17 PM on November 13, 2012 [8 favorites]

"Legally, what can we do"? You can unplug the extension cord and call the cops. And child protective services. She's stealing your power without asking for permission. She has an 11-year old in a house without electricity, but with lots of booze and mysterious merchandise.

Likely stolen merchandise and credit cards. Surplus drugs and alcohol. Stealing your electricity. Everyone mysteriously "has cancer"... I can't really think of a way this could get sketchier.

You can wait until first thing in the morning to unplug if you don't want to feel like you've broken a promise. But seriously... Get on this. If you're not decisively proactive about this and get her shit taken care of by the proper authorities, she'll simply take more and more advantage of you. The next piece of stolen electronics she bugs someone about will be yours.
posted by Ookseer at 10:18 PM on November 13, 2012 [16 favorites]

The whole story sounds sketchy, considering the previous question. I wouldn't believe anything they're saying at this point. Probably too early to call CPS, though. I'd just stop engaging with them sooner rather than later.
posted by empath at 10:19 PM on November 13, 2012

Someone who knows how to jailbreak an iPad probably has things like iPads. Bringing the daughter over while you're having a party? She's being taught how to ingratiate herself.

Have you met any other of your neighbors?
posted by rhizome at 10:38 PM on November 13, 2012

Bringing the daughter over while you're having a party? She's being taught how to ingratiate herself.

Um.... an 11-year-old to a college party? I don't think so.
posted by DoubleLune at 10:41 PM on November 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Just remember that a person can be nice, fucked up, and a criminal all at once.
posted by Rykey at 10:42 PM on November 13, 2012 [97 favorites]

One idea is to sit with her while she calls PG&E and ask them if there's anything they can do. They do offer services for folks in this situation. (Full disclosure: I work for PG&E.)

However, I do agree that this situation is sounding increasingly sketchy.
posted by samthemander at 10:49 PM on November 13, 2012 [4 favorites]

It seems like something is going on here, but knowing what it is won't really help you. It sounds fishy, but it's possible that the situation is less than it appears.

You just want to be on politeness autopilot. You know how you treat most shop clerks with a certain vacant generic politeness? Use that. Your curiosity and suspicions are your enemy here. If you're curious, you'll interact more. Worse, you might accidentally hint at your suspicions, thereby creating hard feelings and drama. The more you think about her craziness, the more you will inadvertently start to engage with it.

If I set the drama aside, I guess I'd advise you to leave it plugged in for the night, unplug it at 9 am, leave it coiled on their doorstep with a note saying "as I said, we had to unplug this in the morning. I hope you get your power back on soon. PG&E's number for health-related bill extensions is 1-800-xxx-xxxx."
posted by salvia at 11:10 PM on November 13, 2012 [20 favorites]

I agree that this is a strange story (especially if I'm reading your question right and now the child's mother and the grandmother both supposedly have cancer??) but I still think most of these answers are off the mark.

It might help if you clarified what the note says, because your use of "they" is ambiguous. Is the mom who has cancer the mom of the 11 year old girl, i.e., the woman you were referring to as your neighbor? Or is it now the neighbor's mom?

Because if the person with cancer is not the 11 year old girl's mother, then the 11 year old girl is not left home alone, and all these 'call CPS now!' answers are unfounded (and they might be anyway, considering you never said the girl was home alone, and the use of "they" implies she is not alone).

I'd also point out that if you let them plug something in to an outlet, they are not "stealing" your electricity, rather they are using it with your permission. And honestly since this is something that's going to cost you like a dollar, I'm not really sure why you wouldn't do it. If they really don't have power, are you going to make them sit there in the dark/possibly cold? Why? They might be odd individuals/a sketchy family, but they're still human beings.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 11:11 PM on November 13, 2012 [16 favorites]

DoubleLune: The interaction was only at the door.

Of course I can't say for sure one way or the other without having been there, as is customary with street smarts oriented scenarios dependent on situational judgement, but you know when college parties are going on. Why would that be the time that information about who lives in what room was necessary? Why bring the daughter over to find out that information? I call it, "feeling people out," if not, "gauging reactions when otherwise occupied. Testing distractability."

I used to have a page somewhere about the techniques people use to gain confidence for nefarious purposes, but sadly I can't find it right now. If this is indeed sketchy, the point is so that you feel like a dope for disengaging in response to a series of innocuous-yet-intensifying events, kind of like a sunk-cost fallacy of friendship. I mean, you don't want to seem uncool, right? I feel the bill will come due one way or another.

On Preview: treehorn+bunny, the non-grandmother with cancer is the bartender-sister who is the source of the alcohol given by the neighbor. Why a bartender would just take profits away from the bar and give them away is certainly an uncommon scenario. Try asking a bartender for a free bottle, just because they have so many, the next time you go out.

Naturally this is all speculation, but there's more warning signs than not.
posted by rhizome at 11:21 PM on November 13, 2012 [9 favorites]

If they really don't have power, are you going to make them sit there in the dark/possibly cold?

Is it cold? Do they have a gas heater? If not, and they're using your power to run a heater, this extension cord running across the driveway may be unable to handle the load, leading to possiblity of fire.
posted by Rash at 11:30 PM on November 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

our neighbor has continued giving us bottles of alcohol, among other things.

And you were wondering what it would lead to...

We came home to find an electric cord attached from our driveway to their house, and a note explaining their PG&E was turned off...

Even though they obviously didn't pay for the booze, you have now entered into a quid pro quo arrangement with your next door neighbours.

This is just disturbing but that could just be me:

like who specifically lives in the room closest to their house (me)

And I agree that their conversation at the door was feeling you out - there's no reason the 11 year old couldn't have stayed home when she came over - but for what, who knows.
posted by heyjude at 11:33 PM on November 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

I was about to add in something to my earlier comment along the lines of what treehorn+bunny just wrote. The way I read this, there's a primary woman/mom ("Sue"). Her sister ("Mary") is a bartender and gives Sue free booze sometimes. Sue doesn't drink it because she has cancer. Sue's 11-year-old daughter "Danielle" wrote a note saying "our power is out and my mom (Sue) is in the hospital."

It really would stink to be 11, be home alone, be too young to move out or get a job, and have your power shut off because your mom didn't / couldn't pay the bill. So in addition to reverting to Generic Politeness with mom, I'd probably closely watch the kid to see how she was hanging in there and what kind of help it felt okay to offer her.
posted by salvia at 11:37 PM on November 13, 2012 [11 favorites]

But she asked some odd (potentially nosy neighbor) questions, like who specifically lives in the room closest to their house (me).

This is the part that caught my attention more than anything else; I'd be curious to know what the other questions were.

Paranoid or not, if you have a nosy sketchy neighbour with lots of strange merchandise, double check your locks and windows.

I was also involved in the decision to call child services on a neighbour (not mine, an ex-girlfriend's). Wasn't easy but we did it, the woman had her kid taken away, and a couple months later was evicted. Friends of ours moved in to that house and found a lock on the outside of the room that would have been the kid's, and there were scratch marks all over the inside. Felt a little better about our decision after that.
posted by mannequito at 11:38 PM on November 13, 2012 [6 favorites]

At this point I'm going to assume that you and your college roommates are male, as mentioned in your original post. There is something seriously wrong here that has been adequately summed up by the third response, Ookseer's, but I'm going to add one more thing. Whatever you do, do NOT invite the 11 year old into your house or interact with the 11 year old alone, because on top of the world of sketchiness and stolen things that is living next door to you, you could be opening yourself up to entirely unfounded accusations of molestation or abuse.
posted by thewalrus at 11:41 PM on November 13, 2012 [34 favorites]

I can't really think of a way this could get sketchier.


People who work at bars do not get free alcohol, especially not bottles of it. Bars sell alcohol. They don't give it away for free.

This is creeping me out to a high level. Spidey sense is fully engaged, all systems go.

Gosh, but what do you do? Tough question. You could probably write down the name of the person whose credit card info you saw, and track them down to see if their ipad was stolen.

How well locked up is your house? Do you have renter's insurance and what does it cover? Can you hide your valuables? (Note, all this stuff is good practice in general -- don't feel bad if sketchy neighbors are inspiring you to improve your safety habits. Consider it a gift.)

Maybe ask lots of questions? Pretend you are an idiot with no social graces. "Oh what bar does she work at?" "Oh what hospital is your grandma and mom at? I know doctors at X Y Z hospitals!" Name drop like a gauche fool. "What kind of cancer??!"

All of the question asking might make you seem like less of an easy target and the neighbors will move on. It's ok to make yourself a little annoying in the name of safety.

Or maybe say you and the housemates are all going on an alcohol abstinence kick. Lie right back! It's your pre new year's resolution.

I hope that whatever you do, you take your safety seriously here.
posted by kellybird at 11:42 PM on November 13, 2012 [33 favorites]

People who work at bars do not get free alcohol, especially not bottles of it. Bars sell alcohol. They don't give it away for free.

I have gotten a lot of free alcohol working at bars. Alcohol companies give free bottles of alcohol to bars and/or bar employees if they sell a lot of alcohol.
posted by Jairus at 12:08 AM on November 14, 2012 [7 favorites]

And honestly since this is something that's going to cost you like a dollar, I'm not really sure why you wouldn't do it.

The fact that they took it upon themselves to start using the OP's electricity before asking is a giant crimson-red flag. And it's waving in a field of other such flags.

I would shut this down immediately and un-politely, so that this sort of thing doesn't happen in the future. These folks are bad news and if you continue humoring them you will be in for some sort of trouble, the exact nature of which I don't even want to know.

If you're concerned for the safety of the child, yes, call CPS. Let people whose job it is to get involved in situations like this do their job. It isn't yours and you will be drained dry by these vampires if you keep engaging with them.
posted by parrot_person at 12:28 AM on November 14, 2012 [6 favorites]

please move immediately. unless you're at the same level of sketch as this woman. very shortly your life is going to become sketchy in all sorts of ways you can't imagine. I think all of us would feel much safer about your situation this way.
posted by saraindc at 12:30 AM on November 14, 2012

I think you've got middle class angst. I would too, but I don't see this as BIG RED FLAGS and more a culture shock of how life is lived in sketchy neighbourhoods. It is more co-dependent. It is asking less questions about stuff. It's about being generous when you have stuff. Yes, it's sketchy and yes you may not want to have anything do to with it. But I don't think it is necessarily big and scary.

Fro example, as a schoolboy on a trip abroad staying with a guy and his son. I don't know these people at all. The first time we meet his son comes in with a really nice bike. It's clearly stolen. It will, itself, be stolen a few weeks later. Everyone compliments the son on his new bike. It's a nice bike. Then we all go about our business. But they were the nicest, most generous people who went out of their way to show me the town.

Or a mate of mine who bought a piano off ebay. Goes to this guy's house, rings the doorbell. Nobody's in. So he calls the guy, who says he's out, but the neighbour next door can let my mate in. So my mate rings the doorbell, explains the situation and the neighbour appears with a bottle of vegetable oil. He oils up his arm, reaches through the letterbox and after a bit of wiggling the door unlocks. My mate give him the cash and the pair of them move this piano into my mate's van.

So, in your case, there is no reason to doubt any of the story. Maybe the booze does fall off the back of a truck. But what college kids don't like free bottles of grey goose and free weed? They're distributing when they have plenty. On the electricity - all they're doing is plugging in an extension lead. It's not free, but it's not expensive. The ipad probably is stolen, sure. But in sketchy neighbourhoods, if you enquired about the provenance of everything offered to you on the cheap you'd never buy secondhand.

So the question about the person closest? Lots of reasons why they'd want to know that, some of which are dodgy and some not. But I doubt any of them directly threaten the person involved. They want to know who the person is who can see what they're doing - for whatever reason, who hears their arguments and who might be disrupted by their noise. This person is their closest neighbour and if they need to run an electrical cord across the houses or whatnot they're a good person to be in with.

Look, in summary - you've every right to be concerned, but I don't think you're living next to the Sopranos, I don't think the child is in meaningful danger or neglected and I don't think your experience is so out of the ordinary for sketchy neighbourhoods. Long term, I'd want to make sure I didn't find myself as an accessory for a crime. I'd make clear to them that the power arrangement was temporary and I'd monitor it (to make sure it wasn't connected up to a hydroponics and lighting system) and be clear not to go down the route of holding any stuff for them. I'd also politely refuse alcohol most of the time to break the who quid pro quo thing.
posted by MuffinMan at 12:56 AM on November 14, 2012 [67 favorites]

Bah, this thread is triggering my class rage. People say Metafilter's bad at social class, and I am feeling that here.

It's true that these circumstances sound sketchy, but that's because these people are poor. Poor people brush up against sketch way more than middle-class people -- they are surrounded by it. And it sounds like, since moving into this neighbourhood, you haven't yet adjusted your sensibilities to account for that, and so you are being over-vigilant. (Like, the iPad. Isn't it obvious that poor people are likelier than middle-class people to own a used iPad? Maybe she bought it off eBay, maybe her sister won it in a poker game, maybe she got it by trading some booze. Who knows.)

I don't completely understand what you're afraid of. It doesn't sound like there's some kind of plot brewing, and if they were going to throw a rock through your window there's no need to befriend you first. But I think that if you feel this uncomfortable, you should probably move.

(And on preview, yes to everything MuffinMan said.)
posted by Susan PG at 1:45 AM on November 14, 2012 [32 favorites]

I'm sorry, but I can't think of one single sensible reason why the neighbors would need to know who has what bedroom..... lots of sketchy reasons, but no good ones. Then add in how Weird Neighbor was really pushy about insisting that you specifically, the inhabitant of that bedroom facing her house, come into HER house to get weed? It almost feels like you're being set up for some kind of adult-male-spying-on-neighbor-kid scenario.

As other posters have mentioned, do NOT let that 11-year-old in your house --- that plus the who's-in-what-room demand just has me on high alert: the combo is just too weird for words. I'd also make very, very sure that you keep all doors and windows securely locked (that business with someone else's credit card info and address on an iPad? Red alert!), plus make sure that all windows, especially the ones on her side of your house, ESPECIALLY YOUR BEDROOM FACING HER HOUSE, have pretty solid curtains or blinds.

This may all sound paranoid, but it's safer.
posted by easily confused at 2:04 AM on November 14, 2012 [10 favorites]

Hydroponics and a lightbox would be my guess.
posted by cromagnon at 2:54 AM on November 14, 2012 [5 favorites]

First thing you should do: have a look at your circuit breaker and figure out how to turn off the outside outlet. Make sure you're not shutting off anything else, like the fridge/freezer, your alarm clock, etc.

This will give you some control over the power usage without going outside and yanking out their extension cord, which could come across as confrontational.
posted by dubold at 3:01 AM on November 14, 2012 [9 favorites]

If this was a 'better' neighbourhood and you were being offered free legal advice or getting your taxes done free on company time by the accountant next door, you wouldn't question it. Neighbourhood currency varies with the demographics of the area - around your place, its booze being traded for electricity, that's all. There may well be something marginal going on next door but that's none of your business unless it impacts on you. In poorer neighbourhoods, people tend to share much more than the well-to-do, in my experience. They have to, because the neighbourhood network is an important part of survival.

If it stresses you out, then move. Otherwise, be a good neighbour by keeping your nose out of other peoples' business.
posted by dg at 3:51 AM on November 14, 2012 [17 favorites]

I'm with MuffinMan and SusanPG. While it is somewhat odd behaviour, it's not really out of the norm for the kind of neighborhood you describe. Is the Ipad possibly stolen? Sure. Did she steal it? Doubtful.. she either bought it for $50 from some guy on the corner or a family member did and gave it to her.

The alcohol thing - it's the one thing she can offer to make nice and seem useful/like she has something valuable to her neighbors and friends.

Could they take advantage of you? Sure. Are they planning to break into your house and steal all your stuff? Probably not. Would they if they needed to? Possibly. But this interaction going on isn't going to make it more likely, unless you do silly things like leave your house unlocked or let them stay inside while you leave for a few hours.

Kids in those situations grow up fast, as well. I have couple of young kids on my soccer team from similar backgrounds.. plugging in electric to the neighbors is probably not a new things for them to do, nor is the power being shut off. Or the cops coming to the house for a domestic disturbance. Even though the mother is the nicest lady ever.

Context, folks. Don't freak out. Be wary to the degree that you should be wary living in a sketchy neighborhood. But don't think your neighbors are out to get you. Remember - they probably would appreciate you being next door to them to help look out for their home just as much (and are happy you're not some violent criminal living next door that could be there instead of you).
posted by rich at 4:01 AM on November 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

Look, in summary - you've every right to be concerned, but I don't think you're living next to the Sopranos, I don't think the child is in meaningful danger or neglected and I don't think your experience is so out of the ordinary for sketchy neighbourhoods.

Yeah, this.

Generosity is normal in a place where you are both used to not having a lot of outsiders helping and also in places where it's really necessary that you get along. Because the kid will be left alone sometimes, and they need you not to be the ones who call CPS immediately - because ultimately the kid is really fine at 11 alone for short periods of time, and it is not neglect if the kid is otherwise fed, healthy, and happy. Or maybe they are going to need power sometime and hope you will be kind enough to let them have some. Maybe they do need you not to ask questions about whatever you hear in their house. In return, they would offer to help you, but you guys sound like you don't need much help - so they are going out of their way to offer you what they think you want - booze and weed. These people sound like they're trying their best to be good neighbors, not like they're trying to be con artists rearing their kid up for a life of crime.

Yes, there may be criminal activity of some kind going on - but it likely does not concern you, for the reason that most people don't shit where they eat.
posted by corb at 5:10 AM on November 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

There are reasonable explanations for all of this. I live in a 12 unit condo building, and about a quarter of them contain people with no social thermostat. They are always asking me things like why my light is on, why I am home at certain hours, whether they can have some of the takeout food I am walking in with, whether I can fix their computer (during the Super Bowl!), telling me how they only usually sell just marijuana, and on and on.

Why do they want to know who lives in the room across the way? Because they see the TV lights, or they can see the person getting dressed in the morning. It is hard not to see such things.

The easiest explanation about the power is that the 11 year old was home alone and plugged the cord in herself, and then the mom or grandma had her write a note later. It is certainly plausible that the mother and the grandmother have cancer, and downright likely if they are unfortunate enough to have the bad breast cancer gene, or lived in a home with radon or bad water.

How do you deal with them? Have limits and enforce them politely but strictly. No, you are sorry, but you don't want to know anything about their drug dealing/use. You can tell them that you aren't a prude, but that it's for their own protection in case someone comes around asking questions. No, you can't babysit the kid. (Unless you see an ambulance carrying someone away.) The power thing was a one-time deal.

Maybe these people are sketchy, and they probably are to some extent. But that is none of your business as long as they are friendly. My experience is that you want sketchy people to like you a little more than you like them. If they get on your bad side, instead of being a reliable neighbor that they can rely on for a little help sometimes, you simply become a mark.

My best friend in the neighborhood is a super sketchy guy. He made my spidey sense ping every time I saw him. (Like, there were always kids following him around, and he always had a scowl. I would see him garbage picking a lot.) But we talked a few times, and I found out that he was one of the kids' dad, and that he's just a good dad who has the bad luck to not have steady work. So he goes through garbage and picks out metal he can take to the scrapper for money. The kids follow him around because they are his daughter's friends and he treats them sort of like adults. Like when he is helping a neighbor put up a shed, he lets the kids help him even though he could get it done faster without them. He has a scowl because most people treat him like an asshole. I treat him like an equal, and we get along great.
posted by gjc at 5:16 AM on November 14, 2012 [11 favorites]

I am not downplaying your feelings of concern. You are right to be cautious about this kind of stuff. But this is also the third question you've posted about this apartment where you've said that you feel like you might be getting scammed or that shady things are happening.

While it's important to be aware, you might want to ask yourself why it is that you are on alert around your new place, and make sure that your sketch-dar is calibrated based on actions, rather than perceived ideas about the class and race of the neighbors and neighborhood. If you're confident that you're reacting appropriately, then that's great. If your parents, friends, or roommates are concerned about the neighborhood and that's coloring your opinion of the place, then factor that into your responses.

It seems like these neighbors have different boundaries than you do, and there's nothing wrong with trying to find a comfortable middle ground, where you're friendly, but don't feel you're being taken advantage of. Where exactly that middle ground is located depends on what suits you and your roommates decide upon.

Regardless of where you live, a house full of college dudes should not have an unsupervised 11 year old there.
posted by dubold at 5:25 AM on November 14, 2012

This all sounds par the course for certain neighborhoods. The wierdest thing to me was asking who lived in a specific room then offering you weed, but you should examine what they might have seen in your room thath could have led them to believe you spreken zie deutch. Do you smoke in your room? Have posters from Spencer's Gifts? Play reggae or prog rock really loud. Look like an "alternative" style white person in a black neighborhood. I think they saw something thath made them think you were down to get high and thats it.
posted by WeekendJen at 5:59 AM on November 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you have a live exterior outlet and a neighbor who might hook up when you are away - you should try to find the breaker for the outlet. Hopefully it's isolated from the other interior circuits...This gives you back control over when and how you share electricity.
posted by NoDef at 6:04 AM on November 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

Do not call CPS unless you honestly think the daughter would be much better off living with strangers, possibly forever, than living with her mother. Unless you're preventing some serious suffering, splitting a family up is just about the shittiest thing a person can do.

If you really want to stick your nose into their business, try to keep an eye on the daughter and help her out as needed. Feed her and clothe her if that's what she needs. Let her know that you've got her back if things go wrong. But stay far the fuck away from that mother. If the mother pushes you for direct assistance, make it clear that you might offer a hand to a little girl in trouble (the trouble being the mother) but expect the mother to take care of her own damn self.
posted by pracowity at 6:55 AM on November 14, 2012 [3 favorites]

Pull the plug. Advise them to sell the iPad to pay the electric bill. Refuse all further "gifts".
posted by Gungho at 7:32 AM on November 14, 2012

It's conceivable that a catering company could have leftover bottles of booze, usually opened, and that the actual bartender for the company would handle that, assuming they designate a bartender. Liquor stores in my universe accept the return of unopened booze, so if these bottles are unopened, chances are that someone else paid for them without knowing, or else they fell off the back of a truck, which is the same thing.
posted by Sunburnt at 8:31 AM on November 14, 2012

Hey. I grew up poor and with people just like your neighbours. And thanks to my parents, I've been in that 11yr old's position. My answer is coming from that perspective.

This is reeking of high levels of sketchiness. Even if your neighbours are catastrophically poor, leveraging your household as a resource as they are doing isn't good for anyone. It can lead to very bad outcomes for y'all, is validating the lead neighbour's broken coping mechanisms, and teaching entirely the wrong things to the youngster.

I don't think you necessarily need to call CPS, but that's certainly something to keep in mind if you see the girl showing signs of being grossly neglected or suffering any level of abuse (even mental/emotional). If the household is using unsafe means of heating/obtaining electricity, calling your fire department seems like a sound idea, and you should mention part of your concern is because of the presence of a child.

Cops...well, I think you might be getting closer to needing them to know what's going on, but this kind of depends on your comfort levels. You've set a limit on the power-borrowing, so if they go against that limit, you have an immediate choice: tell them you were serious and will need to take other steps if it happens again OR outright call the cops.

Y'all should keep an eye open for weird things going on around your property. Any security measures you've got available, make sure they're always in place. Going around the property as a group to make sure windows are locked, tempting valuables are out of view of the windows, door locks are functioning, cars are clear of glass-smashing temptations, and anything else that makes it less likely to advertise your place as a target. If anyone mucks with your security or the neighbour begins making other forays onto the property, call the cops. Calling them sooner in a situation like this gets the paperwork going for noting nuisance behaviour and establishing a history if things escalate. You want that evidence on your side early on.

Don't accept any more goods from your neighbour. Don't muck about with any other electronics or other consumer goods (fixing bikes, for example). There is a strong potential that some of these items may well be illicitly gained, and there are specific legal ramifications for participating in a chain of events regarding stolen property. And you also don't want them to be able to claim an ongoing trade with y'all for tolerance. It has to stop cold. That it's already happened can be excused at this point as naivetee, but that excuse won't hold up much longer.

If I were y'all, I'd be looking for a new place, but that's because I was tired of having to navigate this kind of ridiculousness early on. If you absolutely cannot move, be prepared for chilly treatment from the neighbour(s) after you cut them off and quit participating in their micro-economy. And not to be scary, but you should be alert to the possibility of retaliation, especially if you do contact an agency of authority or intervention. I'm not saying that to keep you from doing that if it seems necessary, but so that you remain aware and are ready to give accurate, detailed reports at a moment's notice.

Be prepared with standard social program information for the next time you're visited, if you want to help. Maybe send over a Christmas basket if nothing strange happens between now and then. But otherwise stay out of the loop your neighbour's trying to put around y'all.
posted by batmonkey at 8:33 AM on November 14, 2012 [8 favorites]

PS: YES, listen to the young rope-rider and guard your mail like it is gold. Because it is. Precious, identity-laden gold. If you do nothing else, strongly consider a P.O. Box or other offsite mail service and never, ever put outgoing mail in your mailbox.

Seriously. I have deep and complex experience with the high 'hood value of mail, and this cannot be emphasised enough.
posted by batmonkey at 8:36 AM on November 14, 2012 [14 favorites]

You and your roommate seem altready to have abetted theft in the deal with ipod. Sounds like you are being groomed, at the very least to be in a relationship with folks who have a low ethical base.

I sense co-dependant trends in the works. Later on someone may bring you a large flat-screen that fell off a delivery truck. Okay, I'm just overly sensitive about that stuff, but still....

posted by mule98J at 9:04 AM on November 14, 2012

I've lived in poor neighborhoods and my family scraped along the poverty line all my life, so this isn't some sheltered darling of suburbia talking: you need to distance yourself from these people fast. And get a po office box and transfer all mail delivery there. There are people who are deeply poor who are nice people, and some who are users.

You've already helped them jailbreak a most likely stolen iPad. She's bringing over her daughter for reasons that could be innocent, or could be deeply sketchy. She's trying to bribe you with illegal drugs and booze and trying to get an understanding of the patterns of your house.

You're not neighbors to these people. You're potential marks. For example, if for some reason she got caught with that stolen device, who do you think she'd claim sold it to her: someone from her block, or the transient college kids next door?
posted by winna at 9:46 AM on November 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Just a few notes:

Surmised that the note was written by the father, or male caretaker. Our plan is to stick to the one-night request for electricity, and also offer instructions on how they can get the hospital-guardian workaround through PG&E mentioned above (thanks for that tip) in the future.

Obviously not a direct reflection on our specific neighbors, but we've lived in the same area before, and one of my roommates lived next to a neighbor last year who was very friendly and offered all kinds of help when he first moved in. Their utility bills were mysteriously high, and they learned that the neighbor had rigged pipes and meters to his house.

Our other friends (who live just on the other side of town) had their bike stolen. They saw a guy riding it (who lives in a halfway house a few houses down) and barked at him to return it. The guy came back in the middle of the night, threw gasoline on one of the cars in the driveway, and lit it on fire. Basic rule: don't fuck with people who have more to lose than you.

Just an idea of where our anxiety comes from.

Thanks for the heads up on how we might just have our heads up our asses. We just want to feel safe.
posted by Mach3avelli at 9:46 AM on November 14, 2012 [3 favorites]

Is this in Jersey? There's a bunch of liquor warehouses that were destroyed and waste companies are in there disposing of millions of bottles of alcohol. Its possible the excess liquor is coming from there?
posted by quibx at 10:37 AM on November 14, 2012

It's all about common sense. Obviously, it's the area you can afford. So knowing that, and it really isn't an option to move someplace else (since that someplace else, in all likelihood will have the same dynamics of a sort), you have to find your balance.

Are you going to try and change the world, get cops and child services involved and attract that kind of attention? Or are you going to do common sense things.. like lock up, don't flash expensive belongings, make sure to keep the blinds closed, be cordial (but not inviting), use you smarts and set up some nondescript security webcams?

Instead of answering 'not a problem, any time' responses are more 'hey, I understand.. but I gotta deal with our landlord and he's a pain in the ass about that kind of stuff. We can't afford to lose this place.'

Your question asked 'legally, what can you do..' Why not start with your landlord? Are they accessible or a jackass? If they're nice, ask them what they know about the neighbors, any issues they know about, and how they want you to handle it. On the legal end, sure you can get authorities involved, but as you've seen with the car on fire - there are typically ramifications for that within those kinds of communities.

So I think you need to be more realistic about how you approach the situation and focus on, within the confines and restrictions you are dealing with, what your best options are for day-to-day guiding principles. And you need to make sure your roommates are on board and execute all consistently.
posted by rich at 11:13 AM on November 14, 2012

Do you have a local newspaper with a searchable website? In a situation where I was unsure about some neighbors I was able to find out what they had been picked up for over the years. Just do a search for your street and/or their last name(s). Depending on what you find, it might help motivate you to keep a distance.
posted by mikepop at 11:56 AM on November 14, 2012

Definitely make sure your renters' insurance is up to date. Of course, this is good advice for everyone in every neighborhood everywhere.
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:40 PM on November 14, 2012

When something seems really sketchy, it often is. Trusting your instincts is far safer than doubting them.

Remove the power cord, and explicitly and firmly let them know they must not do this again.

I'd involve child services too, based on my experiences with "sketchy" neighbors.
posted by IAmBroom at 1:20 PM on November 14, 2012

Even if you are concerned about their affairs getting out of hand and affecting you—and I would be concerned about that myself, given the information at hand—you can still have good and up-front relations with them. In fact, short of moving away, that may be your best way to stay safe. If you are giving (within clearly communicated and consistent boundaries), true to your word, and don't just push them away due to fear or prejudice, they will probably understand that you are a greater potential asset to them in that condition than if they screw you over. This will be more workable if your material lifestyle isn't too visibly above theirs.

I agree with others here that the best course of action would be to limit your real and apparent vulnerability, ask questions back, keep the kid at arm's length, and within those constraints be a good neighbor. It ain't easy being on the lower rungs of society, and we are all hard wired to survive. Probably that's all these people are doing, even if they're not always making the smartest choices.

Don't succumb to feelings of fear or powerlessness. People in need, who might exploit you, can smell those feelings a mile away.
posted by maniabug at 2:41 PM on November 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

But she asked some odd (potentially nosy neighbor) questions, like who specifically lives in the room closest to their house (me).

Is TOTALLY a normal "kid" question. Small human developing their spatial reasoning skills.

But, yeah you've entered into an "unspoken verbal agreement" with these people. They might ask you for help during emergencies, which may be quite frequent, like temporarily looking after the kid or something so she won't get taken away by CPS.

Reciprocate when you can, you're becoming part of the community. Be one of the good people and the sketchy might not rub off on you the wrong way. It might not stop your car from getting torched but if you were a known and accepted part of the community you might not get your bike stolen in the first place.
posted by porpoise at 2:56 PM on November 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

I haven't read all of the answers above, but wanted to weigh in on the PG&E thing.

1) My now-deceased, former drunken neighbor borrowed my extension cord one night and left a note. I shrugged it off, because it was one of the less outrageous things she'd done. When PG&E came back to turn the power back on (pre-smart-meter), I got a stern lecture from the technician. He told me that he wouldn't report it, but that there could have been unspecified consequences/fines for me.

2) Since the economic downturn, PG&E has vastly liberalized its shutoff policy. They don't shut off power if people have medical devices in the home (which may be likely for her?), and their payment plan options are actually really good. They also are diligent about referring people with low incomes or problems paying their bills to local relief agencies.

It's not your responsibility to take care of any of this, but there's some info for you. It sounds like there are resources she's not consulting, and you may (or may not) want to share them.
posted by mudpuppie at 3:22 PM on November 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

On the back of the note is a poem scrawled in a child's writing.

This seems like a calculated attempt on their part to guilt trip you.
posted by futz at 2:49 AM on November 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

This seems like a calculated attempt on their part to guilt trip you.

I left a note for our neighbour that also has childs writing on the back, last week.

It wasn't calculated, it's that with a kid in the house, any available scrap piece of paper has become 'art material', and has random doodles or writing on it, so that's what I scrounged up to write on in a hurry.

(Also, yeah - I can think of legit reasons for pretty much everything in the post, all coming down to - poor, yo! Might be sketch, but, nothing in the post confirms it. The response in this thread has left me a little bewildered and unable to respond appropriately, so I'm just going to finish with...

Oh god, please do not call CPS unless you think something actually bad is happening to the kid. You'd better be damn sure that CPS being involved doesn't lead to a bunch of childhood trauma.
[I'm in a country with a better regarded social operation than CPS, and family members were foster parents told me awful stories of how severely the local CPS equivalents had fucked up, and what a mess it was to untangle.])
posted by Elysum at 3:29 AM on November 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

Elysum: Oh god, please do not call CPS unless you think something actually bad is happening to the kid. You'd better be damn sure that CPS being involved doesn't lead to a bunch of childhood trauma.
That puts us in the uncomfortable place of "don't report child abuse until you're absolutely certain". I'd report possible spousal abuse before that point; burglary before that point; seems to me this policy will leave a lot of children in the hands of their abusers for want of more certainty.
posted by IAmBroom at 9:41 AM on November 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Mod note: Please leave the CPS derail alone now, everyone. This is not the question, and there is nothing in the post about abuse or neglect of a child.
posted by taz (staff) at 5:48 AM on November 16, 2012 [3 favorites]

This thread is a bit old, but I wanted to add another point about the class issue. Class is not a given... you can easily get knocked out of the middle class you seem to be in (college students, etc.). Protecting yourself IS a class issue. And that's ok.

The fact is that people who are in a "lower" class than you are more likely to commit certain crimes against you. It's a statistical fact. I've had bikes, electronics, etc., stolen. I've also hired service people and had them show up drunk, which disrupted whatever I needed that service for. I've dated outside of my general social class and dealt with so much egregious shit that would just not happen among 99% of the people I know and work with.

If these events with your neighbors take up your money and energy, and you can't perform well at work or school, or you get pulled into something exhausting, then you are going to be out of your social class pretty fast. You could get fired, you could not perform as well in your college courses, you could miss opportunities, etc. If you are around people who have a lot of problems, and you let their problems become your problems, you are not going to stay in your social class for very long.

People who are in "upper" class get there partly (mostly?) through luck, but you also don't stay in the upper class if you don't protect your assets. Your time, organization, history of good bill payment, money, stuff, etc... those are all your assets. If you have assets someone doesn't, there is some decent chance a person will want those. Oftentimes it's not malicious. I have had friends borrow things that I worked hard for, thinking, "Kellybird has a great closet! Let me borrow some stuff from there, she won't mind." I have stayed awake at night being a shoulder to cry on, to people who need a shoulder to cry on precisely because they're less responsible than me and frequently need shoulders to cry on. Then I didn't have those items or had to replace them. Then I was tired at work the next day. In those cases, people are taking what I worked for, not even realizing that they are doing it.

Going farther than that into crime, I've had electronics stolen with my work on them. Guess what can get a person fired? Or ruin a project?

I guess my point here is that class is not a given. It's luck, for sure, but a lot of times maintaining your social class requires a certain amount of responsibility and protectiveness. Living in a bad neighborhood and being in the presence of sketchy neighbors, then thinking to yourself, "I'm being classist, this is probably fine," is totally naive. Sure, treat people with kindness, but also protect your assets. The fact that this is a class issue doesn't mean you should be any less vigilant. In your shoes, as annoying as it is, I'd be super vigilant. Oddly enough, I'd say that men are more likely to be targetted for certain kinds of crimes, because women are used to being at a high alert level are very sensitive to gut feelings / spidey sense. Male college students would be a prime target, especially kind and generous male college students.

For those calling this a class issue: There's nothing wrong with wanting to maintain your social class. Some people want to use their class for good and not evil... building things that you need to be part of high class organizations to build, getting a bunch of money/resources into one place so you can make a real impact on something you care about, etc. Or even thinking stuff like, "I want to create jobs," "I like my values and can do something positive with them when I'm CEO," etc. Starting a company, being a professor, etc., these things require you to maintain your social class. A lot of those are worthwhile if you can do them. Don't waste your opportunities on preventable losses, e.g., by not being careful enough with sketchy neighbors.

(Annnnd with that, I am clearly going to be an annoying parent one day, who rants at my kids to be careful.)
posted by kellybird at 11:54 PM on November 17, 2012 [3 favorites]

kellybird, I remember when I was young and wild, there were three separate instances of my friends' parents telling their kids that it was all very well for *me* to screw around doing whatever I wanted, but that they (their kids) needed to do their homework and stay out of trouble. That was true: I was from a middle-class family and those kids were poor, so my bad behaviour was met with endless indulgences and second chances, and theirs was not. The rules were and are different, and class is actually pretty fixed in the United States: Americans are less economically mobile than their peers in Canada and much of Western Europe.

I don't think anyone is criticizing the OP here for wanting to maintain his social class. In fact, I think many of the comments here are intending to reassure the OP that he needn't be so anxious about it. He's in college -- practically by definition, living in a marginal neighbourhood is a transitional event for him. He will pass through, leaving these people behind. Not speaking for other commenters here, but what I would argue for here is perspective and compassion.
posted by Susan PG at 8:46 AM on November 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've been VERY poor before. As is cannot eat at the end of the month poor. As in cannot pay the rent and hide from the landlord poor. As in pawn items to eat, or recycle cans/bottles to get subway fare. This is SO not a class issue. Even the suggestion I find... well, classist! To imply that hey, poor people have to steal their neighbors electricity, and you should just roll with it. WTF??!!? Yes, neighbors tend to share more when they are just scraping by, because they have to. Share != STEAL.
posted by parrot_person at 10:28 AM on November 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

Agreed, parrot_person. Theft is in no way restricted to class; I know of a Caterpillar vice-president who filled a warehouse with stolen retail goods. Clearly, from that and everything else his family told me, he was a seriously ill kleptomaniac - but I've also know people who can't buy clothes for their kids every school year start, but wouldn't dream of taking something left out on a neighbor's front porch.
posted by IAmBroom at 11:16 AM on November 20, 2012

« Older Need help with a move   |   Fooling a Blood Test (Not in the way that you... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.