I first noticed him about a month ago, directly across the street from me, staring intently at my house. He would break his gaze occasionally and scribble furiously on a little notepad.
No, he wasn’t standing there — he was seated comfortably in a very luxurious golf-cart, on the sidewalk, at the edge of my neighbor’s driveway. He looked lean and angular and snappy in his white and dark green Polo shirt and freshly pressed brown shorts. His golf cap wasn’t the cheap canvas kind with air-holes in it and the adjustable Velcro band in the back — this cap was fitted, and would’ve retailed in the pro shop for about $35.00.
Of course the left chest of his Polo, the cap, and the side of the cart were emblazoned with the moniker of the “homeowners association” (HOA) that regulates every nuance of my domestic life, from the color of the rubbish receptacles I use (Terracotta Canyon Red for the recyclables, Santan Village Adobe for the regular stuff), to their positioning on trash day (“Association member must take care to securely fasten lid on all repositories, and place them no more than three feet to the right of member driveway, on the surface abutting the Association common curb” — which I think means “the street” — I haven’t asked), to the number and type of plants that populate the front, back, and side yards of each member’s property.
I hadn’t seen too many of these vehicles up close before — and to be locked eyeball-to-eyeball with an actual association employee — well, that was an unusual occurrence, for sure. You might see the “official use” Lincoln Navigators with ultra-dark window tinting driving around town now and again, or the golf carts stuffed tight with top dignitaries at Fourth of July or Veterans Day extravaganzas, but to be this close to an actual investigator, well, this wasn’t an everyday treat, that’s for sure.
At least not to a working stiff like me. Maybe this kind of interaction was common to the retired and disabled and chronically unemployed, but, again, for Johnny N it was a bit of a shock to be so squarely in the cross-hairs of one of these selfless and very likely non-bribeable bureaucrats.
I stood in my driveway and glared at him. Or tried to … but his sunglasses blocked his eyes. His mustache would shimmy and undulate while he wrote … but no emotion was visible. After he finished his staring and scribbling he nodded briefly to me and sped off — at the legally proscribed 7.5 miles per hour.
I had forgotten about the encounter until about a week later, when I got an e-mail (and a letter) from the HOA. It said there was a “housing” matter for me to address, and I could find it at a certain link — I only need point and click and it would all be made clear.
So I did — and up popped a photo of my house, obviously taken by my friend the gumshoe. All in all it was a tranquil picture, featuring my car, the driveway, a little bit of the garage, the tree to the right of my driveway, and some of the cacti to the left of it. At the bottom of the photo the following caption appeared:
I searched in vain for what the violation was, but no explanation was given. It gave me “three business days” to fix the issue and listed a phone number to call if I had any questions.
I was very nervous.
I had never received a notice like this before — so I immediately phoned the HOA. A nasally female voice answered and I referred to the link I had received. I asked her what I was in trouble for. Her loud breathing and annoying keyboard clacking seemed to last forever while she brought the item up for review:
HOA Lady (Impatiently): “Well, it’s a violation!”
Me: “Yes, I know that, but what for?”
HOA Lady (punching the keyboard just a bit harder): I mean we don’t just send these out for no reason.”
Me (starting to forget my manners): “I don’t dispute that there might be a violation here — but isn’t the manner of the offense usually listed?”
HOA Lady: “You really don’t need to speak to me like that. I just work here.”
Me: “Listen, I don’t mean it personally. I know you just work there — but I have lived here for over four years and I have never gotten anything like this. Tell me what it is and I’ll fix it!”
HOA Lady: “We’ll have to get back to you.”
And she slammed down the phone.
The next day I got a phone call back from the very same woman. Her voice was reedier than the first time, but she seemed to be a little more in control emotion-wise:
HOA Lady (Coolly): “Hello, this is Darla from your Hometown Community Homeowners Association. Is this John?”
Me: “Yes. So what’s the verdict?”
HOA Lady: “I’ve checked with our mobile consultant, and the violation is the tree that’s hanging over your driveway — it’s too bushy and too long and it needs to be trimmed.”
Me: “I just clipped that thing down to size less than a month ago. It’s not hanging over my driveway at all — just look at the picture — it’s straight up and thinned out and isn’t touching the garage or anything else! Who’s the freak that took this picture? I’d like to have him come over here and look at that tree and tell me it’s too damn long!”
HOA Lady (Superciliously): “Our field agents are highly trained and are very good at what they do. I would ask you to compare that tree to your neighbors’ trees and you will see that it doesn’t meet the requirements of your Hometown Community Homeowners Association. Perhaps this time you might want to hire a professional to do the job. We have several affiliated arborists who work closely with our design team. Would you care for a list?”
I saw that little Peckerwood last week, too — across the street again, but this time a few houses down. He seemed to be smiling … although truthfully, he was too far away for me to tell. I saw his mustache move though, and was able to note the intense scratching on his official Hometown Community Homeowners Association steno pad — and then he took off, going the exact opposite way he had gone the first time.
Yesterday I got this notice:
Violation. Backyard walls are showing signs of excessive fading or are discolored in appearance. Official wall colors are Rockingstone and Chocolate Fortnight, available at local paint stores. An example of a backyard wall is attached for your reference. Please bring this issue into compliance within 10 days of this notice.
Oh yeah? I think I’m gonna use the paint money as a down payment on my own golf cart, and go into business as a counter-surveillance operative against the Nimrods at the Hometown Community Homeowners Association. I am willing to finance a two-seater if anyone is interested in joining me. Maybe we can phony up a new set of bylaws and wreak social havoc — it would be community organizing at its finest!