The shadow of your file

My neighbor informed me that she’s keeping a file on me.

“I’m keeping a file on you,” she huffed in a distinctly threatening tone.

I was caught off guard (who wouldn’t be?). What rules of etiquette, I wondered, govern such situations? Does Emily Post or Miss Manners offer relevant advice? Does one thank a filemaker or apologize? Did she expect hush money or a hug?

My puzzlement proved short-lived.

It was settled by the flap in Washington, D.C., concerning Dubya’s first designee for secretary of labor, Linda Chavez. It seems that Ms. Chavez found it advisable to consult with her neighbor in advance of the required FBI background check, in order to correlate their stories. As Chavez pointed out, none of us has a completely spotless past. One supposes that she merely hoped to ensure that all the spots matched.

It dawned on me that my neighbor is doing me a big favor. When, some day, the Big Knock lands on my door, as we all secretly believe it must, I will simply say, “Talk to my neighbor. She has a file.”

In all likelihood, however, I still have some time left. I would be utterly flabbergasted if my name turned up on the Republican junta’s short list for cabinet posts or the Supreme Court. And in the realm of questionable business activity, my insider trading of commodities seems to consist mainly of buying commodities and putting them inside me. Fattening, yes; illegal, no.

That means any investigation is probably a ways off. And in the meantime, I can start feeding her information — anonymously, of course — in plain brown envelopes with no return address.

After all, being limited to what she can see through the hedge, she must miss a lot of the good stuff. It would be most embarrassing to have the FBI obtain a lot of penny-ante material when there are high crimes and misdemeanors going on around here all the time.

Sure, she may know I sometimes weed naked or that I drove on expired license plates when I forgot to renew my registration, but she can only suspect that I have occasionally worn the same pair of socks two days in a row. And flossing? She doesn’t have a clue: Maybe I do, maybe I don’t.

There was the time I kept a stray dog for almost a month before I had it neutered and vaccinated for rabies and parvo. Am I thoughtless or what? I have clipped “Do Not Remove” tags off pillows and mattresses. Call me Mr. Scofflaw. And how many times have I lied to pollsters on the phone? I can’t begin to count ’em. A whole lot of what George Gallup believes to be true about our populace has been skewed by my “creative” responses. I am a sociopath!

Falling asleep with the light on, drinking O.J. from the carton, photocopying copyrighted cartoons, singing off-key — I should have a rap sheet a mile long. She may guess I phone Mom less often than a good boy should, but does she know about the speeding citation back in ’68? Or the hapless recidivism that netted me a similar ticket 20 years later? How about the day I spent in a Florida jail, falsely accused of stealing a tire? Sure, I beat the charge in court, but a lot of people steal things in the Sunshine State and get away with it.

Before you know it, my neighbor will have to hire a file clerk to keep up with the stuff. Maybe rent an office …

Then it hit me: Notwithstanding our grandiosity or paranoia, for most of us the Big Knock will never come. I don’t need anyone to keep track of my sins — I just need someone to keep track. The fact of the matter is that I don’t have a coherent file on much of anything. Am I missing a great opportunity here?

Maybe I should feed her need to file with my need for filing: just give her the works and let her sort it out. Organized at last!

Of course, this strategy has one drawback. If she thought I was weird enough to be worthy of private detection before, just wait until she finds out that I don’t keep files on my neighbors!

She’ll probably start locking her doors.

[C.L. Bothwell is the author of Gorillas in the Myth: A Duck Soup Reader and the editor of the Warren Wilson College environmental journal, Heartstone. For an index of Duck Soups, visit: Copyright 2001, Cecil L. Bothwell III, all rights reserved.]

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