The “simple and safe” alarm system I bought for my rented Brooklyn apartment is, to put it bluntly, not especially simple and not all that safe.
Putting it up involved attaching finicky sensors to four different windows (that’s the number of sensors the starter pack came with, and I was embarrassed enough about the whole ordeal that I resisted adding extras, reasoning that if someone broke in via the deadbolted front door, I probably wouldn’t need an alarm to hear it) and connecting the whole thing to my Wi-Fi network, trusting the homing beacon to send steady signals to a company in Massachusetts that would then monitor, somehow, the system’s reliability.
In the year I’ve owned it, it has malfunctioned or stopped working countless times, and while there’s a not-insignificant chance this was due to user error, I can’t help but think I should be getting a little more for my money, which, in case you’re wondering, was a start-up investment of $150 and a monthly fee of $14.99 I can’t figure out how to cancel even though (spoiler alert) the whole system has been in a cabinet in my kitchen for the last three months.
I live on the third floor of a friendly building in what is one of the safest big cities in America. I am, statistically, not likely to become the victim of a home invasion crime, because those crimes are, by all metrics, on the decline. And yet typing that out feels like a dare, a challenge—what if letting my guard down just this once invites chaos into the place where I am supposed to feel safest but which sometimes, late at night, feels like the scariest place in the world?
I moved into my first studio apartment in the summer of 2012, putting my bed in the center of the room and telling everyone it wasn’t so much “my apartment” as it was “my boudoir.” I bought old copies of books by Marjorie Hillis and Helen Gurley Brown, declaring myself part of a long lineage of women living alone not out of necessity but out of want—I wanted to eat cheese and crackers for dinner and take baths at 10 a.m. and 11 p.m. and host dates when I wanted them and shoo them away when I wanted to be alone, which I insisted was all the time. It wasn’t entirely an act, either—I was an only child, accustomed to spending time with books or music or my own thoughts, and while I grew up in a city, the forced intimacy of life in New York was still new to me.
That apartment only had one window, a sliding glass door leading out to a Juliet balcony that became, over the two years I lived there, my bête noire. It didn’t lock properly, and on windy nights it rattled, and it was easy for my sleep-addled brain to think the sound wasn’t the elements but an intruder tapping on the glass. Could someone climb up the building’s limestone and wrought-iron facade, I wondered? My apartment faced a quiet street—if someone did surprise me in the dead of night, would anyone hear me scream? Once, on a procrastination binge, I watched a dozen episodes of Law and Order: SVU, and one of them was about a predator targeting single brunette women living on the Upper West Side. Was that one ripped from the headlines, and if it was, had the case ever been solved?
In the way that as an anxious teenager I’d convinced myself that the Manson family would somehow figure out time travel and target, at their peak numbers and youthful strength, my suburban Los Angeles home, I became obsessed with a 1963 murder case the New York press dubbed the “Career Girl Murders.” Max Wylie, the father of one of the victims, published a book he called Career Girl—Watch Your Step, full of tips on how to best lock a door. The book took as its thesis that the most dangerous thing a woman in New York City can do is to be alone.
I didn’t buy an alarm system because of a 1960s murder—at least, I think I didn’t. I moved into the apartment where I currently live a year after my father died, and while I was far from alone in the world, I found myself missing, perhaps most of all, the regularity with which he would call “just to check in” each day. His voice on the other end of the phone made living alone feel not less lonely but less like I actually lived alone—he was there with me when the power went out, or when I couldn’t get the radiator to stop blowing steam, or when it was late and dark and I wanted someone to know I was home behind a securely locked door.
My therapist (of course) made the connection between my father’s death and my heightened stress about being safe at home, and didn’t chide me when I floated the idea of buying an alarm system, so I placed the order, set it up, and waited to be gently enveloped by a new and powerful sense of feeling secure.
It didn’t come. I worried about the efficacy of the product, and also, plainly, I felt stupid. I had spent all this money on this dumb internet-enabled plastic setup, and for what? So I could outsource my constant vigilance and make it so that I was alone, but I wasn’t really alone? I was supposed to hate the surveillance state! And: What if I choked on a bite of takeout dinner? Or slipped getting out of the shower? Yes, both of these things were plotlines on Sex and the City, but wasn’t I exactly like those characters? A woman in her early 30s whose favorite thing was being alone and whose biggest fear was… being alone?
I wish I could end this story by saying I magically got over my fear of the thing I love most and am happily swanning around my apartment in a silk caftan, drinking Champagne on a Wednesday night just because. I wish I could say I threw my alarm system in the trash after realizing that a false sense of security is worse than none at all.
But the truth about why I gave it up is probably the most embarrassing part of this story: My boyfriend moved in, and I unplugged the alarm because we needed the extra outlet space. I still have it, though, and in a recent New Year’s purge of unwanted household effects I couldn’t bring myself to toss it out. I don’t want to be the kind of person who says things like “better safe than sorry,” but I’m unable, in practice, to not be that kind of person.
Maybe next year.
Angela Serratore is a writer based in New York City. Her work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Lapham’s Quarterly, Smithsonian, and more.