The news out of Cleveland, Ohio this week is miraculous: three missing girls, Amanda Berry, Gina de Jesus, and Michelle Knight, held captive for a decade, were all found alive, thanks to the intervention of America’s newest hero, Charlie Ramsey. When Amanda Berry broke free, got to a window, saw Ramsey, and screamed for help, Ramsey answered the call and got the woman out. Thank God for the Charlie Ramseys of this world who aren’t afraid to go in there and take action!
Questions remain. How did the perpetrators keep three girls in bondage for a decade? Didn’t anybody see anything suspicious going on at that house on Seymour Avenue any sooner? Weren’t there some signs that something was wrong over there?
Every time I hear of a case like this…I am reminded of another strange house, one I knew about as a teen. A house of mystery. The three people who lived within it resided in my old hometown. I had become acquainted with one of them after we moved away. The one I knew had always seemed nice and even rather jolly – until I got my driver’s license and started paying regular visits back to my old hometown, a fifteen-minute ride away, in my Ford Falcon jalopy. That’s when the nonsense started and a startling collection of red flags went up.
The unquantifiable house was situated by a beloved local landmark: a little railroad “whoopee bridge.” If you put the pedal to the metal in the jalopy while going over that bridge at exactly the right moment, the car would seem to fly. Then it would land, and the feeling was like one you’d experience going down a dip on a roller coaster. I loved roller coasters. I loved that little bridge. I made detours so that I could fly over it whenever I was anywhere nearby. Unfortunately, that house was a few blocks past it, and I would usually ride past the house, too, then turn off onto the main road. This had nothing whatsoever to do with the house. The turn-off to the main road just happened to be located some distance beyond it. Ergo, I would ride past it, then turn.
The house in question was bizarre, if only because it was the plainest house I’d ever seen. It was a place without any trim whatsoever – no shutters, like every other house on the street – and zero landscaping. There wasn’t a single bush, a flower, a rose arbor, a tree or a plant in that front yard. One look at it and you had to wonder: what was going on there? I knew one of the inhabitants of the house was employed, displayed designer accessories, and was bringing in a nice salary. There was no reason for those who lived there not to at least plant a tree and install some shutters and make the place look nicer. But no, that house looked…bald.
I still might not have paid it any mind, except that two of its residents – there were three, but I only saw the mysterious third one, who was like a phantom, once, which was enough, as that one was creepy – started becoming attitudinal at my presence back in my old hometown. It didn’t make sense. What did the town have that no other places had? That house. What else? Keep in mind that I never once went over to that house, never knocked on the door, and never paid a social visit. All I ever did was ride over the bridge, past the house, and onwards. I hung out about a dozen blocks away, at three public venues, two of which were restaurants where I ate lunch while commuting to college, since the town was on the way. This was my old hometown and I saw no reason not to hang out there now that I had wheels. I loved that town.
Here’s where it starts to get creepy. Two of the residents of that house made it known that they did not want me to spend time anywhere near there. Me? A teenager? Go figure, but my presence in that town freaked them out. This will sound hard to fathom, but one of them even went so far as to have a friend interrogate one of my little teenage friends, Mary, as to “why” I hung out there. The interrogator reportedly “did not believe” that I had ever once lived there, though it was a matter of public record and could have been easily checked. I’d lived there for the first eleven years of my life. Nevertheless, my friend was put through the third degree about my presence in public places like the Roy Rogers Restaurant. Excuse me? Whoa, boy! Mary thought the interrogator was 100% nuts and I wondered about the sanity of the one who’d put her up to it. Who the Hell needs to take a teenage girl’s best friend aside to ask one kid questions about the other one’s address history?
One memorable day those two residents of that house saw I was in the area. This is where it gets very, very wacky, so brace yourself. Naturally, I headed home via my bridge detour. They idled their car on a side street near that house. When I proceeded to pass by after flying over the bridge, what did they do? The driver gunned the motor as if to give chase and, in a “gotcha” mode, the car deliberately came barreling after me. They stopped before doing anything that might have gotten them in trouble with a traffic cop, and one wasn’t nearby anyway, but this was still wild. I was seventeen years old. The driver was 35 and had a Master’s Degree. The other passenger in the car was about 70, and this activity is what they were out there doing of a sunny morning, staking out the street to chase after a kid for joyriding over a bridge? If they “got” me while in “gotcha” mode, what exactly did they think they would get? I’m five-foot-one, hardly a scary person, and besides, I never even left the car. With nuts like those living in that house, who would have wanted to get out and ring that doorbell? But to put it mildly, it was strange.
There were several other weird instances. I caught one of the duo, who were together, blatantly trying to observe me – when they thought they could not be seen – at one of the local venues. A pillar was between us; I was further back in the venue and could see what they both were up to, but the one that was eyeballing me couldn’t see me. This complete lunatic was watching my every move – even though I was just sitting there minding my business, which is a lot more than I could say for them. A few weeks following those incredible incidents, the 35-year-old flake with the Master’s Degree “confronted” me about my sojourns to the town. What proceeded falls under the category of nothing less than a mind game. With infuriated eyes, the Bastion of Bullshit tried to convince me that there was something “the matter” with me for “not letting go” of my hometown. Yes, you read that correctly! I finally had the means to go home whenever I felt like it, but it was all being twisted into a great big melodrama – starring me! Again, the town was on the way to my college, so passing through there was hardly extraordinary and neither was the concept of stopping for lunch anywhere, including there, along the route. What was this? Who ever “lets go” of the hometown they love? Well, I’ve got a big mouth and was outraged at the way I was being addressed, so this freakish little mind game tactic didn’t work on a kid like me. I replied with a teen’s sense of righteousness that America was a free country and I’d go wherever I pleased.
I must admit, though: after that encounter, which was so far “out there” that I was secretly unnerved by it, I may have continued to go to the public venues in town, but was reluctant to detour over the bridge…since it was on their street. Something was wrong with that street and I have a feeling it was more than just the fact that they lived on it.
I wonder about all of this even yet, so many decades later. People in our culture tend to write off such encounters by dismissing such people as “paranoid,” but was that really this bunch’s story? Look at what happened in Cleveland! Look at the Natascha Kampusch case in Austria, another one where a girl was held captive in a house, in that case for eight years! Then there was Jaycee Lee Dugard, whose captors held her for 18 years in a backyard tent; they would intimidate the parole officer who came to the house to check up on the freak who was raping her, causing the officer to leave as fast as possible, and one of those encounters is even on tape. Those may be the absolute worst-case scenarios, but hey, they happened. Clues about such horror houses are often right there, right in front of people, but they’re missed.
When I think of that house now, so many years later, knowing so much more about the criminal element and how so much “smoke” usually means there’s a fire, I can recall that those living in that house were clearly afraid of something. Here’s my best guess. They were afraid I’d find something out, I think – but what could it have been? It’s hard to find a solution to fit the facts of this riddle. One of my relatives bore the dubious distinction of working with one of these crazy people. That relative was not the bossperson, however. Was the particular one who lived in that house concerned that someone from the job had “sent” me there to check up on – something-or-other? If so – on what? The idea could be stretched to fit the facts, but what employer in their right mind would have sent a teenage girl to check up on the activities of an employee anyway? If one did, then how did the job – in yet another locale – fit into it? Only those with plenty to hide would even think to be terrified of a tiny kid like me. All I know for sure is that that whole gaggle was constantly looking over their shoulders. Mary, the friend who was once asked questions about me, never forgot the strangeness of all of this any more than I ever did, and she always says she thinks maybe the trio had “a meth lab in the basement or something.” That’s another idea that might fit the facts and might explain it. That would certainly account for the outrageousness of their wild overreactions to my jalopy and me and the joyrides over the bridge. To date, though, nothing really explains it.
Might it have been clearer if I’d ever had the chance to talk with the third, mostly unseen, resident of that house? I wondered, then and now, what that one’s story may have been. Two of the family went all over town together and the third was usually nowhere to be found. That seemed weird enough then, when I was still a kid, but now, as an adult, I really have to wonder. Why was their house deliberately kept so plain? Was that done by design, in the hopes it would not stand out? Was its plainness part of a fleet of red flags that everyone missed? I am all for speaking up when one sees something suspicious or wrong, but how can anyone alert the police to nothing more than the strange feeling they get from a bunch of people who come across like a bad-vibes version of The Three Stooges? On the other hand, there had to be something strange going on there for this contingent to try so hard to misdirect me from it, since attempts at chasing away and distracting people don’t develop out of nowhere or in a vacuum. My gut feeling then was that they were hiding something major – and it was inside the house. It’s my gut feeling yet.
I moved away a few years later. Two of the residents of that house died; the third sold it a decade after I left, moving on, though hopefully not to become another community’s sub rosa problem. As far as I have been able to find out, none of the trio that once lived there ever had a police record, but then, only those who get caught have records. The last time I was in that neighborhood, maybe five years ago now, I asked to be driven past that old place, knowing the inhabitants were no longer there and certainly couldn’t pop out in a car from the side street any longer, or pull anything else strange, either – causing my heart to sing, “Joy to the world, they’re gone! They’re gone!” The place finally had a nice paint job, shutters, flowers, and trim. It had new owners. It appeared that they loved it.
But every time I hear another story where someone’s neighbor turns out to have a secret life, or a child is found hidden in a basement, or a clandestine drug operation, or a safe house on a human smuggling line, or something else criminally insane, I always remember that house. Then I start to wonder. Oh, if only those walls could talk!
Here’s “A Wink and a Smile,” an Academy Award-nominated song, sung by Harry Connick, Jr., containing the lyric, “leave your old jalopy by the railroad track.” I’d say just watch where you try that! It’s by Marc Shaiman and Ramsey MacLean. Enjoy!