In Praise of Mrs. Kravitz
She saw everything in the neighborhood — thankfully
By Nancy Oakley
She wryly calls herself “Mrs. Kravitz,” after the busy-body character from the 1960s television comedy Bewitched. This would be my friend of 20-odd years, who for the last 15 has rented to me an old servant’s cottage that sits at the end of her driveway. Our neighborhood oozes Southern charm and romance of a bygone era, but its proximity to downtown invites a stream of foot traffic, and every now and then, crime. It was during a rash of break-ins that “Mrs. Kravitz” came to be.
She is not the first, for every neighborhood has one. Growing up in Greensboro in the 1960s and ‘70s, my family and I had a Mrs. Kravitz for a next-door neighbor. She was cheerful, kind and generous, a salt-of-the-Earth type who baked pies and gave my sisters and me rides home from school. She had a distinctive laugh, a high-pitched cackle — and an eagle eye. “I just happened to wake up in the middle of the night last night,” she’d often begin, “and noticed the lights were on across the street, and two people were leaving the house. I declare, who in the world would be going somewhere at that hour?”
The phrase “across the street” referred to the young divorcée whose lawn-mowing attire consisted of a low-cut blouse and a miniskirt. My sisters and I never dared throw any parties on the rare occasions that our parents went out, as we knew that they’d get a full report from you-know-who. She gave us the lowdown on everyone else in a two-block radius: the fellow down the street who was hospitalized after a heart attack; an older woman who was drunk and ranting in the middle of the night (“when I just happened to be up with a headache,” said Mrs. K.); the mysterious nine-month case of “mononucleosis” that a teenaged girl had contracted; various children who skipped school or left their bicycles in her front yard. Never was she more incensed, however, than the day she caught her other next-door neighbors’ son teasing his dog, and vehemently scolded the boy: “Don’t you be mean to that Jingles; she’s a sweet dog!”
Shortly before the Mrs. Kravitz died, my parents acquired new neighbors on the other side of their house, a young couple with three children. We shall call them Mr. and Mrs. Kravitz. Energetic, with a hail-fellow-well-met demeanor, their brand of surveillance was fueled by sympathy. “We feel so sorry for Sue and her girls,” they’d sigh, before describing in excruciating detail the plight of the single mom whose husband was serving a jail sentence. They worried about the health consequences of one family’s hoarding tendencies and revealed that the two mutts responsible for leaving calling cards in our front yard were, in fact, rescue dogs. When the same drunk and ranting woman who had offended the first Mrs. Kravitz locked herself out of her house, these Kravitzes were the first on the scene to help and even looked into rehab programs for her.
But back to my Mrs. Kravitz, who evolved into her role. In the first few years that I lived in the cottage, I would get nervous phone calls from her on nights that her husband was working late or out of town. “Just wanted to make sure you’re there,” she’d say. But years later, when my purse was snatched and I was the frightened one, she insisted on dispatching me to her guest room and consoling me with a few beers while she wrangled with the police. They explained there wasn’t much they could do since the perp had slipped away, but Mrs. K. refused to let the matter go. “Don’t you have someone on the neighborhood beat who can track him down?” she snapped.
I was impressed with her audacity to sass the cops, a contrast to my deferential “Yes, Officer; No, Officer” responses. The police came to know her by name as the summer wore on and crime escalated. She demanded follow-up on another purse snatching, on the car break-in next-door, and routinely called in any suspicious-looking loiterers, until the city’s finest suggested she form a neighborhood watch. She did just that, starting with an e-mail chain that always ended with, “Mrs. Kravitz is on the case!” Literally. One night, she went out on patrol with the cops in a squad car, and I considered changing her moniker to “Dirty Harriet.”
But Mrs. Kravitz, while vigilant, is no vigilante. She and her counterparts before her are compassionate souls who only want the best for everyone, whether a defenseless animal, a troubled soul or frightened neighbors. So the next time you discover a Mrs. Kravitz in your midst, be glad she—or he—has your back. And if you’re planning any late-night revels, keep the noise down; Mrs. K. might happen to wake up.
This story ran previously in April 2011 issue of PineStraw, one of O.Henry‘s sister publications.