The Gate Keeper

The Gate Keeper

You could see the gate house from the highway several minutes before arriving. It stood out in those days because the several housing developments it protected from non-resident riffraff were just beginning to appear. The gate house was probably constructed as soon as the streets were paved and the sales offices set up in the garages of model homes. If the feature that distinguishes up scale developments from all others is Gated Living, then it is essential to have a gate house ready to receive potential buyer-residents. And, to be sure, gate house guards who appear as convincing as minimum wages, ill fitting uniforms and possibly a small side arm can imply.

This gate house was set in a carefully planned mini-environment of tailored lawns and manicured bushes and shrubs and a budding forest of carefully chosen young trees. The latter were each three-man trees, which indicates in the trade that it requires a minimum of three people to move and plant one. The desired impression of the landscaping on potential buyers was that while new, the development had built in maturity, i.e., class. The desired effect was a well established, high-end development. And that it was. Rising on the desert hills behind the gate house were clearly five separate projects, each with a delineated elevation. The model homes in each operationally established the respective price ranges. The most expensive development with its nearly acre lots stood out on top of the hill, sans model homes, clearly indicating to knowledgeable potential buyers that this was the section for totally custom built homes. As you moved down the hill, projects allowed fewer modifications to the model plans. At the bottom, one might be permitted to mess around a bit with the inside color schemes, but that was all.

Gate House

Gate House

What led to our visiting Gated Estatesville on the Sonoran Plain was a search for a reasonably congenial and convenient place to relocate upon retirement. Why there in particular is another story, but the decision had been made and we were there in search of our own bit of paradise. Soon, it was clear to us that the surest way to happiness was to build. Housing development in the area was thriving so there were plenty of options. We were pleased at the number and quality in our price range, but disappointed and a bit frustrated that we had not zeroed iin on a model and lot that met our criteria. We had taken advantaged of a short-stay special offer (people in their right minds do not visit the Arizona desert in August without some sort of financial incentive) at one of classier resorts in the area, and after a third demanding day of searching sat relaxing in our room discussing what we had learned. The in-house television channel running in the background was displaying an ad for model homes that were particularly attractive. We noticed and were surprised that the property on the screen was adjacent to the resort, and that precipitated our visiting this particular development the next morning. Pure happenstance.

And so, there we were about 9:00 am parked in front of the gate house. Except for Theresa having a wooden fence on the Illinois family farm to keep the cows out of the chicken yard, neither of us had any experience living behind gates. Even though we had driven by a few gated developments during the previous three days, this was the closest we had come to even considering a conjugal relationship with one. In our experience, gated estates existed only in the movies or on isolated Yorkshire moors as a means of keeping the hands of the local juvenile delinquents off the Bronte sisters.

From what we could ascertain, the basic function of having a gate in front of a residential neighborhood on the Sonoran Desert was to assure security, or at least contribute significantly to it. The more overt security concern was safety, the idea being to keep out any potential intruders who might, due to criminal motivation, ethnic origin or lower class orientation cause harm to come to one’s person or possessions. A more subtle aspect of security had to do with values, reflecting the assumption that one is more likely to successfully pursue a particular lifestyle if stationed within a compound inhabited by people with similar desires and where all others, with the exception of working visits by tradesmen and service personnel, are excluded.

It is obvious that there is a literal meaning of gated and as you travel through the land in search of a retirement oasis, you see an increasing number of communities that are in the literal sense fenced and gated away from the larger society. (The concept is not one hundred percent valid, as demonstrated by an incident in one such community. The code for the electronic gate of the community was obtained illegally by a couple of non-residents who unlocked and swung open said barrier in the middle of the night. Having done so, they backed their leased 3 ton Volvo 6 wheeler up to the front door of one of the more expensive residences, loaded up the classy audio-video-gear and pricy art work, drove back out the gate, closing it quietly under the moon lit sky, not to be discovered until a week later when the retired residents returned from vacation. Neighbors, apparently lulled into security by the knowledge of their private locked gate remained oblivious to the caper.)

There are few upscale developments in which security rests with a simple fence and a locked gate. There is more often what is referred to as a security system comprised of walls, locked gates, sensors, lights, buttons and bells. This is what the hardware people hype, but a more thoughtful analysis of the security system concept reveals that it goes beyond the mechanical electric stuff. If you have resided in one of the more advanced communities you will know that a really first class security system entails a combination of electro-mechanical devices, legal documents, psychological principles, ethical obstacles and restrictions designed to control behavior inside the gate and hopefully shape residents’ attitudes and thinking processes. The foundation document of such systems to which more and more inmates entrust their life style is usually referred to as Covenants, Conditions and Restrictions. CC&Rs amounts to a set of often difficult to enforce legalized rules and a commitment by residents not to do unto your neighbors what they damn well better not do unto you. It is in this regard that an increasing portion of retired (and other) people believe they have real choices regarding security in both physical and mental senses. One might refer to this mentality as the “Golden Rule Backed by a Neighborhood Gun Permit” approach to security.


Welcome Home

So, after due consideration and remnants of reservations about our goodness of fit with the Gated Estate life style, we purchased a lot, modified House Plan B, ordere constructed to begin and several months later moved in. Part of the rights of passage was receiving our own electronic gate opener wand (batteries not included) and our names displayed beside a call button on the owners’ directory beside the little microphone/speaker on the pillar to which the actual heavy metal, electrical powered gate was affixed. We joined our neighbors in settling into our gated community.

And therein began an enlightening and sometimes strange association. No, not with the neighbors, but with the gatekeeper, or more precisely, a series of gatekeepers. No matter how satisfying one’s primary relationship (ours is splendid), most people enjoy other contacts which provide opportunities for experiences and encounters that can be the topics of family conversation. Our community was limited to less than 50 familial units, the majority of the members of same appearing to be fully engaged with little available descretionary time and so seldom available for small talk. I suppose this accounts for my beginning to chat up the gatekeeper. Theresa and I returned from our morning walks by at 8:00 a.m. in order to avoid the extreme desert heat, but after some acclimatization, I often would wander out again in mid-morning or early afternoon. There being no mad dogs or Englishmen about, it seemed natural to seek out the only other human being under the mid-day sun, namely the gatekeeper.

The gatekeeper shift in our community was what is known as a 12/3. This, you can probably determine without my assistance, indicates three12 hour days on, followed by three days off, followed by another 3/12, the schedule repeating itself ignoring the traditional seven day week. A gate keeping shift began at 6:00 a.m. and lasted until 6:00 p.m. We were a first class operation with a staff lavatory located in the gatehouse, along with a small refrigerator and micro wave oven, so this was not an inhumane assignment with regard to working environment. Many gate keepers preferred the 12/3 schedule because it allowed them to complete a work week in three days, leaving the following three for play and personal concerns, or in the case of some keepers, a second or even third job. A little arithmetic will demonstrate that in a seven day period I could have contact with two gatekeepers, and often more because the practice was for keepers to trade days irregularly with the other gatekeepers. The security company with which our home owners association contracted didn’t appear to mind, as long as the shift was covered.

Eating Out

Eating Out

The steel gate was set on what was referred to as automatic” from 6:00 p.m. until 6:00 a.m. As a resident desiring entrance during automatic hours, you inserted your plastic key card in the drive up slot by the gate post, pushed a button, and hoped it worked. Visitors simply pushed a button by a resident’s name in order to make phone contact and request entrance. Each house had a remote button for opening the gate. I understood the concept upon which the schedule was based, but it was clearly bad theory considering that 6:00 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. was the heaviest concentrated use of the gate by residents due to so many taking advantage of cheap early dinner specials at fast food outlets down on the highway. Mornings were no better, with the construction workers looking for an early start on blistering hot days lined up outside the gate by at 5:00 a.m. Usually they were able to develop contacts with several early rising residents who took pity on their case and would release the gate lock, often with out finding out who was actually ringing their buzzer, thus defeating the purpose of the security gate. But that was the way it was.

The gatekeeper uniform consisted of medium brown non-pleated pants, single breasted navy blue jacket, white shirt, blue tie, dark socks and shined dark shoes, creating a sense of military bearing, police authority, with an unmistakable hint of country clubbish servitude. Some, but less than half, of the guards carried a small holstered side arm; probably a 22 caliber pistol, but I am ignorant about weapon technology. One gatekeeper told me that the armed keepers were most likely former military, police or career security people, previously licensed to carry a side arm. I was never sure that a permit was actually required by law in Arizona. It was a moot point, I discovered later when a keeper told me that it was company policy that all side arms be unloaded at all times.

I also learned that there was more than one uniform store in the area that offered good supplies of used security guard clothing, the local turn over in security personnel being considerable. The initial uniform investment could be financed by the employer and paid off during a reasonable time period. Gatekeepers were employed by a security company that contracted with our home owners associations. In that sense, gatekeepers were employed by residents, but I don’t think the keepers saw it that way. They appeared to make few distinction among gate users.

My first gatekeeper was Mat, who was in his late forties and a retired military from Michigan. All gatekeepers were of Anglo-Saxon ancestry and male. You could predict, however, that as the area grew and unskilled labor pay improved it was only a matter of time before some Hispanic maintenance workers without heavy Mexican accents would be given the opportunity to trade a work shirt and Levis for a security uniform with a stitched on name tag on the shirt.

Mat told me that he and his wife lived in a mobile home park about 45 minutes away. Mat was not much of a talker. He did tell me he spent many years overseas in the Military Police and that his wife was Korean. He was now convinced that it would have been better for them to have retired in California or Seattle where there was more work for her kind of people, he told me. There were no Koreans or other Asians residing in their trailer park or in that part of the Arizona for that matter, he said. He thought it was too bad that she didn’t speak English. But he could speak pigeon Korean well enough for them to get by, he assured me.

Mat was very conscientious, refusing to simply wave drivers through gate, as most of them would have preferred, residents and non-residents, alike. He required all arriving vehicles to come to a full stop so that he could verify identification stickers on windshields. He conducted what he called a quick screening of all non-residents drivers. He expected commercial drivers to check out, as well as in. Mat recorded the actual arrival and departure time of commercial vehicles, glancing quickly at his faux Rolex and making an entry on his clip board. This seemed to make his job more meaningful, although it had a negative effect upon some of his gate clientele who disliked the inconvenience of the encounter. As an employer of sorts, more like a stock holder really, and an outside observer, I approved of the way Mat did his job. A gatekeeper’s gatekeeper, one might say.

The gate keeping job was fundamentally boring, if you will allow a colossal understatement. I speculated to myself that among the selection criteria used by the security company, and tolerance for boredom should have been at the top of the list, although I doubt the firm was that observant or sophisticated. Gatekeepers would also benefit from a low verbal aptitude to the extent that a desire for conversation was bound to go mostly unmet and lead to frustration. In addition, keeper job satisfaction would be enhanced by being standoffish, and not easily threatened by impatient customers. Essentially, the basic task was to provide a simple service while generating a potential snarl tempered by the hint of an aloof smirk. Look for Bogie in an ill fitting uniform and you’ve got it.

Mat told me that his wife didn’t like his working so far from home, and was constantly urging him to find a closer job. There was a phone in the gate house. He said he was sorry that he had given her the number. She called him several times during each shift. On the other hand, there were practically no other incoming calls, so her’s at least might be a diversion to his boredom. We usually exchanged observations about the temperature and the rate of traffic, which was minimal by any standards. With the approximately 60 completed homes and about half that number under construction, you could say traffic was light.

So Long Mat

So Long Mat

One day about four weeks after I met Mat, we were having our morning chat, if you can call it that, when a new resident from the more expensive ostentatious homes approached the gate in his Mercedes-Benz tank. He slowed down and waved impatiently at the gatehouse, assuming it appeared, that the gate would open at his command and he would be waved through. Of course, that didn’t happen, and the driver brought his vehicle to a full stop. Mat politely informed the driver that his vehicle lacked the required identification tag and suggested that he, the resident, rectify that oversight. The fellow was clearly miffed. After he cleared the gate, Mat nodded and noted to me that the fellow seemed to be a slow learner, but he would come around eventually. That was the only time I heard Mat utter an evaluative comment about any resident. That was also the last time I saw Mat. His replacement told me that he had been transferred to another property.

After Mat, I encountered a string of gatekeepers in their early twenties. Most were new to the desert, each single and, I imagined, with something short of a month’s rent in their pocket. I sensed that the word was probably out among new arrivals that the easiest jobs to obtain were in security. The pay was low and turnover rate one of the highest, as I said.

It became apparent that several gate keepers had the skill of establishing a working comradery of sorts with selected male residents, which got them a five or ten spot now and then in the form of quick loan, probably. It is sort of a “guy talk” thing that is not a function of social status. Some guys have a look about them suggesting that they are probably good for a hit. It didn’t happen to me, probably because I looked like I never parted with a bill without some displeasure, which may have been true. You can’t look in a mirror at such moments.

One thing the gate keepers had in common was their wheels; all were more or less junkers. Thus, I was surprised as I descended the hill and rounded the bend to the gate house midday to see a sloped back Pontiac coupe in the single parking spot next to the gate. I’m not sure of the year, but it was near the last of its kind. This particular car was dark blue with oversize tires and in fine shape. Good waxed finish, no dents, chrome clean and shined. I assumed that the car was driven by the keeper on duty and that he was new. I was correct in both instances. His name was Jim. He was a good 6 feet 2, perhaps a bit heavy in a puffy sort of way, brown straight hair, squarish face and dull brown eyes. I put him at 48 to 50, many of the years being hard. Even though he appeared to be generally uncomfortable, he wore the uniform well. Looked natural in it. I saw him out of uniform only once.

If I thought Mat was not much of a talker, Jim in could have passed for a mute, at least at first. My initial attempts at making small talk had a shelf life shorter than a drop of water on the sizzling Arizona pavement. It was also true that he didn’t discourage my stopping by and seemed content just to stand together under the gate awning observing the landscape. The occasional vehicle passing through the gate provided some opportunity for comment if not discussion. Then, one morning a state trooper drove up to the gate, flashed his badge saying he had business with a resident. Jim showed what could pass for animation as he interacted briefly with the cop, saluted easily and waved him through.

“Good duty,” Jim said to me.


“Nice car. Air Conditioned. Pretty much your own boss. People respect you. Plenty of time to think. Not too much responsibility. One of the best law enforcement duties.”

“Oh,” I responded brilliantly. I wasn’t exactly displaying a gift of gab my self, but I had the feeling I wasn’t expected to comment or respond. But, I did, and asked if he had ever done police work, realizing immediately what a put down that could be. Apparently, he didn’t see it that way and continued.

“Lots in the military and quite a bit of guard and security work. Some of it interesting. Not like gate work. Undercover work is my specialty.”

“There’s our man, Watson!

There's our man, Watson!

There’s our man, Watson!

I didn’t know what to do with that and decided to leave it for another visit. Don’t waste topics of conversation unnecessarily, I thought. And so we smiled and I walked. It was an informative encounter. I learned that Jim could talk in sentences; he was not stupid; he could smile, tightly.

Our shared data base, if you will, regarding Jim’s life and times grew, if slowly, over the next few months. He had been living in the Southwest for nearly five years. For the prior two he had been assistant security man in one of the larger resorts, or so he told me. During the past year had been assigned to night undercover work at “the resort” (that is how he put it). I had no way to or interest in confirming his story. True or not it was interesting to me. I don’t do movies and TV had descended to waste land status, so the adventures of Undercover Jim became an entertaining diversion.

Jim was never particularly explicit about his night job, but it seemed to involved the resort’s attempt to prevent and reduce crimes including breaking and entering, theft, robbery, sexual abuse, indecent exposure, drug dealing; you know, the standard resort recreation activities. After describing non-related if not random experiences, Jim worked his way up to multi-episode adventures. He would set the stage with a vague description of an initial event, introduce a few characters (also amorphous) and describe some initial action. Upon each successive visit to the gate house he would play the prior nights’ chapter for me. He seemed to enjoy telling the stories, and probably creating them as well, I thought.

The plots were unmemorable, but the theme was constant, involving nightly chases and quasi investigations throughout the resort property. If you have worked in resorts or even thought much about them, you know there is a lot of under cover if not under the covers business going on. One responsibility of security is to keep the keep guests sufficiently comfortable so they will return. Another, of course, is to prevent crime and other disturbing events. In Jim’s venue, a recurring action involved guests and non-guests sneaking in an out of guest rooms, apparently in search of single women with the objective of “scaring the pants off of them” as Jim put it. Taken literally, this was a bit confusing because most were sans panties and bedie-by by the time potential perpetrators were prowling. He said no one had been seriously hurt and nor caught on his watch, from which of course, you can infer whatever you choose. He did allude, vaguely, to considerable amounts of missing personal property. This at least increased the potential employment tenure for Undercover Jim. It also provided him plausible plot lines for his adventure stories.

A major development in the adventure series occurred without warning when Jim announced one afternoon in 110 degrees plus temperature that he was going to be married, and would probably be taking time off for a honeymoon. By this time I had my role in his adventures well conceived and my lines down pat, but at the moment I was, if not speechless, then clearly unresponsive. Yes, he went on oblivious to or perhaps too kind to acknowledge my witlessness, he had met the right woman. That was it. No elaboration. It was obvious there was no more to come. I knew all I was going to know, for now at least. This seemed in character with Undercover Jim, and I didn’t probe. The subject of the forthcoming nuptials and honeymoon remained at surface level for a fortnight. There was reference to her and them each time I visited the gatehouse, but no elaboration of a possible venue or the nature of the festivities. As you can understand, the topic from my end was getting beyond boring. No spice, sex, intrigue or suggestion of adventure. Just ambiguous comments that did no more than confirm that nuptials were still on the docket. This was frustrating because his non-informative allusions to the wedding had totally supplanted any continuation of The Adventures of Undercover Jim. I was considering looking elsewhere for diversions.

Having nearly given up interest, I inquired one day regarding from where might the bride hail, if I could be so bold? LA, he said, and she was due in town any day. And further, he hoped that I would have the opportunity to meet her. The wedding was now scheduled for Mexico, and she might be dropping buy the gate house any one of these days. It was then that I suspected that I might be Jim’s only confidant at this point in his life. The abstruseness of his story and the lack of any personal references suggested to me that he was a man without friends and probably family. I wondered if he longed for some.

greenladyThe mystery woman materialized on my next morning visit to the gate house. She was sitting in a folding chair inside the gate house next to Jim who was perched on his gatekeeper stool, looking very official. She was quite a knock out, as I can image my father saying. She wore high white patent leather, opened toe, high heel boots, dark purple knit hose with a spider pattern, a mighty tight mini red skirt with bulging zipper, false blue painted nails that glittered, and a rose colored sleeveless blouse bursting at the buttons. Her ear rings were lacquered red and black balls dangling from Mexican silver loops. Her lips were painted a deep orange red. I guessed she dreamed of seeing the down side of 50 again. Not cute, trying too hard, but one guessed under it all physically in good shape. There were no introductions, which didn’t seem to offend the lady. Jim and I retreated to stimulating observations regarding the weather, lack of traffic, and more about the weather, which 98 percent of the time on the Sonoran is a non-topic. I tried to include her in the non-conversation, but there was minimal response. A few questions calling for a yes or no answer got yes or no answers. A couple open-ended questions received a reactions between a grunt and Mmmmm. I decided I wouldn’t go any farther up that avenue, and returned to my the stimulating dialogue with Undercover Jim. Soon, I went on my way. Later in the afternoon, I drove through the gate, and they were still there. The groom on his stool, the bride on the folding chair, and now, I noticed, holdings hands.

A couple mornings later when visiting with Jim, I risked asking if the wedding date had been set? It had been postponed for awhile he said. His bride had to make a trip back to California, but she would return soon. Our visits continued over the next four or five weeks. The wedding was mentioned, probably to reinforce whoever might be interested that it was still on the calendar. The Undercover Jim stories now became random. The adventure had nearly disappeared. Shortly after that, it occurred to me that Jim was not complying with his normal schedule. Substitute keepers appeared at least a day each shift week. It was a Wednesday of the last day of Jim’s scheduled week that he was absent again. I wondered if he would appear on Sunday, the first day of his next work week.

The answer to my question was revealed in on the second page of section two the Arizona Star on Monday. It concerned a weekend murder, which was nearly the norm for Tucson. I suppose it was the outlandish nature of the crime that gained it more than passing interest and prominent placement in the paper. According to the story, one Joe Morgan apparently had been following his estranged and former partner for several days. He had tracked her to a Speedway Avenue Motel on Saturday. Speedway Avenue in Tucson is so named because it was an unpaved strip which kids used to race their cars in the 1950s. As Tucson expanded to encompass the strip, its unofficial designation eventually became its legitimate street name. By now, a section of Speedway had become what one might accurately refer to as a seedy section of town.

El Roncho Motel

El Roncho Motel

Saturday night around 9:30 p.m., Joe Morgan discovered his former partner in the Speedway Avenue motel bedded down with a man about to come to grips with his mortality. The victim was soon to be identified from the Arizona driver’s license inside a wallet found in the pocket of a pair of jeans hanging on the motel room chair. An occupant of a unit across the parking area from the event was returning from dinner when he observed Morgan kicking open the door of the second floor unit and shouting obscenities at the occupants, indicating with some specification what he intended to do to them. According to the woman’s statement to the police, Morgan pulled her lover out of the bed, dumping him on the floor. Said lover was buck naked at the time, which later police photographs confirmed, and as the woman stated somewhat defensively, was without any means of defense. Morgan attempted to grab the man by his leg but was kicked aside. The fellow scrambled to his feet and tried to escape via the open balcony door, at which point Morgan drew a Walther PPK automatic from his pocket and fired three quick shots. Hit in the leg by the first shot, the nude adventurer lunged out of the door towards the walkway rail. The second shot lifted him into the air, landing him head and feet down draped over the rail at his waist. The third shot pierced his neck killing him. At about this point, two occupants of an adjoining room appeared on the balcony. One man, perceiving (assuming?) that Morgan’s gun was empty, tackled him, followed immediately by his companion. They turned Morgan on his stomach and sat on him. A female guest had the presence of mind to dial 9-911 and give notice of the ongoing extreme event. Two police cars arrived with in 120 seconds and the officers quickly relieved the heros-of-the-moment of their captive.

That was the essence of the newspaper story. I wouldn’t have given it more than a glance, except for the headline, “Security Guard Detective Shot by Lover’s Husband”. When I scanned the caption under the photograph of the body hanging over the motel railing, the name of the victim was prominent: James Westan. A driver’s license photo of the dead man was included with the article.

Well, that was our Jim, all right. I had seen the name many times on his official brass badge. The Tuesday newspaper had a follow up story, but it didn’t add much. The woman Morgan claimed was his wife said she was not, but had lived with him for awhile, and had recently moved from Boise to Tucson. She offered an Idaho drivers license as well as other identification to substantiate her claim. She stated that she and Mr. Westan were (had been) just friends. Morgan refused to talk until he had legal counsel. A follow up story, slipped in above the classifieds a couple days later, confirmed that the woman and Westan were not married, but had shared an apartment in Boise. Morgan was arrested for murder.

A US Army record for Westan had been obtained and it noted that he was single, without a known criminal record, and had been retired after 20 years service. The story also indicated that Social Security records revealed that James Westan was employed by both a residential security company and a major Tucson hotel when he died.

The woman testified that because her sexual relationship with Westan was consensual and and no exchange of money was involved, she had not committed a crime. “Just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time,” she told the police. She was excused without ever being held in custody.

I mentioned the story to two or three of my neighbors but none were acquainted with Gate Keeper Jim, or even knew who he was, for that matter. “They all look the same”, one noted. Nor would I, I suppose, had I been occupied with other concerns.

Changing the Guard

Changing the Guard

A new string of keepers soon replaced those I had known, none staying longer that a couple months. Life continued in the estates behind the gate. I stopped to chat with the keepers from time to time, but when we decided to leave the desert, my attention turned to relocation issues. I too began taking the keepers for granted.

Shortly after Gate Keeper Jim appeared to have abandoned his post, I recall wondering if I would ever talk with him again. I assumed not, but was still curious about how he would resolve the current chapter of his life. Little did I realize at the time that soon I would learn.

Photos by MAD