The old-fashioned view of creepy neighbors is that they always signal how dangerous they are by looking and acting like obvious weirdos. Just as unreliable, however, is the more modern liberal sentiment that like Boo Radley, weird neighbors may seem creepy, but are essentially benign. This has recently been replaced by the notion – popularized by earnest TV movies – that even the worst offenders seem just like anyone else. So the media message is that really, you never know.

But I doubt that message, because I think often you can know. Even the notorious BTK killer, who lived unsuspected for decades as a pillar of his church and community, gave clues about his real nature by being rather overenthusiastic about his job as dogcatcher. I would not trust anyone, ever, who’s unkind to animals.

Sure, most of these creeps don’t end up on the evening news. But they should all be shunned, for safety reasons as well as moral ones.

I’m sure there are some sexually violent criminals who look like the handsome and charming Ted Bundy. More often, though, I think they’re like the description of a local rapist I read about in my neighborhood throwaway paper a few years ago, when my daughter was around 12.

“Listen to this,” I said as we sat having dinner with Grandpa one night. “He’s in his 40s or 50s, with a beer-belly, potato nose, bad acne, and strong body odor. Gosh, you wonder why a guy like that can’t just ask a girl for a date.”

I’m relieved to say I’ve never had personal experience with criminally creepy neighbors. I’m also relieved that at 17, my daughter Maia has aged out of the target demographic for pedophiles. (Although not, of course, out of the one for unwanted male attention.) I do remember when she was small, however, little bells going off in my head on three separate occasions.

Once was when a rather Norman Bates-like character tried to make conversation with us at a video store. He was in his mid-’40s, but still looked as if he’d been Dressed By Mother, with his cardigan sweater and saddle shoes. Enough said.

Another time a guy who looked like Philip Roth – again, enough said – for some reason thought that I, a woman with a three-year-old, sitting outside a children’s museum, would welcome being approached by an intense bachelor in his ’50s who was hanging around a children’s museum with no accompanying children. I made it clear pretty quickly that I had no interest in chatting with him.

Then there was the starry-eyed man I noticed wearing, I kid you not, a raincoat (even though it wasn’t raining) at the local mall’s Disney Store, where he was apparently a regular annoyance.

“But it could happen, couldn’t it?” I heard him insist to a bored clerk, who was doing her best to ignore him. “With Peter and Wendy?” I didn’t stay long enough to find out what exactly he imagined might be possible with Peter and Wendy. I just took my small daughter by the hand and got as far away from that man as quickly as possible.

All of which is to say that, sure, most creeps target children they know. But I’ve had enough brushes with random creeps to feel relieved that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recently signed a package of bills tightening restrictions on California’s released sex offenders. I’m also glad that Prop. 83, which also makes life for these paroled felons much more difficult, is expected to pass easily in our state’s Nov. 7 election.

Even non-criminal (but deeply strange) types give you clues that they’re bad news and best avoided. And when you’re the mother of a daughter, it doesn’t take long to figure out that one of your jobs is keeping her away from creeps.

Take Maia’s former 10th-grade journalism teacher, for instance, known as “Troll Dolls” on my blog – because that’s how he signed the scores of angry comments he left there, after Maia complained to the school principal about his inappropriate behavior towards her. (He’d been keeping her after class every time he saw her talking to a boy; agitatedly calling her at home about some problem with the school paper or to complain about the school administration; and complaining that she wasn’t as funny and entertaining in class as she was on her blog.)

I remembered that weeks before all that, though, this teacher had said two things that seemed distinctly off when Maia introduced him to me.

The first was his reaction when we mentioned she was taking after-school Russian classes at a local city college. Most teachers, upon hearing that, would say something like “good for you,” although a few might express worry about her high-school work suffering. Troll Dolls, however, just squinted, looked at Maia in disbelief, and asked: “Why would you want to do something like that?”

Hmm, I thought. Not a typical teacher’s response. Then, trying to be helpful (and feeling rather guilty about never volunteering at the school), I offered to speak to his journalism class some time if he liked. Again the squint and disbelief: “Why?” he said.

“Well, because I’m a journalist,” I said, “so I could talk to them about journalism.”

“I can tell them everything they need to know,” Troll Dolls said, rather sharply. I was relieved at not having to bother, but still… what a strange reaction.

And it turned out that teacher was even stranger than I’d suspected, because two years after losing his job at Maia’s old school in the wake of his behavior towards her, he still maintains an angry website attacking both of us.

But back to sex offenders and their ilk. I’ve changed my mind about many things over the years, but not my views on what should be done with child molesters. These have remained basically the same since I was a young teenager and became a target of unwanted attention myself.

They should be kept in prison for much longer than they have been. If they have to be released, they should wear electronic tracking devices at all times. And they shouldn’t be allowed to live anywhere near children or underage girls.

I’m happy to say that Prop. 83 and the bills Gov. Schwarzenegger signed take big steps in that direction. But I still hope that some day a charitable enterprising billionaire will start a special suicide hotline, encouraging child molesters and serial rapists to do us all a favor and just commit suicide already.

My having a child of my own didn’t harden my attitude about all this one bit. It was already as hard as it could get.

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