I discovered this in 1984, when I was a young policeman working on a surveillance squad in Miami-Dade's South District. The squad consisted of five of us, handpicked by a supervisor, to work, well, anything we saw fit. What that meant was, we would come in, talk to the detectives, find out where there were problem areas--shopping malls getting hit hard with auto thefts, business districts with an unusual amount of burglaries, etc--and then we would set up strategies to catch the bad guys in action. This meant setting up surveillances, staying in touch with each other on point-to-point radios, and so forth. Two or three of us would typically find a building in the area that would give us a nice view of the area from the roof, where we could look down, spot cars or people coming and going, and give the others a heads-up on what was going on. It worked well, and we caught lots of crimes in progress, others that were about to happen. Focusing on a series of midnight-shift burglaries in Perrine's business district along U.S.1, I posted myself on the roof of a Winn-Dixie supermarket, while another officer would be a block or two away on top of a liquor store, etc, and we would have a "chase car" on the ground too. As a kid I loved to climb trees, so finding a way to get on top of a building would soon become a challenge from which I would never back down. I got so adept getting on rooftops, my squadmates nicknamed me "Spiderman."
The astonishing thing about watching people preparing to do crimes was that most of them would always look from side to side and behind them, scoping out the area for potential witnesses or cops, and then do their deed. They would always fail to look up. I remember watching one burglar so close below me I fought to keep my breathing to a minimum. It was a revelation that we always talked about on the squad, so we always took advantage of elevation whenever and wherever we could get it. I even shared the roof of a horse feed and supply store out in the Redlands with some of the biggest rats I've ever seen, so that we could take down a "chop shop" that was dismantling several stolen cars a week out there.
A week ago, I found myself tracking down and interviewing some witnesses in the lower Keys, and there was a court hearing in Key West I needed to attend, so I found a hotel room right on the corner of Duval and another busy street. Key West is very little fun alone, so I figured that after work and dinner, I would enjoy a cigar up on the hotel's open deck. It so happened that one side of the deck overlooked Duval. I parked myself at the railing, enjoying my cigar and a cold beer as I watched tourists, locals, whackos, and drunks hustle, bustle, stroll, and bike along the crowded sidewalks. Key West is terrific people-watching, and my cigar was burning nice and slow. I was in no hurry to go back to the hotel room. Long after the beer was gone, I continued my solo hangout, enjoying the comings and goings of all the humans from barely twelve feet above them. I was amazed at how many young women there are, biking or even walking alone, as late as past midnight. But then, Key West is really pretty safe. Most everyone is either sightseeing, or in search of their next drink, or both. No one, however, not one person out of the easily hundred or more I watched, ever looked up.
One local clown walked along, signing to himself, and tossed a derby hat in the air, and caught it deftly with two fingers.
"Nice catch" I called out. But he didn't hear. People don't hear up, apparently, either.
All this begs for a life metaphor, of course, and here it is: in our business lives, and our personal relationships, we should take care to look all around, but to look "up" as well. What does that mean? I'm not sure. We check for danger, and we never perceive it to come from above (the many unfortunates we arrested during those midnight surveillances certainly didn't). But maybe it's not danger I'm talking about, maybe it's something else. What that is might be different for all of us. But we should look up, if nothing else to see a guy with a cigar looking down, watching you.