Letter to a Thief

March 13, 1994|By ARTHUR HIRSCH

Dear Stranger,

So, you found me, or at least you found my car. Ever since I moved to the Baltimore area four years ago I have wondered when it would happen. Of course, this was just a warning shot over the bow. No big deal; it could have been much worse.

You left your hat in the car, the black wool ski cap with the white and red Reebok logo. I found it on the back seat where all the shattered glass landed in a shower when you bashed a rear side window. Perhaps you left in a hurry.

Not enough time to rip the tape deck out, although you tried and tore up the black plastic facing and broke off a dial. Time enough to grab the box of cassette tapes and dump the glove-box stuffings on the floor. All those receipts from Jiffy Lube. Sorry the effort wasn't more lucrative.

I noticed, however, that you smashed windows on two other cars parked on Washington Place downtown. Perhaps the haul was better there, and perhaps you can sell my tapes, that is, if you can find a customer whose musical taste also stopped evolving during the Carter administration. If not, enjoy. Check out the Stevie Ray Vaughan. Very nice.

So what's my total loss: glass, about 20 cassettes, damaged tape deck. The insurance won't cover the tapes and the rest doesn't equal the deductible so I'm out about $400. No big deal. It would be naive to be alarmed by this, right? Only our first encounter. It could happen anywhere. And it could have been worse.

You see, now I get to play the game. I used to notice people playing the game in my home town, New York City. Then I moved to New Hampshire, then to a relatively quiet corner of Massachusetts and I did not get to play the game. Call it Urban Limbo. It goes like this:

"Well, one back car window was smashed and a few things were stolen, but at least he didn't steal the car. That's life in the big city. . . . Well, he stole the car, but at least it wasn't a carjacking. . . . Yeah, it was a carjacking, but at least I wasn't hurt. . . . Uh, the guy knocked me over the head with a hunk of pipe but it could have been worse, I could have been shot. . . . All right, I was shot but the bullet didn't hit any major organs. . . ."

When does no big deal become a big deal? How much is tolerable? How low can we limbo?

Some people in the city hear gunshots outside their window at night and think nothing more of the noise than they would about the honk of a passing car. Some people bury a murdered child and the next week go back to work because they have no choice. We can limbo that low. Depends on you, stranger, on how low you drop the stick.

Some of us have our delusion of security shattered in one terrible blow. The luckier ones among us find it merely eroded by degrees. It's up to you.

You have that power; you help set the limits we live by. You help decide where folks can eat out or see a movie, what time they go, where they can let their children play, where they can walk on a summer evening and how they feel when passing a shadowed doorway on a windy night. It's your call. You're there even when you're not there.

After I found your hat I found the half-brick behind the driver's seat. I guess you wrapped the brick in the hat to muffle the noise, then whipped the works into the window. You really should pick up your tools when you leave a job. You must spend a fortune on hats and construction materials. The brick figures; the work of a master builder.

Think about it. You help build prisons and police stations. You help build suburbs where people try to escape. You help put up the shopping malls where we might feel safe inside among the potted trees, skylights and climate control. You build all sorts of prisons. In your own way, you have done more urban planning in the dark than all the consultants in all the well-lighted offices in America.

The police officer on the phone took my information and when he tTC was finished said it was report number 1B1542, "larceny from auto." Another piece of paper on the heap, nothing at all among the night's burglaries, beatings, shootings, knifings and stickups.

That night at home, away from the city, I cleaned some of the glass from the car and covered the window with plastic and duct tape. I tucked your brick into your hat and left it there in the back seat. The next morning I called the insurance company to lower my deductible.

No blood, no injury, no real cause for complaint.

But standing there under the street lamp in the parking lot at home, looking at the car, I felt that after four years you had moved a step or two closer. That night we did not meet face to face. I have a bad feeling, though, that it's just a matter of time.

Arthur Hirsch is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.

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