The way it is: One screwdriver, many problems

October 25, 1994|By MICHAEL OLESKER

A lady I know arrived at her place of work yesterday morning carrying in her hands a large screwdriver, which is a thing not normally used in her profession of cleaning other people's houses.

"I used it to start my car," she explained.

The method she normally uses to start her car -- the traditional American approach of the key inserted into the ignition -- wasn't working so well, due to the unanticipated absence of the ignition itself, missing since the dark hours of one night this past weekend.

"I went to the car in the morning, and the ignition was gone," she said. She hadn't locked the car, which was parked in front of her house in Northwest Baltimore. The lock on the front door wasn't working. Someone, or a group of someones, maybe kids, maybe not, noticed this, got into the car, ripped out the ignition and tried to hot-wire it but couldn't quite bring it off. The attempted snatching seemed merely whimsical; it was probably the only car on the block that wasn't locked. It's a 1982 model with more than 150,000 miles on it, so maybe there was a perverse comfort that nobody would ever bother taking such an old geezer.

"They certainly didn't try to take it for its value," she said.

They went for it because it was available. It's the way things go today. What we buy for ourselves is no longer guaranteed to remain ours, it's only temporary until some slob comes along and decides it's his.

Thus, we make the various alarm companies rich and still feel more vulnerable by the day. Thus we turn on the radio talk shows and hear people echoing our own fears and each of us, those already victimized and those waiting to be, feed off each other's anxieties and, such being the natural state of things, look for someone to blame.

The politicians, for example. You drive around the state in this election season and notice a marvelous thing. Everywhere, there are campaign signs of all sorts, billboards and lawn signs which advertise the various candidates. All of them -- go ahead, do your own survey -- are missing two letters which once used to be abundant.

Re-.

As in Re-elect. But no incumbent puts such a prefix on campaign signs any more, the way they once did with pride, because no politician wishes to be seen as part of the existing problems. They listen to the same talk shows the rest of us hear. They know that we blame them for not making this a safer America.

The lady with the car performed the drill we all perform in such circumstances, calling the police while knowing there's little the police can do about it. Be thankful the car's still here, they told her. Get yourself a new ignition and forget about it. Left unsaid: They have more important crimes to go after.

So she goes to work with a screwdriver in her hand, and makes a salary which will then pay for a new ignition; or else she'll inform her insurance agency, which may pay for the repair but then decide she lives in an unsafe neighborhood and thus raise her DTC insurance rates, and we'll add one more voice to the chorus crying for more police protection and for brand-new politicians who promise on their lives to make the crime go away right now.

Only they won't, and nobody knows this better than the politicians, though this doesn't stop them from telling us otherwise. The politicians outdo themselves finding language to express their commitment to cutting crime, such as bravely announcing they favor the death penalty. (Yeah, that crime rate's really plummeted since they knocked off crazy John Thanos, hasn't it?)

The death penalty's worth arguing -- my own feelings are ambivalent -- but it's become cheap code for politicians trying to show they're tough on crime while knowing it has nothing to do with the routine stuff that chills us every day: the house breaking, the street muggings, and somebody showing up in the middle of the night to steal your car.

"My husband came downstairs," my lady friend said yesterday, "and the two of us just looked at the place where the ignition used to be. And we thought, 'Why would anybody do this?' "

The answer is: It's what people do today. The predators take what they can get, and the rest of us wait for the police to show up, and maybe call a radio show to vent, and then everybody goes to the polling place in a few weeks and tries to imagine somebody out there can actually make a difference.

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