Tanisha, our next door neighbor, had her townhouse broken into yesterday.
I was sitting in my living room, surfing the web and eating plantain chips and Goya salsa for lunch, still in my pajamas when it happened.
Looking up from my laptop I glanced out the rear window of my townhouse onto a normally vacant alley and saw two young black men fussing with a laptop.
My first thought was: "Are those guys working on the cable service?" No. No uniforms.
My second thought was: "Are those guys hijacking my internet?" No, not the type to chalk up my neighborhood.
My third thought came to me as I watched one of them stuff the laptop into his coat: "They're stealing that laptop."
I did a little jump, ran around the room and my brain clicked off a few more quick thoughts: "Where's the camera?" "Where're my jeans?" "That's not my laptop, is it?"
Full disclosure - I was still a bit hungover at 12:15 Wednesday April 22, 2009 so, naturally, I was sitting in my living room in my pajamas eating plantain chips and salsa at 12:15, surfing the web and watching a documentary about Rocky Erickson rather than being outside on a rare sunny spring day in Cleveland, Ohio. The cops catching a laptop thief being the only phenomenon more rare than a sunny spring day in Cleveland - something not to be missed, unless you're hung over and eating plantains, watching a laptop crime in progress.
I knew I didn't have a good ID on the guys: even though they weren't more than five feet away from me through the glass of my townhouse window, I knew I wouldn't be able to truly describe their faces in my mind or to anybody else.
So I went for a camera. I threw open the door and met Cedric who was standing on the sidewalk in front of our house. He was on his phone talking with a 911 dispatcher.
He covered the phone and said "Hey man, your neighbor just got robbed."
"I know," I said. "I'm trying to get a picture of them."
"They're around back," he said.
"Thanks," I said and took off around the corner. Half the way down the block another guy was walking his pit bull. He had also seen the robbery. He was trying to give me some directions, pointing down the alleyway heading east, his pit bull at his side.
I came upon the thieves in my pajamas and slippers. They were about fifty feet away from me, through some trees and fences. I pulled up my camera and snapped this picture. Full manual mode, overexposed and all sorts of stuff other than helpful. But it does capture the rush of the moment. The thieves saw me with the camera and took off at full sprint towards Ellen Street, which is to the left in the picture.
I trailed them for a bit down Ellen, but thought better of what might actually happen if I came upon them in close quarters. So I called off the search and circled back to the townhouse.
Cedric was still on the phone with dispatch when I returned and he handed the phone over to me.
I spoke with the operator and gave her the details of address, etc., hung up with her and gave the phone back to Cedric.
I was grateful that Cedric had been responsive enough to realize what was happening and quickly call 911. But as I found myself stuck there with him waiting for the police, it dawned on me that maybe people in Cleveland really are a little bit crazy.
"They're from the East Side," he said. "Ain't no way this shit happens on the West Side. In broad daylight? It ain't even HOT yet," he said.
"You don't think they're local," I asked him.
"Fuck no! I'm an AIDS Counselor so I seen this shit all my life. They're from the East Side. Probably in one of those houses down there," he said pointing to West 58th. "These fucking kids," he said. He started to get pretty close, a close talker.
"I live over on Clark. There's nothing over there so I don't get much attention, but I got a gun and if one of these motherfuckers breaks in my house I'll shoot him right in the butt," he said and then asked me if I smoked.
"No," I said.
"Oh that's good. Sign of the times. Used to be everybody smoked," he said.
Cedric became more and more animated and I became more and more desperate for somebody else to show up so I could stop listening to him.
In the interim between Cedric's call to 911 and the arrival of the police he managed to tell me his story: sixteen years as an Aids Counselor, his own children and the difficulty of keeping them straight, his having diabetes, his mother's advice against letting the doctors start cutting on him because "Once they start cutting at you, they don't stop." He made some slicing gestures on my forearm.
"I walk everywhere, everyday. I lost 160 pounds. I can't let them cut off my legs. I said no way. I need these. Got to check it everyday. You got a dollar? I need to take public transportation all the way back across town." Cedric the hero was quickly becoming Cedric the zero. I gave him a dollar anyway.
One by one some of the neighbors showed up; Sean, Paul and Leslie.
Tanisha phoned Sean, whom she calls "Booger," and told him she was on her way back from work and to please wait with the police until she arrived. The police had another robbery to check on, but said they would be back to speak with the victim in a few minutes. So we sat around and I told everybody what had happened.
Then, to kill the time Paul and I checked out the scene of the crime for ourselves. We were wondering how these kids could've gained entry into a bolted door. We looked at the point of entry: no signs that we could see of forced entry - no scrapes on the door, the jamb was intact, no sign of being kicked in or jimmied. We thereby determined that Tanisha, or her mother must have failed to close the deadbolt.
Tanisha of course had assured us over the phone that her mother, who was "OCD about everything and she locks and double checks everything every time she does anything," had locked the house down, no doubt, before leaving.
A few moments later Tanisha came roaring down the street in her Mini-Cooper and pulled up to the curb.
"Mother fucking kids! I can't take this shit anymore. What the fuck do they need a laptop for? I am supposed to be seeing a client right now," she said.
We watched her stomp up her steps and put her key in the door handle and push right into the house.
Paul and I looked at each other. "No deadbolt."
Everybody had stuff to do after that. Paul and Leslie were off to PA for a visit (that's them at the top.) Sean was heading back to work. And Cedric had to keep on moving.
I stuck around with my camera, sort of the unofficial chronicler of this event.
Eventually the police returned and took our names and vitals. They got the story from me pretty quick and I described the thieves as best I could. I showed them my camera as evidence that I hadn't trusted my memory before and it still wasn't much good to any of us.
Tanisha then haded over her license and started peppering them with all sorts of information:
"I have a gun! I am so sick of this. I hate this neighborhood," she said to the officer who was still sitting in his cruiser taking down her information.
"Can I have your ID?" he asked.
"Sure. I'm not from around here. I am a clinician. My mother is OCD about everything. She locked the doors. How do these kids get in the house? I will fucking kill them."
"Yes," the officer said.
"I don't have to ask, you know?" she said.
"No, that's true," the officer said.
"I can shoot them if they come in here again. I have a gun in the house," she said rather matter of fact.
"I am trying to make this a better community. I am trying to contribute. Somebody ought to go talk to those kids or their parents. I don't know if they don't have a father but somebody needs to beat the crap out of those kids. Why do they do this? I have a car note to pay. I have a mortgage. Don't they know they're making it worse on everybody doing this? I will kill them. I have a gun in the house."
At this point I felt it necessary to let the officers know where I stood.
"I don't have a gun in the house so if I call, that pretty much means I need help real quick," I said.
"I recommend you get some weapons," the driving officer said to me. Not the response I was expecting.
They asked us to wait on SIU to show up and dust for prints. We said we would no problem. Tanisha took me indoors and started showing me all of the other things around her laptop that the thieves had overlooked: a blackberry, lockbox, keys, various electronics.
"Why didn't those kids grab any of this? Stupid fuckers. That laptop doesn't mean anything to me. It syncs every night with my MAC upstairs. They can't get anything off of it," she said.
"I think they probably want to sell it," I said.
"Well, I'm just saying they should've taken this lockbox if they had any sense. There's passports, passwords, account numbers, all sorts of stuff in there. Stupid fuckin' kids."
By this time SIU showed up and started to photograph the scene of the crime. I spoke with the detective a bit and showed him a boot print on the door the other officers had thought might be significant.
"Shoe treads only matter on TV," the detective said and went back inside.
I told Tanisha and her mother, who had shown back up by then with her grandson, Tanisha's son, that I would be leaving and to call if I could do anything else for them.
The kid started yelling and screaming about the cat in the basement, making all sorts of a racket and Tanisha told him he'd better shut up and head upstairs or this officer would take him right to jail, which of course had an effect to the contrary, sending the tantrum to level ten.
"Oh, don't tell the kid that," the detective said putting his head in his hands in a gesture of defeat.
"I'm just trying to get him to shut up," Tanisha said.
"It's not fair," he said.
"To him?" Tanisha asked.
"To the other officers. He'll be afraid of all of us," he said.
At that moment, the detective standing there rubbing his temples, I could see him imagining this kid's whole life play out before his eyes and somewhere, out on that line, he feared that he, or one of his fellow officers was going to run into this kid, right here in front of us right now, but as a teenager, or a man. And that when that day should come, if it should come, that this very moment of convenience that Tanisha and her grandmother had seized upon as a way to silence their child was going to end in tragedy, and his face seemed to say, "again."