THIS PAST YEAR we were burglarized seven times in six months. Just let me say to begin with, I know in the general scheme of things that fact is no big deal. I haven’t been raped or mutilated, none of my family has been maimed or injured in any physical way and the property loss is – what? – probably less than $5,000.
As one of my colleagues remarked, along about burglary number four, “Oh, come on, Jo, your burglaries are boring.” I agree. I’m bored to death with it all. Bored -and angry, frustrated, frightened, anxious and sick. The sickness is a sickness of the soul. I’ve lost something that can’t be reckoned in dollars and cents and that no insurance company in the world will cover: A trust in people. A faith in the system.
“No ideas but in things,” William Carlos Williams wrote. In my heart of hearts I never believed this, perhaps because the fundamentalist church in which I grew up denies it, perhaps simply because I grew up poor, without very many things. That is, we were poor but we didn’t know it. No one in my small town ever locked doors. To visit someone you rapped once or twice politely, then walked through the parlor to the back porch and kitchen where people lived, calling as you went, “Hello? Anybody home?” If no one was, you turned and left, followed by the friendlily wagging and sniffing family dog.
I never carried a key until I learned to drive.
When my children were little, I tried to teach them that things didn’t matter, only people did, and clung to that ideology in the face of disquieting contrary evidence. The Halloween of 1964, for example, we were living in Detroit’s inner city. My daughter, barely 6, had finished her own four-doorway trick-or-treating and was allowed to stand inside our town house door and hand out candy. For two hours or more they kept coming -strange kids, big kids, hillbillies, blacks, urban toughs. We ran out of candy, and with the generosity I’d tried to teach her, Erin ran to get her piggy bank to hand out pennies instead.
Suddenly, while 1 was washing dishes in the kitchen, I heard a loud, frightened wail. Erin stood in the door, scared and crying. “He took it, Mommy! That big boy took my whole piggy bank!”
Comforting her -“Look at it this way, honey; he needed those pennies.” -I thought I could understand it. Even now, in retrospect, I can see how enraging, how stupid, the sight of the honky kid handing out pennies, the whole Lady of the Manor bit, must have seemed. Maybe we deserved to lose our innocence. Anyway, it’s gone.
One reason we loved our present house on first sight, when we bought it three years ago this month, was that it had that glow of small-town peace. Built in 1910, it looked, sitting among tall trees, with its wide front porch and 28 windows, a little like the house I’d grown up in. Spiffier, of course, and five minutes from such a downtown as I’d never dreamed of as a child, but solid, you know? Permanent. Safe.
Foolishly, I see now, we chose to ignore the much-traveled alley and slum apartments on one side, the ex-brothel settlement to our back. We turned resolutely to the teachers, lawyers and businessmen nearby who, like us, had chosen to reclaim this historic old street. Nobody on our short street is rich – a rich person wouldn’t live here, where only five years ago you could buy just about any house on the block, unre-stored, for $15,000.
We bought ours, already restored, and four of us moved in: my husband, Willem; my son, Winton, then 15; our dog, Emily, a 15-pound Sheltie; and I. Later we acquired a young, neutered male cat, Puck, of nondescript breed. I mention the animals both because we are the sort of silly people who consider them as members of the family and because they are participants in the story I have to tell.
ON MOVING DAY, May 1, 1979, we put up a porch swing, the neighbors asked us to supper and that night all our potted plants were stolen from the porch bannister. It was a fitting welcome to city living. After that it went something like this:
SEPTEMBER 10, 1979. I came home from teaching at approximately 3:30 p.m., parked the car as usual in the back driveway and noticed that the gate to the privacy fence around the patio was ajar. Wind, I thought. But the back door had been kicked in, or that’s how it looked; incongruously it was still locked, but below the lock a body-sized hole gaped, above the lock gaped another.
Inside the house was what I’d read about but never seen – contents of drawers dumped out, closets gaping open, every desk, cabinet and dresser in the house rifled. The silver chest was open on the buffet, and I noticed absently that there was still silver in it – how odd. (Later we joked that they didn’t like our pattern.)
But I couldn’t take it all in until I found Emily. Cowering under the bed, very small and scared, she came out when I called her, wriggling all over and licking my hand apologetically. She’d been alone in the house -this was before we got the cat – and I wished she could talk, could tell me what she saw.
I called Willem, then called the police emergency number. (I remember having to look it up: 744-4444. Now it’s as familiar to me as my own, more familiar than that of our doctor or dentist, or even of most friends.)
The police came quickly – they have never been slow to arrive, though I’ve heard that in other large cities they may take an hour and a half, if they come at all. Walking through the disorder, they surmised: “Kids, looks like, probably high schoolers on their lunch hour. What’d they take?”
“Well, I don’t know,” I said, glancing around helplessly. “Nothing that I can see, not even any silver, if you can believe it.”
“Too hard to fence,” the officer said. “Ya’ll have any guns? Money?” He eyed me sharply. “Dope? That’s what they want.”
“Then they came to the wrong house,” I said, putting a dining room chair upright. I thought they seemed terribly unconcerned. Our house had been broken into, for God’s sake.
For the next several weeks, I was jumpy and mad. When I stepped outside one morning to get my mop and it wasn’t in its usual place on the back fence, I’m ashamed to say I called the police again.
“Somebody got my mop,” I said indignantly.
“Your mop,” the patient voice on the other end of the line repeated. “What time of day did you miss the property?” Gently I replaced the receiver, feeling like a fool.
November 11, 1979. Somebody spray-painted gold paint all over the back of the VW my son drives, and his license plates were missing.
“High school kids,” the police said. “On their lunch hour they get high on paint -gold is the most potent -by spraying it in a paper bag and sniffing it, then they paint everything in sight gold.”
A few weeks later, the back of our brown Horizon had a big black snake spray-painted on it, a Frito Bandito and a gang slogan appeared on our fence, a whiskey bottle was thrown through a study window at the back, and we found, of all things, a new bullet hole in the front door. “How long are those lunch periods, anyway?” we wondered.
March 12, 1980. The lock on the garage door was jimmied, and Winton’s moped, his first wheels, was missing. The police found it, broken and out of gas, two blocks away. “We know it’s a whole family of little kids,” the officer told us. “I mean little kids -elementary school. We know who they are, but we can’t touch them. Minors, you know. Their parents put them up to it -they’re profiting from it, you should see their new car -but we can’t take the kids away because they’re good to them, keep them clean and fed, send them to school.” She smiled ruefully. “We just have to wait till they can be sent to Gatesville, and the oldest one is only ten.”
SUMMERr 1980-SUMMER 1981. Blessedly uneventful. We began to feel safe, to laugh at our North Dallas friends who jibed, “I can’t come to see you. 1 might get my hubcaps stolen.”
“Don’t be silly,” we answered. “That’s over. They know us -it was just kids anyway. The whole neighborhood’s fine now.”
And it was, or we were, for more than a year.
Oh, there were rumbles. One late spring day in 1981, the doorbell rang about noon, and there stood Jennifer, our neighbor across the street.
“May I use your phone?” she asked nervously. “I just got home and the house looks – I think we’ve been robbed, but I’m scared to go in. I want to call Jim.”
“Call the police too,” I suggested. “744-4444.”
While we waited for them to arrive, she and I walked through the same familiar mess I’d seen before. But these weren’t high school kids. Missing? “All my jewelry,” Jenny moaned, “my diamond ring, my pearls. And look – Jim’s guns are gone – he has an antique gun collection. And his rare coins – oh, and the stereo! – and the silver. We’ve been wiped out.” She was very controlled, but I could see how badly hit she and Jim, when he arrived, were. I felt bad for them.
What made me feel even worse, as I went back home, was that I slowly realized that perhaps I could have prevented the robbery. The pieces began to fall into place. Earlier that morning, I’d been out weeding the flower bed in a pair of cut-offs and a bikini top, when I idly began to notice a car with a tall black man at the wheel and another man, Indian or Mexican maybe, by his side. The car came down the street, disappeared, came back around several times. Each time the two men eyed me with interest, I thought uneasily, and in a few minutes I went inside, attributing the whole thing to my skimpy costume.
Such conceit, I now recognized. Obviously, they were casing the house across the street, waiting for me to leave. I had obliged them, without even getting the license number. What a dolt I felt, at once defensive and apologetic. But how could I have known?
In the meantime we loved our house. A friend who wrote for Scene Magazine asked if she could feature it as “A House with a Past” that August, and we readily agreed -we were, still are, proud of it. We spent a happy day or two with her photographer, identifying for all the family artifacts and junk-shop finds that make up its furnishings. The piece was wonderful. A friend worried, “Aren’t you afraid it’ll give someone ideas?”
“How could it?” I said reasonably. “What it points out is that nothing in the place cost over $35. Why pick on us? We’ve never put much money into things.”
But what happened next completely exploded for me forever the innocent notion that I didn’t care about things. Now I know I do care. Our friend Celeste lost everything when her apartment was burglarized and then set fire to several years ago, and she told Willem, “I just decided afterward that I’d never put as much stock in possessions again.” Somehow our losses have had the opposite effect on me. Knowing something is gone from me forever has made me aware of how much I prized it.
SEPTEMBERr 29, 1981. About three o’clock this Tuesday afternoon, I came home from lunch with a friend – I teach only on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. When I stepped in the back door, glass from two broken windows littered the floor. I saw a big, black sneaker-tread on the wall, and my heart sank.
Yet the house was surprisingly tidy -tidy and quiet. I wonder now why I wasn’t afraid to go in, but I had just never even dreamed of physical violence. So I walked through followed by Emily – Puck was nowhere in sight. At first I thought nothing had been stolen. Then I saw my dresser, its drawers hanging open and all four jewelry boxes missing from the top.
October 5, 1981
Mr. N.O. Quierres
Metro-Plex Limited Insurance
P.O. Box 00000
Dallas, TX 75219
Dear Mr. Quierres:
Attached you will find a list of the items which were taken in the burglary Willem called you about. The thief or thieves simply emptied my dresser top into a pillow case from the bed.
I really don’t know exactly how to assess the value of heirloom jewelry (see page 3). My grandmother’s wedding band, a ring which belonged to Willem’s grandmother and which was his first gift to me – you can see how outraged 1 am! I suppose outrage has no value in a business letter, however. Sincerely yours,
I was right. Outrage had no place, and not much effect, either.
I did not have my jewelry itemized on our homeowners’ policy, and the first thing the insurance company asked me for was an itemized list with notations about age and purchase price. Before the theft I would have sworn I had no jewelry, and in a way I didn’t: one microscopic diamond in a gold bracelet, a few pieces of Mexican silver and my old gold, lots of brass, copper and faux pearls – we’re not talking the Hope diamond. Almost all of my things were gifts, and trying to remember when I got each was a sentimental journey. By the time I finished, I’d listed 43 items with an estimated value of $2,300.
Proof of purchase? None, of course. So the insurance company presented me with “gift verification forms.” These diabolical instruments embarrassingly required me to ask the donors – relatives, old boyfriends, an ex-husband – to describe the gift, its date, the date of purchase, the purchase price, the place of purchase and the name, phone number and address of the purchaser. Then the insurance company double-checked by calling the givers and taping their responses to a series of questions. (In two cases in our theft, this call came at 8 a.m. to people who work at night, and who worried that consequently they may have sounded like jewel thieves themselves.)
I was also phoned and asked to describe via phone-tape the cir-cumstances under which each piece was acquired; then I suppose the records were compared. When all this was done, and it took a couple of months, I received a check for $500. Whoopee.
Every time I dressed I missed something: the jade pendant Willem had had made for me that I wore with my peach dress, the silver cuff bracelet 1 bought in Oaxaca that I wore with my white. Willem gave me the check and I wandered aimlessly through Neiman’s and Human Arts a couple of times. But 1 didn’t find anything 1 liked, and I realized I was really looking for my own things – my jade, my silver bracelet. For me, there were ideas in these things. I wanted them back; their loss hurt.
I don’t think even Willem understood entirely. He kept saying, “Forget it; they’re gone.” But I couldn’t let go. What hurt most were my family heirlooms – pieces of Depression junk my father had given my mother and especially my grandmother’s wedding band, old and worn so thin it had broken in two. I’d meant to have it repaired; now 1 never would.
I’m pretty good at mental scenarios, and picturing the con-tempt with which the thieves would hold it up – “What she want this old thing for?” – and toss it on the floor, in the street, in a garbage can, tormented me. How to tell my mother? After all, it was her mother’s and had been in her family more than 100 years.
But Mother, bless her heart, took the news like the Christian she is. “They’re just things,” she said. “Suppose you’d been there? Thank heaven you’re all right.”
“Don’t be worried about me,” I told her. “I’ve decided it was probably a group of girls – high school girls, maybe poor blacks. They just thought, ’Oh, God, look – this lady has everything and we don’t have anything.’ They wanted something pretty.”
“Well, honey. . . .” Mother’s voice trailed off.
“Don’t worry,” I said staunchly. “I’m not afraid.”
And I wasn’t, then.
THURSDAY, OCTOBER I, 1981. Two days after the jewel theft, I was sitting in the study at the back of the house quietly grading papers with Emily and Puck dozing at my feet, when I heard a pounding at the back door a few feet away. Hurriedly I ran to answer. Inside the patio stood a young man, blond, red-faced, slender, wearing dirty jeans, sneakers, no shirt, a gimme cap. All this 1 took in at a glance, but I couldn’t hear what he was saying to me because Emily was growling, snapping, barking hysterically.
“I can’t hear you,” 1 mouthed. “Just a minute. Emily!” Just then the phone in the study rang, and leaving the door ajar, I dashed back to answer it.
It was Willem. “I can’t talk but a minute,” I said. “There’s a guy at the back door. I think he’s lost his Frisbee over our fence.”
“His Frisbee?” Willem repeated incredulously. At that moment 1 glanced out the study window onto the patio and saw, crouching below the window, another young man. “Oh, gosh,” I said, “there’s another one. I think they must be – “
“Jo,” Willem said, with fear and steel in his voice. “Hang up but don’t let them see what you’re doing. Very quickly, dial the police – 744-4444. Tell them it’s an emergency. Don’t go back to the door. Go to the front yard and wait. I’m coming home.”
Suddenly 1 saw what he meant. I could be killed.
Emily and I went to the front and waited. The police were less than five minutes away. Someone else had reported the “Frisbee players” – Willem, who showed up right away, too, told them what I’d said and everyone got a good laugh at my expense out of that scenario.
“Probably the same people who got your jewelry,” one officer told us, “coming back to finish up. Show me where they were.” By this time, of course, the men had disappeared, but when the policemen came in the back door, Emily bit one of them on the ankle.
Rubbing the injured spot, he instructed me grimly, “Lady, better teach your dog that the men in blue are her friends.”
Well, certainly, officer. Anything else? “Get yourself a big dog- a mean dog- and train him to kill.” We didn’t do that, but we did take our first steps -storing the silver in a safety deposit box, putting deadbolts on the doors – and I tried to come to grips with a new experience.
I had looked into the eyes of a man who might have killed me as easily, with as little regret as perhaps he’d thrown away my grandmother’s wedding band. I was afraid.
NOVEMBER 6, 1981.
DALLAS POLICE DEPARTMENT
OFFENSE INCIDENT REPORT
DATE REPORTED 11/06/81
AT: 0723 AS SIG: 09
COMP. NAME:WILLEM BRANS
HOME ADDR: 1826 RIPOFF DR
DALLAS DATES OF OCCURRENCE
FRI NOV 06, 1981 0000
UCR CODE 1:07173
M/O: SUSP TOOK COMP’S LOCKED VEHICLE BY UNK MEANS: 73 VOLKSWAGON STATUS: C UCR D1SP:CBA JSPECIAL REPORT: FOLLOW UP: 1 REVIEWED BY: J42 I SR CODE: $ RELATED REPORTS WEATHER COND: CLEAR
That Friday morning, Willem went to run his two miles at 7 a.m. as usual. When he came back about 7:30, he asked, “Has Winton alreadv gone to school?”
“No,” I said, looking up in surprise from the paper, “he’s here. Why?”
“His car’s not out front.”
Winton came out of his room. “My car’s what?”
“It was there when I left to run,” Willem said. We all went to the front porch. The car was gone.
This time the police were encouraging. “We’ll probably find it – we can get stolen cars back. That’s one of the few things we can do.” (I hate to report this, but those were his exact words.)
They were less hopeful about the two tennis racquets, Winton’s and his doubles partner’s, in the car for the weekend tournament, and about the stereo and speakers Winton had installed in the old VW. “It’ll probably be stripped when we find it.”
“I told you not to leave your racquets in that car,” Willem fussed at Winton, frustrated, looking for somebody to blame.
They found it four days later, stripped. How they found it was pretty funny.
What happened, the police told us on the phone, was that AP (they gave his name and asked if we knew him) ran a stop sign. The officer following him saw that the license plate had expired (although the police report doesn’t mention this oversight on our part), ran a computer check and discovered that it was a stolen car. November 13, 1981. That Tuesday evening two police officers came to see us. Sitting in our kitchen they described AP. He was a white male, 17 years old, exactly Winton’s age. They had interrogated him. I could hear it in my mind as they described it:
“Where’s your father, son? Let’s get him in on this.”
“I dunno. He’s in the pen.”
“Well, where’s your mother?”
“I dunno. In California, I think.”
“There were tennis racquets and a stereo in this car, according to the report. Where are they?”
“I dunno. I didn’t see any tennis stuff and the stereo was gone when I took it.”
“That’s a lie!” Winton burst out. “That’s just a lie.”
“What do you folks want to do?” the officer asked. “Press charges? Or not?”
“Yes,” said two of us.
“Oh, no,” I breathed.
Willem looked at me. “Let us call you on it, officer.”
When they left, all hell broke loose.
“It was the ’I think’ that got me,” I said to my son. “Here you are, with a family solidly behind you, in a private school, driving your own car, sending off college applications. And he’s just your age, but: his father’s in the pen and his mother’s in California, ’he thinks.’ “
“Mom!” His voice was high and choked. “Who do you care about, him or me? Do you think if you went to California, I’d start stealing cars?”
In spite of myself 1 laughed. “Not now,” I said. “But don’t you see? He never had a chance.”
“Oh, God, Mom,” Winton turned away in disgust. “You act just like a woman.”
“Of course I do. I am a woman.”
“Look.” He was angry but trying to be reasonable. “There are jobs. Do you know ; how I bought that stereo and those speakers? I bussed tables, that’s how. Do you have any idea how many dirty dishes make up $250? Man, I worked for that stuff. Why couldn’t he?”
I felt myself weakening. “That’s a good address he’s from,” my husband said, “not a slum at all. I’d like to throw the book at him, the little punk.”
NOVEMBER 25, 1981. We planned to go to Mississippi over Thanksgiving weekend to visit my parents, whom I’d only seen once since my father’s heart surgery. We were; going to leave when Willem came home! from work. Willem called the police to ask them to put a special surveillance on the house, starting about six that evening. We were learning.
I got home about four and started out front to check the mail when I noticed the front door key, which we had been keeping in the new deadbolt, was missing. Odd. Had I left it in my robe that morning? When I turned back to see, the phone was ringing. Susie, our neighbor down the street, was calling to tell me she had our key.
“But how?” I asked.
“Well, the police gave it to me to keep for you.”
“I’d better come right over,” she said. By the time she got there, Willem and Winton were home to pack and the four of us worked out the events of that crazy day, which as we attempted to reconstruct it sounded quite a bit like a Keystone Kops episode.
11:30 a.m. Neighbor at rear of house observed three unknown males, two white and one Indian or black, in back of our fence for over an hour, then saw them open bedroom windows and step in. (Emily barked; Puck hid under bed.] Neighbor called police. Squad car arrived immediately. Police stepped through open windows, guns drawn. Intruders escaped through front door by turning key. 1:30 p.m. Quiet.
3:00 p.m. Same neighbor observed same three men enter our house by same windows. (Emily barked; Puck hid under bed.) Called police. Five police cars arrived: loud radio reports, sirens, lights, guns. Burglars ran through house and out front door; police ran out front door. [Emily stood in front window, head turned to one side quizzically; Puck stuck nose out from under bed.]
4:00 p.m. Quiet.
After we’d figured all this out, with a lot of help from the rest of the people on the block who began to drift over, as well as a great deal of poetic license, Willem went to the apartments behind us to thank the helpful neighbor for her alertness, while I called the police to inquire about the report. What they told me that bothered us both was that, incredibly, no one was caught.
“I don’t feel much like leaving now,” Willem said, “knowing those guys are running around free. As persistent or as dumb as they are, they just might try again.”
“I agree,” I said, and went in to call my folks that we’d come Christmas instead. Neither of us remembered to call the police to remove the surveillance request. November 29, 1981. A beautiful warm sunny Sunday, the last day of the Thanksgiving weekend. Except for dinner Thursday with Willem’s parents, we’d been in all weekend. Winton had stayed overnight with a friend, and Willem and I, sick with cabin fever, donned shorts and sneakers to rake the leaves on the patio. Puck and Emily were dashing around noisily, chasing the colorful toys, and the two of us were chattering.
Suddenly the patio gate burst open, we looked up and, as they say in detective stories, into the muzzle of a .38. A policewoman stood there, her gun up in front of her. Willem’s hands flew up like birds.
“State your name and the nature of your business,” she commanded in a voice the color of her gun.
“Uh.” He swallowed. “I’m Willem Brans. I live here.” He looked at her hard. “You know me. You and I talked a year or so ago when my son’s moped was stolen, don’t you remember?”
She studied him for a long moment looked at me frozen behind him, the ani mals still happily playing in the leaves Slowly she put her gun away and he lowered his hands. The three of us, followed by Puck and Emily, trailed through the house to the front, where by now three other squad cars had arrived, radios blaring, lights flashing.
Of course, the special surveillance request. “I’m glad to know you’re out there,” Willem said, breathing again. As a pair of officers came across the front yard, 1 heard one of them say, “Watch out now. This is the house where that dog bit Barber.” They looked a little surprised when they saw our killer Sheltie, 15 pounds of muscle and teeth, who was at that moment swinging her whole rear end back and forth in delight. The men in blue are her friends.
DECEMBER 1, 1981. Jim and Jenny across the street put up a fence after their big burglary, and we decided to follow suit; we couldn’t risk spoiling my parents’ Christmas as well as their Thanksgiving. So after consulting four fence companies, we erected a 6-foot high chain link fence with three strands of barbed wire, slanted in, at the top. The fence extends completely around three sides of the house, enclosing the patio fence, the garage and even the driveway, which has an enormous sliding gate, also barbed, across it. There, goddammit!
Remember that little kids’ game, ticka-lock, tickalock, all the way around, and you were safe? The gate was – is – hell to open, but that in itself was comforting. Only a very enterprising burglar, a very professional burglar, could get through that fence, we figured, and we spent a blissful two months and a joyous Christmas in Mississippi before he showed up.
This burglary was slick, a really professional job, the police said, and also the first break-in we’d had at night. He had climbed a tree outside the fence -we saw small limbs he’d broken in the climb – and had used a glass cutter, first to cut a half-moon out over the window lock, then, when he discovered the windows had been nailed shut, to cut out without a single raw shard an entire pane of glass.
I noticed there was very little broken glass inside the room. Simple, the police said, he used a suction cup to remove the glass. Later Willem found the pane, intact, leaning against the patio fence.
Once inside, he’d used the house like a department store and had been a discriminating shopper. In my closet, he’d passed over my little teacher suits for shiny satin blouses, a black velveteen evening coat (Cardin and worn once) and a black lace nightgown.
From Willem’s closet, ne a taken a brown velveteen jacket, some cuff links and the studs for his evening wear (we didn’t miss these for a month). Some of these things were packed in a suitcase – ours – he’d had to abandon when we came back. Others -my Cardin coat -were gone for good, and we concluded he’d made several trips. “Probably had a stash place outside somewhere,” the police said, “a drop-off point where he can leave them until the heat’s off.”
We were also missing a tape recorder, which Willem could identify by the serial number from a repair bill. Later the police found it at a local pawn shop. But Willem still had to pay the redemption price of $10 to get it back, because the assumption that the pawn shop owner had bought it in good faith might hold up in court.
“Ten dollars!” I exclaimed when I heard about this. “I’d have given him ten dollars to leave us alone. We’ve lost twenty times that in window glass alone.” Not only had the thief destroyed two panes of exquisite and irreplaceable 70-year-old glass, but in making his hasty exit he had broken to bits an antique stained glass panel from an old English church.
He left like this: Willem, Winton and I had met at the home of friends for dinner, taking two cars. We returned home about 11:30, Winton’s car slightly in advance. About to exit through his pre-planned escape hatch, the neatly cut bathroom window at the back, the thief ran back through the house and crashed through two panes of glass -the window and the stained glass panel -at the front. Winton, still in his car, saw him and tried to run him down. His failure to stop him made us all understand the difficulties police have in their squad cars and long for the good old days of the strolling cop on the beat.
I think what horrified me this time was not the robbery itself so much as the pitch of anger the three of us reached. Thinking of him touching my clothes, eyeing the colors, stroking the fabric, 1 felt as if I had been touched, eyed, stroked by this barbarian, and I washed or cleaned everything in the closet. I threw the black lace nightgown away.
Puck had disappeared, we thought for good, and Willem told me he reached the peak of his anger walking the streets at 2:30 a.m., calling for Puck. One of the investigating officers went with him, and later, incredulous still, Willem described their Kafkaesque conversation:
“Do you folks have any enemies?” the officer asked.
“No, not that I know of. No. Somebody who’d do this? Of course not. This guy doesn’t know us. We’re just a mark.”
“Have you thought about getting a gun?”
“A gun? Would you warn me to kill somebody for a lousy tape recorder?”
The officer shrugged. “Well, it’s an ethical decision you have to make, but if it was me, I’d sure think about it.” He stopped under the streetlight and looked Willem in the eye. “Let me give you some advice, sir, because you might need it. One of these days they might break in when you’re at home. Then you’d better cooperate. Whatever they want to do, let them. If they rape your wife or sodomize her in front of you, close your eyes. That might be the only way to come out alive.” March 10, 1982. I could go on with this, but I agree with my colleague: It’s boring, senseless and vicious and boring. Nevertheless, we did not, do not, know what to do, and that lack of knowledge, that innocence or ignorance has become a fact of our lives.
The police don’t seem to know what to do either. I don’t mean to bad mouth them. They are courteous, dedicated, prompt, reliable, good people. But they’re not like the cops on television: They don’t get results. At the end of the hour, the crime is not solved. Look at it this way. In our extended siege, the police caught only the kid who stole the car, and he had to commit two traffic violations to arrest their attention.
Don’t mistake me. I’m the least political person in the world, and I don’t have any political action to suggest. Nor do I know what is wrong with the police protection we’ve had -or the lack of it. Maybe there are too few officers in our neighborhood, maybe they are badly located, maybe they are poorly trained – I don’t know. I just live here. But in my own experience I can’t see how they’ve been any practical help.
Over the past months they have individually given us any number of suggestions for protecting ourselves, everything from Plexiglas storm windows to a team of Do-bermans in the backyard. Some of these contradictory tips we’ve taken, others we haven’t.
We have set up a neighborhood watch. We’ve now had two block meetings, exchanged phone numbers, car descriptions, working hours, and I have some faith that this may help. At least we’ve learned we don’t have enemies, unless they’re class enemies: Almost everyone on our block has suffered in some way. I know now if I saw a strange car circle the block too many times, I’d call the police – something I didn’t do once before.
We aren’t going to move. Yes, that was a suggestion and we thought about it. I even checked the prices of high-rises with doormen -$225,000 up -because why move unless the security is perfect? But $225,000 is roughly four times what we can afford. Besides, I can remember something called “white flight” and by God I’m staying put. We like our house.
We aren’t getting a gun. I couldn’t. Not yet. Though I did read in the paper recently about a town in Georgia that now requires a gun in every household. The ordinance exempts convicted felons, the handicapped and those who oppose firearms because of religious beliefs. 1 guess I fall in the last category, or maybe I’m handicapped-I don’t think I could shoot someone.
But just before Christmas, over on Carroll a few blocks from us, someone broke in on an old retired couple, people the age of my parents probably. The crippled old woman, confined to a wheelchair, was beaten to death, and her husband was killed, too. The take: $34. As Dostoevsky wrote, “In a world without God everything is possible.”
So I’ve come a long way from that small town of my childhood. And I’m mad. I’m real mad. Is it too much to ask of a city like Dallas, this glittering golden box on the plains, that its citizens be allowed to live humanly?
When I come home, I don’t want to look immediately for broken windows, ransacked drawers. I want Emily to quit barking like a maniac at everyone and Puck to sit in a sunny window washing his paws. My husband should not have to contemplate my rape with resignation. And then there was my new party dress.
For the big annual party that Willem’s organization gives in March, I bought a terrific new dress, and every day for a month I prayed, “Just don’t let them steal my dress till after the party.” That’s pathetic.
“Please get an alarm system,” a friend urged. “I want to be able to ask you for dinner with a clear conscience.”
MARCH 20, 1982. They are drilling as I write this, and have been drilling all morning. I had no idea it took so many holes to put in an alarm system, or so much electrical tape, or so much money. We are spending on security one-tenth of the cost of our house, and probably more than the value of anything left to steal. But maybe this is what it costs to live in Dallas without fear. Maybe it’ll work. Maybe. I’m not sure.
I’ve read about control boxes being shot out, wires snipped, false alarms. In one of our neighborhood meetings an alarm went off outside and the visiting police officer didn’t even look up. Maybe it wasn’t his job. Still.
Sitting in the porch swing with Emily yesterday afternoon, I saw the overseer of this alarm system job come out and shake his head as he checked the front windows. He saw me watching him. “It worries me,” he said. “We know we’re dealing with a pro here. Your house worries me.”
It worries me too. I had a dream last night. A man in a ski mask chased me late at night down a long eerily lit street to my front door. Shakily I put the key in the lock, barely closed the door when he shoved in after me and ripped the control panel off the wall. Turning to me, he slowly pulled the ski mask off to reveal the leering features of the very nice young man who is even now painstakingly putting electrical tape on the windows in our study.
No ideas but in things. Clearly I have been invaded to the roots of my being-my ideas and my things – and I want help.
Help me to teach my dog that the men in blue are her friends.
Help me to show my teen-age son that you don’t have to kill to protect your property.
Help me to keep that tomcat out of my living room.
Help me to feel safe again.
THIS PAST YEAR we were burglarized seven times in six months. Just let me say to begin with, I know in the general scheme of things that fact is no big deal. I haven’t been raped or mutilated, none of my family has been maimed or injured in any physical way and the property loss is – what? – probably less than $5,000.