Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Crime and (Non) Punishment

    This is another autobiographical article, which I originally wrote back in 2003.  I submitted this one to "Morbid Curiosity" as well, but it wasn't accepted.  The reason given was that the accounts inside happened to friends of mine, with me as an observing bystander.  I was reading over this recently, and happened to recall a couple of more examples, from my stays in hotels.  Anyway, enjoy.

     Like a lot of students, I was fortunate enough to be able to live in off-campus housing for much of my college career.  Also like many others, I found it to be vastly superior to living in a dorm.  First off, there was the extra space; instead of being cooped up in a single small room, in the off-campus apartments and houses you had a kitchen, semiprivate bathroom, living room, and sometimes a basement and porch in addition to your bedroom, which occasionally you had to yourself.  Secondly, there was the freedom; unlike a dorm there wasn’t an upperclassman preceptor lurking about, with the power to write you up and toss you out of your room if they caught you with a beer.  Lastly, there was the responsibility; true, sometimes this was negative, with the unsupervised fights between housemates, tension over late payments of rent and bills, and such, but overall I think the experience led to as much maturing as the actual class work.  I certainly recommend it to anyone who can manage the cost.
     However, this is not to say there weren’t other problems associated with the off-campus housing experience.  All three years (1991-1994) of my apartment/house living were off the Douglas campus in New Brunswick, NJDouglas is one of many schools under the Rutgers University umbrella.  And, as it turns out, it’s surrounded by some pretty sketchy neighborhoods.
     Our first apartment, on Handy Street, proved to be fairly uneventful from a safety standpoint.  The only damage done to myself, my roommates, and the apartment itself was self-inflicted from overindulgence in alcohol or overzealous wrestling matches.  We did have an annoying elderly neighbor who called the cops on some of our parties, but this problem was solved when we learned the trick of guilting her into not calling by inviting her (a bit of no-risk etiquette not condoned by Miss Manners).  My Reservist roommate found a M-16 firing pin in the street, but that was all.
     The next place, a house on Comstock Street, only two blocks away, proved more unsettling.  It was located right on the border where the neighborhood began to get bad.  Our first clue about what the situation was came on the first day there, moving day.  One of my housemates had left his van open between unloading trips.  To our surprise, we looked out the window to see a guy in his van, lying underneath the steering wheel trying to hot wire it.  Fortunately yelling at and then chasing him frightened him off, and nothing was actually stolen or damaged.  Still, it was quite unexpected, especially since the van had been left unattended for only a minute or so, and it was broad daylight.
     But a month or two passed without much further happening.  We did have some tension with neighbors, particularly the house directly across the street.  They were mad that we didn’t mow our lawn in a timely fashion, and we hated them for their screaming matches and general rudeness.
     Then the next incident occurred.  At that time there were five of us living there—myself, my friends Nick, Mike, and Leon, and our sub letter Chuck (who was a nice fellow but kept to himself and his own room).  Leon was out of town with his girlfriend, and Chuck and Mike both left the house by ten or eleven a.m. (Chuck going to work, Mike going out with his girlfriend).  Nick was working the night shift at UPS and so he didn’t get up until noon or one p.m., and I normally arose somewhat earlier, but not that day because I’d been up partying until five a.m. the night before.  So, at around noon Nick and I came downstairs from our second floor bedroom to discover that we’d been robbed, again during daylight, obviously between eleven and twelve or so.
     It had been a simple job.  The burglars had broken the lock on the back door and had stolen Nick’s television, Leon’s VCR, and Nick’s mountain bike.  The police came and filled out the report, and even futilely dusted for prints on the remaining bike stand.  Our landlord was extremely unhelpful; he didn’t get around to fixing the broken lock for several days, apparently waiting for a relative to have some free time.  (This was our first clue to our landlord’s cheapness concerning repairs; he didn’t fix one of the toilets for over six months and didn’t replace a broken basement window for over a year after we moved out.)
     All in all, the robbery mainly affected our sense of safety rather than our wallets.  Nick wisely had insurance on his possessions, so he was able to get them replaced.  Leon didn’t have insurance on his VCR, but it wasn’t new and didn’t work that great, anyway (we hoped it ate all the thieves’ videotapes).  But it was jarring to think that we’d been robbed, in the day, while we were in the house sleeping upstairs.
     Then several more months passed.  Classes had started, and our lineup had changed, as different housemates and sub letters had moved in and out.  After the burglary we’d become more security conscious, and made sure the house and all our cars were securely locked.  Until one day…  My housemate Mike had just visited the grocery store, and had many bags of food.  During the thirty seconds or so between unloading trips, he’d left his pull-out stereo in his car, although behind locked doors.  Once again it was daylight, mid afternoon.  So of course he came out for another load of food to find his window smashed, and the stereo gone.  Alas, he had to pay for the repair and replacement on his own, as the total was below his insurance deductible.  A few days later one of our enemy neighbors came over and told Mike that she knew who’d done it.  She blamed her ex-boyfriend, who lived just down the street.  Ultimately her information was useless, as she wouldn’t speak to the police about this knowledge.  Since we weren’t exactly the vigilante types, coupled with the fact that our source was a questionable, possibly biased one, we didn’t hunt the neighbor down or anything
     Fortunately this was the last criminal act perpetrated on my group at the Comstock Street house.  Our final off-campus housing, a really nice condominium, was located about six or seven blocks away on Neilson Street.  After our experiences we were slightly concerned about our safety, especially given the new surroundings.  We were adjacent to a run-down housing project and several other shady areas.  However, despite its appearance, we had slightly less trouble here than on Comstock.  Vehicles had a rough time of it, though.  At least three times a car of ours or of a visiting friend was the subject of a hit and run, the worst being a friend of ours whose car was basically totaled.  Plus once again Mike had his car broken into, and like his previous vehicle, the thieves broke a window to gain access to it.  On this occasion his book bag was stolen, and with it several of his college textbooks and notebooks.  He was less upset about the loss of the possessions than the fact that he had wasted four hours on the lost homework inside one of the purloined books.  Other than these incidents, though, our property or persons were not assaulted.  Surprisingly, too, this final theft took place during the more traditional cover of darkness.
     These three years were my only brush with burglars.  My boyhood home has never been broken into, nor have I had anything stolen in the various hotel rooms I’ve called home since college (I live on the road for my business, contract archaeology).  Hell, to be accurate I never had anything of mine stolen, I just lived with people who were unfortunate enough to have this happen.  Nevertheless, it has made me conscious, some would say obsessive, about security.  I’m still amazed when I meet people (who usually come from other parts of the country, not the Northeast) who commonly leave their rooms, or cars open.  Or even more extremely, learning about households who never locked their doors, and sometimes didn’t even have locks on them!  That’s unthinkable to me, which I guess sort of sad in one way, realistic in another.  My residences may be broken into again, but I at least believe in making the perpetrators work at it at least a little
     (Update)  Since I wrote this piece, I’ve remembered a couple of more incidents concerning theft.  Like the others, these actually occurred to friends of mine, and not to me directly.  Both happened to archaeologist friends, while staying at a crew hotel.  Which, are sometimes a mixed bag, as you’ll see.  (See my April 7, 2012 post about bad hotels, for more on the lackluster or even horrible ones.)
     The first one occurred in 1995.  Since that was so long ago, I’m very hazy on the details.  But, anyway, my friend and coworker Kim was staying in a project hotel that seemed mediocre.  However, one day she reported she’d been robbed, almost certainly by the maid.  She’d (in my mind, somewhat foolishly) left cash in a box in a drawer on her nightstand while she was at work.  Since the maid had a key to her room, and had cleaned it, she was the obvious leading candidate (there was no sign of forced entry or anything else).  When Kim complained to the hotel owner, his response was to tell her which maid had cleaned her room (and may have even pointed her out), and told Kim to confront her.  So, kind of like my earlier story, he was encouraging vigilante justice, it seems.  (I don’t recall why Kim didn’t call the police.  Or perhaps she did but they couldn’t do much because it was a hotel.)  Whatever the exact details were, I think this was awfully strange. Kim chose not to get in a futile screaming match (or worse), so she didn’t get any justice or satisfaction.
     My final story took place in 1996.  I’ll use my coworker’s nickname, to protect the guilty.  (I should state that in the 20 years since this occurrence he’s married, has kids, and is a successful businessman and a landlord, so he’s undeniably gotten more responsible.)  “Dennis the Menace” enjoyed a certain smoke-able herb, and evidently his maid did too, as she stole his stash.  Clearly this type of theft isn’t one you can report to either the hotel or the police.  (Well, you could, I guess, but it would be really stupid.)  A day or too later we saw “Dennis” walking around at work with poison ivy leaves in a bag.  This was extremely weird behavior, of course, so we asked him what the hell he was doing.  His plan, he explained, was to rub it on the doorknob of one of his rooms (his girlfriend worked on the job too, so they each got a room.  But they mainly stayed in one, while using the other for storage.)  He also was going to rub it on that room’s toilet seat, in the hopes that the larcenous maid would use it and get the poison ivy rash on both her hands, and more sensitive areas as well.  All of us spent some time convincing him not to go through with this attempted revenge.  We pointed out that the odds of her using his toilet were slim to none, for starters.  Then we mentioned that the far more likely scenario was that he would forget about his actions and accidentally touch the doorknob and/or the toilet seat himself, perhaps while drunk (he enjoyed alcoholic beverages, sometimes to excess, as well).  Finally, what if the maids occasionally switched who cleaned particular rooms, or the marijuana thief was sick and a replacement did his room?  An innocent person might get a nasty, and unfair surprise.  “Dennis” grudgingly conceded our arguments, and thus his maid got away with her stealing with no consequences.  But at least “Dennis” didn’t compound his property loss with more itchy rashes, in way worse places than we field techs normally get.


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