Monday, June 14, 2010
Crime and Punishment (8.27.09)
Jail cell I was big news in our village last week.
The suburb where we live, north of Chicago, is so small (HOW SMALL IS IT?!) well, our village is so small you're guaranteed to run into someone you know at the local ice cream shop, so you better comb your hair before you go if you're into that sort of thing, but it's okay to let your freak flag fly if you're not. Our village is so small I regularly cross into the towns that border on the north and south during my daily walks. So small that when I told my husband and my friend Kristen that my credit card had been stolen, they both had the same reaction: "You're going to be in the Police Blotter!"
Our local weekly paper prints a list of the latest area misdemeanors off the town police blotter. Minor thefts, DUIs, high school vandalism -- it's the only part of the paper I read. I usually smirk at the news, picturing little old ladies accusing hired workmen of pilfering their misplaced brooches. In a neighborhood where violent crime is a rarity, kids spray-painting "Penis" on a garage door is the heights of hilarity for the neighbors not involved. And my own little brush with crime left me largely unscathed so I was just curious to see how the paper would mangle the details.
The week before, at the fitness center, I'd had a funny feeling from the girl coming out of the locker room wearing wintry clothes and carrying no bag. I did nothing of course, just grabbed my purse out of the locker and went home. Luckily, the credit card company called a couple hours later to ask if I had spent $800 at Best Buy or $70 on cigarettes at the gas station that morning. Which I had not.
Want to hear even more lucky? The girl took only one card, the one I never use, so the company knew to call right away. She left my drivers license and another credit card. When I called the police station, they practically lit the Bat Signal. "Long blonde hair and a long sleeved sweatshirt?" asked the police officer on my porch an hour later, who had already checked the gas station video. (My babysitter, who had her card stolen in Chicago, waited days until an officer contacted her about her case.)
It was all over in a couple of hours - card cancelled, fitness center alerted, police on the chase. I had drinking plans that night with two old friends, so my stolen card was barely on my mind except as an interesting anecdote to share after the first round. I didn't think about the elaborate network of law and finance and other institutions working in spheres around me to stop the blond girl who had dared threaten the social order.
But I was the one who had put these spheres in motion and when the detective called to tell me there had been two arrests, I could hear the triumph hiding in his carefully modulated voice.
"Well, congratulations!" I had to tell him. "That doesn't happen very often, does it?"
"Thank you," he replied. I resisted the urge to ask him what I could do for the poor stupid girl they picked up at the pawn shop. He sounded so pleased, I didn't want to spoil his fun.
A week or so later, the local paper arrived and I was near giggles as I turned to the blotter for my moment in the spotlight. But no, there's nothing. Half disappointed, I flipped aimlessly through the pages and to my big surprise, found my story on page seven. Covering half the page. With two mug shots.
I do not sound good in the article. I'm the "44 year old area woman" who "put her purse in an unlocked locker," and who "did not know her credit card was stolen from her wallet" until the call from the bank. Don't I get any credit for speedily calling the cops? For cogently IDing the perp and providing the description that helped make the case? No? No? I guess I have to be the bumbling example, the lesson out there for all the naïve residents who leave their purses out in the open, tempting fate.
In her mug shot, the young girl who opened my locker, who opened my purse and took my card frowns at the camera. She has not learned the smiling mask celebrities use to cover their shame. Her accomplice, who was bailed out with a private lawyer, manages a smirk. My overactive imagination weaves an elaborate story about the rich bad boy masterminding the scheme and using the girl from the wrong side of the tracks just to piss off his parents.
I look at the girl's face and I feel enclosed in layers of security and unearned privilege. My husband looks up the girl on the Internet and finds pictures of her laughing. And here I am, writing about her for all of you to see.
And yet I can't help thinking of the old adage "there but for the grace of God go I." I'm no big fan of the concept of a deity picking and choosing which worthy will receive His favors, but I do understand a certain sentiment behind the words: this girl could have been me.
I also had a crappy boyfriend once, a guy with money problems and few scruples, a guy who, a few years after I quit him, was not above impersonating a sick girl on the internet for donations. I know, ICK. And when I was with him in the middle of it all, I remember the awful feeling of having few options.
I've gotten the calls for bail from family in the middle of the night. Sometimes I paid, other times I had to let go. I am well able to imagine how much hope has to be lost before the only way out seems to steal from another person.
Now I have the trappings of a staid life. "It is better to suffer wrong than to do it, and happier to be sometimes cheated than not to trust," said Samuel Johnson. Now there is an incomprehensible divide between where I am and where I could have been. My pretty daughters are my get-out-of-jail-free cards, my adorable accessories, my little partners in crime. They steal the neighbors' tulips and sneak away with the neighbor boys' hearts. I take my towhead four year old and the sweet-cheeked six year old to an unfamiliar north shore beach with an expensive daily pass fee and the girl at the gate says, "oh, go on in."
I realized that my pity for the girl who stole from me may be in direct proportion to the minimum inconvenience resulting from her crime. The county's victim services sent me a letter offering support, which made me feel more like an impostor than a victim. I don't feel the victim. But taking care of fragile children occasionally leaves me the one feeling like a criminal. Someone took my credit card and used it. Okay, so what? Last week I left my youngest child alone with the TV while I went for a badly needed run. When I came back after half an hour, sweating and relieved, I found her alone in the back yard with her pants off.
"Oh, hi," she said. "I peed."
She is fine. But I know I put her at risk. My enormous remorse shares space with my conviction that, faced again with the circumstances, I might do it again.
The girl who stole from me is in county jail. I wish her well.
Portions of this post were previously published on Cindy Fey's blog, We All Fall Down.