Sunday, November 13, 2016

A lucky break and some chilling thoughts

When my house was broken into a couple of weeks ago, the investigating officer left his card and said I should call if I noticed anything that could help the investigation. I had little hope that the investigation would yield anything, but I did call when I noticed that a flashlight I kept near the front door had been stolen. It was a PeliLght Submersible light that I had used for kayaking. I had exchanged parts between this orange light and a black one of the same type, giving the light a distinctive appearance.

Three days later, I got a call back. Cooperating law enforcement agencies in several communities on either side of the Maine-New Hampshire border have been working on the burglary epidemic for months. They had just managed to catch and arrest a couple leaving the scene of another burglary in the next town to the north, which led investigators to a stash of loot in a town about 30 miles to the south. Among the identifiable items they recovered was my funky flashlight.

I may never see any of my stuff again. Some may have been sold or bartered. Some may have been tossed as worthless in the thief and drug addict economy. Recovered items will have to serve as evidence for an undetermined length of time. But it's nice to know that someone has officially connected names and faces to the crime.

Effingham's police chief told me that opioid users in this area may be living in the woods. Items stolen are often bartered directly for drugs, or used for survival. Thus the Gerber knife, the flashlight, and the binoculars taken from my house might go directly to support an encampment, wherever it might be.

Guess I'll have to go armed when I go bushwhacking now. What a drag. Fortunately, I do most of that in the winter, when snow will reveal the tracks of any forest dwellers. I already dress in muted colors. This may give me a better chance of seeing them before they see me.

What a thing to have to worry about. I think about it on the night commute, too. I'm riding along, brightly lit, a movable feast of useful and salable items on a deserted forest path. The illuminated person is the one at risk in the darkness. I've toyed with contingency plans for years. Now they seem more realistic. How do I escape? How quickly can I shuck reflective items, to blend with the darkness and escape or counterattack? I load my bike and personal pack with this in mind. I want my phone, a weapon, and one light in my possession, ready to run when I abandon the lighted bike and use it as bait. How I respond after that depends on how many assailants gather, and how badass they look. Certainly an open line to 911 is first. Then use the darkness myself to observe the enemy.

Probably nothing will ever happen. But you can't predict what a jonesing addict might think is a good idea. And the average lifespan of an opioid addict after the onset of addiction is 15 to 20 years. They don't instantly turn into frail twigs hovering at the edge of death. They may be sturdy, muscular people who have turned all their energy toward acquiring more of their chemical best friend by any means necessary. Whether they are truly bad or good is immaterial, if they are opportunistic, and driven by a craving.`

The path was my refuge for the night commute. If I leave it to ride the road, I'm exposed to narrow, rural highways in the darkness. That not only adds the possibility of a collision with an inattentive driver, it may increase the chance of being picked off by a "shopper" who would not have seen me if I was not right there on the public right of way.

All this is no more true than it was before I was aware of it. The opioid crisis has been building for several years. But any kind of personal contact with the effects of the crisis makes it more real. Is danger a reason not to do something worthwhile? Of course not. But new dangers add new elements to be managed.

In case you think something is too trivial to attract a miscreant's attention, consider the shaving kits: I had marveled that the thieves had taken mine when it contained nothing I thought they would want. I reckoned they had snatched it just because it might contain prescription drugs, and that they would toss it as soon as they had time to look in it. Nope. The investigating officer called to ask me to describe my shaving kit, because the people they arrested had a bunch of them. In light of that, and because you do hear about riders on urban paths getting mugged for their bikes, I figure it's only a matter of time before the light bulb comes on over some dirtbag's head around here, and they try to pick off a lone rider in a secluded setting.

Ideas like this reinforce people's idea that they are safer in their swift-moving armored vehicles than they are on a slow, wobbly bicycle. The fact that they would be safest of all on foot, efficiently but lightly armed, does not fit most people's work schedule and world view. I'm certainly not going to start hiking to work with a side arm and a medium-length blade. Not yet, anyhow. Ask me again in a couple of years, when the social order has collapsed because of disastrous economic policies and fully unleashed xenophobia. But at that point I will probably be self-employed and working from home. Or I will already have been killed while defending one or another of my less mainstream friends from the aforementioned xenophobia.

We have so much to look forward to in the exciting future created by at least 30 years of ignoring what were once soluble problems. Or maybe -- unprecedented though it may be in all of human existence -- our species will finally have that long, deep talk that we've fought countless wars and squandered millions of lives to avoid.

Friday, November 04, 2016

One person's home is another person's shopping spree

Home looked welcoming in the early darkness. I looked forward to a nice supper and a relaxing evening before tackling a full list of tasks to prepare for winter.

I let myself into the basement. The cats mobbed me as usual. I made my way upstairs with my pack in my hands and a cat on my shoulder. Life was simple and good.

When I reached the living room, I saw that my computer was gone. The cats could not have knocked it onto the floor. It was simply gone, power cord and all. I'd been robbed.

When this happens, you don't know where to look first. I scanned the room to see what was still there. Nearly everything was, including some things that surprised me.

I whipped out the cell phone and called 911. A few minutes' explanation got me connected to the county sheriff's office. The dispatcher said an officer was en route. I appreciated the use of present rather than future tense. It was like they read my mind.

Moving into the bedroom, I saw that they had taken that plastic bin so many of us keep on top of the dresser, where we toss things we might not need every day, but want to keep handy. That was more serious than the laptop, which was an arthritic Macbook, and password protected. The bin held my checkbook. No matter how dire the circumstances, you cannot reach a bank on Saturday night or Sunday.

With tightening guts and a sudden and increasing headache, I continued to inspect my home. The cellist's tray of jewelry was gone. Two little cabinets above each of our dressers had been yanked open and plundered. My top dresser drawer, that other traditional repository of handy odds and ends -- in addition to socks and underwear -- had been searched and cleaned out. They even took my traveling toiletry kit, which contains absolutely nothing you could sell or get high on.

I won't say what they didn't take, but I will say I was deeply glad they hadn't taken any of it. They had neither time nor cargo capacity to ransack and strip the place.

Getting ripped off reminded me forcefully that I am in the working poor. I had accumulated things over time, and taken care of them meticulously, knowing their value as tools. I cannot afford to replace things on impulse.

The cash value of the objects taken probably barely exceeds $500. However, because the stuff they sucked up like a giant bottom feeder slurping up a wad of mud included material that they could use to get into my business from off site, the damage was greater than the initial cost.

The deputy arrived while I was still milling around in a thickening daze. He had a calming manner. No crime scene team showed up to grime the place with fingerprint dust. There was no yellow tape, no crackling radios, no bustle of investigators. In a major city, I probably would have waited at least another couple of hours to see an officer at all. This is a minor break-in.

I'd heard that the things that bother you most after a break-in are the weird little items of sentimental value that get caught up in the bundle with the high ticket merchandise. That's true in this case. The bin on the dresser contained scribbled notes, cards from loved ones, a seam ripper, a couple of flash drives, the USB cord and charger to a camera they didn't take, some owner's manuals... I can't produce the whole inventory from memory. They got the keys to every bike lock I own, so those locks went straight into the trash.

Then there's the famous "sense of violation." Rage wells up when I think of people who feel entitled to enter my home and take whatever appeals to them. Because they dug that little bit deeper to get material that could be used for cyber crime later, I can't say, "it's just stuff." Because they plundered my wife's tray piled with earrings and other inexpensive, daily-wear jewelry, I know they were limited only by their haste, not by any merciful scruple to disrupt our pitiful lives as little as possible.

The anger extends to myself. I know such people exist. I know they operate around here. On the other hand I know people on this same road who do not lock their houses. I had good reason, and imminent intention, to install deadbolts to augment the basic knob locks. But, after 27 years crime-free, I thought I could clean the chimneys and woodstoves, winterize the lawn mower, and other chores more urgently mandated by the change of seasons, before investing the money and time into installing more locks.

The thieves entered without breaking anything. They locked the house when they left. I rack my brain to recall whether I might have left a door unlocked, or the latch not quite engaged. This has happened a few times in 27 years. Rural innocence seemed to indulge those errors. As a test, I was almost able to open the locked door with a slim kitchen knife. Someone with more experience and determination could have done it and left no trace.

They stole the joy of homecoming. Before I even get to the driveway, I feel the tension rise. What will I find? Did I hide my surviving electronics sufficiently well? Having seen the candy store, did the dirtbags come back with a truck or two, to load up on bikes, tools, and musical instruments?

The way these professionals hit the most common places for quick and easy concealment warns me that those places can never be used again. Wherever I stash things has to be so much less convenient that no thief will take the time to root around for them. Inconvenient for them means inconvenient for me. I no longer own my own house. I share it with amoral sleazebags who will very likely kick the door off its hinges next time, now that they can't slip gently past the original feeble defenses.

As I notice more things stolen, I can piece together their probable path through what used to be my home. It was a short one, from the living room door to the bedroom and back out. I would be surprised if they were in here for ten minutes. If they are the type who only skim the cream, they won't bother to come back for heavy hauling. But, if they are local -- and don't die of an opioid overdose first -- they might drop in after a few weeks or months, when they could assume I had replaced the laptop and relaxed my vigilance.

The thing to remember about serious criminals is that this is their job. Most of them are not geniuses, but they develop their skills and learn, like any predator, the habits of the herd on which they feed.

Inner cities get all the press, but rural areas are great places to be a criminal. Law enforcement is often laughably under-staffed, covering large areas that are often rugged and wooded. Seasonal residents leave properties locked, but unattended, for months. Year-round residents might have to work such long hours, in far-away places, that their chances of stopping a burglary are essentially nil. On the day my house was hit, I was away for 10 1/2 hours. That's an ample window for someone devoid of conscience to wreak a little quiet havoc.

This morning, the TV news reported that this little town has the third highest burglary rate in the state. Mention your tale of B&E and you will hear an answering story from everyone in the room. If it hasn't happened to them directly, it's happened to someone they know.

Before the wonderful convenience of the internet, stuff was just stuff. Now physical objects from your home can be a gateway to your entire financial existence. So, every morning I gather what seem like the most attractive and dangerous items, and squirrel them away in several weird locations. Upon returning home, I have to remember where I hid everything. The thieves are right. Eventually I will tire and begin to scale back the precautions.

Then there's the expense. Being poor but honest is expensive. I've put at least $300 into the doors, and another chunk into the first installment of surveillance cameras. Every dollar I spend reminds me that poor people don't deserve to own stuff. To fit my financial station in life, I should throw all my remainning possessions out by the road with a "free" sign, and live in the stripped-out shell of my house. Because my checking account is FUBAR, I have had to put everything onto a credit card. Emergency circumstances or not, the credit card company is going to do what credit card companies do, if I'm not able to pay the full amount when the statement comes due: they'll pound me bloody with interest and fees.

So much for fixing up the bathroom and getting new snow tires. And if we don't get lots of snow this winter, I'll be out of work well before spring.

Restlessness and increased vigilance are inescapable symptoms, especially in someone living alone. The single person already has to manage every detail of life. A crisis is a flood of new details. A crisis that is an actual attack and carries the threat of future attacks is an explosion of stress and depression. There is no closure, only the dark and unknowable future. And piecing together one's digital existence on a motley assortment of devices, trying to stay ahead of a hack that might never come, takes hours a night.

A tip from someone on social media led me to the dozens of little buy, sell, and swap sites on line. You have to join each one to see what's offered. The organizers pointedly take no resposibility for the items offered by individual vendors. It's the perfect thieves' market, just because it would take so long to dredge through every possibility.

The advantage lies with the thieves. No one has the time to trace individual fish through teeming oceans.

I will say again: all that is necessary for good to triumph is for evil people to do nothing. Human existence is this inescapable battle between light and darkness. Perhaps we represent in our fretful little organisms the cosmic swirl of light and dark that appears to power the universe. The second half of the 20th Century saw a surge of interest in the concept of a world at peace, but the darkness has fought back. That happy world of bikes and renewable energy and mutual respect has absolutely no appeal for a large number of people, apparently.

I'm going to keep promoting it anyway. It would work. It should work. That remains true, even if we keep getting turned back.