Seven months pregnant, with a pinched nerve in my back and feeling like a foggier version of my former self, crime in our neighborhood suddenly increased. Frank and I pulled into our driveway one night to find that the motion sensor light no longer turned on. In the morning, we discovered that the neighbor’s scooter was missing from our shared garage. Thieves in our yard?
Now, amidst acid reflux and swollen toes, I worried with newfound fervor.
So far, the items taken from our block included a UPS package containing a light-green bridesmaid’s dress, a mountain bike and moped, and most recently, a wallet, removed from our next-door neighbor’s kitchen counter while he was in another room. There had been no physical violence, but the ideas of criminals walking into people’s yards and homes made me extremely nervous. Plus, we had a new, yet-to-be-insured car and I really didn’t want anything to happen to it.
Earlier in my life, I had administrated an after-school program in an area overrun by gangs. I’d been drunk in metropolises around the globe – out during hours when nothing good happens – all with a carefree attitude, knowing I’d be fine. Now, amidst acid reflux and swollen toes, I worried with newfound fervor.
That July was particularly hot and I had grown enormous. Some days, I just sat in front of the air conditioner and watched Arrested Development reruns. I tried to cheer myself up by thinking more optimistically, starting by reframing my worries about the car.
I believe that our new car will be okay.
I bless our car and commit to thinking positively.
I will be responsible by locking it in the garage and by paying attention to what is happening in our neighborhood.
I guess that’s how my crime fighting started. With my decision to pay attention.
Here’s what I thought were the facts:
First, the “thieves” were most likely in high school since the onset of crimes coincided with the end of the school year.
Second, the police had bigger issues to address like the drug problem in a nearby public housing complex.
Third, if they were teenagers and no one responded, the thieving might escalate.
I wasn’t afraid of them the way one is of professional criminals who steal computers or fancy bikes or even the way one might be scared of gun-waving bank robbers. I was frightened of them the way one is of young people because they don’t know why they are doing what they are doing. Were they looking for a boundary? If so, there was no telling how far they’d go. I would respond by giving these thieves attention. My engagement of them needn’t be “nice” just an acknowledgement, a “Hey, I see you.” If they entered our yard again, I’d be ready.
I thought about hanging upside-down, fake blood-coated baby dolls and stuffed animals from the large tree that canopied the walkway alongside our house. It might freak them out just enough that they’d lose confidence. Then I considered the neighbors. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to explain the baby dolls. Our fellow renters had been amendable to my idea to sign for other peoples’ packages and take them inside so nothing got left on the porch, but I had to admit that nobody else seemed quite as enthusiastic about fighting crime as I was. Nor did they appear as fearful.
Some months before I was pregnant, I was jogging one day when a black and red bird suddenly shrieked from the top of a tree. The sound was striking so I stopped to look. When I lifted my eyes, the bird immediately dove at my head which I quickly covered with my hands and ran. “What a crazy bird,” I thought, until it occurred to me that maybe one of her babies had fallen out of the nest and I had wandered too close.
“Now I’m that crazy bird,” I thought.
I made a sign that read:
“You are being videotaped
No you’re not
Yes you are
Just kidding, you’re not.
But why not come over for cookies and lemonade
Instead of stealing things?”
Then I made another that read:
“Private eyes are watching you
They’re seeing your every move.
You probably don’t even know that song
But do you know the song
‘I gave up stealing scooters in August?’ ”
I taped one of my signs to the garage door.
I went inside and looked out at it through the window. Fastened with a piece of scotch tape, it had blown upside down against the garage so I couldn’t see the words. It looked small hanging there. Maybe the thieves wouldn’t see it.
That night someone broke into our neighbor’s mother’s car parked out front. The vandal broke her windows and rummaged through her belongings. I was going to need more than signs.
It occurred to me that the air conditioning units were preventing me from hearing what was going on outside. I shut them off at night and opened our second story bedroom window so I could watch from my bed. I was up every hour because the baby was pressing on my bladder and I had to pee. When I got up, I looked out the window and coughed loudly to scare anybody who might be out there. I’d occasionally yell things like “Hey!” or “What’s up, buddy?” in case someone happened to be sneaking around.
One evening Frank and I were inside building an Ikea baby dresser and it was really humid so I rolled my sundress down from the straps to below my belly, exposing my breasts. We had been playing music loudly and I hadn’t looked outside in over an hour. I panicked and impulsively ran over to the window, pulled up the blinds and screamed surprise! Frank shot me a “What the f— are you doing?” look and at the same time, while I saw that no one was in our backyard, there were two neighbors I didn’t know sitting directly across from me, smoking on their second floor porch, looking straight at me as I yelled, topless, from my window.
They were definitely surprised. I was too, both by my own behavior and their presence. It must have seemed like I was yelling at them. I was mortified. I shut the blinds and jumped into bed and hoped with my whole being that they would not understand what they just saw and therefore, promptly forget it.
I needed a better plan.
My main disadvantage as a community vigilante was that I didn’t know any neighborhood teenagers. Therefore I didn’t know their parents. If I were a teacher, I could guess who the perpetrators were, call them and hint that we were on to them, but I only knew musicians, social workers and the head of the Shakespeare Theater Company. Without access to the thieves, I couldn’t mess with their minds.
Thinking about this made me recall two boys I knew growing up who had thrown a bag of feces at a man. Until that day, their games had been harmless. They’d stop at large houses around dinnertime. One boy would ring the bell and distract whoever answered, while the other would go in the back to steal cakes and other tasty delights. One afternoon, who knows why, things escalated. As a man was driving by in a white Mercedes, the boys launched the bag and the shit exploded all over the interior. The man stopped and chased the boys. He wanted to know why. I imagine to this day he still wonders.
They must have been angry, but with whom? How could I possibly protect my baby from all of the under-nurtured, under-paid-attention to children growing older each day? In any case, there was no indication I was reaching any criminals with my signs or outbursts so I decided that the most effective way to proceed was to lock everything up.
Our garage door was already locked but another remained unlocked. Nobody really used the garage but since it belonged to all of us, I figured I should ask the other tenants’ permission before securing it. I knew this might take a day and the sun was setting so I started to think of ways to protect the garage for one final night.
I wanted something only the thieves would encounter. I settled on gum. I chewed several pieces of cinnamon Trident and carefully placed little balls of it on all the handles of the garage door. I didn’t tell Frank. I was in the zone. If a thief tried to raise the door, he would put his hand in chewed gum. He might be grossed out enough to exclaim or swear. Then I might catch a glimpse of him from my bed.
As a finishing touch, I grabbed a few post-it notes and wrote, “Voo Doo You!” On one of the yellow squares I drew a large puffy lightning bolt. Then I went inside, had dinner with Frank, watched some Antiques Roadshow, and went to bed. What I did not know then was that Jim, my upstairs neighbor, stored his mountain bike in the garage and that he went in there every night to park it.
Later that night I heard a noise. I thought I saw Jayson, our downstairs neighbor. I called out, “Jayson?” “No, it’s Jim,” Jim said as he opened the garage. I was stunned. Poor Jim was sticking his hands in my gum saliva. A few minutes passed in silence while he put his bike away. I was humiliated but had to say something. I said, “Hey Jim, um, you know Collin’s scooter got stolen and I was thinking of putting a lock on the other garage door. Would that be okay with you?”
“Yeah, I saw your sign.” I laughed nervously. Then he added in a neutral voice, “The lock is fine with me.”
I was relieved. “Cool, thanks.”
I went back to bed, embarrassed but happy that Jim said I could lock the garage.
The next day, Frank and I ran into Jim. He said nothing about the gum or yellow Post-It notes. He apologized for using the garage, said he heard I was a musician and would love to hear me play sometime. As we walked away, I said, “I can’t believe that guy let me off the hook. What a kind man.” Frank countered with, “It may be one of those things that was so weird that he didn’t even realize it. I think it didn’t register.”
I liked Frank’s sense of it. Then I remembered I’d better go buy a new lock.
Over the next few weeks, crime in our neighborhood subsided. My back felt better. I took walks although I always avoided the tree where that bird had caught me off guard. I never knew whether any of my crime-fighting tactics were useful or if crime would pick back up again. If it did, I imagined, I could be just like that mama bird, using my ever-watchful eye to scan for trouble and my willingness to make nosedives at passing teenagers to keep my neighborhood, and my baby, safe.
Anne Heaton is a singer-songwriter and pianist who has shared the stage with Jewel, Sarah McLachlan and jazz drummer Max Roach and has been featured in a New York Times Music podcast and on National Public Radio. Anne is a mother of two daughters and this is her first published essay. For more information, go to www.anneheaton.com.
Photo by Ellen Blum Barish