I’m in the habit of keeping my front door open, at least a few inches. Mainly, I do it for the sake of the fresh air, but among other fringe benefits, this constant accessibility to the world has widenend my social network. Rusty the Cat aside, there’s a Somali guy who asked my help in setting up a Facebook account and rewarded me with a couple of cigarettes and an introduction to his brand-new pit bull, Boner. Last Wednesday night, when Chris, my next-door neighbor, stuck his head in my door and told me, “I need your help in getting rid of a guy,” I rated it nothing out of the ordinary.
Or maybe I should say I rated it nothing out of the ordinary since it came from Chris. Since he first moved in, about two years ago, Chris, a 50-year-old postal worker, has shared his one-bedroom apartment with a series of young women. One afternoon last summer when Chris was sorting mail, his doxie of the month let two of her friends in, and the three stripped his apartment of all his appliances. For weeks afterward, Chris looked forlorn, as much at the betrayal as at the loss of his HDTV. Helping him to protect the integrity of his home seemed like a very neighborly act.
Don’t get the wrong idea — I’m not physically brave. But, following one of those on-the-spot intuitive calculations you get used to performing after you’ve spent enough time around bars and keg parties and marginal neighborhoods, I doubted there was any need for real goonery. This guy, whoever he was, was in Chris’ house, and could be locked up for trespassing. If he wanted to hurt Chris, who is even punier than I am, he could have done it already. Instead, the situation seemed to call for what customer service professionals call a second-voice takeover — that is, for some stranger to the dispute to suggest a face-saving way of doing the obvious thing.
Besides, I reasoned as I followed Chris onto our patio, I’d be killing two birds with one stone. Earlier that day, hoping to make myself fit to commune over the Triduum, I’d gone to confession. Perhaps exhausted by the flood of come-lately penitents, the priest dealt me an easy one: perform an act of kindness. I thought this filled in handily.
When my eyes adjusted to the glare of the porch lights, I realized I’d based my calculations on a false premise. Chris’ unwanted visitor wasn’t in his house at all but standing on the gravel in front of our patio. A man in his early 20s with a swimmer’s build and a buzz cut, he stood with his legs spread and his arms crossed. A black-and-white tattoo covered most of his right arm. As soon as Chris saw him, he dropped his head between his shoulders.
Without moving his eyes from Chris to me, the man said, “Dude, all I want is my shit.” His voice was younger than I’d have expected, his tone surprisingly placating.
“I told you, I don’t have your shit.” Chris spread his hands.
“Well, give me back my money, then.” The man didn’t raise his voice, but it was almost breaking. I thought of Peter Brady.
Almost lost in the shadows, Chris said, “That’s four thousand bucks. You think I have four thousand bucks just lying around?”
Once, one of Chris’ housemates had mentioned he went regularly to a local methadone clinic for treatment. Without knowing the details, I found it impossible not to hazard a guess at what type of costly collateral was at stake here. If it was, in fact, some kind of illegal drug, there was my ready-made explanation why Chris didn’t call the police.
Hedging my bets between neighborly solidarity and self-preservation, I walked over to the steps leading to the upper units and leaned heavily on the bannister. There, I was out of the action but still in the picture. Looking at the ground, I did my best to tune out the conversation; I didn’t want to know, as they say, too much.
What swam unexpectedly into my head as I smoked my cigarette and stared at the gravel was Catholic moral theology. I’m a complete dunce on the subject, but I can remember reading some brain-teaser about a guy whose boss asks him to hold a ladder while he climbs into his mistress’ window. By doing this, scholars are supposed to decide, is he materially cooperating in a grave moral evil?
With my free-floating guilt I felt like the guy with the ladder, but I didn’t know my canon law — or the facts of this case — well enough to figure out what the moral evil at issue was, or who was commiting it. Were the accusations against Chris true? If he really had stolen something belonging to this guy, did the guy have the right to menace him, however subtlely? If the stolen goods were contraband, did that change the equation?
Well, my brain doesn’t respond well to this kind of teasing, or I’d have sat for the LSATs, represented fast-food patrons who scalded themselves with hot coffee, and gotten fat on contigency fees. I decided that the only thing I knew for sure was that Chris was scared. Whatever wrong he’d committed, his taking a beating wouldn’t expiate it. Grinding out my cigarette, I raised a finger, as though signalling a waiter, and cleared my throat — there are times when bourgeois manners can feel like a shield. (As W.H. Auden said of his plans to cover the Spanish Civil War: “Of course I’d never get killed. Nanny wouldn’t allow it.”)
“Excuse me,” I said. “I’m Chris’ neighbor. I don’t know what the variables are here, and I don’t want to know; I’m not here to decide who’s right or wrong. Chris just asked me to come out here to make sure there’s no violence.” I hoped this would alert him that I’d seen his face and would be able to point him out to police if it came to that.
“Oh, no, dude,” the tattooed man said. “No violence at all. I just need him to give me my shit back.” He sounded pained at the misunderstanding. He and Chris went back to bickering. After a couple of minutes had passed without discernable progress, I tiptoed back inside.
Friday morning I stepped out and saw Chris crouched over the sill of his living-room window. Poking his hand through a hole in the screen, he shook his head. “You see this?” I nodded. “I got robbed at gunpoint last night,” he said. “It was two guys and a girl. They reached in right through the screen, unlocked my door, and opened it, just like that. They came in and pointed their guns at me, but when they saw I had 911 dialed on my cell phone, they panicked and ran off.”
I asked whether it had been the guy I’d seen him arguing with. Chris shook his head.
“Was it about — ”
Chris nodded. “Their shit. Yeah. Like I told ‘em, I don’t have their shit.” He said he’d called the police and given a report. He looked tired.
So maybe my presence did deter the first guy from taking part in the robbery. If so, does that count as an act of kindness — for him, or maybe for Chris, who could somehow have fared worse against four assailants? This weekend, as I communed away like a good citizen, I told myself it did. Maybe I should have called police to begin with, but I guess I have some atavistic resistance to snitching. Besides, I’m not eager to see myself through a cop’s eyes — for all I know, all folks in my neighborhood look shady. All I’m really sure of is that Catholic moral theology will become so much simpler once I move to the suburbs. Still, I keep my door open. Call it force of habit.