“Tell me about the theft,” said the policeman at the station, getting out his pad and pencil.
“Well” I began, “We have a neighbor named K, white guy, looks kind of twitchy–”
The police officer immediately supplied K’s last name. “What’d he steal this time?” he asked brightly. “A lawn mower or a weed eater?”
“A bicycle,” I said, not skipping a beat.
The man had come to our house pushing a lawnmower and asked to mow the lawn for pocket money a few times. I was desperate to prevent another showdown with my paranoid neighbor, so I gave him what I had in my purse. Later, he asked if he could leave his mower on my porch as surety while he borrowed Rosie’s bicycle to go and buy gasoline, and I said yes, because the mower was more expensive than the bicycle so he’d have to be a fool to be pulling a bait-and-switch. He took the bike for an hour, then came back and said he was mowing my lawn right away, but actually pushed the mower down the street and came back to mow in the late evening two days later. These shenanigans went on for six weeks. He showed up at my door at one o’clock in the morning with no mower, asking for cash, and I determined not to hire him anymore. Then, over Memorial Day weekend, he came knocking at the door offended because my husband had mowed the lawn himself. He asked for a few dollars, and I truthfully said there wasn’t a cent in the house. I noticed the bicycle was out there at that time.
Less than an hour later, when Rosie went out to play, it was gone.
I called the police non-emergency number, only to find it was disconnected on weekends. I wasn’t going to call 911 for a bicycle, so I waited until after the weekend to file a police report– just so there was something on paper saying it happened.
The bike is gone for good, I’m sure. The policeman explained that K had surely traded it to someone else by now. He is always stealing things off porches and trading them; he’s done it for years. I don’t expect to see the bike again.
Michael walked that bicycle home for Rosie last year, five miles from the Wal Mart because he couldn’t take it on the bus and didn’t know how to ride a bike himself. Lord knows when we’ll be able to afford to buy her another. Our money was perilously tight even before I shelled out to get the lawn mowed.
I went home frustrated, even though I knew this would be the result when I went to the police in the first place.
My friends and I commiserated on Facebook.
“And they just let him wander the neighborhood stealing things?” said one.
Not exactly. He’s been in prison for larceny before for just this sort of thing, but there’s a limited amount of time you can put someone in prison for stealing items that cost about a hundred dollars each. And all other things being equal, I’m glad of that. I’d far rather live in a place where bicycles occasionally disappear than in a gulag. There shouldn’t be long prison sentences for twitchy men who steal things off porches. Still, the slap-on-the-wrist sentence didn’t seem to do anything to reform him.
We started bantering about what would actually work. Stocks? Lashings? Unpaid manual labor? Three Strikes and You’re Out laws? Three Strikes and we get to run you out of town? How do you make a man not misbehave anymore? What kind of penalty could you inflict on someone that would really make them stop being a bad person?
It is fun to think of what I’d like to do to the thief, don’t get me wrong.
Then again, sometimes I think that part of the reason our society has gone so wrong, is that we’ve been asking the wrong questions.
And sometimes I think I’ve glimpsed a more excellent way.