Several months ago, I attended a writing workshop that prompted me to try my hand at essay writing. I wrote something I was happy with and, at the advice of several writer friends, sent it out to a few places. Then, as usual, I collected a series of rejects. Now, I get to add newspapers and magazines to my list of rejection sources, which is fine. Rejection is just part of the deal when you write for publication. When I did find a home for it, I was frankly, surprised that I’d finally received a yes. You’ll find it published on The Good Men Project, a place I plan to send more essays to as they come to me. But, considering it’s been MONTHS since I’ve blogged, I’ll post it here too. Let me know what you think of it. And if you’ve already read it, I hope you’re not sick of seeing it.
All I had worth stealing was my peace
He rifled through my drawers but the only thing he could find to tie my hands with was the charging cable for my Kindle.
I lay face down on my bed, listening to him tramping up and down the wooden stairs of my Baltimore row house, looking for things to steal. I’d already told him I didn’t have anything. No cash. No jewelry. Still, he searched.
I’d been in my office on the second floor, happy to have a day off to work on my latest novel. It was the first day of what would turn out to be sixteen days of a government shutdown and the reason why, every time there is talk of a shutdown, these memories come flooding back. That Monday, the day I was robbed, was the first day of my furlough.
I wasn’t supposed to be home.
On a normal day, he would have climbed through the tall, skinny window that faced the alley, torn open the screen, broken the slat blinds and found an empty house.
In my office, my brain had just settled into a creative mode. I’d written a sentence, maybe two when I heard the commotion downstairs, noise I at first attributed to my cats. But the ruckus was more than even their usual rambunctiousness could explain. So, I’d gone to investigate.
As I lay on my bed, my hands loosely bound behind my back, I heard him in the basement and pictured him pulling out each of the perfectly fitted baskets from my Pottery Barn coffee table. I heard him in the dining room as he wrestled with the finicky drawers in my antique china cabinet. I knew, no matter where he looked, he wouldn’t find what he wanted. I wanted him to take whatever he could find, anything and leave. I just wanted him to leave.
I’d finally convinced him to take my debit card. I gave him the four digit pin, repeating the number so that he’d remember it. He looked at that card, then looked at me. He knew. He wasn’t stupid. He knew that if he used that card, not only would they have my description of him, they would be able to trace his movements. I could see in his eyes that he knew this. He made another choice. He took the card, repeated the numbers, then marched me upstairs.
I wondered what he needed so badly that he would make that disastrous choice.
He could have just shoved me into my bedroom and closed the door. He could have warned me not to call the police. At that point, he still had a chance, still had an opportunity to recover from his bad decisions. Instead, he’d found my Kindle charger and used it to tie my wrists.
After about ten more minutes of rummaging around, I’d heard him leave.
It took seconds for me to free myself and dial 911. And it took seconds for the first officer to arrive. And just a few seconds more for my home to be filled with detectives and fingerprint people and more officers. Hours in an interrogation room, a metal chair, a metal table, questions, questions. Repeating the story to, first one, than another, than a third detective, describing the man over and over.
Shortly after he’d left my house, he’d used the debit card at an ATM, so of course, about three weeks later, he was arrested.
They called me in to pick him out in a photo lineup. I was nervous. When they showed me the six faces on the laser printed sheet, there he was, in the lower left corner. I stared him in the eyes in that black and white photo and saw the same sense of loss I’d seen when his gaze met mine after he’d climbed through my window.
He looked exactly as I remembered in that lineup photo. He’d worn jeans, a purple t-shirt, a dark hoodie and Timberland boots. I’d remembered he was tall, like my brother, Larry. He was slender, like my cousin Johnny. His skin was smooth, like dark chocolate, like my nephew Reuben and his hair was short cropped, like my cousin Billy. He was a clean, normal looking, black man in his late 20s or early 30s, like so many of the black men I know and love.
But this one had robbed me and tied me up. He’d had some sort of prior conviction so, after pleading guilty, the court sentenced him to 10 to 15 years behind bars. The numbers didn’t bring me any peace.
The memory that nagged at me was the look of shock on his face when he saw me, then he had looked up to the ceiling, as if to say to himself, “God damn it! She wasn’t supposed to be home.”
When I allow myself to remember that look, that curse to his fate, I realize that despite my nice home and nice furnishings and good car and steady job, not one bit of it was worth stealing or the price someone would pay to try to take it. He’d gone to all that trouble for absolutely nothing. If only he’d told me of his plans before he’d climbed through the window, I could have warned him he’d set his sights on the wrong target.
Of course, I never really felt safe in my house after that. And as much as he had searched, the only thing he’d taken from me, was my peace of mind.
Some might have the luxury of thinking that an arrested robber is our justice system at work. But to feel that way, you’d have to forget about what that system does to young black men who make the wrong choices. You’d have to forget about the lives that are ruined, about the men who are warehoused and used for slave labor, and then labeled and targeted and stuck in a perpetual loop of prison since no one will hire a convict and what do you expect a man to do when he has zero choices? And maybe that prior five year sentence had left him with no choices and his need was greater than the series of stupid decisions he made when he climbed through my window.
Sure he’d made his choices, choices that, if he’d been anyone else might have meant something completely different.
If he’d been some suburban young man who had been in a bar fight, would he even have had prison time on his record? Or would he have gone to jail, paid a fine, and been sent home? If he’d been a blond guy who’d broken into my house to feed an opioid addiction, would he have been given treatment instead of maximum security? If he’d been a collage athlete with a rich father and a lacrosse scholarship, would the judge have argue that ten years was simply too harsh a punishment for someone with such a promising future?
But he wasn’t any of those things.
When I think about the guy who robbed me, now, I think about the fact that he was tall, like my brother Larry, slender, like my cousin Johnny, with smooth, dark chocolate skin, like my nephew Reuben. And because he made the wrong choice at the wrong moment, because he’d found the only possible thing he could have used to tie my hands with, he’d have another conviction in a repetitive, life-ruining prison future, just like my cousin Billy.