Tuesday, May 16, 2006


In Which One Kind of Trash Leaves and Another Kind Enters...

This past weekend, the Disaster Sense I inherited from my mom was tingling non-stop for about 24 hours, from the time I got home Friday until late Saturday afternoon, when the city dump trucks started coming through to collect the refuse from the annual Throw-Out Day.

Every year, our community--and many others like ours throughout the U.S.--has an appointed day (in some places it's a whole weekend) where residents can pitch trash and refuse that normally wouldn't be accepted in the weekly pick-up, either because it's too big or awkward or potentially hazardous. And any other time of the year, you have to pay extra for a truck to come out especially to retrieve this kind of trash, so it's a big day for my town, a kind of annual amnesty program where you can get rid of that rusting old swing set, or the 500 feet of PVC pipe from an old bathroom remodel, or the computer monitor you accidentally shorted out by spewing coffee onto it while reading a funny blog.

While it's a nice gesture from the town council and a good opportunity for all the residents, it does have its downside: the people who troll the neighborhood looking to scavenge free junk.

Around 4 on Friday afternoon, as soon as residents start putting their detritus curbside, they start careening through the streets: large trucks with flatbeds, small cars pulling homemade trailers, luxury SUVs piloted by rich misers looking for freebies, caravans of old station wagons with people leaning out of every window, scanning the piles of refuse. This oddball parade continues all night and well into the next day, right up until the dump trucks come and collect what's left.

I know this because I sat up all night and watched people coasting through the neighborhood at 2, 3, and 4 in the morning, dark figures ranging across the yards, flashlights in hand, rooting through other people's trash.

Please understand: In principle, I have no problem with this. In fact, I endorse it. I come from thrifty Yankee stock myself and am firmly consecrated to the belief that one man's trash is indeed another man's treasure. What's more, I spent 3 months out of every year of my teenage life both hauling and picking through trash. So I certainly don't begrudge folks their right to salvage. I have no doubt that a few of those beater trucks and sagging station wagons were driven by parents low on pocket money, looking for a bicycle frame they can refit for a child's birthday present, or a broken piece of furniture they can repair and resell for enough money to maybe bring their utility bill up to date for another month.

I have slightly more of a problem with the BMW and Mercedes SUVs that whip into a driveway in order for some kid in hip hugger jeans and new Nikes to jump out and snag the discarded CD boombox or the practically new treadmill--especially if that SUV cuts off one of the old trucks or station wagons to do it.

I have even more of a problem with the people--no matter what their economic background--who are slovenly in their salvage, and can't even muster the dignity to pick through someone else's trash without making a mess. When our new neighbors down the street moved in last year, they left about 20 moving boxes by the curb, all neatly stacked and folded shut. By morning, the 10 or so boxes that remained were ripped open, their contents blowing across several yards. That's just rude.

Sometimes it's worse than rude. Two years ago, after we traded out our old bathroom sink and vanity for a pedestal sink, I hauled the beat-up vanity out to the curb on annual throw-out day. But first, I took care to separate the sink from it, figuring that someone might only want the vanity while someone else might only need the sink. As it turned out, someone only wanted the faucet still attached to the sink. But rather than take the whole sink or unscrew the faucet, the ass-strep who came for it decided to smash the sink in order to get the fixture. I awoke in the morning to find large shards of ceramic scattered across my yard, my driveway, and the road, pieces all sharp enough to cut feet, flatten tires and in general pose a hazard.

And there have been more than a few cases where the roving scavengers get carried away. By law, anything discarded at the curb is fair game. But every year, someone expands their idea of "curbside" to include someone's entire front yard or garage that's been accidentally left open. Yes, I'm sorry to say, bikes and power tools and other items that are clearly not trash get carted off. That's not just rude; that's criminal.

But every year since I've lived in this community, something else has been tweaking my Disaster Sense. At first I couldn't figure out what it was. I wondered if I had become a snob, had somehow caught the sniffy disdain of some of my wealthy, self-impressed neighbors, who grumble about the junker cars and low-class element that invade our leafy, well-groomed avenues every year. But no, it wasn't that. And I didn't think it was plain old paranoia that every car driving by my house in the middle of the night was a thief looking to swipe my power tools. Mostly these were working folks getting off a night shift and this was simply the only time they'd have to look for goodies among the garbage.

This year, though, it finally hit me what was bugging me.

It wasn't the trash pickers. It was the people who patently weren't trash pickers.

Like the guy in the minuscule black Volkswagen who drove down our street just as I was getting home Friday afternoon. I don't know why I noticed him. Maybe it was my revived boy-detective skills from serving on the Neighborhood Watch. More likely it was just dumb luck. But I noticed this guy never slowed to check out the piles of trash as he coasted down our street. Odd, no?

Then, about 25 minutes later, when I was outside playing catch with Thomas, I saw the car again and my Disaster Sense really started jangling. As before, he didn't seem to notice any of the interesting discards from my neighbors. But it appeared to me that this time he did slow down and cock his head in the direction of the two little girls from across the street, who were running up and down the sidewalk, giggling and flipping their curly locks of hair out of their eyes. And that part of me that is my mom, the Queen of Catastrophizing, began to think, You know, if I was a career criminal or a sex offender, this would be the perfect opportunity to troll the neighborhood and case the place, pick targets. With so many other strange cars rolling up and down the street, who would notice?

So I decided to do a little experiment. I told Thomas to sit on the porch--where Blaze, conveniently enough, was leashed and barking at every strange person who jumped out of a car on HIS street. I dashed inside and grabbed my reporter's notepad and a small black walkie-talkie, one of a set that Thomas and I use sometimes. I came back out with the walkie clipped to my belt and the pad in my back pocket. Thomas and I resumed our catching and batting practice. Blaze resumed his scanning of each car, quietly swearing to himself in low, continuous growls.

The afternoon wore on uneventfully and I began to feel stupid, and a bit like a wingnut myself, since now I was the one preoccupied with our neighbors' girls as they played hopscotch or did cartwheels on the lawn across the street.

Eventually, Her Lovely Self called us in for supper. Thomas and I gathered up our gear and were just stowing it in the garage, when I saw a familiar black form out of the corner of my eye. I turned and there was the Volkswagen, rounding the corner down our street, following a pick-up truck that was making frequent stops.

I strode to the sidewalk as I grabbed the notepad from my pocket. The pick-up stopped one house down and the Volkswagen slowed to a complete stop in front of my house. I began pointedly scribbling the car's license plate number down. The driver--a young man with long wavy hair and a round, pock-marked face--didn't notice me. He was gazing again at the cartwheeling girls. Then he slowly turned his head and froze when he saw me writing furiously in my notepad.

As soon as I had his attention, I stuffed the pad in a pocket and snapped the walkie-talkie off my belt. I put it to my mouth and pretended to talk into it. The man's eyes and mine locked for a moment. Then he turned to look straight ahead, gunned his engine and veered around the truck in front of him, roaring off around the corner as fast as he could go. My heart was pounding in my throat as I watched him go. Holy shit.

After dinner, I called our Police Area Representative, the semi-redoubtable Officer Zoltan Peltz. I can't say that we like each other. I've come to realize he's a better cop than I took him for when we first met, but I think he's come to regard me as a kind of cop wanna-be who knows just enough about the law to be a pain in his ass.

"What exactly is it you expect me to do with this information?" he huffed, when I told him what I had seen. "You saw a guy driving around who you didn't recognize. Like a hundred other cars in the neighborhood today. Just because he didn't stop and pick up trash on your block doesn't mean he didn't stop on another street."

"He came down our block three times in about the space of an hour," I said. "Now, correct me if I'm wrong, but doesn't this township have no-cruising laws?"

I heard a familiar exhalation from Officer Peltz, the one that seemed to say, Goddamn this guy. Thinks he knows the law!

"Listen," he finally said. "There are a lot of folks 'cruising' the streets this weekend, and for a reason that's completely legal. Under state salvage laws, they're allowed to pick through trash, so long as it's on the public easement and they don't go on private property. You know as well as me that we've had some people stealing out of yards and garages, though, and we'll have a couple of extra cars out in your area tonight. In fact, I'm on shift til midnight. If you see this fella again, you call me. Fair enough?"

"Okay," I said. "Thank you." Then, before I hung up, another thought occurred to me. "Officer Z?" I asked (that's his nickname among the kids). "What are community crime stats like in the month or so after the annual throw-out day?"

Peltz was silent for a second. "What do you mean?"

"Well," I said. "If I wanted to case a neighborhood to commit a crime, this is the perfect time to do it, when there's lots of strange cars on the streets anyway. But if I was smart, I'd use this weekend to case places and do the job later. I was just wondering if there was a rise in crime rates--break-ins, stolen property, or whatever--in the month or so following the throw-out day."

"You know," Peltz said thoughtfully. "It's not like we have master criminals planning jobs in your neighborhood. Mostly we just have people walking off with bikes or lawn mowers that people have left out in their yard." He sighed. "Let's give this a rest, MM. We're watching out for you."

I thanked him again and hung up, feeling a little stupid and paranoid.

But that didn't stop me from staying up most of the night, watching the cars glide by in the darkness, some stopping, some disgorging passengers--lurching shadows hunched over curbside trash. Blaze sat with me, growling and whining. I don't think I saw the black Volkswagen again, but it would be hard to tell.

I was breathing a lot easier Saturday when the city trucks finally came through and got everything. My Disaster Sense ebbed away for another year.

At least it did until this morning, when my phone rang at work. It was Officer Z.

"I just wanted you to know something. I talked to the girl who compiles the data for the annual town report. She has all the numbers in a database on her computer, including the numbers of police reports by each month of the year. In the past couple of years, there WAS a rise in burglaries and stolen property reports in the month following the date of the annual throw-out day," he said tonelessly.

"Oh my God," was all I could manage.

"I just thought I better tell you because I figured if I didn't, you'd check it out yourself anyway. I'll be honest, I wanted to prove you wrong. And this doesn't necessarily mean that people are using the throw-out day to plan break-ins, but, well, there IS an uptick in the numbers."

He paused.

"There's something else. A couple of the guys remember there being complaints last year about strangers in cars following their kids. This happened right after the throwaway day, and once or twice in the next few weeks afterward. Nobody got hurt or went missing. And it wasn't a guy in a black Volkswagen--it was a man and a woman in a maroon Chrysler. But I'm going to go ahead and check out the plate you gave me," he said.

"Thanks for telling me," I said.

"Well, you are on the Neighborhood Watch and I guess this is something we need to discuss at the next meeting. Hell, if the newspaper gets wind of this, they may end the throw-out day altogether, just to be safe. But I won't tell anyone it was your fault," he said, then laughed and laughed, vastly amused by his own wit. The dink.

Of course, I'll probably never hear another word about this guy in the Volkswagen. And Peltz had a point--this could all be total coincidence: crimes like break-ins and assaults on kids rise in the summer anyway, as school lets out and people go on vacation. So I have no idea if my Disaster Sense was right or not.

Truth be told, I almost wish I hadn't said anything to Peltz at all, so I could be blissfully ignorant of everything he just told me. Part of me wants to be able to just pitch that information out of my head like it was so much trash. It's too late for that, though. I am my mother's son. And my mind is already playing that old game of "what would you do if...?"

But I'm also remembering the look on the face of that guy in the Volkswagen when he saw me writing his plate number down, and talking on the walkie-talkie like I was calling him in.

Okay, maybe he was just an innocent guy.

But maybe he was a perv-in-training, doing a little window-shopping, and seeing that he had attracted some attention was just the shock he needed to get the hell out of my neighborhood--and stay out.

And maybe, just maybe, it's not so bad having a Disaster Sense after all.

In this particular instance, I hope we never find out for sure.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

Well done, MM.

I've found that a lot of people tend to ignore the disaster sense (Mr. Subconcious upstairs ringing the town bell calling for the Minutemen), much to their own disaster.

Forewarned is forearmed.

Be vigilant.

Wow, that sounded really Big Brotherish... And not in a BB way.
Well, when it comes to your family and neighbors' safety, I don't think be a LITTLE extra vigilant over this particular weekend is a bad policy. It's not like you were vandalizing his car or aiming a shotgun in his direction....

From my friend's experience with a neighborhood watch group, police tend to get annoyed with citizens that make them do actual work. But that's the only way to get them to do it. Squeaky wheel gets the grease.
Great job. I've done the same sort of thing, many times - though the cities I've lived in were pretty big. I think you're right in following your gut, and I bet you're completely right about that guy - it seemed obvious by his reaction to your actions. Keep up the good work, deputy!
Wow, that is creepy.

I'm glad you spooked him like that. You're a lot craftier than I am. If I was suspicious about someone, I'd go the roundabout way and tell all the neighbors. (In a roundabout way, too; "Have you seen a black Volkswagen come by here recently? You have? It seems to come by a lot, doesn't it?")

But you confronted him, in a way. That was pretty cool.

I don't think I would be comfortable with a day where people are encouraged to come by my house and root through my trash. I'd prefer a day where people can put their trash in one spot, and then let everyone go there instead of into the neighborhood. But I guess that wouldn't be as convenient...

And I agree with Karen, our guts have plenty to tell us!

One last note:

I think he's come to regard me as a kind of cop wanna-be who knows just enough about the law to be a pain in his ass.

...which is because you are a cop wannabe who knows just enough about the law to be a pain in his ass ;>
Wow, cool that you were on top of the guy in the black car. Really, why was he coming through there over and over again? Really suspicious.

I love the way you tell a story.
I've learned you should ALWAYS listen to your "Disaster Sense," but just don't go overboard in your behaviour in reacting to it. Sounds like you did the right thing. If you hear anything about the black Volkswagen guy, it probably won't be sunshine and roses stuff.
Always better to be safe than sorry. Nice job.
The midnight trash runs could be eliminated if no one was allowed to put the trash on the curb until after 7AM the day of pick up. It would certainly shorten the timespan allowed for trashpickers. Everything would be done in daylight and it wouldn't give criminals and perverts days to stalk their prey or case a home.
I was so glad when you came to the end of your tale....and I confirmed you weren't a snob...just worried like the rest of us. Thats the good thing about keeping your eyes really open, as opposed to judging what you think you see. Does any one remember that old seasame street game..."one of these things, is not like the others..one of these things just doesn't belong"...It's refreshing when a person looks at what another is actually doing rather than just what they look like, to gather more info...Good job, you Hardy Boy...you rock...
That's truly frightening. Quick thinking! Whew. We all need someone like you in our neighborhoods.
You had my completely riveted with this story. You really never know what sorts of people might be roving your neighborhood or even your own street. Most of the time suspicious characters are likely just a product of paranoia but, well, you just never know.

Good job keeping a sharp lookout while keeping your wits about you and not going overboard.
I think "Disaster Sense" comes right along naturally with being a parent. Good for you for keeping an eye out. Hopefully that creep will stay away.
You call it "Disaster Sense." I call it gut instinct. I'm a firm believer in following those suspicious leads. Strange things have happened to me before, and I promise that the outcome was different because intuition told me something was wrong. Maybe I have a bit of girl detective in me.

You did the right thing.
i think it was a good catch on the creepy bug guy. it's good that you're willing to show people that this is a neighborhood where people pay attention. if he was just innocently wandering the neighborhood, no harm done. i've learned to not question my spidey sense - it's saved my bacon more than once.

ooh, i hope they don't cancel it. i LOVE the one around my neighborhood - but i am a shameless scavenger. i HAVE fallen head first into dumpsters, reaching for something shiny. because i am apt to make an idiot of myself, i prefer to do it at night, in hopes of not having as many witnesses.
I have a ten year-old girl. She walks home by herself, and walks to her friends' houses by herself. Magazine Man, thank you a thousand times, on behalf of parents like myself, who hold a steady prayer that there are many out there like you, watching out for our babies.
You did right. The rise of crimes for this kind of pervs are on the rise. More of us need this sense of dangers if only to protect those who are near us.
Hey really nice writing. I was very interested from the beggining to the end, I felt like i had a decent grasp of the main people( and your dog),in your story - And in my opinion your not really over the top paranoid if you question how your reacting, and the possible motives of others - A little paranoia is healthy, it keeps your brain working, which isnt common -

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