"We've an emergency. Call me back as soon as you get this."
There was a serious-sounding message on my cellphone's voice mail as I left the university late Wednesday afternoon. My partner's voice had used the word "emergency". Even though I am not adept at the combination of driving and phoning, that word required that I call back from the car as I sped cross-town toward home. Faun answered. "The house has been robbed. I walked in while the thieves were still here, but they escaped out the back door before I got a look at them."
"It finally happened. We've been looted."
Jim Gabour's articles for openDemocracy are collected in an edition of the openDemocracy Quarterly
For details of Undercurrent: Life after Katrina, click here
Another powerful word. With the mention of looting, the Katrina spectre arrives once again, especially as hurricane Gustav and the earlier storm's third anniversary are such recent memories. Our house had escaped being burgled during Katrina, both because I had boarded it up so substantially, and because there were so many easier pickings in the neighbourhood. Those homes had not only been ransacked, but in many cases were defiled with human waste and the senseless destruction of personal memorabilia.
Our driveway gate squeaks. When Faun opened it and brought in her car, she had alerted the thieves, who then ran out the back and got away when she went inside. They had left the front door open, and there had been a black bike out front. But at first glance, since I also have a black bike, Faun had thought I was home and had left the door open. The bike is now gone.
I arrive home. At first inspection there is not much missing, though every corner of the house has been thoroughly pulled apart and objects thrown about at random. As I stand at the front door, the only thing obviously gone is the gun my neighbour Tom had loaned me while we stayed boarded into our homes in New Orleans to wait out Gustav weeks earlier. The empty holster lies on a living-room chair in plain view.
Jim Gabour is an award-winning film producer, writer and director, whose work focuses primarily on music and the diversity of cultures. He lives in New Orleans, where he is artist-in-residence and professor of video technology at Loyola University. His website is here
A selection of Jim Gabour's articles in openDemocracy:
"This is personal" (23 April 2007)
"Cutting loose" (4 May 2007)
"Mahatma 189" (11 May 2007)
"Undercurrent" (22 June 2007)
"Cry Oncle!"(12 July 2007)
"Lessons in the classics" (6 August 2007)
"The recurring anniversary of wilderness" (28 August 2007)
"Native to America" (26 September 2007)
"Number One with a bullet" (22 October 2007)
"The upper crust" (8 November 2007)
"Windfall" (17 December 2007)
"Jesus pulls a right cross" (25 February 2008)
"Show me some ID, so I can kill you" (30 April 2008)
"Ruling Louisiana" (25 July 2008)
"Hardware madness: Katrina's three years" (24 August 2008) The downstairs reeks of cologne. One bottle lies next to the holster. In my bathroom half a dozen bottles have been opened and their contents splashed about. The smell is overwhelmingly strong, sickeningly sweet.
When I arrived Tom and his wife Barbara were there in the drive, with Faun. The New Orleans police department (NOPD) officer was doing paperwork in her car, waiting for the arrival of the Crime Scene Unity. I am taken on a tour of the house to ascertain whether anything else of value has been taken.
"Don't touch anything", I am told. "Because there is a gun involved, they are going to dust for fingerprints."
Walking through the rooms I cannot see much actually missing, though things are tossed about in unlikely places. My Star Trek: Next Generation DVD collection has been pulled apart and the DVD player is on, there is a disc spinning in menu mode, though the TV and cable boxes aren't activated. The casual thief must have decided to watch a film, but had not been able to figure out how to use the many remotes to actually get the image on the TV.
There is a laptop out on the bed in one of the upstairs bedroom. A small portable CD-player usually beside the bed is missing, along with its headphones. Faun's jewellery box is out and opened and its contents scattered, but she says most of it seems to still be there. At the moment she can't find one small bracelet, but that seems to be all that is gone. Valuable full strands of pearls and ornate semi-precious-stone-embedded pieces are scattered about the dresser's top.
Downstairs there is a substantial check made out to "Cash" lying in a dish on the dining-room table. It was intended for our housekeeper. In the living room sideboard my great-grandfather's solid gold pocket watch sits undisturbed. The $2.50 pair of folding reading glasses, which this morning sat in the same drawer next to the watch, is missing.
The crime unit arrives and begins at the rear of the house, where the thieves have climbed a fence and broken a window for entry. They gather many fingerprints off the broken glass. Fingerprint powder is dark and purplish and stains instantly. Within an hour half the surfaces of my house have been coated. At this point I do not realise it will take days to get rid of the residue.
We discover that the key to the front door is missing from the deadbolt, and tell the police. They tell me to change the locks, first thing in the morning.
Both officers are female, African-American, incredibly competent and wonderfully comforting. Professional, calm, and therapeutically-minded. They have done this before. When they leave I pour three full ounces of an amber beverage from Kentucky onto a few ice cubes, temporarily seal the broken window against cat escape with a box and sit down with Faun to defrag and vent our frustration.
When we finally go upstairs, the smell of cologne is again strong in the front bedroom where the laptop sits. When Faun touches the computer keypad to put it away, the screen comes to life. It has been in sleep mode. The intruder has been on the computer, on the internet. At a porn site. A porn site entitled "White Slut Gets It from Two Huge Black Studs". This is true, I think. I am not making this up. We find a huge wad of paper in the toilet. The thief had masturbated on the bed while watching pornography.
We begin to strip the mattress, taking the sheets and covers downstairs to the laundry. The smell of cologne is pervasive.
There were not multiple people in the house, we conclude. This was a solitary person, totally at ease, going through our possessions, taking his pleasure where he wished. He had been in the house for a long while, and had not felt threatened.
We, on the other hand, are afraid and feel violated. Within the hour other friends call to hear our story, tell us our distress is normal, that we should sleep it off and try to emotionally let go of the trauma.
In spite of the good advice, neither of us sleeps well.
One more item
The next morning we awake early, both of us groggy. I make coffee, Faun goes to the back yard to feed the outdoor cats. She comes running in, breathless.
"There is someone climbing over our fence! Right now!" she whispers frantically.
Our front-door key and gun are in the hands of a stranger. A stranger is trespassing into our yard.
I pick up my cell, dial and speak to a 911 emergency operator loudly, opening the front door as I do so and looking down the alley beside the house. Facing away from me is a black male squatting, his pants down. He is defecating. I yell at him. He does not move, but continues what he is doing. Sirens start up down the street, come closer. I wonder if this is the same person who broke into the house. Wonder if he still has the gun. I stay inside the door-frame as I hear him getting up and crashing through the bushes around the bottom of my tall front porch. I cannot see him, but I hear him yell: "You didn't have to call the cops. It was an emergency, man."
I hear him go out the gate. Run forward as five military police cars converge from all directions. They catch him at the end of the block. I can see him from the rear, though at a distance. The person who has left my yard is about my height, and is wearing a clean white shirt and school pants. He wears a small black backpack. They put him in the back of one of the cars and question him.
One of the officers comes to me and I tell him about the robbery, and that I was worried that this might be the same person. But in light of the school clothes, and the fact that he told the officer the same thing he yelled at me, that he had an intestinal "emergency", I tell the police that I don't need to press charges. They tell me they will get his name, and I leave it at that.
Walking back to my house, though, I suddenly flash on the Katrina defilers, the animals who smeared faeces all over houses they had just looted. I get another painful twist in my guts, wonder whether I should run back and ask the officers to fingerprint the schoolkid before they let him go.
I stop on the sidewalk, tell myself aloud that I am being paranoid, then begin walking again to return home. I realise I must look the part of a madman, muttering to myself, reasoning my way around events too strong to be dealt with in any other fashion.
I spend the next hour hosing off my alleyway and comforting Faun, who has so much adrenaline going from the morning's distress renewal that she orders and cleans the house for two hours before finally calming enough to go off to work.
The next six hours I spend going to hardware and glass stores, climbing ladders to replace broken glass, drilling holes to replace front-door locks, cleaning fingerprint-dust from surface after surface.
At 4pm I am tired and just about done with my repair tasks, but decide to make a bicycle run to a store in the French Quarter to do one more chore. I decide I will stop at Tujague's Bar on the return trip to visit with friends and tell of the last days' exploits, as a reward for my last siege of miserable work.
I look for my backpack to make it easier to carry my purchases home, but discover it is gone. One more item for the stolen list. I decide I will just have to make do suspending the store's bag on my handlebars. I lock the door, engage the alarm system - which I had failed to do since the last hurricane - and head out on my bike.
But when I am just a block away and sit back on the bike, I discover I have no wallet in my hip pocket, that in my distracted state of mind I have left my money at home. I circle the block, leave my bike outside my house and go fetch the wallet.
When I emerge, I notice a police car idling at the curb, behind a car a door down from my house. The officer from the day before is at the wheel, doing paperwork. I remember that she had told us she would bring some affidavits about the incident for us to sign. As I walk toward her car I look up and see, hurrying down the street, the same kid who had been in my yard that morning. White shirt, school pants, backpack.
I run to her and tell her who the kid was, and that I am wondering why he has just again walked past my house. She says he is a kid who works at various odd jobs in the neighbourhood, walking from house to house ringing doorbells for work, but that she has had her doubts because, when he saw her near my house, he sped up and now has quickly turned the corner. She tells me she will go question him and be right back. Her car turns right onto Royal Street with a squeal.
I walk to my bike. I have decided to put off the chores. I have had enough excitement for one day, and am getting ready go back into the yard when my heart almost stops.
White shirt, school pants, backpack. Backpack.
The kid was wearing my backpack.
I jump on my bike and wheel around the corner at top speed. No police car. I turn right onto Elysian Fields Avenue and speed up. There she is, pulled over in mid-block. No kid.
Then I spot him another block up the street, headed quickly toward St Claude Avenue. I race up to her window. She is writing down the boy's name, and starts to speak to me before I yell: "That's him. He is wearing my backpack!"
She cranks up her car and wheels off. I follow on my bike. She pulls over at Dauphine Street, cutting him off, gets out of the car, and approaches him with caution. A gun had been stolen. She points at his bag.
"Where did you get that?" she asks.
"It's mine", he answers and turns to see me arrive yelling, "No it's not." And that is when I see that I know this young man.
This is Luke, who does indeed ring doorbells asking for work. Who has indeed rung mine on a number of occasions, and to whom I have given $10 for each time he washes a car.
This is Luke, whom on any number of occasions I had brought into my yard and house for soft drinks on his work-days.
This is Luke, the same youngish boy half a dozen or more of my immediate neighbours have taken under their wing over the last year, including my next-door neighbours.
This is Luke, to whom Barbara and Tom had given free zoo tickets and museum tickets because he said he'd never been.
This is Luke, who defecated in my yard just this morning. The same Luke who had returned this afternoon to once again inspect my house moments after I left, at exactly the same time of day my house had first been invaded.
This is Luke, who now stands leaning on a police car saying he needs to get home. The officer asks him to stay still, takes the backpack from him, opens it, pulls out schoolbooks and sets them down on the car. Then she reaches into the bottom and pulls out the CD player from my house.
She shakes her head and puts Luke in the back of her car. She calls for supervisors.
Luke is a juvenile, so she requests advice and instruction to decide on legal course of action.
Four other officers arrive, two in plainclothes who are obviously of higher rank. They tell me I can go home, that they will talk to Luke more about the gun, and then call me.
Less than a quarter of an hour later, the female officer telephones. She is three blocks away from me. After reasoning with Luke about the hard consequences of his actions for a short while, he has led them to a bucket of car-cleaning tools. Also inside the bucket is the gun he stole from my house, cocked, loaded, and with a bullet in the chamber. He had left it in place for later use in a different sort of encounter. The crime-scene team is taking pictures of it and gathering prints. The officer tells me I can come by and retrieve it if I will sign the necessary papers. I get there in the few minutes it takes to walk to the scene.
The police have done some research in a short time. Turns out there has been a rash of minor break-ins like mine, all in the immediate neighbourhood which Luke plied for work. They theorise that if he rang the bell and the owner answered the door, he worked. If the owner didn't answer, he broke in and went through the house like he owned it. The officer and I both express amazement and confusion at how this happened, how we were both fooled.
As I begin to leave, Luke sits up in the back of a police car, and yells out the window at me, demanding the return of his Mariah Carey CD. It is in the CD player he had stolen. I remove it and give it to him through the bars. He will not look at me, and occupies himself inspecting the bootleg disc to see if it has been damaged.
I am inundated in emotion. I walk home, at first relieved in the knowledge that some mad crackhead hadn't been in my home, happy that the mystery is solved and is somehow more digestible than if a stranger had been the perpetrator. But, mixed with that, I am angry at Luke's betrayal of so many people who had tried to help him, who had tried to do a small act of kindness by keeping a good kid occupied. I can even remember admiring him for having the nerve to walk up to doors and ask for work. Which is why I gave him work and money and trust.
I am also tormented by the idea that, had I not left my wallet at home, Luke would still be in the houses of my friends and neighbours, a tragedy ready to happen, a young predator of no scruples, now armed with a loaded weapon.
As a juvenile in a system overloaded and ill-equipped to deal with underage offenders, it is possible he will quickly be back out on the streets.
All of this is overwhelming and confusing. It hurts. Somehow finally I find myself wondering if the random junkie might not have in the end been the better perpetrator for everyone involved.
This neighbourhood deals with physical mayhem on a daily basis. Come storms, robberies, fires, we support each other and we help repair the damage. This emotional injury is much harder to heal.
Over the weekend I notice a message left on my home phone. A light-voiced young woman from the district attorney (DA's) office had called Friday, asking if I would return her call during regular office hours and formally press charges against Luke.
I just did that. Luke is a juvenile. Taller than I am, but he is a juvenile. And even though it turns out that he has a long rap sheet for Trespass and Possession of Stolen Property, he has been released once again into the custody of his mother. This may actually be the crime that sends him to jail. The DA says they will try to get an immediate court date, though until then, the intruder who returned to invade our home three times is out freely walking the streets.
I have changed the locks and will activate the electronic alarm system every time I leave the house from now on. Somehow this does not make me feel any better.
My doubts were borne out yesterday afternoon as my neighbour Tom, who had loaned me the gun during Gustav only to have it stolen by Luke and then returned by the NOPD, called to tell me that Luke had just knocked on his door asking for work again, without even a glint of irony in his eyes. Seems he didn't know that the gun he stole belonged to Tom, and he was back to his regular pattern of door-to-door searches for victims.