Friday, October 19, 2012

Death by a thousand hangnails

Someday next spring I'll bicycle rather than drive to my beloved Lake Natoma for a swim, to give the Earth a tiny break from my carbon gluttony.

Only when I try to lock my bike will I remember: Oh yeah, thieves stole my keys that Saturday last October! And my wallet! And phone! And swim gear! 

I'll go home, unswum and cursing.

Damn! Or a word like it.

That's the thing with thieves. Sure, their first blows hurt — forcing us to fix what they broke and replace what they took, at vexing expense and wasted time … and clean up what they shattered.

What they take in a moment takes days and weeks to right — order this, make that appointment, stand in line, complete this form before making that appointment, wait 10 business days, buy that replacement ("But it was stolen!" "Sorry. Five bucks, please."), stand in line, change those locks, buy a new whatever or two, stand in line, wait. The thieves quickly rang up a few purchases before we could lock down our cards.

Worse, though, are the little timebombs thieves leave, bitty pustules of indignation left scattered among the sparkling safety glass. They rupture long, long after the theft, casting spew at the worst times, causing infection, making raw. When you need something that you just realized is gone for good. When you're down and troubled.


Thieves broke into three of four cars parked at the north end of Lake Natoma last weekend — mine, another swimmer's, and the car of a woman from out of town enjoying the quiet of the park. She suffered the worst of it, losing her valuables, her identification, keys to the car waiting for her at an airport two timezones away. Without her ID cards, she would have difficulty reaching that airport. We wanted to give her our condolences, but she was busy rebuilding her life remotely by cell phone before driving away. Damn!

A third swimmer's car was spared, we think, because it has a car alarm.

The thieves lay in wait or us or — more likely — we became their Plan B as we drove in, just a group of stupids looking forward to our Saturday morning ritual. We saw the thieves, we now realize, seeming to stir awake in their car as we drove up. They watched us get into our suits and caps, which is thief-speak for "We'll be gone awhile. Have your way with our stuff!"

We took them for wayward travelers, the kind who show up that early in the park every so often to sleep it off or breathe deeply the sycamore quiet. We didn't take them for criminals.

What makes our swim area precious also makes it perilous. The parking lot terminates a twisty little road through the park, so it's out of the way.

It rims a low bluff overlooking the lake, where it's easy to see the middle stretch of the lake disappear smooth and blue for a couple of miles into the dark forest of oak and pine. And where it's just as easy to see swimmers enter the water and recede to the far shore, thinking about nothing but swimming a serene lake.

In far less time than it took for us to finish our 1.7-mile route, the thieves had smashed the passenger windows in all three cars, grabbed whatever looked worth grabbing, and disappeared.

A park ranger and maintenance crew greeted us at the top of the bluff. The crew was sweeping up the glass around our cars; the ranger tallied our losses at length, gave us the incident report number for our records, said he was sorry, meant it.

One of our swimmers is in law enforcement. Bullets that cascaded from the glove compartment didn't deter the thieves; maybe it made them work faster. They took the officer's wallet, keys and wetsuit.

What thieves took from me:

• Hand-me-ups from my daughter: Her high school swim bag which held a couple of old goggles, the swim caps I had collected from races and as gifts, a bag of nutrition gels, sunscreen. (Oh yeah, just realized I had some special blinking lights for future night swims … damn!) Nothing valuable — nothing a thief would want — but everything of value because my daughter gave it to me.

• An old hooded sweatshirt my daughter gave me, and a new University of Oregon beach towel she gifted me. They were apart from the other stuff, but thieves took them just the same. Maybe they're Ducks fans; maybe they know someone who'd give them money for the towel.

• New pants holding my wallet, cell phone and keys (except for my car key, tucked in my cap). I tucked the pants beneath the steering wheel so they'd be out of the way. Except the thieves saw where I put the pants, saw everything I did.

• The operating manual for my car. Padded, zippered, fake-leather puffy plastic booklet looking thingie. Might have been valuable. Wasn't. Except I was getting ready to change a turn signal light, so I have to figure out another resource.

What thieves left:

• My state park pass. An aging naif, I worried about it most, the thing I held dearest in value. The ranger wondered why it was left behind; if thieves wanted to roam the state parks' parking lots unbeknownst, he said, this was their ticket.

• My penny whistles, valuable only to me, I guess.

What I learned about thieves who steal from cars:

• They'll sometimes try to wedge a screwdriver or pry bar against the edge of the window. The pressure will collapse the window into a fairly quiet cascade of safety glass.

•  If they have to smash the window, thieves prefer throwing spark plugs: The glass can't withstand a plug's dense ceramic casing.

• Thieves seem to like Del Taco™® fast-food restaurants, where they can buy a meal with your card and get cash with easy pleasure. Ditto McDonalds™®©, I'm told.

• Safety glass isn't safe. My fingers look like they underwent quack acupuncture.

Days pass, already dimming memory of the break-ins. We rebuild the little Frankenstein monsters of our official lives, and even when we're done they're still not right. They're a little off. They're just a little … less.

Several years ago when someone broke into my car, he/she/it stole my stereo and two zippered booklets holding most of my CD collection. I guarantee my taste in music has absolutely no street value. By process of the thief's elimination, I can guess roughly what CD's went missing, but I'm still not sure what I lost; I got a new stereo, but the car around it soon fell apart, so we donated it, stereo and all.

I got another of my daughter's hand-me-ups — a beater of a car I had foolishly believed thieves would avoid — which doesn't play CDs.

So I stopped listening to CDs. Screw it.

The replacement passenger window whistles when I drive, because thieves bent the door frame getting in. Sentimental bits are gone with my wallet, but I'm not sure quite what. A begrudging cell phone user who only this year got around to texting, I'll have to deal with programming a new phone whenever I get around to one. I'm untethered again in case of emergency. Screw it.

I hear what you're thinking: Shut up, already. In the grand panoply of human misfortune, this is nothing. Join the club. Get over it.

My thoughts exactly, as I swept up chips of safety glass in my car and pretended they were diamonds, so many I could just throw them away.

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