He had broken in, and he intended to return. About that there was really no reasonable doubt.
He’d intruded into a locked parking garage and had stolen a garage door opener out of one of the cars left unlocked by a paying tenant who’d assumed its security.
He’d returned on the day my partner and I had moved in, and he’d stolen the remote on the day prior. An email meant to assure us of our safety and security was our first notification of the event, and we found it alarming.
“I couldn’t stop wondering where he was and what he was doing.”
We had happily remarked earlier that morning about the building’s impressive security. Our personalized and programmed electronic key fobs were required not only to get us into the building, but to work the elevator in the lobby, so that non-residents couldn’t sneak upstairs, even if they did somehow find their way into the lobby. We’d taken comfort in that.
I had made a request that the tenant occupying the neighboring spot in the underground, heated parking area beneath our building move their bicycle from our designated hanger so that I could move mine safely inside from a vulnerable outside bike rack. I’ve had one stolen already this year, and my bicycle is about the only possession in my minimalist life that I care much about.
He’d broken into that garage. He’d stood somewhere between the exit and where I’d hung my bike with so much confidence and pride. We felt violated. We felt vulnerable. We felt victimized.
It wasn’t until I saw the video still-frame image of him from the waist up that I even considered feeling empathy.
He seemed able-bodied and not entirely unkempt, but there was something else about his look that elicited a pang somewhere in the back of my mind. It was the visible backpack strap slung over his left shoulder. It was the same olive drab color so iconic to the Army, and its design had a distinct element of “Government Issue” to it. It was something in the padding, or maybe it was in the stitching.
The hair on his head was close-cropped, and, while it wasn’t exactly the specific style associated with any one particular military service, it felt to me like a style with which a military man might be comfortable. I’d been one myself, lifetimes ago.
I’d been one, and I understood how one might get lost after coming back home. I understood how the things that some people see and experience while serving in the military can change them — can potentially break them.
I understood that for some people who had already been broken at a younger age, the military can sometimes seem like the only refuge available, until it isn’t — until it drops you back “home” with a record that ensures no one will hire you and you have no place to go.
I spent the entire next day trying to get that man out of my head. I couldn’t stop wondering where he was and what he was doing. I unwrapped the new deck chairs we’d ordered for our balcony. Had he eaten lunch that day? I enjoyed my apartment’s free coffee bar and watched a baseball game with my partner’s golden retriever while writing on my laptop. Was he just aimlessly wondering the streets of the city? What was he trying to do, where was he trying to go?
It’s easy, I suppose, to assume that his motivation in trespassing was wanton greed; it’s easier yet to not give it any thought at all. I forced myself to consider, though, what he’d done and what he’d meant to do. Yes, he’d slipped into a place he knew he wasn’t allowed, and yes, he’d taken a remote control. He hadn’t destroyed anything, though, and he hadn’t taken anything else of value.
He’d been seen on the camera, I was told, trying the door handles of various locked cars. He hadn’t smashed any windows, though. There were bicycles and other possessions left unsecured all over the garage, and he hadn’t take any of them. He’d taken the remote control that would later allow him reentry, gently tested the waters of theft and intrusion, and then left. I wasn’t sure what to make of that.
The more cynical parts of our minds will tell us that he was probably “casing the joint”. Maybe that’s true, and maybe he was just trying to remain undiscovered until a more opportune time. Or maybe he was stuck on the fence, caught between survival and conscience, unable to find his way in the world, but unwilling to venture too far down a dark but available path.
I attended a philosophical discussion on empathy and morality last night. I sipped my coffee and toyed with theory and enjoyed a comfortable level of privilege that allowed me to pretend to be more humane than I am. And he was out there somewhere in the darkness, planning what to do next, weighing risk versus reward, trying to imagine how it all turns out.