When my dog started madly barking at the door, I opened it to find a man in a brown polo style shirt bent over a bag and an Amazon box. I had been expecting a delivery so my first thought was Is he taking items out of his bag and putting them in the box? In hindsight, it sounds preposterous, but in the moment I considered that Amazon seems to always have new delivery methods. Although my nerves told me the situation was odd, I worried that if he really was the delivery guy and I sounded suspicious that I might hurt his feelings.
So, I just said, “hi” while he finished closing up his bag, turned and walked down the stairs.
“Thanks.” I yelled.
“Sure.” He didn’t look back.
I looked down at the box and saw shampoo, deodorant, and ground flaxseed. Was that my entire delivery? I wasn’t sure because Amazon had divided up my order.
“Hey. Are you delivering?” As if he was going to respond, “No. I just stole from you. Are you stupid?”
“Yes.” He kept walking down the stairs, turned right at the sidewalk and reached for his backpack that he’d left on the retaining wall by the sidewalk. I noticed my street was unusually empty of cars and saw no marked delivery vehicles.
“Where’s your car?”
“Around the corner.” He put the backpack over his shoulder and continued, calmly, walking away.
I brought the box in, staring at it. This is not right. I walked back out on the porch. Why did he park around the corner when there’s plenty of parking on my street. Maybe he has a bunch of deliveries in the neighborhood so he parked somewhere central.
This is too weird. Did he just steal from me? It took me some minutes, but I finally managed to pull up the order and discovered he’d stolen a hairdryer.
Dammit. Why didn’t I stop him? Obviously he was stealing. Nothing I can do now. I went to shut the door and saw him walking back to my neighbor’s retaining wall where he’d left what looked like a frozen yogurt container with a spoon in it. He picked it up, took a bite and walked toward the alley across the street.
This guy is really brazen. As anyone who read “Learning Self-Compassion at the Wrong End of a Baseball Bat” knows, I couldn’t help but follow him. I know I’m not “supposed” to follow a thief, that it’s potentially dangerous, but I can’t help myself. One friend says I have a strong sense of justice and a need for accountability. I’ve been accused of being a dog with a bone. It’s true that I can get caught up in thinking that if I don’t teach people lessons, who will.
Yet, in the moment of deciding to follow, I wasn’t thinking. I was annoyed, not so much because of the hairdryer — I knew Amazon would replace it — but because I’m so tired of my neighbors and I having to be paranoid about people stealing our packages even when we’re home (and don’t get me started complaining about UPS not ringing the doorbell when they deliver). I also couldn’t stand that he was going to get away because I had doubted what I was seeing in the interests of wanting to give him the benefit of the doubt.
I followed him down the alley, picking up my pace and gaining ground when he turned around and saw me. He sprinted down the alley, and hopped on a bike. I gave chase while yelling, “I have your picture asshole!” “Give me back my hair dryer!” If I had shoes on I could catch him.
Out of the alley, I saw him disappearing down the street so I flagged down a passing cop car thinking he could do a quick u-turn and catch the guy before he disappeared. The cop’s response: “You shouldn’t chase them. It’s dangerous.” So much for catching the guy.
“I know. My legs are faster than my brain.”
The cop took the basic information and drove off, allegedly to search for the guy. I returned home to wait for another cop to come and take my report and the video footage recorded by my doorbell video camera.
After the fact, I couldn’t stop thinking about what had happened. I beat myself up for not listening to my body telling me something was wrong and then I went to feeling bad for flagging down the cop. The purely loving part of me believed I should have forgiven him and let it go. I made up a story up about how the guy probably needed the hairdryer more than I did.
The part of me that wants justice and to fix the world, however, had the idea that it was selfish to just let it go. If I didn’t teach him a lesson, who would? His brown shirt suggested to me he was trying to look like a UPS delivery guy. His calm demeanor led me to think he did this a lot. If I hadn’t called the cops, he couldn’t be held accountable, which might be the only way to help him change.
My head was in full battle mode though because these thoughts led me to a different set of guilt inducing stories generated from justice reform advocate messages about the horrors of ending up in the criminal justice system. I imagined if he had been caught that he might end up rotting in jail over a measly hairdryer or never again able to get a job again because of his criminal record.
It didn’t matter whether these stories I made up in my head were true, I kept trying to figure out what I had done wrong so I could get it right next time. The only firm conclusion I reached though is that I regretted calling him an asshole. I figured he’d probably heard enough of that in his life and he didn’t need more of it. Because I couldn’t find any right answer, I turned the incident over and over in my mind. I could forgive him for stealing the package, but I couldn’t let go of my own behavior.
I was still thinking about it a month later, when my dog and I passed a guy taking a tire off a locked up bike. The guy had a cart with four other tires stacked on top of it and my gut told me something was wrong. Maybe he just locked up his bike though and he’s taking his tire with him so it doesn’t get stolen? I know people who do that. Once again, I didn’t want to hurt the guy by being suspicious of him. So I kept walking.
Except, maybe I did learn from the hairdryer thief because my gut wouldn’t let my suspicion go and I turned around just as he was about to remove the bike bag, “is that your bike”?
He mumbled something that sounded like “yes.”
I pointed to the bike, “okay, show me by unlocking it.”
Without looking at me, he set the tire down, “I’m sorry.” He slowly shuffled off with his cart. I watched him walk down the street as I called the cops.
A friend has noted how strange it was that I called the cops when I had been so unsure before if that was the right move. And yet, I was trying to heed the instruction to not following thieves. If I wasn’t going to follow, I needed to do something. As a bike rider myself who’s had to stop leaving anything on my bike that isn’t locked up, I resent these bike thieves, as much as I resent the people stealing packages off my porch.
He kept turning back to look at me, but I stayed by the bike — I was not going to follow!
Yet, after he turned the corner, I headed in the same direction to continue walking my dog. As I approached the corner, I saw him about to turn down another street. He stopped and looked back at me, waving his hand in a way that I interpreted as “go away.”
He seems harmless. Maybe I can find out why he’s doing this? So I approached him and he didn’t run like the first guy.
“I put it back, please don’t call the police.”
“It’s too late unfortunately, but why are you stealing bike tires?”
“Someone stole my bike and I need to put together a new one. I start a new job tomorrow and I need to get there.”
“But you have a whole stack of tires here. Did you steal them too?”
“No. I bought them from a guy for $15. I’ll give them back to him. Please, please, don’t call the police. If they arrest me, I’ll miss my first day of work tomorrow. And I’ve already been arrested too many times.”
I regretted having called the cops. At 65, he seemed too old to be stealing bike tires and his demeanor didn’t strike me as someone who did it regularly, unlike the package thief. But who’s to say? I didn’t ask what he’d been arrested for previously.
We talked as we walked toward where he said he bought the stack of tires. I was so nervous the police would show up, but I figured if I accompanied him, I could talk them out of arresting him. We stopped at a small square outside a metro stop to wait for the guy who’d sold him the bike tires. I explained how he could find help getting a bike and that he qualified for social security. He told me that he had been to the Salvation Army and the social worker there had gotten him the job and signed him up for social security, which he was supposed to start receiving in the coming weeks. He also told me they were giving him a free cell phone, health insurance, and a bike. But he didn’t have any of it yet.
“Why would you jeopardize all of these good things by stealing the bike tire”?
“I don’t know. I just need to get to my job tomorrow. But I won’t do it again.”
I put money on his metro card so he could get to his job and then gave him some money to go into the convenience store and buy some lunch. I had been keeping an eye out for cops the whole time and was nervous when I saw them follow him into the store. They did nothing. So much for me worrying about calling the cops.
My dog Bea sat patiently this whole time. An hour had passed and we needed to finish our walk and get to work. Before I left, the man insisted repeatedly that I return to see him sometime so he could take me out to lunch. He couldn’t believe that I had just given him $20 in metro fare and food after I caught him trying to steal a tire. I told him I would try.
Unlike with the hairdryer thief, I didn’t walk away wondering if I had done the right thing because I was exactly the loving person I am. With the hairdryer thief, he didn’t give me an opportunity to demonstrate this kindness. I suppose I could have yelled, “I love you and forgive you” as he ran down the street, but, frankly, I wasn’t feeling those sentiments in the moment. I did a lovingkindness meditation toward him, but I could have done that however I had responded in the moment.
Yet, in imagining all the “what if” scenarios, it was as if I believed that the guy’s entire future was in my hands and every outcome seemed to be negative. If I’m using my imagination, however, why not imagine positive outcomes? Maybe after the chase, the guy thought, phew, that was close. I don’t want to risk that again. Or, had I not chased him, maybe he would have thought how kind I was to let him go even when he was clearly stealing from me. Had he been caught, the cop had told me that most of these thieves are doing it for drug money and end up in drug court. Maybe it could have turned this guy’s life around.
What I was really having trouble letting go of as I tried to find my “right” answer was that I’m not responsible for either guy’s life. Whether I let it go or call the cops, I don’t have any way to know what the future impact will be. I have to remember that I’m human and let go of the idea that I’m responsible for others — they are the only ones in charge of their lives. And I’m the only one in charge of my life; I am free to be me. Remembering that, I can act in a way that comes from my inner core, the part that wants to show the love and compassion I hold for others rather acting out of the misguided belief that I am responsible for changing their path.
Even with the bike tire thief, I don’t know whether my interaction with him will lead him to stop stealing. Even when we want to change, even when we know it’s best for us, it’s hard to do. In a certain way, I don’t care. I enjoyed talking to him and finding out a small bit about his life; it reminded me how much I take for granted in my own life. I also felt the warmth of joy flood my body at being able to show him one moment of unconditional love and his response to it. I desire for all of us to have more of these moments and I relish when I can be a part of them.