Break-In | Our Town | Chicago Reader

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Break-In

A smashed window, a ransacked apartment, and lessons in neighborliness

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Lillian's condo was burglarized the other day. When I got home from work the light on my answering machine was flashing like the Mars light on a squad car.

"Unit 1G was robbed. Four in the afternoon." Beep.

"The police want to talk to you." Beep.

"You have to notify Lillian's sister." Beep.

"A neighbor in the next building saw them." Beep.

"Call a special meeting." Beep.

"I don't care what the bylaws say, I'm buying a dog." Beep.

Being the only man on the board of directors was starting to fit more tightly than was comfortable. Before returning any of the calls I walked around to the unit that belonged to Lillian (I have changed all names) and met three of the neighbors, who asked what I was going to do. "I don't know," I answered truthfully. "Install burglar bars, I guess."

I started to poke my head through the open bedroom window, but one of the neighbors warned that I'd better not touch anything. "They'll want to dust for fingerprints."

Right, I thought. And maybe they'll send out Hercule Poirot. I poked my head in. The ancient air conditioner had been shoved in and lay like a fallen dinosaur on the curtains and rod that came down with it. Clothes were torn out of closets and strewn all over the bed and floor. A picture of Jesus, smiling benignly and pointing to his exposed, flaming heart, hung over her bed. Jewelry boxes lay open and empty. Poor Lillian.

When my wife and I bought our condo Lillian was one of the first of my new neighbors I encountered. Down by the mailboxes, wearing a musty fur jacket, large button earrings, and more makeup than a Mary Kay representative could sell at a teenager's slumber party, she was struggling with her mailbox key.

"What a cool woman," I thought.

With a sour look she thrust the keys into my hand and said, "Here. You try."

Obediently I struggled with the mailbox lock. When it became obvious that I couldn't get it open her voice was thick with disgust. "That's not my mailbox. This one. Here." Her nail with its chipped polish pointed to a box that was three to the left of where we'd been working.

I slipped the key in, and the box opened easily. She looked at me contemptuously and strode off, mail in hand.

"We have an interesting neighbor," I told my wife.

It was a while before I saw her again. And that encounter was every bit as odd as the first. My bell rang, and I opened the door to see her standing with a suitcase at her side, her waxy black eyebrows painted on in a look of perpetual astonishment, her mouth a red gash.

"I have to go to Park Ridge. Right away."

"I can't take you," I said, surprised that the words fell out so easily.

"Why not?"

"It's too far," I said, again surprised at the simple logic.

"No, it's not."

"Sorry," I said, feeling mean and stupid.

"Well then I'll ask Edna and Helen," she huffed, referring to the sisters who lived in the building. "I'm sure they'll be more than happy to take me. I'll ask them."

You do that, I thought, closing the door. And God help Edna and Helen.

Shortly after that we started seeing Lillian walking the streets in her nightgown or sitting on her suitcase in the alley or on the front lawn. Waiting for her ride.

By this time I had been talked into serving on the condo board of directors, and I learned that Lillian was frequently on the list of "things to be discussed." She was the subject of mildly amused concern. Someone mentioned that Edna and Helen knew Lillian's sister. Perhaps she should be made aware of Lillian's condition. Being new to the board, I begged off and the task fell to the board president. The sister was notified, and before long Lillian was placed in a home.

So Our Lady of the Mysterious Makeup went where she needed to go, and for months her sister sent a check to cover the assessment. She had become someone else's problem, and I tried to stay uninvolved. Serving on the board is OK as long as it's a loose fit.

And I managed to keep it loose until someone pushed in her air conditioner and started handing things out the window. That was when my answering machine became Dial-a-Guy.

The last message was from a board member who left Lillian's sister's telephone number on my machine with the instructions that I should call and tell her the police wanted to talk to her. The board president was on vacation, this woman said, and she'd already talked to the police and told them I would take care of it. "After all," her message ended, "you're the only man on the board."

I called Vivian. She was charming and personable. And unmistakably Lillian's sister.

"Tell me," she said, "did they take any of her clothes? I hope they took her clothes, because I don't know when I'm going to be able to get over there and straighten things out."

"No," I said, "but they took them out of the closets and threw them all over the place. It looks like a tornado hit."

"Well, Lilly wasn't much of a housekeeper. How about the furniture? Is her couch gone?"

"No. I don't think thieves go after clothing and furniture so much. They want things like VCRs and cameras and jewelry. Her jewelry boxes are all over the place."

"Well, Lilly didn't have anything like that. Except maybe the TV. Is that gone? Or the stove?"

The family resemblance was growing stronger by the word. "I don't know. I only poked my head in the bedroom window. But the police want you to call them," I said, trying to bring the conversation to a close. "Her bedroom window is wide open, and they want you to make a report before they'll do anything."

She thanked me and hung up. Problem solved. Or at least moved to the appropriate shoulders.

That night, after brushing my teeth and discussing burglar bars and new locks with my wife, the doorbell rang. It was the police.

The officer wanted to know what I was planning to do about the burglarized condo.

Personally? I was planning a trip to the hardware store tomorrow.

"Her window is wide open," she said. "As president of the building I'd think you'd be a little more concerned."

Great. Now I was president. The collar was getting tighter by the minute. "I called the sister," I explained, "and told her to get in touch with you. What did she say?"

Turns out the sister never called. I tried throwing up my hands and giving her the "I've done my part" speech. No good. Officer Ruffalo suggested I get Vivian on the phone and she would talk to her. Fine. I got her on the phone, handed it to her, and went for my cigarettes.

When I came back the cop was nodding at the phone and saying, "Yes. No. No, ma'am. Yes, my grandmother has lots of clothes." She looked at me with a "help me out of this" smile.

Not a chance. I walked away.

When she hung up a few minutes later she told me it was settled. Vivian would call a handyman and have it seen to. Tonight.

As I was walking the officer to the door my phone rang. It was Vivian.

"I've just called the police," she said. "They told me to have you contact your handyman and board the place up. You'll see to that for me, won't you?"

Now I was president and handyman.

Officer Ruffalo suggested that if I climbed in Lillian's window I could lock up and come out the front door. I asked her if she had a suggestion as to how I would open the front door and get out as it was double locked and needed a key. We decided to close the window from the outside, and she promised to drive by with her partner at regular intervals.

"What? No fingerprints?" I joked.

Before getting in her squad car she said that after my trip to the hardware store I should drive by Vivian's house and get the keys so I could lock up properly. Yes ma'am, officer. The noose was growing tighter and tighter.

I did it. As the only man on the board, president, handyman, and Officer Ruffalo's deputy, I didn't have much choice.

When I opened Lillian's front door and saw the chaos of her condo I felt like I'd been slapped. The overturned and dumped drawers were obviously the burglar's housekeeping, but the rest of it was testimony to Lillian's state of mind. A Dutch oven full of Rice Krispies sitting on top of her old console television set. Combs and brushes floating in an aquarium full of gray, dusty water. A pair of eyeglasses resting in the gravel on the bottom. Towering stacks of newspapers she must have been saving for years. On the coffee table was a pile of magazine clippings. Mostly pictures of handsome young men in suits and photographs of dogs.

On top of her chaos was the work of her most recent visitors. Plants long overdue for a drink of water yanked out of their pots. Drawers pulled out and Lillian's letters, family photos, and documents dumped in piles. A tray with a china teapot and delicate flowered cups hurled to the floor. What was wrong with these people?

I walked from room to room turning lights on, trying not to step on things. In the kitchen the table was set for one, with a cloth napkin in a napkin ring. As I walked around the table I felt something hard under my shoe, and before I could shift my weight I felt it break.

I bent down and picked up a small silver picture frame. The glass had splintered into sharp triangles. The frame held a wedding picture. Lillian and her husband. In the photo they looked happy and excited. But underneath the hopeful, excited look of a young bride was something else. An eggshell fragility. A look that begged the world to treat her gently. The same vulnerability she hid beneath her garish makeup, behind the demand in her voice when she needed something. But maybe I was reading too much into it. Maybe I was reacting to the burglary or to whatever it was that turned her into the woman I knew only briefly.

I put the picture down and closed and locked her door.

That afternoon I installed a new lock on my door and bars on my windows. I fumed in my vulnerability. I raged about how I hated living in a cage. I cut my thumb when I mortised the door frame for the new dead bolt. And when a neighbor stopped by to investigate I was less than friendly.

"What are you protecting in there? Diamonds?"

"Something like that," I answered, still working.

"Well, thieves will sure know you've got something good in there. You might as well hang out a sign."

I continued to work in silence, hoping he'd go away.

"But if they want to get in they're gonna get in," he continued.

The wisdom of the day. "Yeah, that's right," I replied, sucking my damaged thumb. "And when they see what they'll have to go through to get in I'm sure they'll look to see a place that might give them easier pickings. They'll probably rob you instead."

He walked off muttering more ageless wisdom about how neighbors aren't what they used to be. Go scratch.

When I finished transforming my home into Fort Knox I rewarded myself with a cup of coffee and waxed philosophical about how the burglars had done me a favor by making me aware of their presence while I suffered no personal loss.

That evening while my wife and I were watching TV my glance kept slipping to the top of the TV cabinet where our wedding picture is on display. In the photo my wife looks dreamy and happy. We both look unbelievably young. I have a look on my face that says I don't have a clue about life. There's rice on my shoulder.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos/J.B. Spector.

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