For the last year and a half--ever since I moved into my Albany Park apartment--someone's been snatching my Sun-Times. It happens at least once a week, but sometimes as many as four days running. And though I subscribe to both dailies, it's almost always the Sun-Times. The thief discriminates.
I know the Sun-Times customer service number by heart, and if it's earlier than 10:30 the operator routes a request for redelivery to my carrier, Colonial News Agency. Colonial's always obliged me, but they've never showed any interest in stopping the thefts. I can't get them to toss the paper in the back of my building for more than a day or two. I couldn't even get in touch with them until I threatened to cancel my subscription.
"There's just not too much you can do about it," Colonial old-timer Ron Falkner eventually told me. "They're being delivered anywhere between 1:30 and 6:30 in the morning, and sometimes the papers sit there for three, four, five, six hours. So it's kind of hard to stand guard."
On the rare occasions I've had to complain to the Trib they huffed and puffed and marked the plastic sleeve protecting my papers with my last name in bold block letters and a warning printed on hunter's orange: "This is for a daily Chicago Tribune customer only! Unauthorized persons tampering, molesting, or removing same will be subject to FINE and IMPRISONMENT!"
The notice invoked chapter 38, section 399, of the Illinois criminal code. There's no trace of this provision in the current code, so I asked the Tribune's law department if anyone had ever been imprisoned for molesting papers. After some research, summer intern Basil Cherian told me that "larceny of newspapers or periodicals" probably had been dropped from the books in 1961, when the code was rewritten. His boss, in-house counsel Paulette Dodson, confirmed that no one's been prosecuted for stealing Tribunes for at least 12 years. Nevertheless, the paper now has plans to update its warnings, basing them on 21st-century laws that prohibit stealing from your neighbors.
Late one morning in May, I limped downstairs and poked my head out the door, looked for the missing paper, then lazily peered left to right in the faint hope of catching someone red-handed. My neighbor Julio, watching me from his porch across the street, shook his head sadly. He told me he'd frequently observed a white-haired older man in a "dago T" filching my papers. He pointed me down the block to a three-flat where he said the man lived.
I borrowed a digital camera and set my alarm early. At 6:45 I set up a stool in a corner of the vestibule where I'd be invisible from the sidewalk but would have a clear view of the paper. I managed to stay awake while reading the Trib by sipping coffee, keeping one eye trained on my Sun-Times, the camera dangling by its strap from my wrist. I waited until 8:30. The thief never showed.
I followed this routine for a week before I had to return the camera, and for a while the thief backed off, perhaps sensing that the heat was on. But then the paper began disappearing again, two, three, four days in a row, and almost always on Sunday, when I'd sleep late.
The thief taunted me, discarding the clear plastic sleeve just steps from the door. On Wednesdays he'd ditch the food section, and I'd find pages of coupon inserts blowing down the street. Sometimes I'd emerge in the morning and there'd be Julio, shaking his head.
I borrowed the camera again in July and varied the hours of my stakeout, trying to avoid patterns in my behavior. But for days the paper sat baking in the sun untouched. Meanwhile, on my unguarded back deck, the squirrels were gnawing my tomatoes off the vines.
On the ninth day at 8:20 AM, I heard footsteps approaching fast, then saw a pair of legs barely break stride as an arm swooped down and whisked the Sun-Times out of my sight. It was a short guy in a navy baseball cap, golf shirt, and work pants, and he'd already pulled the paper from its plastic by the time I was out the door. His shoulders tensed as it slammed behind me, but he kept walking.
"Hey!" I cried, snapping a picture of his back. "Where are you going?"
The guy turned on his heel like a windup toy and started walking back toward me.
"Give me my paper," I said, snapping another shot of him as he approached.
"Oh, this is yours?" he said, and handed it over.
"Yeah, it's mine! You take it every morning." The guy quickly spun around again and started power walking in the direction he'd been going. "No, I don't," he said over his shoulder. "This is the first time I've done this."
"The neighbors have seen you," I said. I snapped another picture of his back. "You live down the block, don't you? Where do you live?"
"What do you think, I'm stupid?"
"I do think you're stupid! I have your picture. Take my paper again and I'm taking it to the police."
"You keep following me and I'm going to knock your head off," he said.
Here I paused. Didn't I have enough on him already?
I slowed my pace and watched him turn west on Montrose, then continued after him, hoping to catch where he was headed. When he came into view again I saw he'd been doubling back on his tracks, heading north to try to throw me off his tail. He saw me watching and ducked into an alley off Spaulding, where finally I lost him.
When I told Ron Falkner what happened, he became a bit wistful. "We used to do the same thing years ago. We'd wait in hallways and stuff and see who's taking them, then come out and scare the shit out of them," he said. "Of course, they'd say just what he said: 'Oh, it's the first time I did it. I didn't know whose it was. I thought it was mine.'"
I should have been satisfied, but I couldn't let it go. What kind of person steals a 50-cent newspaper? Why did he continually return to the scene of the crime? Why the Sun-Times and not the Trib?
I'm not much of a photographer, but Julio studied my shots and said he'd seen my thief around the neighborhood. He definitely wasn't the old guy he'd seen stealing in the past. I took the photos up to the pool hall and the liquor store. I showed ice cream vendors and the fellows at the fire station. My mailman, Mike, told me to be careful: someone who'd steal a newspaper "might not be right in the head." Nobody else recognized the guy.
So I made up 40 flyers soliciting anyone who could finger him to call me and, under cover of darkness, I posted them up and down the surrounding blocks. Early the next morning I got a call. It was a 33rd Ward Streets and Sanitation inspector warning me that posting flyers on city streetlights was illegal.
A week after I took the bandit's picture, the thefts resumed with their regular frequency. I was thinking of experimenting with decoys and booby traps when two copies of the Sun-Times began appearing at my door. I guessed that Ron Falkner had hit upon a solution consistent with the Sun-Times's creative approach to circulation accounting. Why not leave a second paper just for the thief? I get mine. He gets his. Colonial doesn't have to redeliver, and another Sun-Times goes on the books. Everybody's happy.
On the inevitable day when I found no paper, I checked in with Julio, who almost jumped off the porch. A female had emerged from my building, picked up the single paper on the sidewalk, and escaped in a red car. "Did she have red hair?" I asked. Yes. It was my new neighbor. The second paper was probably her subscription.
"You better check," warned Julio. A call to Sun-Times customer service confirmed it. Now I find myself competing with my new neighbor and the thief, both early birds. But I can't afford to spend my time on this anymore. I'm needed in the back, where the squirrels have remounted their offensive on my tomatoes.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Mike Sula.