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Sunday Journal: Nerves adapt as city's fingers grab at suburbs

I keep the key with the red tassel in a box on my bureau. It reminds me of what I lost.

When I was 14, spending the day with my mom in Manhattan was a treat: the roar of the IRT subway pulling into the station, the soaring skyscrapers, lunch in Chinatown where you could pretend you were halfway around the world. And, of course, shopping. We arrived home from a day in the city, arms loaded with Macy's bags, and paused in the foyer. Something felt wrong. The Aztec sundial hung on the wall as usual — or did it? I carried my purchases to my room, got to the doorway and froze. A cold wind blew in through the window, making the white curtains flutter. The dresser drawers were askew, the hutch stood open. My velvet-lined jewel box, its cover ripped from the hinges, lay on the floor. "Mom!" I shouted, and she rushed to my room.

"We've been robbed!" my mother cried, surveying the disarray. She ran to her bedroom to find her own jewel box empty, and sighed. "At least no one was home and no one was hurt. I'll call the police," she said, grabbing the rotary phone. I looked around at the mess in my bedroom, reality dawning. Strangers had been here and rifled through drawers where I kept my underwear folded in neat piles. They'd dumped out the box of letters tied up with ribbon tucked away in my closet. My room had been my private haven, but someone had trashed it as though my treasures meant nothing. I pulled open my night table drawer; the key to the jewelry box lay untouched. Why bother with keys when you could just bust something open?

The police arrived, and a Dragnet rerun played out in our living room. I expected someone to say "Just the facts, ma'am," but no one did. The two uniformed officers dusted for fingerprints; my bedroom was now a crime scene. "If Clyde had been here, he would have scared the robbers away," I said. Our basset hound had died the previous summer. "Right," said my mother. "They'd toss him a Milk-Bone, and he'd unlock the door for them." Clyde had not been the watchdog type.

The police finished their work quickly. "Your house isn't the first in the neighborhood to be hit. Yesterday, three blocks over, the homeowner surprised the intruders. They knocked her out cold," said one of the officers. My mother and I looked at each other. That could have been us if we'd gotten home earlier. Thank goodness for Macy's semiannual white sale.

"Who are these people, these burglars?" asked my mother. She thought the police had the answers. "We think they're druggies from the city," meaning Queens, about 5 miles away. I was beginning to understand. The cocoon of the suburbs had been an illusion. Respect for another's home and possessions was an old-fashioned notion. Your things were your own for a while until someone took them away.

Events of the past few weeks began to make sense, like the phone calls with no one on the line. Someone was "casing the joint," as James Cagney said in the old movies that played on TV Saturday afternoons.

The officers packed up their things and left, and my mother sank down on the couch. "My turquoise bracelets from Arizona are gone. I've had them since I was your age," she said, shaking her head. "And my college ring." She looked bewildered. I counted my own losses: a tiny baby ring with diamond and ruby chips, a gold locket, the charm bracelet my grandmother gave me when I turned 8. She bought a new charm to celebrate every milestone: a piano when I began lessons, a sailfish with a topaz eye when I learned to swim. The 18 cents I received when I was born for good luck, wrapped in yellowing paper, was gone too. How much cocaine would 18 cents buy?

We cleaned up and put things in order, but a vague disquiet persisted. At night, sleep no longer came peacefully. How many thousands of drug addicts lived in New York, I wondered, shivering under the blankets. Were more on their way to our neighborhood to wreak havoc? What about rapists and murderers, whose mug shots appeared in the newspapers daily. Suppose we were home the next time someone broke in. Suppose they wanted more than just jewelry.

Suspicion became part of the daily routine. We never left doors open when we were home anymore. Even in summer we shut windows tight before going to bed. Strangers riding by in a car were potential intruders. In time, though, a funny thing happened. We accepted the fear and made it part of our lives. The sword began to grow dull.

Three years later a brick sailed through the den window at 2 in the morning, smashing the glass. The thieves reached in, grabbed a VCR and ran. Though the brick could have killed someone, it didn't faze me, although I will no longer sleep next to a window. We called the police, cleaned up the mess, filed the insurance claim. But I didn't lose sleep. Mentally I was ready this time. I understood now that safety is a relative thing.

Liz Drayer is an attorney in Clearwater who's at work on a book of short stories.

NOTE TO READERS

Writing contest winner's story will be published May 2

The winning essay in the writing contest co-sponsored by the St. Petersburg Times and Saint Leo University will appear May 2 (an incorrect date was published last week). In addition, stories by the runnersup will be published online on tampabay.com, the Times' website. The stories will also be published in the Sandhill Review, the university's literary magazine.

Sunday Journal: Nerves adapt as city's fingers grab at suburbs 04/24/10 [Last modified: Friday, April 23, 2010 7:08pm]
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