This is an old story, but I’ve only told it to friends and (former) coworkers so it’s probably New To You. It’s about the time I caught a Crazy Guy doing Bad Stuff on Christmas Eve and some things I thought about afterward.
I spent December 23, 2006 driving around Chicago and environs, buying gifts. By the end of the day I had a trunk full of goodies. My living situation at the time did not afford me a lot of clear horizontal space suitable for gift-wrapping. What to do? At the time I worked for the pre-Disneyfied Wideload Games, and Wideload’s West Loop office had a long butcher block table — great for serving lunch to the entire company, but also perfect as an impromptu gift-wrapping station. The hour was late and I had neglected to buy any wrapping paper, so I decided I would haul the goodies up to the office and return the next day armed with festive gift paper. I would spend Christmas Eve wrapping presents and listening to Pandora at the office. Everything was going to be cool this Christmas.
It took two trips to haul all the stuff from the car to the office. Heavy bags dangled from each finger — sometimes multiple bags per finger, cutting off circulation at the knuckles. By the time I got everything inside I was a sweaty cursing mess. I rubbed my tingling fingers and looked at my watch; it was just past midnight on December 24. I grabbed a soda from the fridge and drank it. I used the lavatory. I shut off the lights, armed the alarm system, and locked the office door behind me as I exited. That’s when I saw it.
There was an office space directly across from Wideload’s, just a few steps down a short hallway. At the time, oddly enough, that office was occupied by a company that had fulfilled mail orders for Bungie in the early days. Small world. If you’re facing the door to their office, directly to the left of it is the door to another office space Wideload had recently annexed to house the Shorts team. I don’t want to get into a whole digression about the layout of the building, so let’s just call it the Wideload Shorts door.
The thing I had seen was a DHL shipping box, folded flat and dangling from the top of the Wideload Shorts door like a broken limb.
Someone must have wanted to leave a note, I thought, but they didn’t have any paper so they improvised with the shipping box.
(Incidentally, a recurring motif in this story is “wow Matt, you are dumber than a bowl of soup.” All I can say in my defense is that I’d been running around all day and was very tired.)
I walked down the hall and examined the cardboard mailer. No writing on it. Weird, huh? I glanced to my right at the fulfillment company’s door. That’s when I noticed the second weird thing.
I stared at that door for a long time. I had walked past it every day for a couple years. Suddenly something was different and I could not figure out what the hell it was.
It was one of those doors with a large rectangular pane of glass in the middle, framed by six inches of wood on each side. The company name was stenciled on the glass.
That’s what was off about the door: the glass. And by “off” I mean literally not in the door anymore. Someone had removed it. Probably with the assistance of a flat-folded shipping box to protect against cuts, just as they’d done when they tried to punch through the glass in the Wideload Shorts door.
I had been standing in front of this door, staring into the darkened office beyond, for quite a while at this point. I didn’t time myself but it probably took me at least a minute to realize the glass was gone. Once the penny dropped, other pieces of the puzzle started coming together in my addled brain. I remembered the email our office manager had sent the week before. Someone had broken into one of the other offices on another floor. They found him in the morning, sleeping in one of the hallways, a knife on the floor beside him.
Oh shit, it’s another break-in, I thought, and then I saw the guy crouching behind the receptionist’s desk just inside the door, not five feet away from me.
He knew I was there. I knew he was there. When this happens in the movies, Bruce Willis leaps into action. When it happened to me in real life, I was frozen to the spot. I wondered if I was hallucinating. Then the crouching guy shifted his weight slightly and nudged the receptionist’s office chair, which rolled slowly toward the center of the room. Nope, not a hallucination.
I backed away from the door and sidestepped into the stairwell, closing the door behind me and leaning against it in case the guy tried to follow me out. I dialed 911 on my cell phone and told the operator I had stumbled upon a burglary in progress. She took the address and said the police would be there shortly. I wondered what “shortly” really meant on the Saturday night before Christmas in Chicago.
I walked down the stairs and out of the building to await the cops. An unmarked car pulled to the curb moments later. “Are you the guy who called?” the driver asked. Startled by the speedy service, I led them into the building and up the stairs. Soon the two officers were standing in front of that same door, staring into the darkened office beyond. I cowered in the stairwell and peeked around the corner at them.
“I don’t see anything,” they complained. Repeatedly.
“He’s right there,” I said. “Behind the desk to the right of the door.”
“I don’t see him.” I could tell the cops thought I was jumping at shadows… until, in the middle of an “I don’t see him,” one of the cops interrupted himself to shout “There! I see him!”
The mood changed immediately. One cop pulled a nightstick; the other a gun. Both were shouting at the top of their lungs.
From inside the office I heard a low, miserable groan. The sound of an animal realizing it is trapped.
“Hands where I can see them, motherfucker!” shouted the cop with the gun.
The groan from the office got louder, angrier.
“BOTH hands, motherfucker!” shouted the cop.
Why won’t he put his other hand up? I thought. What’s in his other hand?
From my vantage point in the stairwell, I suddenly realized what a great target the cops were. Two men crowding a door built for one, lit from above and behind by the antiseptic glare of fluorescent lights, staring into a darkness to which their eyes had not adjusted. What if this guy had a gun? What if there was more than one guy, and they all had guns? In my mind’s eye, I saw the cops’ brains erupt from their skulls and spraypaint the wall behind them. My stomach somersaulted.
The cops pushed into the dark office, weapons drawn, shouting. I could hear them stumbling into office furniture in the dark. I heard the moaning person stop moaning and start shouting “Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!” and I heard the cop with the gun reply “I’LL SHOOT YOU DEAD, MOTHERFUCKER.”
For maybe twenty seconds I heard the cops and the burglar struggling in the dark. Then a few seconds of eerie silence before one of the cops found the office lights and stepped out into the hall to tell me the suspect was in custody and I would need to hang around to make a statement.
An army of cops showed up and I had to tell this story five or six times. They perp-walked the burglar out of the building while I was doing that, so he got to see my face and where I worked. One of the cops told me it was the same guy who’d broken in last week, and he’d popped the lock on the front door of the building with a butter knife. (The building in general, and Wideload’s office in particular, upgraded their security measures shortly after this happened.) By the time it was all over, my 15-minute office visit had turned into a couple hours, and I was equal parts exhausted and exhilarated when I finally got home.
We didn’t find out the most fascinating detail until a few days later. Someone in the other office had a stack of frozen peanut butter sandwiches in their refrigerator. The burglar found the sandwiches, thawed them in the office microwave, and smeared the peanut butter on the office walls. Had he not taken the time to do that, he probably would have been long gone before I showed up.
Every time I think about that night, I think about the way I felt peering around the edge of that stairwell door, staring down the hall at that dark office and the violence within.
I’m the sort of person a concerned parent might call a “bad example.” I have done all the stuff I’m not supposed to do. Read all the mind-warping books, listened to all the anarchist punk rock and Satanic heavy metal and gangsta rap, watched all the ultraviolent films, played all the ultraviolent video games. Made some of ‘em too. Picked up a morbid sense of humor and a healthy disrespect for authority figures, including cops.
But all I could think of as I stared into that dark room was how much I wanted all those people to walk out of there unscathed. I didn’t know the two lunkhead cops, and their bellowed death threats didn’t sit well with me, but I didn’t want to see them die. The pathetic thief growling like a trapped animal in an office he’d painted with peanut butter was no friend of mine either, but he didn’t deserve the lethal brutality that Chicago cops have been known to dish out.
I could end this by saying, “Balls to all that talk about violent media turning decent people into sadists and sociopaths, because that’s not what happened to me.” But that’s cheap, slick sentiment, and not exactly scientific.
If the burglar had been a pro, he could have killed me two or three dozen times while I was standing there trying to figure out what was wrong with the door. Even as he was, with just a butter knife and the element of surprise, he could have seriously fucked me up. Might have done the same to the cops. What he didn’t have was the willingness to go that far.
Likewise, the cops who stormed a dark office with no real idea of what they were up against had the means, opportunity, and motive to shoot that guy dead. They brought him in alive and unharmed. Their bluster notwithstanding, they didn’t want to kill anybody.
Choices were made by people capable of terrible things. They chose to do something else.
There is a casual vindictiveness that infects our conversations. You don’t need to go looking for it in a video game or a CD. It’s all around you, in every newspaper, every venomous talk radio show, every anonymous internet tough guy running his mouth about all the people who oughta be taken out back and shot in the face.
None of us are immune to this kind of thinking. I’ve wallowed in it myself from time to time. And I can easily imagine it applied to this situation.
The people who would say the cops should have wasted the burglar and ended his criminal career.
The people who would say the cops were bloodthirsty assholes who deserved a bullet to the head.
The people who would say I was clearly too soft to go on living in the Big City if I couldn’t recognize a crime scene when I saw one.
It’s the sort of thinking that makes for great Nike ad slogans and Bruce Willis movie dialog. Makes it easier to write people off instead of seeing them as people.
But at the risk of sounding pedantic: embracing compassion and mercy is still an option.
It’s the option that burglar chose when he decided to hide instead of attacking me.
It’s the option the cops chose when they decided to take the burglar alive instead of blowing him away.
In a world where we are constantly reminded that Something Drastic Should Be Done about Those Other People who are Ruining Things for Decent Normal Folks Like Us, it’s good to remember that we have options.
You never know when exercising that option could keep you out of a body bag on Christmas Eve.