The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2011

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JUL-AUG 2011 Issue

No Escape

I didn’t even hear him coming. Perched on the side of the steps leading into Fort Greene Park on Willoughby, I was too busy tapping away on my iPhone  like the dopamine junkie that I am. I might just as well have handed it to the damn kid. For a moment we wrestled, and then he wrenched it from my hand and took off. So I took off after him. There were about five of them all told, three in front of me and two behind as we tore through the intersection and headed down Willoughby, and I was almost on top of him when he yelled “Shoot him! Shoot him!”

He looked like he was maybe 13.

I cursed, stopped short, slowly turned around to see if one of the two kids behind me was about to make good on the threat. But they’d stopped too, and stood there in the middle of the street looking uncertain about what to do next. One of them muttered something like: “What just happened?” For a second I wasn’t sure if they were all even together or if they just got caught up in the moment. Then the two stragglers slowly walked past me, and set off at a trot down the avenue after the rest.

I jogged the two blocks back to my place and powered up my deck. Luckily the Internet connection I’d been free-riding on held out and I started spreading the word. At some point I couldn’t remember if someone had been copied on some e-mail or other, so I pulled up my sent mail to check.

Here’s where things get interesting.

The moment my sent mail loads I realize it includes two messages I never sent. For a second I think they’re spam, but of course there’s no reason for spam to be in with my sent mail, so that can’t be it. They seem to be blank, but they have attachments, so I pop the first one open. And discover a pic of someone who looks a lot like the kid who stole my phone.

He’s standing on what appears to be the stoop of your standard housing project; in the first picture his features are blotted out by the light above the door, but in the second he’s sitting on the steps and what you can see of his face looks about right. It seems safe to assume they snapped the pic and then just hit “E-mail,” probably without ever realizing that meant using my account.

My first thought is to run the IP address, so I pull up the source code for the e-mail and dig that out. Which doesn’t get me much further than the name of the ISP; short a warrant, I can’t come up with an address any more specific than “Brooklyn, NY.” Returning to the original e-mails, I realize that both were sent to the same Facebook address, so I try to track that down. It seems a while back the Book of Faces began issuing randomly-generated e-mail addresses to users, enabling them to upload content directly to their profiles from whatever gadget they’ve got on hand. Like my phone. So while I can be pretty confident he’s posted proof online and I could conceivably commandeer the kid’s Facebook page and post a guilty confession as his next status update, I still can’t figure out his name. Another dead end.

I return to the pictures. On closer inspection, I realize whoever was behind the camera has caught what looks like a building number in one of the shots. And it’s not just any number, but a double number, which is relatively rare. That sends me straight to Google Maps, with which I start playing variations on the theme, working my way through the neighborhood and pulling up Street View each time. 60-79 Willoughby Ave, 60-79 Classon Ave, 60-79 Kent Ave, 60-79 Lafayette Ave, 60-79 Greene Ave. Here’s a doorway without the steps; there’s a door with the wrong handle. It takes about 30 or 45 minutes to run down the address, over on Madison Street.

In and of itself, that address might not amount to much. It might not be the home of the kid in the picture; he could’ve just taken a break on the stoop. But it looks like there’s a surveillance camera trained on the steps, and the timestamps on the e-mail leave a 30-minute window, tops, in which the kids would have been posing for their close-ups (if they didn’t simply snap the shots and hit send, which is more likely). I find myself wondering how hard it would be to get a look at that video.

Orwell imagined a massive bureaucratic apparatus, telescreens of which would penetrate our most private spaces. I’m running my own personal surveillance state from the comfort of my home. Orwell never imagined we’d slip little screens in our pockets and enthusiastically embrace the radically decentralized version, a network in which we’re all entangled, one increasingly difficult to opt out of, that any one of us can easily commandeer. Every one of us is Big Brother; every one of us is Winston Smith.

But for the moment I’m the former, and it’s intoxicating. I toy with the idea of plastering the block with his image, of ringing every bell in the building. Of rounding up some of my larger friends and paying the kid a visit. I can see him sitting across the kitchen table from me, scared and apologetic. He’s stunned by my omniscience. Of course I have his best interests at heart. Of course we can deal with this without getting the police involved, ma’am. Of course this is a fantasy, a delusion of control, following inexorably from my almost total information awareness.

And of course risking escalation seems ill advised. Still, before I’d enjoyed the luxury of being powerless. Calling the cops and filing a report that would never lead to anything (a routine familiar from childhood muggings) seemed pointless. Now it seems like there might be a point, like I might actually be able to recover my phone, or at least be reassured they’d bled the battery dry and tossed it in the garbage somewhere.

So the next night I take a walk over to the 88th Precinct. After waiting for the usual hour, I finally sit down with two detectives; they’re careful to say that pressing charges is my call, but I come away with the impression that they’re not going to pursue it much further if I won’t. After all, they probably had more cases than they could handle; no point in putting in the time if it wasn’t going to lead anywhere. We can all have the best intentions, and the system still drives us inexorably toward the worst conclusion.

Ideally the detectives would sit the kid down, instill a healthy fear of the law in him, and that would be that. But that wouldn’t be that. At the very least he’d probably spend a night locked up, if not several; if he was already caught up in the system, possibly a lot longer. Each time a kid ends up in court, they’re that much more likely to find themselves there again. The thought of the kid rotting in juvie doesn’t give me any sense of satisfaction, much less that justice has been done. And yet if that was at one end of the spectrum of the possible, the rest of the spectrum seemed acceptable, whether it was me failing to pick him out of a lineup or a judge letting him off with a warning.

A day later I called the detective and said I’d press charges.

I imagine the logic of collaboration goes something like this. The crime that you can’t just let someone get away with. The insidious sense of your own importance. The consequences that are, after all, beyond your control. The rationalizations and justifications. Or maybe this is all just egotism, the writer’s desire to make more of things than they are, to make the everyday grandiose. To reassert some measure of control over life.

I never heard from the cops.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2011

All Issues