The burglary occurred at the end of a long week. Any week with a biology midterm on Monday and a research paper due on Tuesday is likely to seem long, and it didn’t help that Melvyl had been down all afternoon on the day I had set aside to complete my research. “There’s always the weekend,” I had said to myself, and spent the time studying biology. But Saturday morning, as I stepped out of the shower and reached for my towel, a terrific cramp shot through the right side of my neck, down my shoulder, and into my arm. It wasn’t the first time I had experienced that pain; it seems to happen when I haven’t had enough sleep. If the past was any guide, it would last for days.
I found that by bending over slightly, turning my head about twenty degrees to the left, not raising my arms above my waist, and taking aspirin every four hours, I could keep the pain at a tolerable level. What I wanted to do was to go back to bed, but I had research to do. I drove to the Medical Center Library, taking care to make as few right turns as possible: looking to the right was agony. Stiff, bent over, and in pain — The Hunchback of MCL — I spent six hours prowling the stacks, poring over nursing and medical journals. I got home, studied biology until 2:00 AM, then slept for four hours. When I got up Sunday, the pain in my back had diminished to a dull roar. I discovered that I could write in a less agonizing position if I put my monitor on a stack of textbooks. I spread my research notes around me in a pattern that minimized any need to look to the right, and wrote. I had covered about half the material by midnight. I decided that, for the sake of the exam, I had to get some sleep.
I awoke at five o’clock Monday morning, after dreaming that I had missed the exam. I studied until eleven, then drove to school for my biology section. The section ended just before one o’clock, and as I was rushing from the Revelle campus to a physics lecture at Warren, I remembered that my T-REG time slot had just begun. I decided that it would be worth missing a few minutes of my physics class to have a better chance of getting the courses I wanted. I stopped at a pay phone in the Price Center Library Lounge, and dialed up ISIS, the brand-new T-REG computer system.
I stood hunched over the pay phone because my back was still kinked, and the cord wasn’t long enough for me to stand up straight. ISIS spoke: “You have selected…” (eighteen second pause) “…course one-five-one-three…two-six…” (twenty second pause) “…if this is correct…” (eleven seconds) “…press one… …otherwise press…” (five seconds) “…two…” I pressed “one,” then waited about twenty seconds. Then, “Please wait…” (three seconds) “…while I retrieve your records…” (eighteen seconds) “…that course has variable grading options…” (six seconds) “…press one…” (five seconds) “…for Letter Grade…” (three seconds) “…press two… (six seconds) …for Credit/No Credit…” This continued for thirty-seven minutes. Having successfully registered for three of four classes, I unknotted my back as best I could and limped to the last ten minutes of physics. Then I went home to study biology.
The biology class is normally in the afternoon, but on exam days there is no lecture. The exams take place from seven to eight at night. Since I would not normally have been home in the afternoon, the knock on the door startled me. I live in a tiny cottage behind an old house in Golden Hill. You have to follow a narrow sidewalk around the big house and through two gates to get to the back — apart from Jehovah’s Witnesses, I rarely have unexpected visitors. The man at the door asked for “Ted Nelson.” It was apparent that he was lying, and I knew that no one named Ted Nelson lived in the area, but I was too involved in biology to feel anything but annoyance. He left.
I felt that I knew all the relevant material for the biology exam, and I knew that I was running out of time for finishing the paper, but I continued to study biology anyway. It was a good decision, since relevance didn’t seem to have been among the criteria for writing the exam questions: “Describe in detail the structure and function of the lateral line system of teleost fishes.” The exam was long and grueling. I got home about eight thirty, ready for a few hours’ sleep. Instead, I had to go back to work on the research paper.
Around midnight it was clear that my fatigued fumbling at the word processor was doing more harm than good. I set the alarm clock for 5:00 AM and went to bed. My usual Tuesday morning writing class had been cancelled, so I would have until 11:00 AM to finish the paper.
The writing went well, interrupted only by two people sneaking in my back gate. One of them was the man who had come to my door the day before. The two left the moment they saw me — claiming, as they left, to be looking for a shortcut — but it made me suspicious, since both incidents had occurred during times I would ordinarily have been at school I thought that I should do something, but I had the paper to write. Shortly after turning my attention back to “Nursing and Politics,” though, I forgot about the two men. I finished the paper minutes before I had to leave. I printed it, bound it, and rushed it to class just in time.
I had made an appointment with my writing professor for that afternoon, but I was so tired and bleary that I rescheduled for Thursday morning. When I got home I made the mistake of checking my electronic mail, and discovered some urgent correspondence. That, again, kept me up late. I awoke Wednesday morning positively cross-eyed from exhaustion, but comforted by the fact that I would be able to go to bed early.
Later that morning, I remembered my suspicious visitors of the prior two days. I wanted to warn the neighbors in the front house — they usually leave an upstairs window open for their cat — but they weren’t home. Fortunately, because of the heavy rain, they had closed the window. The rain had other consequences, however. Ordinarily I would ride my bicycle to school and leave my car in the driveway, presenting at least the appearance that someone might be home. I also had a small burglar alarm, but it works by sensing the motion of warm bodies. Because of the rain I not only had to take my car, but I had to leave my kitten indoors. He’s active enough to set off the alarm, so I had to leave it turned off. At school that day, I continued to worry about burglars. I called home to see if my answering machine would answer. It did, and I was relieved — no one could possibly disengage any of my equipment from that rat’s nest of cables attached to it without disconnecting the telephone system. I chuckled uneasily at myself for being so paranoid.
It was still raining when I got home. I first noticed that the front door was open. Next I saw that a window frame had been pried apart. When I stepped inside, though, I was confused. The chaos left over from research and writing made it hard to be certain, but it didn’t seem as though anything was missing. It was clear that someone had been inside, but apart from a higher than usual level of clutter nothing seemed to be wrong. The Macintosh and its accessories still sat on my desk, the monitor high atop a stack of textbooks. The microcomputer development system, a costly collection of gear that actually belongs to a client of mine, was untouched. My stereo system and CD collection were just as I had left them. My guitars had not been moved. The only unusual thing was a couple of square feet of unoccupied table top. Ordinarily, writing a research paper causes all available flat space in my home to become filled up with books, journal photocopies, and water glasses, yet here was a suspiciously clean spot. As soon as I remembered, I wondered why I hadn’t noticed right away. The clean spot was where the television and video cassette recorder used to be. I searched the house but only one other article was missing: my favorite blanket.
The computers are worth thousands of dollars, and are crucial to my ability to earn a living. My stereo and CDs are far more valuable than the cheap television and malfunctioning VCR that they had taken. My handmade Alvarez-Yairi guitar is not only valuable, it would probably be easy to sell. Yet all these things were still there.
I nonetheless had two concerns. The first was that the burglars might return to remove the rest of my treasures. How could I protect my home? The more pressing concern was that, though it was only about six in the evening, I was ready for bed. Instead of sleeping, though, I had to repair the damaged window (it was letting rain and cold wind in) and call the police. I called the police first, and they said they’d send someone out, but they told me not to touch anything until after the investigation. I sat in the cold and wet. I drank coffee to stay awake. At nine the police department called back and asked me to be patient. I made dinner. I ate dinner. I made more coffee. I baked muffins. I cleaned up the kitchen. I called friends, talking to keep myself awake. I struggled with feelings of helplessness, of violation. I felt grateful that the only things stolen were practically valueless to me (I seldom watch TV), grateful that the theft occurred after my paper and exam were complete, despondent that the world could be so cold. I was bored, and wanted to watch TV.
The police officer arrived at 1:00 AM. It was some time after 2:00 before I had finished with the police report, gotten the window fixed enough to keep the rain and wind out, and passed out in bed. I awoke early the next morning tired and frantic. I remembered that I had the appointment with my professor, but I didn’t want to leave the house unprotected. I called a friend, who offered to house-sit. A bit later she arrived. As I was rushing to leave, I tripped over the telephone cord and ripped it out of the wall. As I reached campus I realized what I had done. I had left my dearest friend alone in my house when I expected burglars to return. Worse, she couldn’t even call anyone if there was a problem. I was horrified. Absolutely nothing in that house was worth risking a friend’s well-being. Emotionally unstable from lack of sleep, I ran into my professor’s office, rudely interrupted a conference he was having, and borrowed his phone. I thought that my answering machine would pick up the line, and Elaina would be able to hear me. At least I could tell her not to stay. The line was busy — probably the wires in the cord had shorted when I ripped it apart. At my professor’s urging I took a moment to calm down, then I called my neighbor. Clara is seventy-five years old, and I hated to trouble her, but I gave her a synopsis of events and asked her to go to my place and tell Elaina to leave. I then had a rushed and distracted conference with my professor, and raced home.
Elaina was better endowed than I with both sleep and sense, and had decided to stay. No evil burglars had returned; all was well. I spent the rest of the day securing the windows and installing a kitten-compatible burglar alarm. The physical activity helped my back, the smell of the drill in the wood brought back pleasant memories, and I thought about what had happened.
In his movie The Jerk, Steve Martin plays the part of a poor, simple man who first strikes it rich, and then falls on hard times. Financially ruined and rejected by his wife, he leaves his mansion, declaring “All I really need is this ashtray. This ashtray and this lamp. This ashtray and this lamp and this chair.” and so on, until finally he is walking along the street, dejected, carrying an unwieldy collection of junk. He passes a street person, and notices her red-and-white striped thermos. “Hey, neat thermos!” he says. In the next scene, he is walking happily away, whistling and clutching his thermos bottle, while the homeless person sits in the background with Martin’s former possessions.
I’ve stopped worrying about thieves. I have friends like Elaina, and neighbors like Clara. I have a certain amount of writing talent, I go to a great school with some patient and compassionate professors, I have a warm, fuzzy kitten who loves me, and I even have my very own red and white thermos. The thieves, if they must, can have the rest.
— Ron Risley – 14 March 1991