GIFTS FROM THE THIEF
Michael Ortiz Hill
I want to tell the odd story of my recent burglary that ushered in for me the spirit of giving. The burglar, without intending it, left me one gift folded inside another so that in the midst of my outrage, I’ve also been visited by a kind of reluctant gratitude.
A few weeks ago, I met a man I will call Jimmy. Jimmy was about twenty and black with a tangled "fro" under a black leather cap. Dan, my neighbor, also a black man, introduced us. My eyes met Jimmy’s with a curt hello. In myself, I felt a flash of distrust along with shame that I distrust black men so easily. In Jimmy, I saw the relentless furtiveness and bottled-up anger one sometimes sees in the eyes of a cocaine addict.
Later that night, while I worked graveyard shift, the little shack I live in with my daughter, Nicole, was broken into. The thief covered the window facing the street with my nurse’s whites, overturned a small shell with my father’s ashes and broke the forelegs of a ceramic unicorn my mother made when I was a child. Then he took off with my VCR and phone answering machine.
When I returned home to find my altar in disarray and my things ripped off, I felt nauseous with powerlessness. As it sunk in that the small world in which I had imagined my nine-year-old daughter to be safe had been violated, I wanted to kill. Then, when it became clear from Dan – who was also burglarized – that Jimmy had done this, part of me entered into the shadow realms of racism where black people are, by nature, untrustworthy.
I have my own ancient dilemmas regarding racism. On the one hand, I am half Mexican and was raised amongst Mexicans by a single mother who was militantly active in the Chicano movement. On the other hand, I was a white child who lived in racially tense neighborhoods and had an innate talent for drawing violence to myself. Because of these contradictions in my background, I denied the existence of my own racism. So the first gift Jimmy left me was the opportunity to look into my prejudices. I had no choice.
For a week, my skin crawled when I walked into my house. The sheets of my bed were raw against my body and the air in my bedroom seemed contaminated in a subtle, sinister way. Several nights at the house of the patient I was nursing, I let my heart settle and tried to figure out how to work with these difficult feelings, how to undo my daughter’s sudden fear and how to make our house into a home again.
One night, I found myself obsessed with the words of Christ: "If a man takes your coat, offer him your cloak as well." I sat with these words for several hours and then at 3 a.m., I burst out laughing. I knew what I had to do. This was the second gift that Jimmy inadvertently left in his wake – he afforded me passage into the realm of the preposterous. I sat down and wrote him a letter beginning: "Because you stole my VCR and phone answering machine, I offer you this gift. I know this must seem strange to you..."
I was well aware that the predictable solutions did not serve me. For many reasons, I didn’t want to call the police. I rejected out of hand Dan’s suggestion that we kick Jimmy’s ass. But doing nothing left me feeling powerless, which translated easily into looking at every other black guy as a potential thief. So I decided to offer Jimmy a gift – an admittedly cheap variation of a ghetto blaster splattered with blue house paint – not as a bribe but with an accompanying request. I wrote, "When you burglarized my house, you disrupted the life of my daughter and frightened her. I’m sure you remember how frightening the world can be to a nine-year-old. So, I ask of you this – please leave our home alone. We have nothing more of value to steal and your trespassing would serve only to increase the fear in the heart of a young girl. Beyond that, of course, if you want to return what you have stolen, the kindness would be appreciated. If not – so be it. Regard these as early Christmas presents from a stranger and think of me when you use them. Whatever situation led you to rip me off, I sincerely hope that in time it will find healing."
Then next afternoon, my daughter awoke me when she returned home from school. I knew there were things we had to do to set our house in order. We sat facing each other, burning sage and praying that the smoke return the house to its former tranquility. Afterwards, Nicole added, "...I pray that if our burglar is poor that what he stole will help him survive." We took the lit sage and thoroughly "smudged" the house – she cleansing her room and me, mine.
If there is a delicacy and care with which one approaches a child about the mysteries of sex and death, how much more careful must we be when teaching the mystery of how messed up the world is. That night, after some hesitancy, I decided to fill Nicole in on some of the particulars of the burglary that I had withheld to preserve her sense of safety – particularly, that I knew Jimmy was an acquaintance of our friend Dan, that I’d met him briefly, and also that he was a cocaine addict. I read her the letter which she took in quietly and then, spontaneously, she gave me her stuffed monkey to pass on to Jimmy. So I added a P.S. to the letter:
"My daughter offers you this stuffed animal to pass on to a child you may know. Since you have frightened one child, I thought you’d appreciate the opportunity to make another one happy."
This moment between Nicole and myself alone made the burglary worthwhile.
My attempts to deliver the letter to Jimmy have taken me in and out of both friendly and frightening situations with local black people causing me to confront my own racism. For example, one morning when I found out through the grapevine to whom Jimmy had fenced my VCR, I resolved to go to their house that evening armed with my letter, cassette player and stuffed monkey. But as the afternoon wore on, I found myself obsessively imagining and reimagining the scene. Sometimes, I entered it with a naive and generous heart, other times it played itself out as a bizarre act of passive aggression against potentially dangerous strangers toward whom I was afraid to admit my fury. Or still again, I imagined a long-awaited opportunity to be a "missionary to the savages." My egotism and my timidity duked it out so that by nightfall, I was totally exhausted, and in the end was satisfied to drink a glass of wine and go to bed early.
On the other hand, sometimes the courage to be ridiculous descends like grace and one is compelled to step off the edge of one’s poetry into the unknown. Exactly this happened the morning after Dan told me, "I think Jimmy is dead. Yesterday an ambulance rushed him to the hospital on an overdose and no one has seen him since."
Skeptical though I was, my heart sank. How quickly things change. I was surprised by the kinship that had gathered in me towards my "beloved enemy." At 9 a.m. the following day, I walked through the doors of Community Hospital clutching my offerings and feeling alive with the redemptive energy of the village idiot.
After inquiring in Emergency and on the Medical Surgical floor, I was finally directed to Intensive Care. In one room, I saw a black man strapped down, sedated, IV bleeping, liquid dripping into his nose through a nasogastric tube. Apprehensive, I approached him, but on closer examination, I saw it wasn’t Jimmy.
The exhausted nurse on duty was exceedingly helpful. " I’m looking for a young black guy named Jimmy who was rushed in here on an overdose Wednesday afternoon," I said.
Checking the census, she asked, "What’s his last name?"
"I don’t know, " I responded. She couldn’t find him and tried calling the Neuropsychiatric ward at Dominican Hospital. No luck. "I just want to know if he’s alive," I said, suddenly feeling the gravity of it. She called the coroner but they knew nothing of Jimmy either.
She asked, "How long have you been friends with this man?"
"Oh, about two weeks. We only met once." After hesitating a moment, I beamed, "Actually he’s my burglar. I’ve got a couple of gifts for him from me and my kid." The tiredness in her eyes gave way to laughter as she recognized that this man concerned about his "friend" was, in fact, a visitor from another planet. It was best not to explain.
I never did find Jimmy, dead or alive, so I spray-painted an epitaph to the whole crazy venture on the wall of a neighborhood warehouse, quoting James Baldwin: "Being alive is learning to make love with what you most fear."
The man who was a thief in the night thrust dilemmas upon me that yielded invaluable gifts:
The gift of facing my own racism; the gift of deepening my relationship with my daughter through a conspiracy of kindness; the gift of the opportunity to pass values on to her that are most precious to me; the gift of learning to answer violence with poetry; the gift of a more intimate involvement with the neighborhood I have lived in for the past eleven years. The final gift Jimmy left me, I pass on to you – the gift of the story itself.