Last week, the Times recognized a new trend in vigilantism: do-it-yourself iPhone recovery. When someone finds his phone stolen, he uses the phone’s GPS to locate the thief; the resulting confrontations usually end peacefully, with the phone restored to its rightful owner and the thief shuffling off into the night, cowed and shamed. In one especially rousing case, a man rustled up the thief using OkCupid:
He lured the thief to his Brooklyn apartment building by posing as a woman and flirting with him on the dating service.
When the thief arrived with a bottle of wine, expecting to meet “Jennifer,” Mr. Nirenberg went up behind him, hammer at his side. He slapped a $20 bill on the thief, to mollify him and compensate him for his time and wine, and demanded the phone. The thief handed it over and slunk away.
Instead of giving that man the key to the city, the fuzz have advised against this kind of justice. Of course they have: no one likes to feel redundant. In the supercilious words of an LAPD spokesman, “It’s just a phone … Let police officers take care of it. We have backup, guns, radio, jackets—all that stuff civilians don’t have.” As if LA’s finest would, in their eminent wisdom, break out the flak jackets and heavy artillery to liberate your telephone.
I’m here to tell you: you can be your own authority.
I’ve never had my phone stolen, but last month someone nicked my snare drum, and I found myself in a similar circumstance. I play in a punk band called Vulture Shit—a not-for-profit enterprise, obviously—and the Shit does not travel light. If you live in the tristate area and you’ve seen three groaning young men emerge from a bruised Nissan Pathfinder, their arms swallowed in a silver-black blear of hardware and impedimenta, all of it designed to induce early-onset tinnitus, and all of it in various states of dereliction … that may have been us.
One night, we were playing in Bushwick, Brooklyn, at a high-ceilinged industrial building converted to apartments. The building retains the must and concrete brutalism of a factory: it’s still, after all these years, a great place to chain-smoke and go deaf. We’d unloaded our gear into a rasping, graffitied freight elevator, but when we carried everything to the stage—i.e., some guy’s living room—my snare drum was nowhere to be seen.
It turned up two days later on Craigslist. There was no mistaking its gold-sparkle finish, the Sharpied signature on its interior, and the thin Plexiglas strip that runs around its circumference.
The sight of it for sale inflamed my sense of the proprietary. I felt my pupils dilate. There’s a scene in Air Force One where Harrison Ford discovers that the terrorists have nabbed his wife and daughter, and an intent grimace overtakes his face—this was something on the order of that. I’m a pacific man, but I imagined putting this guy (I assumed it had to be a guy) in the hospital. Then I imagined him putting me in the hospital. I didn’t like that, so I went back to the first version.
I wrote him an e-mail: “Hey, would love to meet up tonight about buying that snare drum if possible!” The exclamation point was, I thought, a friendly touch, unless he was somehow able to divine the bloodlust in it. A few long hours later, he called and agreed to meet me off the DeKalb L stop that evening. I alerted my two bandmates: we got him.
Team Vulture Shit met in advance a few blocks away, where we took long sips of iced coffees and assured ourselves we were in control of the situation. The air was thick, the low gray sky about to break with rain. It was perfect standoff weather. All we needed was a piece of tumbleweed to drift across Wyckoff Avenue—
An empty bag of Ruffles sailed through the intersection.
“Just make sure you have the drum in your hands before you… ”
“Shoulda brought my brass knuckles… ”
“I’ll take pictures of him on my phone while you guys distract him… ”
“It’s good that he asked to meet in public, because that means he’s as scared as we are… ”
“Do you really have brass knuckles?”
“And then we can show him the pictures of him, and say, ‘If you make a run for it… ’”
“Shoulda brought my knife… ”
“Definitely say you’ve filed a police report, even though you haven’t… ”
“Don’t accuse him of stealing it, but maybe say, ‘This is a one-of-a-kind drum! Where’d ya get it?’”
We found the guy leaning against a bodega. His name was John. He was wan and goateed, smirking in camouflage pants, and he looked to me like a thief, though this was mainly because he had my snare drum sitting next to him. John, too, had brought a pair of friends, one of whom had a fresh shiner, as if his clock had already been cleaned that day.
We all shook hands and as the contours of social space seemed to warp around us—as my posture and the width of my stance took on exaggerated significance—I understood, for a moment, the compulsion that makes men join gangs or start wars or bloody one another’s faces. But the threat of violence, insofar as I felt it at all, was fleeting. In another second, I just felt like a weenie.
I made a show of inspecting the drum. I unzipped the padded black case—my case. Out tumbled a Vulture Shit set list.
“Hey, you get a free set list,” John said.
“This is a one-of-a-kind drum!” I said. “Where’d ya get it?”
John told of a mysterious friend who owed him a couple hundred bucks but had instead paid with this drum—and then he’d decamped to Florida. How generous of John, I thought, to accept material goods in place of currency, and to let his friend skip town.
His friend’s name, John said, was John.
I had decided in advance to avoid using the words stole, thief, or reprobate if I could help it; I wanted to preserve John’s dignity, and in the unlikely event of the second John’s existence, I wanted to preserve his dignity, too. Everyone in John’s orbit, it seemed, needed to catch a break. They all had the uniquely downtrodden look of those to whom New York City has dealt a bad hand. Even the fictional John could find no better escape than a trip to Florida.
Without meeting his eyes, I told the real John that I had a dozen pictures of myself playing this drum, and as many videos, and that the free set-list was my set list—I’d had the drum not forty-eight hours ago a few blocks from here. “It is,” I concluded, “my drum. And I’ve filed a police report… ”
I tightened my grip on the drum, which I held in front of my chest as a kind of shield. John, who was now in an aggressively casual slouch, sighed, exchanged what seemed to be a knowing glance with his friend, and feigned a surprised laugh, as if to say, Gosh, what’re the odds!
“Damn,” he said. “I’m gonna kill my friend.”
“Yeah, he fucked you over,” my bandmate said.
I found myself apologizing, reflexively. But the tension in the air had dissipated—it was clear that I’d leave with the drum, that no one was going to kick anyone’s ass, though for hours after the fact we would debate whether or not we could’ve “taken them.”
“We never would’ve put it on Craigslist so soon after stealing it,” said John’s black-eyed friend. “We’re not idiots.”
“But now I’m still broke!” John said. We all laughed. He’d intended to spend some of the four hundred dollars I’d offered him on a bottle of Fireball, everyone’s favorite cinnamon whiskey. “Any chance I can get a finder’s fee?”
We gave John a few more bucks than we should’ve—more than zero, in other words—and parted ways.
It’s increasingly plausible for the victim of a theft to solve his own crime. Involving the police, in my case and many others, would have complicated what was a civil, if tense, public exchange. I had a mildly unpleasant encounter with a guy who’s kind of an asshole and needs money. Of course, a future glutted with traceable personal property will bring other problems. But that LAPD spokesman encouraged us to construe a world without cops as a Hobbesian state of nature—to assume our communities are so frail, our capacity for empathy so limited, that we could never assert ourselves without sundering the fabric of social justice.
The Times caught up with a young woman who went directly to her thief’s doorstep. He was a large man, and she had to repeat herself—“I think you have my phone”—before he finally conceded. “When she was asked by text message if she would pursue a future pickpocket, she typed an unequivocal reply on her recovered phone: ‘Yes, def.’” I would like to tell her that Vulture Shit has her back, even if the LAPD does not.