On the Chivalry of Crime and the inadequacy of Justice

March 6, 2007

I didn’t hear what the kid said at first because I had the earphones in, digging some obscure old outlaw country song on my Ipod, more or less oblivious. But I saw him there sidling at the edge of street shadow, this kid with the hoodie, and so I slowed but didn’t stop and freed up one ear for him.

“You got a cigarette?” he asked.

“No, sorry,” I said, plugging back in, picking up the pace, thinking you’re not old enough to smoke, kid, and neither is your buddy there across the street watching.

Then I did what I always do after such a confrontation. I took a few more steps and looked back to see where the kid had gone.

The kid hadn’t gone anywhere.

“Hey. Hey.”

He racked the slide on the 9mm semi-automatic just as I turned around, holding it in his right hand pointed toward the pavement. “Give it to me,” he said. “Give it to me.”

“What?” I had a wallet, a backpack, the Ipod in my breast pocket.

“Money,” he said. “Money.”

Someone more decisive, a man whose “bosom was not a stranger to nerve and daring,” might have acted. I could have punched that kid in his face or put a good hard shoulder into his sternum on my way by him. He didn’t even have it pointed at me.

That’s not a real gun.

I don’t think that’s a real gun.

There’s a good bit of distance, conceptually, between those two thoughts. So I gave the kid my wallet and he started to back away.

“What’s that in your ear?” the other one said, approaching from behind me. “Gimme that.”

I think I groaned out loud at that demand. This other kid, taller, older maybe, same black hoodie, this one the sidekick and as far as I knew unarmed but feeling it a little, getting aggressive. He came at me from an angle and snatched at the thin white cord. “Gimme that.”

That’s my music, man.





(above: the handgun in question, if the handgun had actually been the most ill-conceived invention ever, the “universal firearm remote.”)

The policeman asked me if I wouldn’t mind sitting in the back seat of the patrol car, because he had all this crap in the front. He drove me three blocks from my house, in the opposite direction from where I’d been held up, to a place on the street where two black kids stood behind another cruiser.

“I can’t tell you much about them,” he said. “They just kind of fit the description so we stopped them. What do you think?”

The description. Two black kids. These were taller, older, wearing heavy coats instead of hooded sweats. I stammered a little, feeling like a very unreliable witness. I’d originally told the cops that it happened between 5th and 6th and the kids ran North on 6th, only to realize once they walked me out there that they had fled down 7th. And I hadn’t given them much to go on in the way of descriptions. And the German Shepherd police dog made me a little uneasy, too.

“Maybe,” I said. “These kids didn’t have fur collars. And they were shorter. One of them was shorter.”

“Probably not, then?” the cop said. “You don’t think so?”

An hour later I’m in the front seat of another squad car, in the parking lot of a rough apartment complex, nervous despite all the police around. People, black people, come out of their front doors, women in curlers, bathrobes, tall bearded men in work shirts observing from the periphery of the action. The women stand for a moment and duck back inside. The men stay, watching and listening, saying things to each other that I can’t hear from inside the car.

“I’ve got the victim here,” the officer beside me says into his radio. He’s been referring to me as “the victim” the whole time, and I find it unnerving. The last time I heard that term tossed around was when they tried my cousin’s husband for her murder. A term employed by doctors trained in post mortem examination and recognized experts in blood splatter.

I can see the kids in the middle of everything, standing at the back of a police van, one short and one tall, dark hoodies.

“I’m going to pull around,” the policeman says. He’s been here three years, from Fayetteville. He likes it here better. There’s less going on. “You take a look.”

The policemen I’ve talked to have been making off-handed comments as calls come in on the radio. I know that the dog tracked from the spot where I said I was robbed to Princess Place Drive. I know that someone’s dad called in about two kids with a moped and a pistol.

These apartments are right off of Princess Place, behind a Bojangles. He tells me they used to be government projects but now they’re privately owned and have been remodeled recently. From where I’m sitting it looks like someone hastily slapped cheap vinyl siding over poorly-constructed buildings so that the whole works sags in places and the nails don’t hold everywhere.

“It would help if you could see their faces,” the cop says. Both of the kids are talking to another cop, facing away from me. One of them bends over to pull up a sock. I feel exposed and protected at the same time, surrounded by police, a victim facing his victimizers, watching the potential defendants, told to turn around, facing their accuser.

“Shit,” I said. “That looks like them.”

“Would you say…” the cop said, “what percentage sure are you?”


What percentage sure am I of anything? I can usually report my own address with about 98% accuracy. I can tell you the correct date maybe 70% of the time. Street names, restaurants, I’m hit or miss. Sometimes when I’m with friends I pick people out of crowds. “That guy looks just like John Denver,” I’ll say.

“Maybe,” my friends say. “Maybe a little bit.”


These are pretty much the kids who did it. The shorter one, the one who had the gun, he’s a little bit lighter in color than I remember, and the taller one is taller than I thought. Without the hood I can see that the short one has his hair braided into corn rows. I remember his lips, though, and the kind of hollow cheeks of the tall one, and they’re still wearing the hoodies.

“I’d go eighty-five, ninety percent,” I say.


Waiting again by myself in the squad car, I call my buddy Ed. “I got robbed,” I said.

“Shit,” Ed says. “What did they get?”

“My wallet and my Ipod,” I say.

“Where’d they take it from?” he asks.

“My person,” I say.


The detective, taps on the window, motioning me to lower it so we can talk. “Basically,” he says, “I can’t arrest these pricks unless you’re a hundred percent sure.”

Pricks. I want to laugh. Also scumbags. And don’t forget lowlifes. I hope I don’t have to see your ass before this episode is over, man.

“We didn’t recover any of your belongings,” he says. “So without any other evidence, we can’t charge them. Unless you’re sure. How much cash was in your wallet?”

“Nine bucks,” I say.

“You sure?” he asks.

“There was a five,” I say. “And some ones.” Wondering if he’s going to ask for a percentage.

The detective walks back to where the kids are. Everything is going on behind me. In a minute he comes back, shaking his head. “The one had eight dollars and some change in his pocket, and a receipt for something he bought. His dad gave him some money earlier. So unless you’re sure…”



(My assailants, if they had been famous reconstruction-era bandits Frank and Jesse James.)


I’m not willing to go above 90%. I think 90% is a pretty accurate description of how sure I am.


Besides, I don’t believe in Justice. At least, I don’t consider Justice a virtue.



(Captain America. Believed in Justice, and now he’s dead.)

My church taught me I was a born sinner, and that the wages of sin is death. And even though I deserved to die, Grace could set me free. So personally I don’t want much to do with Justice.

On a civic level, I believe there’s got to be some system to discourage criminal activity, sure, but I don’t connect that practical need to any higher principle of Justice.

Because it seems to me that Justice with a capital J cuts in both directions. It’s not Justice that those kids will get off for holding me up, that they’ll enjoy the benefit of the eclectic collection of country, southern rock, and Americana on my ipod for nothing.

It’s not justice that if I had said I was 100% sure it was them, even if it wasn’t them, they’d stand a pretty good chance of entering the criminal justice system as juveniles, at which point, statistically speaking, they would be screwed.

It’s also not Justice that, statistically speaking, those kids were screwed already the minute they were born into those shit hole projects, into a culture where it’s not all that uncommon for boys of a certain age to find a gun and a moped and look for someone to rob.

So to hell with Justice. I’ll take a little grace anywhere I can find it. And my Ipod back, please.





  1. Oh, dude.

  2. This just enrages me! Why do people think they can take what is not theirs? I mean—folks work hard for their possessions and then some good-for-nothing thinks they can just take it (at gun-point, mind you).

    Well, I said a prayer of thanksgiving for my good brother last night. Glad you’re still with us. However, I do grieve for the music you lost. I know that was a tender loss for you.

  3. Percentages are tricky, but what you did, I’m certain, was 100% right.

    Besides, you’re the most virtuous guy I know. Really.

  4. Rebuked! I guess I shouldn’t have called the poor kids “good-for-nothings.” You’re right—it is a terrible pattern/rut they are caught in. Who to blame? It still stinks, though.

  5. holy crap. i’m glad you’re okay.

  6. Duck you’re the biggest man I know. I’ve got a lot of Steve Earle on disc, too, if you want–you gave it to me, though. So i assume you still have it.

  7. Whatever the church folks tell you — you’re 100% decent.

  8. I’ve never understood thieving, either– sure, I WANT an iPod, but would I take it from someone else?

    Anyway, did you ever know that you’re my hero? Seriously, though, not in a Bette Midler kind of way.

  9. Update: Last night I broke into one of those apartments where I saw the kids and beat an elderly woman with a tire iron. Turns out, she didn’t have my ipod on her.

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