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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Arrest

When I was about ten years old I lived in Carriage House Apartments on Hunting Lodge Road in Storrs, CT.  The apartments are less than a mile from The University of Connecticut campus and while they are now full of hard partying students, they were once more populated by grad students and single parents.  I'd wander up and down the cul-de-sac road with playmates who lived in other buildings.  We played cops and robbers, we had forts, and for a brief time it was part of my paper route.

The apartments were bordered by woods and I often delved into them on mini explorations.  By just going a hundred feet in I'd be transported to a some kind of forest retreat.  The ferns were large and lush, sometimes equaling me in height; the mushrooms growing on the decaying trees made me ponder the mysteries of nature.  I lifted rocks to see scurrying insects and I watched slugs ooze their way forth.  I often caught poison ivy, but was rarely deterred from going back into those woods.

One day, I went further into the woods than I'd ever gone.  To me it felt as if I was miles away, though I now know it was more like a football field's distance.  (When you're young, small distances seem great and the fact that the woods were dense lent to the perception of being much removed from my apartment.)  After meandering around a while, I stumbled upon a trail and followed it.  Soon the trees became more sparse and I could see some buildings ahead.  There were three apartment buildings - they looked abandoned.  I didn't even detect a road that led to them.  There was a front door that was ajar.  I pushed it open and saw a door to an apartment to my left and right.  Stairs led up to two more apartments. All the doors were open.  Peering in, I saw discarded furniture and no signs of residents.  For a child who liked to explore, I felt like I'd stumbled upon some kind of archeological discovery.  It was late in the afternoon and I knew I had to be getting home, but I vowed to return.

A few days later I told my friend, Rainer, a boy who I often played with who lived in another building up the road about my discovery.  I told him roughly where I'd found it and that we'd have to go back to check it out.  It was shortly after that two other friends, Ron and Micah were over and I instead took them through the woods to the enchanting structures (or 'attractive nuisances' in legal parlance).  I led them down the path up to the first of the three buildings.  They were initially timid about venturing in.  I assured them that no one lived there, that the doors were open.  We three boys wandered into one of the upstairs apartments and peered into the dank and musty rooms.  Who had lived here, we wondered.  Why did they leave all this stuff?  It was weird, a bit scary, and exhilarating, too.

One of us, I forget who, found a box of square bathroom tiles.  Someone was dared to throw one.  The dare was taken.  One of us did it first:  held the tile like a Ninja throwing star and hucked it with all our mini-might.  It twirled, disc-like, and burst through a window.  The glass exploded with a delightful crash.  It wasn't long before we'd emptied the box and glass was scattered everywhere.  I think if pressed, we might have known what vandalism was, but at the time, it didn't register that we were guilty of it.

We wandered into the kitchen.  For some insane reason there were cases of cream cheese in an unplugged refrigerator.  It wasn't Philly brand, but it was those same oblong bricks packaged in thick silver foil.  In the ceiling of the kitchen was a square hole leading up to an attic crawl space.  The hole was uncovered and one of us ingeniously conceived of a game.  Open the cream cheese package so that one end was open and the other was still covered in foil.  The aim then was to throw the brick o' cream cheese in just such a way as to propel it into the attic and have it stick to the roof so that it didn't come back down after pitching it up.  This was a lot of fun.  We were sad to see that box of cream cheese empty.

The three of us wandered from apartment to apartment wreaking similar havoc as we went.  When we'd exhausted the entertainment in one building we moved on to the next and then to the last of the three.  In that one, we found old furniture and reveled in pitching it down the stairs.  It was marvelous to watch the furniture tumble end over end, legs of chairs and tables flew off as they careened down.  The whole escapade is somewhat blurry in my memory, but I do recall a lot of laughter, excitement, and joy.  I am sure some of that was because we knew what we were doing was illicit, but boys like to break stuff and we'd found a treasure trove of seemingly abandoned wares to destroy.  The place was a pit before we'd entered it, surely we weren't causing anyone any harm....

Someone heard a voice outside.  We froze.  I can still feel the way my heart pounded in my chest.  We all immediately hid out of instinct.  Someone peered out the window and announced that it was just Rainer!  Phew, it was only Rainer coming to find us at the buildings I'd told him about a few days prior.  What a relief!  We stood up and went to make our way out of the building, but soon saw that Rainer was not alone, with him was an elderly woman.  We wanted to run, but the furniture we'd tossed down the stairs was blocking the door!  We were trapped, trapped by our own stupidity.  The woman told that we come out and slowly but surely we moved enough debris away to squeeze our way out.  Our heads hung low; she told us to follow her to her house.

It turned out that while Rainer was trying to find us, he'd stumbled upon this woman's house.  She asked him what he was up to and he told her he was looking for the old buildings I'd told him about.  She knew just the ones and led him to us.  Amazingly she didn't seem mad and she never raised her voice to us.  In fact, when we got to her home and while we waited for the police to arrive, she gave us cookies and something to drink.  Her husband came by shortly thereafter.  He wasn't as nice.  In fact he was a real jerk.  I don't remember what he said exactly, but he was mean, mean in the way a ten year old knows what mean is.  He was mean for means sake.  We were caught, but he still insisted on threatening us.  We were thankful when the police came.

The cops arrived and we were told to call our parents and then sit in the cruiser while the officer presumably took statements.  I remember that though I was scared, I thought the inside of the cruiser was really cool.  My mom was still at work, but my older sister, Elise, was at home.  As it turned out the house were were in was very close to the apartments and she walked over in a matter of minutes.  My sister (who would later go to Harvard Law School) took great umbrage at our treatment and got into a heated exchange with the officer.  Not long afterward, my mom arrived.  She, too, was less than pleased.  She couldn't conceive how we'd thought this was something that was okay to do.  Micah and Ron's moms felt the same.  Our fathers all were less appalled.  Boys will be boys, they said.

In the weeks that followed we were interviewed by the insurance investigator.  Sometime before that the three of us juvenile delinquents agreed to say that we'd only vandalized one of the three buildings.  The other two were like that when we got there, we were to say.  And we did.  But that insurance investigator was too shrewd.  When he interviewed me he said that the other boys told him we'd vandalized all three, not just the one.  This is exactly what he told Micah and Ron, too.  I caved immediately.  Sipowicz wasn't needed to break us!  Some weeks after that, I reported to Willimantic Juvenile Court.  All three of us received probation and the promise that if we kept out of trouble (we did) our records would be expunged (they were).

When word got out around town about our arrest, there were many varied reactions.  Teachers were shocked, appalled, disappointed.  A friend of the family tried to make us feel better by telling us he'd once burned down a field as a youth (though his destruction was more the result of improper magnifying glass use than intentional wreckage).   Another family friend praised our demolition work for he knew the property owner to be a real jerk.  And later I found out that he really was a jerk and a criminal, too.  He later tried to burn down those properties to get the insurance money!  For many years, I drove past his house and could see those buildings hidden mostly by trees.  When the old man was out front, I'd honk my horn.  He'd wave and I'd give him the finger.  Boys will be boys.