Noe Valley Voice February 1999


On Thanksgiving Day my elderly uncle lost his life savings.

While he was eating dinner with his sister, who is my mother, someone broke into his house and looked for money. They found all of it. It amounted to somewhat less than what a secretary would make in a year.

It is a lot of money to have in your hands, but not much to live on for the next 10 or 15 years. It's a lot of money to hide, and I hope that the jerks who stole it brag about it and get caught.

Yes, it was foolish of my uncle to keep all his money in the house. His distrust of banks ran deep and was reconfirmed every time he went to one. His banks and their staffs changed so often that no one recognized him. Finally, when they demanded a California State ID, which he never had, and refused to accept as proof of identity his honorary discharge -- complete with photo, social security number, and fingerprints -- he withdrew his money and never returned.

Yes, it was foolish, but it doesn't change the fact that his house, all our houses, should be safe.

The cruelty of this burglary is staggering. An old man has been made destitute. His independence has been replaced by fear, and his already narrow life has been further constricted because somebody took not only his money but his dignity.

"It will be tent city for me," he kept saying, as if his family wouldn't take care of him. In that he is fortunate. His family is nearby. What of the old people whose families are gone, moved away, or dead?

My uncle is lucky he wasn't home when the burglars broke down two doors to get in. He would have believed himself as strong as he was in his sailing days. He would have fought and lost.

The burglars' search was specific. It was as if they had heard about old people hiding money under mattresses, in shoe boxes, in socks. Beds were torn apart, boxes ripped open, dresser drawers emptied. They didn't waste time with the TV or video games. They went straight upstairs like they knew where to look.

This is frightening. It implies that the perpetrators not only cased the house, but knew my uncle's habits and waited for their opportunity. To them, my uncle was nothing but a mark. These are people who believe they should have whatever they want just because they want it.

From my uncle's belongings scattered across the floor, I picked up old photographs with scalloped edges; napkins from long-gone nightclubs, some with women's names scribbled on the backs; business cards of people met in an earlier life of travel. "Who is this?" I asked of the photographs. "Where was this?" Sometimes he could remember and sometimes he couldn't.

Personal histories are attached to the heart, and now this crime has attached itself to us. It also is attached to the people who committed the crime. I believe it will mark them, constrict their movements as well.

I don't care why the burglars did it. I only care that they have harmed someone I love. I want them found and punished, even though I know that any pun-
ishment will not return the money or the self-assurance my uncle used to possess.

San Francisco is not the only place where crime is an accepted fact of life. Still, I wonder how we have come to this. Poverty, drugs, guns, consumptive consumerism, apathy in the face of the odds against solving these problems? Whatever it is, it insinuates itself into our souls.

It wasn't so long ago that things were different. I am only 39, and when I was a girl we left our doors unlocked most of the time -- in my uncle's Noe Valley neighborhood. Every murder or robbery made the newspaper. Now crimes are so common that the police and press have to create a hierarchy of importance.

I do not want to believe that my uncle is unimportant. I do not want to imagine a world without stooped old men and women with stories to tell to people who will listen. I do not want to believe that as I age, I will become even more vulnerable -- vulnerable to someone who doesn't value the strength a well-knit fabric of society can provide. My uncle's life, every life, is only one thread, occasionally caught and snagged, too easily broken.

While my sister and I were cleaning up my uncle's place, the locksmith was replacing every lock with a deadbolt. Doors were being reinforced. Iron bars for the windows were being considered.

Imprisonment for safety's sake.

Who are the prisoners? Certainly not the burglars.

Everyone who is vulnerable must carry vigilance as a weapon. Every one of us is vulnerable.

This piece was submitted by a Noe Valley resident who requested that she and her uncle not be identified. She advises anyone who has information about a burglary near Noe Courts on Nov. 26, 1998, or who knows anyone who has experienced a sudden, suspicious increase in cash flow, to please contact Lt. Gabe Harp at Mission Police Station at 558-5400, regarding case #981520252.