good samaritan

My Neighbor, the Thief

In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the core question being answered is “who is my neighbor?” The answer that everyone is your neighbor is revealed through the hardship that the unnamed protagonist goes through after being waylaid by thieves. While the Samaritan is revealed to be the most faithful neighbor in the scenarios that follow, very little is said about the thieves. They are more plot device than characters, existing to put the rest of the parable in motion. But what happens when your neighbor is the thief?

My wife and I moved into our first house last year, in a neighborhood that could be described as transitional. Three blocks south is the desirable, thriving (expensive) neighborhood that’s held up as the pre-war ideal of neighborhood design, at least as far as our sprawl-obsessed city is concerned. But our neighborhood, while still featuring the desirable bungalows and old trees, is populated by tire shops, taquerias, and a thriving blue collar population.

Well, blue collar with the exception of our newest neighbors. In January, the handyman and his three sons moved out from next door. The new renters were a family reputed to be electricians, but who rarely seemed to leave the house. In fact, most of their business seemed to come to them, arriving at odd hours and only staying for minutes at a time.  Either they were the most efficient electricians in the world, or they were drug dealers. Otherwise, however, they’re ideal neighbors. Quiet, friendly and always socializing on their front porch.

But in a situation where there is considerable come-and-go, not every person who occupied the house held to the same good-natured neighborliness that the primary renters did. The Mayweather-Cotto fight brought a large crowd to their house, every punch that connected drawing cheers audible across the block. But hey, that was what we knew we were getting into here, along with a close proximity to downtown, and a fine doughnut shop within walking distance.

Soon after the boxing party, on a Saturday morning around 5 am, we heard banging noises in our backyard. Peering out the windows, we could see little in the predawn gloom, and returned to bed. Almost immediately, though, we heard breaking glass.

One of the drawbacks of our little house is the lack of a garage, so we park our cars in the driveway. As I peered out our bedroom window, I could see both cars on the pebbled asphalt, and a figure crouched in the shadows next to my car.

“Call 911,” I barked as I dragged on a pair of shorts and grabbed my trusty Maglite, wishing desperately that it were something with a gauge and a pump action.

I stepped out into the driveway quietly, my bare feet feeling concrete porch, dewy grass and asphalt in short succession.  The figure turned to look at me.

“You better run, bitch!” I shouted, the previous weeks of watching The Wire overflowing into false bravado.

Surprisingly, he did.

I dashed up the driveway to find two fence posts kicked out of place, and the window of my car punched in and scattered about. Turning left to peer through the hole in the fence, I watched the thief dart across our neighbor’s back yard and over the opposite fence. Gone.

A scant three minutes later, the familiar white and blue Crown Vics of the Houston Police department arrived, a pair of them.  My wife had told the dispatcher that the thief was headed north, and they came from that direction, searchlights sweeping the alleys, but no runners were found.

Our neighbors across the street, the daycare worker, the laborer and the aspiring seminarian came out onto their front porches. The house next door remained silent, playing possum as the police cars idled outside.

The officers took statements and eventually requested that the residents next door come outside. The other neighbors and I quickly identified the culprit as the one gentleman who was sweating profusely at 5:30am. The police took him into custody.

Just a week before the break-in, we had met a tall, tanned man with an easy drawl and a gigantic white pickup truck. He’d just purchased the house next door with the intent to renovate it, while still maintaining the classic lines underneath, and sell it. The day after the break-in, I called him. I told him about the robbery, about the four bicycles that the police found in the back yard, stolen from the other neighbors, and about the three foot tall marijuana plants that the bikes were propped against.

After my snitching, the next door house was quickly unoccupied, and it’s currently undergoing its extreme makeover. The ten days that the renters remained were tense, the waves from the front porch replace with averted stares and strained silence. I don’t know if they ever knew that I was the one who’d put that particular finishing touch in motion, but I felt the sting of the implication every time I pulled into the driveway.

Today, our block is unquestionably safe– and calmer that it was before. The experience brought us closer to our neighbors, and knit us into the community even more. It’s our tiny battle scar in a not-quite-rough neighborhood.

But I’m still troubled. The renters next door were neighbors, too. They lost their place to live through the foolish actions of one member of their circle. Yet here I am, in the house that I own, swelling with pride for having gotten them evicted. Was I loving my neighbor or not?

I can certainly justify myself by pointing to the justice done, a criminal rightly punished by the proper authorities. The likely drug dealers expelled from their haven (no doubt to make another neighborhood feel the unease that we did).

I even crow about the progress, the sunny new bungalow that will soon replace the decrepit dump next door, and the attendant rise in my own property value. From all sides, it feels like I’ve done rather well. The $200 for a new car window is a small price to pay, right?

The pull inward that I feel, the guilt and confusion about how I love my neighbors even when they’re the thieves who beset me on my life’s road to Jericho is a reminder, a reminder that thieves are neighbors, too, who need grace and friendship as much as I do. Who are in community with us all. I wish I’d bandaged his wounds and helped him, but that’s not how it played out. Instead, bandaging the wounds of our whole neighborhood meant helping to eliminate a toxin from within.

My attempts to reconcile the tension between justice and grace, the personal good versus the community’s peace aren’t leading me anywhere but further down a rabbit hole, but I suppose until all our wounds are bound and salved, we’ll always live in this tension. And sometimes, next door to it.