Wednesday, October 1, 2008


Well, it finally happened. I had my first crime incident, and it only took a year. But luckily this was not a personal crime incident, and I will explain what that means when I tell you what happened.

I was sick, remember. And I had to go to the doctor. Melissa offered to take me (she’s like my sister here), and she asked if I could go with her to turn in some theses (8 copies of her thesis and 8 copies of the thesis of her friend) to a bookbinder to bind them. I told her she could go while I was at the doctor’s office. She said no, that she wanted me to come. I didn’t understand why, but I don’t ask a lot of questions. I said it was fine. After my doctor’s visit during which the doctor point blank asked me, “Why did you come to me? I mean, I’m just curious. What did you honestly expect me to do?” we went on our merry way to get the theses bound. The funny thing is that we went to Woodstock.

Woodstock is a “tough” southern suburb of Cape Town. You’re not supposed to go there at night alone. Granted, there is a good part of Woodstock and a not so good part, but in the daylight it all looks the same. You can definitely tell you’re not in the US, but it’s not fully developing-nation-looking. It looks like its bordering on slums but it’s not there yet. Anyway, we looked for parking on a side street off the main road, and we parked maybe 30 meters from the intersection of the main road and this side street. The bookbinder was exactly on the corner but on the opposite side of where we parked our car.

We went in and immediately were unsure if this was a bookbinder or a haunted house. I mean it looked sketchy. After finally opening the heavy door with the huge combination lock on it, and going up the decrepit stairs to the top we soon saw book binding equipment and realized it was the right place. Though they had no automatic machines or computerized assembly or automation, it was a book binder.

During the course of the conversation with the main guy, it became apparent that he had to alter the fold of a foldout page on the thesis of Melissa’s friend, so Melissa needed to call her if that was ok. Realizing her phone was still in the car, she asked if I could get it especially after the book binder-guy said it’s dangerous to leave it there. I went down, cross the street, opened the car, and searched. It took me 5 minutes but I found the phone eventually. Melissa’s backpack was still on the floor of the front passenger side. I left it there and went back. Before I made I left the car, though, a guy at a business on the side of the street we parked said something to me as he passed by, looking at the car. I thought he was wondering why we parked in front of his business on the sidewalk (sidewalk parking is normal in South Africa). But he gave a look like I needed to move it or like he was interesting in some mischief. I’m not sure.

I went back. We came back maybe 10-15 minutes later, and the passenger’s window was smashed completely and Melissa’s bag was gone. I call this an impersonal crime because it was not one in which someone accosted me directly or mugged or robbed or assaulted me. It just happened to the car we were using while we were away. I actually couldn’t believe it. I had never ever experienced anything close to this in my real life in the U.S. So it was strange. Immediately as we were standing there two guys came out asking us all sorts of questions about why we would leave a bag in plain sight (you don’t do that in South Africa) and not put it in the trunk. They said they saw the two guys break it grab something and run towards the main road and turn the corner. They asked if it was black. Melissa’s bag was tan/cream/beige, but perhaps they were telling the truth. They tried to help us. They asked why we didn’t park the car in the garage (the mechanic’s shop next to the book binder across the street) instead of on the street. We didn’t know. But we asked the mechanic if we could leave it there while we filed a police report. The mechanic was very kind and let us leave it and told us that just yesterday two guys tried to rob the place across the street, the same place that the guy went into who was looking at the car when I was getting the phone out. Compared to most South African cars, to be honest, Melissa’s is a nice one. Perhaps it’s just within the student car market. Students tend to have not-so-great cars compared to what I’m used to seeing in the US. But she has a nice one.

So Melissa and I had to go to the Police Station and file a report. If you’ve ever visited South Africa you know administration is not its strong point (I’m currently going through this right now as an official illegal resident). The police took there time, were confused, had conversations while we waited. Finally, I called one guy (a different one) and asked if they could help us. So he did. We filled out forms on identity, description, location, Melissa’s life, our childhood, and the color of sheets from Mongolia. I mean there must have been 10 forms to fill out. Finally it was done, and we got information (we had to push to get it) for a case number to use for the insurance claim. The police told us that they probably discarded the bag when they realized that there was nothing important in it.

That was a funny point in the entire day when the police asked what was in the bag. Melissa said, “My research papers, my ID, my diary, my Bible---“
“yeah, yeah, anything important?”
“Those are important TO ME!” she cried.

We laughed about that. The two guys who Melissa thinks stole it—they also said something like “Oh nothing important, then.”

We laughed really hard. She was clueless about her meetings for the next two weeks and had to get copies of research papers. She also had to get a new ID.

Still, we made it out unscathed for which I thank God. And she was able to get the window replaced within 24 hours with her insurance (thank goodness as those guys can be misers when it comes to claims and vultures when it comes to premiums and deductibles).

Here in South Africa a common line of conversation is what you would do when someone attacks you. The reason it comes up is some of the people I know who thought they would just lie on the floor and say “just make it quick” or “don’t make it hurt” or turn over their entire wallet/purse and hand-lead them to the nearest ATM to give them more money—some of these people actually said “no” or fought back. They were even shocked at their actions while they were happening, as if watching themselves from outside their bodies not recognizing the person who is being resistant. These people tell me you never know what you would actually do. And luckily, by nature of the conversation, all those that were resistant are still alive. There are stories where it does not go so well.

Ahhh, South Africa. Crime is everywhere. Anytime any day anyone.

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