Let me preface this with a caveat. To the police, our lower Westwood neighborhood is one of the safest in L.A. There are a scattering of home burglaries but most criminals working the area have taken to stealing from cars. The latest wrinkle in car-related crime involves night-time theft of auto parts, like tires and airbags, sometimes catalytic converters. For those of us with homes so old that our garages can't accommodate modern vehicles, cars have to be left in the driveway or on the street. So we lock them up and hope for the best.
But I'm talking about another type of crime. I witnessed it on a day when I set out to mail a letter. Although the mailbox is only a block away, I drove because it was my first stop in a round of errands.
A young man, late teens to early 20s, was at the mailbox. He was wearing a T-shirt and khakis, and he looked clean-cut. Besides, it was mid-day. Broad daylight. No alarm bells went off in my head.
As I drew closer to the mailbox, I noticed something odd. Instead of depositing mail, he was pulling out envelopes, a few at a time. He had a wire that looked as if it had been fashioned from a coat hanger. He was using it to poke in the box and snag mail.
When I realized what was going on, I decided not to stop. Instead, I circled the block and came back, parking a few houses away from the mailbox. I pulled out my cell phone and called 911. After the usual "what-is-your-emergency?" greeting, I explained that I was, at that moment, witnessing a crime. Even as I said this, the young man had stopped rifling in the mailbox. He'd stepped back and was now scanning the street, as if he expected someone to pick him up.
The 911 operator told me that a crime involving mail wasn't an emergency, but she would transfer me to someone who would know what to do. I went through several connections, each one seemed puzzled by my complaint. Finally, the last person I spoke to said that a mailbox wasn't within the preview of the LAPD; it was a federal matter. He gave me a phone number so I could report the problem to postal service.
The young man, apparently giving up on his ride, was looking around, consulting his watch. He didn't see me, or if he did, he didn't give any indication. I dialed the number for the USPS. Ten minutes or more had passed since I'd first spotted the ongoing crime. But the young man was still on the corner, and I'm not one to give up easily.
When I reached the number I'd been given, I realized it was the general information line for the postal service. The automated voice asked me which language I spoke. In some frustration, I pressed "one" for English. Then it asked if I wanted to track a package, get post office information, ask for redelivery. I was encouraged to sign up for more information at myuspc.com. Finally, I was asked to say in a few words what I wanted.
The young man had started to walk away, taking his time, not in any great hurry.
I kept at it, trying to make the automated call system understand that I wanted to report a mailbox break-in. I'd just about exhausted synonyms for "break-in" when a live person came on the line. By now the perpetrator had disappeared. The man at the postal service listened to my story, then asked for the postal box's location. He said he'd report it to the local supervisor for my area. I realized that he was somewhere else, maybe in Des Moines, or even Washington, D.C.
Later, I contacted my neighborhood association and learned that people had been complaining that they were unable to use their local mailboxes because someone had put a sticky substance in the mailing mechanism, so envelopes got stuck and did not actually drop into the mailbox. Obviously, this was a more sophisticated approach than using a bent coat hanger.
The next issue of the neighborhood association's newsletter gave a list of sticky mailboxes. Ours was on the list, even though glue had never been the problem.
With that, I decided that my career as a crime fighter was over. I guess I just don't have the patience.