I woke up very early this morning to the sensation of hands tentatively feeling up the length of my legs and a man standing over me.
At first I thought it was my husband, who often must rummage in the dark while getting ready for work. I asked, irritated, What are you looking for? Then I glanced beside me. There was my husband, and our 4-year-old, still asleep.
Let me back up. I've lived in Los Angeles about four years. We just moved a few weeks ago, to a Venice neighborhood that's a 20-minute walk from the beach. It is, to us, the best of both worlds—the lazy, low-key vibe of the beach with the walkability of nearby Abbot Kinney, recently dubbed the "coolest block in America" by GQ. (Locals hate that).
Our place has a garage that'd been tagged by the Venice 13 gang, but it was impossible to tell how recently, and our longtime building manager even joked we might like to keep it there as a cultural artifact. We leave our windows cracked or open most nights, in large part because we have no air conditioning, and it's been very hot. And the city's crime rate has fallen to its lowest since 1967, both violent and property theft. We've been comfortable at our place so far.
Still, I know, it's Venice. The local police division recently warned us about hot prowls, the best-named most terrifying thing, where burglars break in while residents are actually there. And because of homelessness and gang activity, our neighborhood is still touch and go in the Westside spectrum. Friends who used to live in Venice often intimated that life here could be just about perfect, what with the good food, and good coffee, and proximity to the beach and the creative types: you just had to live with the safety concerns, and be willing to clean human shit off your sidewalk.
Crime is in the fabric here, like crushed empty liquor bottles and wandering homeless folks. You can buy T-shirts that say "Where Art Meets Crime." I followed the @Venice311 Twitter feed for months before moving, getting myself used to the rates of theft, burglary, drunks, naked people, weirdos, crazies, stabbings. And in a recent post at Venice311's blog, I learned some context for the current crime situation:
Aside from the frightening horror of having someone boldly enter your home while you are there to burglarize you, rob you, sexually assault you or just execute some drug-addled mental-illness tirade, these crimes fall into a bucket that often has the offender out and back on the streets in days. With the exception of a very high-profile news story… these common daily hits on the homes in Venice are part of the fabric of the cloudy homeless issues plaguing the entire City of Los Angeles… but in particular Venice Beach.
With thousands of tourists that won't stick around to file a police report, go to court, or even be in the country to see a crime through to prosecution – Venice is like a high-end candyland for criminals. Easy targets, people who like to leave doors and windows open to enjoy the beach breeze… who often are professionals with lots of expensive electronics and camera equipment ripe for the taking. If you are a drug addict, Venice Beach is like one-stop-shopping to facilitate and enable your entire F'd up lifestyle. Or, lets skip the drugs and just focus on people looking for easy targets to steal from. Clearly any notion of scaring or waking up a person that may be in a home is not really a big concern given the trend in these crimes…. and the cloudy veil murking up the whole situation is the breakdown in laws that manage the homeless and protect citizens and homeowners in the City of LA.
A couple weeks ago, a woman went through this ordeal, which is now on my short list of Worst Things I Can Imagine:
Venice311 explains more about the web of complicated factors inadvertently contributing to the issue:
We have two major issues enabling the street-crime free-for-all in L.A. First, the Jones Settlement in 2006 allows the homeless to sleep on City of LA sidewalks at night until 1250 shelter beds are provided. As we approach the 10-year mark nobody in the City seems to have any idea what the hell is going on, or where we are with fulfilling that agreement. I did some research last year with what scant information was available and it seemed like we were about 350 beds away from fulfilling the agreement and ending that settlement so the homeless would have to go to a shelter at night. That was a year ago, and the rate of fulfilling beds would have put us over-quota at this point. But, not one City Office can give me a straight answer as to the status or progress of this. The impact however hits homeowners in areas like Venice hard. Why? Because a law that was intended to provide relief to HOMELESS people actually facilitates people who are just criminals to live on the streets and burglarize, steal, deal drugs, etc. rent-free on the sidewalk all night because there aren't enough shelter beds. The big question is what if the # of beds was fulfilled tomorrow? What would the City of LA do?
The second issue is a recent ruling last July that struck down LAMC 85.02 where it was illegal in The City of LA to live in your car. While other cities and areas have enforceable ordinances … a judge ruled that the existing code for Los Angeles was too "vague" and it was struck down. So where does that leave us? With nothing.
I have always expected to encounter some type of big-city crime in the big city. Based on the LA Times crime map, I'd always assumed it would be car theft, or at worst, a break-in when we weren't home.
That is, until this morning, when it became clear that I was, in fact, dealing with something off the short list.
I asked this figure at the foot of my bed what he was looking for, but he didn't answer. He said nothing, and just turned. At what seemed like a terrifyingly glacial pace, shuffled like a sleepwalker out of the room, which is the only thing that gave my eyes time to focus and realize definitively this was a complete fucking stranger.
Speaking in the loudest whisper I could to not wake our sleeping child, I said, THERE IS SOMEONE IN THE HOUSE.
What? my husband said, waking up. That's not possible.
YES. HE WAS IN HERE. HE JUST LEFT.
He got up. Next I heard him ask gruffly in the living room, WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE. The muffled talking moved to outside, and I frantically grabbed for my phone.
I have never really imagined exactly how a break-in would go down, but here is one thing I have imagined countless times: How good will I be at dialing 911 in a panic, or half asleep, or under duress? Will I drop the phone, fumbling like an idiot, will I lose it, break it, step on it, destroy it? How well will I dial 911?
Answer: LIKE A MOTHERFUCKER.
Someone broke in our house, I blurted.
Is he still there?
No, he left.
What did he look like?
I thought about how my child was still asleep, through all of this. Could we be this lucky, that the break in was not violent but just creepy, that my child never even woke, that she did not have to be traumatized, that he took nothing, that he split, that we were unharmed? That we were fine? What are the odds?
I realized the following things as we waited for the police and gave them our report:
1. In lieu of my own actual weapon, I felt lucky to have a dude around, a Boy Scout, a chase-after-the-guy sort of dude. The world's best weapon against a dude if you don't have a weapon yourself is another dude, right? Irrational or not, that's what it felt like. Just glad I had a dude. (Thanks, dude.)
2. I felt, in that moment, so very lucky to have cops on my side. The LAPD officers were nice. The second I described the man's tentative hands up my legs, a female cop scrunched up her face in sympathy, and remarked with a shudder: Uh, creepy. Everyone was professional, reassuring, quick, sympathetic, helpful. I know it's got everything to do with my particular intersections.
3. Listening to my husband's report, I learned that the intruder had just gone into our living room, taken a seat on the couch, and was in fact, just sitting there texting and reeking of booze. I cannot stop imagining what or whom he texted. Police did not find a phone on him.
4. We were asked to describe the perpetrator. Just before I blurted out what he was wearing, I remembered a New Yorker profile I'd read about how notoriously unreliable eyewitness accounts are. You take any group of people and throw a suspect into the mix, and even when not under duress, eyewitnesses will give wildly varying accounts of height, weight, hair color, and clothing.
I was sure he was darker-skinned, wearing a navy blue T-shirt with white letters, tall and thin. My husband thought he was a white guy in his twenties wearing a jersey. I was the one who had remembered him correctly, which in future, more lighthearted retellings of this story at parties I will be sure to never let anyone forget.
5. And with us safe, and the cops looking for him, and our child still miraculously asleep, we started to imagine out loud what this person had wanted from us. Was he drunk? Looking for his own apartment, and somehow stumbled into ours? It happens. He took nothing. He touched my legs, but it was way less aggro sex dude and more in the way you might feel around on a bed in the dark to see who was in it. However, he had to shuffle to the far corner of the room—my side of the bed, past a sleeping man—to get there, and that leaves questions unanswered for me.
We tried to lie back down but it was no use. I felt like I'd been injected with espresso. By 6:30 in the morning, the cops returned. They had a man in custody and could we identify him? This would be an identification in the field. The man would be handcuffed and shown some distance from us.
I worried: Would I be able to accurately describe the suspect? Would I be able to identify him or her? Would I be sure? Innocent people are identified incorrectly all the time.
The cop drove me in the back of the squad car two streets over, to where the suspect was cuffed and held street-side, surrounded by officers, instructed in a bright light to turn every few seconds as in a lineup, which he did with eerie ease. I knew, unequivocally, that it was him. The T-shirt, the bright white letters. The height, the hair, the posture. Only now he seemed totally sober, and not the zombie shuffler I'd seen two hours before.
Turns out during those two hours he'd been busy. He had not drunkenly crashed our apartment thinking it was his and wandered off—the most generous narrative we'd devised to explain what happened—or at least, he had not only drunkenly crashed just our place. He'd hit a second location the same way he infiltrated ours: Through an open window. Into the bedroom. Where another victim confronted him, and he walked out slowly and silently. With the front door already opened and ready for his exit. Only this time, the victim chased him down the street until he was apprehended.
Hours later, instead of feeling terrified, I can't stop thinking about our luck. We were physically unharmed. We got closure right away—they caught him within an hour. We ID'd him positively. Our child never even knew what was happening. Nothing was stolen. No one was truly hurt. It was the most benign break-in you could have, if only I could blot out the panic-inducing fear of hands creeping up my legs and a looming figure at the end of my bed.
We were reassured that we had done everything correctly. This guy was a solid case. There might be a court date if he didn't plead out. But they had him.
We were, the detective said, good victims, which is such a strangely positive twist on an ordeal that strikes a rather healthy amount of fear in your ability to sleep well at night or inhabit the world with the same ease. I understand what it means to a criminal justice system—without details, fast action, reliable, compliant witnesses, what is to be done? Many hot prowlers are never caught.
But good victims? What of all the victims who are bad through no fault of their own? Who saw nothing, remembered too little, were too frightened to piece it together? I thought about what it would be like to feel, after something like this, that I was also bad at advocating for myself. A failure at protecting myself and my family, or the next victim.
Tonight at bedtime, my daughter asked a question that on any other day would be softball for the parent of a 4-year-old: Are monsters real? Absolutely not, I replied to her without hesitation, making a mental note to immediately go lock the windows.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby.