06 June 2012

Things that Only Happen to Other People

The evening we came back to Berlin from Poland, there was a new lock on the door, a no-frills standard-issue lever that no one would have chosen if given a choice. A notice from the police did its best to be warm and friendly (signed, “Ihre Berliner Polizei”—Your Berlin Police), but the fingerprinting dust smeared all over the door suggested otherwise. We walked into the apartment tracking more of the sooty dust down the hallway into the other hallway and into our room. My friend held back because while it was a given that my computer, which I had left sitting on the desk, would be gone, she could only guess at the fate of her viola. (She had taken all of her valuables—camera, computer and iPod—to Poland with her.)

I spotted the viola case on the ground and started unzipping it because I couldn’t tell by its weight whether it was empty or not—she said, “Nobody takes an instrument without its case.” Then she burst into tears of joy. My computer was a tool whose backed up data could fit just as easily in another, but her viola was practically a person to her. In their unknowing kindness, the robbers had been exceptionally foolish: At roughly $10,000, the viola was the single most valuable item in the whole apartment. They had presumably spent a while casing the place to find out that all three roommates were on vacation, but what they got (a couple of cameras, a couple of computers, and some costume jewellery) would be pretty much worthless to them after expenses. To all would-be thieves, some advice: Always steal the musical instrument.

A few minutes before I had been sitting in a cafe drinking a hot chocolate and eating a tuna sandwich so that low blood sugar wouldn’t figure into the tension. We had just received a text from my friend’s roommate and seen the notice from the police. My friend had gone to the police station to pick up the key to the new lock. It was a loud cafe, though it was not crowded. I sat, my umbrella and damp suitcase at my feet, at a table with the backs of chairs crammed into it. The scene was unremarkable, as was the hot chocolate. I was aware of the oil stain on my jeans from a first ill-judged bite of the sandwich. That was the most pressing issue for me at the moment and I dabbed at it impotently with a napkin. I started pouring out my woes to my iPad. But it occurred to me that I had no woes. The computer was gone or it wasn’t, and I was numbly prepared to accept either. The data was, after all, safely backed up. I just now reread what I had written in the cafe to check whether I had misremembered my frame of mind, but all I found was clinical description. The one discordant note was the sentence “you can’t write a dissertation on an iPad”. I went back to reading a book by Daniel Kahneman on the iPad—basically the topic was "rational choice theory for dummies"—and thinking about my friend who was no doubt having a heated argument at the police station. In Germany, leases are very strict and she was a subletter potentially having no right to a key. (A few years ago when I lived in Germany I once lost my house key and my roommate said, “take my key and go to Switzerland to get it copied”—it was only her serious tone that kept me from bursting out laughing. What could be more German than fleeing the country to avoid a bureaucracy that even tracks your keys?) Luckily, my friend’s name appeared on the list of “people affected” by the crime and so the police finally gave her the key. We dragged the suitcase out into the gloomy drizzle and plodded home.

After that we had some Thai food, asked each other how we were feeling and decided to put off cleaning until the morning. We woke up, googled how to clean off fingerprinting dust, and listened to Wilco and The Weakerthans, two bands we have in common and whose music seemed right for the occasion. It was still impossible for me to feel anything, even if I had wanted to. For the first time in my life, my subconscious was telling me something useful: Money comes and goes. The absurdity of wiping away sooty grime (first dry then wet, says the Internet) from a crime scene for a crime that has effectively no chance of being solved ensured that that lesson would stay in my mind. The last time I was robbed I was eighteen or nineteen, and it was one of my first visits to New York. A kindly, if somewhat tweaked out, man suggested I leave the snaking taxi line at Penn Station and follow him to “Sector A” or “Section B” or whatever he called it. Sure enough, he found me a taxi in less than two minutes and said that he didn’t expect payment or a tip because he worked for the city. But he did want a favour: Could I give him $100 in 20s so that he could exchange it for a $100 bill from the driver. It didn’t make any sense but of course it happened quickly enough that it didn’t need to. The man pretended to exchange words with the driver and hobbled away spryly. I asked the driver if he had the money and he had no idea what I was talking about. I said, “Oh, then I’ve just been scammed.” The driver replied, “Yes, you have.” And that was it. I was enraged but mostly embarrassed, so embarrassed that I didn’t mention the incident for years. Even after I had moved to New York, memories of this incident darkened my day whenever I was reminded of it.

But how did it come to this? As I sit in Delhi, writing at a friend’s computer that I am borrowing for the summer, I don’t even feel the numbness I felt before. I always expected to be robbed in India and not Europe, especially not in fusty, well-ordered Germany. But the theft was as unpredictable as a tsunami or a tornado, so I was like a very lucky victim of a natural disaster. I had expected that being robbed would bring on the combination of rage and shame that the taxi scam had. Instead I had a delightful three more days of museum-going, coffee-drinking and eating in Berlin that capped what was one of the best trips of my life. It is impossible to succinctly explain why the trip was so wonderful but our adventures in Poland and Germany were filled in part with yelling funny sounding Polish words, singing showtunes, photographing Muslim villages, observing prostitutes near the Belarus border, driving through unspoilt countryside, talking like Werner Herzog, watching the Orient Express pull out of a station, and so on. At some point during those good times, the thieves were rummaging around in our apartment hundreds of kilometres away. The choice, in retrospect, would have been between all of that and still having my clunky computer. The only thing I would have done differently would have been to have not said, “What could go wrong now? This trip was a complete success” on the train a few minutes before we arrived in Berlin. That was tempting fate.

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