He’s just rung my front doorbell. But I’m not expecting him. He’s wearing his uniform and his photo ID, has his equipment and his PECO pamphlet. But there’s no PECO truck in sight.
“I’m here to upgrade your meter box,” he tells me.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I reply, through my bolted door. My 85-pound Labrador retriever picks up something in my tone of voice. He starts to growl.
“You should have gotten a letter from us two weeks ago,” he says. “It will only take a minute.”
“I didn’t get any letter,” I answer, growing tense. “You’ll have to leave.”
“Lady,” he answers, angry now, “you’re gonna get a $150 fine if you don’t let me do my work.”
“I’m going to count to three,” I declare, my voice trembling. “And if you’re not gone, I’m opening my door and letting my dog eat you for lunch.” He backs away quickly, muttering.
What in the world did I just do? When I call PECO, they confirm the man’s identity. He was using a contractor’s truck, was perfectly legitimate. I never would have behaved like this six months ago.
Everything has changed
Six months ago — before our little town of Narberth, Pa., population 4,300, was hit with a rash of burglaries that changed our lives forever. Before we realized that whoever was breaking in was doing it in broad daylight. That whoever was breaking in was also blending in, right under our noses. Someone like a carpenter. Or a kid. Or a purported PECO repairman.
But this is Narberth. Narberth — where you live in your house for 20 years, and it’s still called by the name of its original owner. Narberth — where third-generation, blue-collar “Narbs” live side by side with “One Percent” couples with au pairs and Audis. Narberth — where there is no crime, because we live so close together, and we all know each other.
That all changed one Friday night when my family was home having our weekly pizza. While we were debating the benefits of pepperoni vs. double cheese, some creep was just yards away, breaking into our neighbors’ house. He got in under their deck. How many times had we sat on that deck with those neighbors over the last 25 years, sipping wine and catching up on growing children and local gossip?
The sense of violation was devastating. As the word spread, every one of us felt assaulted — like being punched in the gut, or hit on the back of the head. Something had been done that no ADT security sign or community watch or meeting with our police chief could undo. Narberth was no longer Narberth.
“This burglar has all the signs of a drug addict,” our police told us. “It’s somebody desperate enough, addicted enough, to take big chances. Somebody who wants the quick cash he can get from grabbing your jewelry and your wallet and then getting right out. Not even Narberth is safe from that now.”
A few minutes work has changed a lifetime of memories. But while Narberth residents are trying to calculate the incalculable — the value of a great-great-grandmother’s brooch, the engagement ring designed for that special woman, the gold watch bequeathed by a father to his only son — our national conversation is turning to America’s growing prison population.
Lock them up
America, we have learned, has 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. In 2012, nearly .76 percent of Americans were in jail. Half of all federal prisoners , and 20 percent of all state prisoners, were convicted of drug offenses: manufacturing, dealing, possession with intent to sell. These drug offenses, we are told, are non-violent crimes. We shouldn’t be locking up so many people for so long for such minor infractions.
But the talking heads are wrong. These crimes are indeed violent. Drug dealers and manufacturers, and the addicts from whom they profit, are shredding the fabric of American society. Never again can a stranger be “a friend I haven’t met yet.” Now he is a suspect. He makes me suspicious. He makes me something less than the person I used to be.
“There are too many people in prison,” cries the poster in the SEPTA commuter train. The poster features photos of young people — not the victims, but the criminals as kids. The kids who have grown up to become drug addicts, to rob my neighbor of her jewelry, and the rest of us of our peace of mind.
Drug offenders don’t commit violent crimes? Nonsense: of course they do. They assault our communities, murder our open hearts. Give addicted criminals the drug rehab they desperately need, yes. But lock them up, please. Lock them up.