Illegitimi non carborundum

Dear Ms. Shires,
The Asheville Police Department hopes that you have recovered from your unfortunate experience as a victim of crime.

Of all the form letters I’ve ever received, this has got to be the weirdest. I feel for the person who first composed it–it is well-written and concise, so I have to assume they were an intelligent sort, and, as such, the larger implications of the work didn’t escape their consideration. What a tricky thing, to communicate empathy in a medium that is by its very nature impersonal. Not a job I’d care to do.

Many of you already know the story: somehow (we will likely never know how), some person (we will likely never know who) obtained my Visa check card number and went on a bit of a shopping spree at a major online electronics retailer. They didn’t show restraint, and it will be a long process to fully recover our losses, despite the professed hopes of that form letter.

Money’s a strange thing. It’s insubstantial–your entire monetary wealth can be nothing more than numbers on a computer screen, accessed via another string of numbers embossed in plastic–but it’s also utterly vital to the way we live our lives. Everything depends on this abstraction that has no inherent or inviolable value of its own. We participate in a fantasy every time we pay the light bill, but this fantasy can easily render us homeless, hungry, destitute if we land on its bad side.

I’ve experienced property crime before. I know the violation of having my house broken into, my private space rifled through like the bargain bins at the outlet mall. It’s not pleasant, and it makes it difficult to feel anything but contempt for one’s fellow human beings.

It’s easy to mouth New Age-y, vaguely Buddhist platitudes, to try on nonattachment like a dress you leave the tags on. It’s easy to say it’s only money–until you lose yours.

When you grow up poor, money can feel like Ariadne’s thread: a slender filament, so easily lost or snapped, that is the only thing preventing you from perishing in darkness. In our currency-based society, anything that threatens your money is a direct threat to your personal security, in the most primal sense: imagine trying to feed, clothe, and house yourself (or your family) without it. This touches the red button of fear deep inside each one of us, in a way that poor folks understand better than anyone else.

I’m not so poor anymore, and we were already on track to get off the currency-based hamster wheel, but that red button never leaves you, once you’ve experienced life with it chronically exposed. And this is what bothers me most about what has happened: we will recover, in time. Not without stress, and not without losing just a little more faith in the human race–but we will recover. But there are many, many people in the world who wouldn’t. A theft like this could render a family homeless. And this person–this thief–was willing to trade that for stuff. Electronics. A big teevee or a computer or a gaming system (actually, likely all three, given the dollar amount involved).

The charges to my bank account weren’t made to the Children’s Cancer Hospital or a grocery store, after all. This erstwhile human being found it okay to trade someone else’s security for toys.

It’s hard not to rage. It’s hard not to flirt with hate when faced with such disregard. It’s hard not to long for something more swift and definitive than karmic justice. It’s hard to figure out precisely what one is supposed to do, stuck in the middle of an abstraction gone wrong.

The rage and the hate and the stress we’ll work on in our own ways. Those things won’t touch our friend with the new teevee, but they will surely corrode us from the inside out, and so there is no good reason to hang on to them. The rest of it–our plans to hike and to stop working for other people and to devote more time and energy to things that really matter–it all remains on track. Because what else can you do? You pick yourself up, you dust yourself off, and you know the rest.

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