Most of us can read the writing on the wall; we just assume it’s addressed to someone else. — Ivern Ball
I told myself not to freak out as I peered at the paper that had been slid under my front door. The typed text was familiar — I’d written the notice myself, to be posted in each elevator: "We have been experiencing vandalism within our building’s elevator cabs. Please notify Management of any suspicious behavior. Be sure to note the time and date so that the surveillance cameras can be checked. This behavior will not be tolerated and the responsible party will be held accountable. Signed, the HOA.”
My eyes sank to the bottom of the page. It was there that the familiar symbols had been scrawled, in the same black marker and script that had been appearing on the elevator walls over the past few weeks. It was a demonstration of rebellion, a sticking-out of the tongue. But who had left it at my door? A conscientious neighbor? Or had it been delivered by the vandal himself, as a way of saying, “I know where you live.”
I walked down the hallway to confirm what I’d suspected — the elevators were clean. This time, the tagger had spared the metal panels to make sure I got the message, one that could be interpreted as, “You ain’t the boss o’ me, bitch.”
The graffiti — a jumble of letters and numbers — had been popping up three or four times a week for two months. I was among the first to learn of each strike, as I would wake up to find several emailed messages from early-bird residents who’d encountered the Sharpie-drawn symbols. Many of the emails included photographs taken with smart phones. I rarely saw the work, as Neil, our building engineer, always had the elevators cleaned by the time I ventured from my unit.
A fellow boardmember, one of the early risers and often first to find the vandalism, was able to decipher some of the symbols. He explained that “ws46st” referred to “west side 46th Street.” He assumed “LH” meant Logan Heights. “Wick3d” seemed pretty straightforward. He wasn’t so sure about the others: “Sly,” “OTNC,” and “Grips,” the i of which was dotted with an x.
All the boardmembers agreed that the perpetrator was not likely someone who lived in the building, as the scribbler’s acts had a pattern — three to four times a week, between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. “Probably some kid visiting his girlfriend,” one member mused. “In that case, I think I might know who it is,” said another.
He was wrong. The young Hispanic man who happened to be seen visiting his girlfriend around the time of each episode — the one who wore saggy shorts and white socks pulled up to his knees, the one who “fit the profile” — turned out to be a security guard. “Man, my job is to catch punks who do shit like that,” he’d said to the boardmember who questioned him.
Meanwhile, the symbols continued to appear, and I could hear some of the people in my building wondering, What is our HOA president, that Barbarella chick, going to do about this? They were being defiled on a regular basis and were helpless to stop it. I’ve heard that victims of robbery are just as (if not more) disturbed by the desecration of their space than they are by lost items. This was our home. Homeowners and renters took pride in our building — and some jerk was pissing all over it with a felt-tip pen.
After one of the scrawls turned threatening (“Fuck you, Boom your [sic] dead”), I called in a police officer from the graffiti task force. I was somewhat relieved that he’d recognized the symbols on the photographs we’d presented to him, each marked with the date the photo was taken. But I became alarmed when he added, “Oh yeah, this is gang graffiti.”
“Why would a gang member want to claim our elevator as territory?” I asked. I couldn’t begin to get inside the kid’s head. And it had to be a kid — I find it impossible to believe that any grown-up could so easily taint his surroundings. And it had to be a “he” — girls saved their notes for bathroom walls shared by their peers...’cause Laura needs to see just what a slut everyone thinks she is.
This is what we knew: he was young, he carried a marker, and he had regular access to our building. The only thing to do now was catch him in the act. The officer suggested we make a citizen’s arrest and call 911 to come and get the guy.
I couldn’t believe he was serious. “Should we hold him down while we wait for a patrol car to show up? A person who may be armed and violent, a...what did you say? A known gang member?”
It was our building engineer Neil’s idea to do the stakeout. He’d narrowed down the time to early morning, around 4 a.m. “Think about it,” said Neil. The paperboy was here on each of the days we were marked, and he carries a Sharpie with him to write the unit numbers on the plastic bags.
If anyone should be doing a stakeout, I thought, it should be the police. But the graffiti task-force officer said he couldn’t spare a guy for the 30-minute time-frame during which each act of vandalism was committed. At this point, the police had been given one of the plastic bags with fingerprints, the license-plate number of the car that brought the paperboy, as well as video footage of him arriving and leaving within minutes of the latest tagging, all thanks to Neil and Hickman (a fellow boardmember). During the stakeout, Neil hid in a closet opposite the elevator lobby, and while the kid was in the elevator, Hickman ran outside to get the plate numbers.
The officer asked, in an email, if I could also provide the name and date of birth of the kid. I did not respond with grace: “Sure, great, should I also ask him if he wants to fill out a questionnaire in the same elevator in which he wrote ‘Fuck you’ and ‘Boom you’re DEAD?’ Are you KIDDING me?”
Despite my indignation, I did manage to learn the kid’s name (by calling the newspaper delivery department). Hickman provided the name and a witness statement about the stakeout. After my freak-out in writing, in which I detailed all of the evidence and work we’d proffered, I finally received the response I’d been waiting for: “I am pleased to announce we arrested a subject associated with the vandalism. The suspect gave a full confession.” Turned out he wasn’t even a gang member. He was a wannabe gang member with a paper route.