Bert lives in my neighbourhood one street up and one street over in a small apartment one floor up.
I didn’t know Bert before a couple of weeks ago, but even before I met him, I knew a lot about him.
I knew, for example, that he was a fan of the Bielefeld German Football League team and had recently been to one of their games. I knew that he was a fan of the Beatles, old Dr. Hook, and the German one-hit-wonder Nena, that he collected old magazines and 45 vinyl records, and that he buys books and CDs on Amazon.de.
How did I get to know so much about a stranger before even meeting him? By stumbling upon the contents of his softcover suitcase, which lay strewn in a jumble in the lane behind our place. It was 6:30 in the morning and as I looked over the rain-dampened disarray I thought, this guy probably left his bag in his car, someone saw it and smashed the window, brought it over here, rifled through everything, took what they thought was good for re-sale, and took off.
I gathered up the lot and brought it upstairs to our apartment.
I go through the bag and discover a receipt from Amazon.de for some books he’s recently bought. I look up his name on an online phone book but he isn’t in it, so I write a note to the guy, then walk over to his place thinking I’ll just leave the bad news for him in his mailbox.
I ring the bell just in case, and he’s home. Half-way into explaining who I am he buzzes me in and I walk up the stairs.
A slim man with short hair in his early 30s is at the door to meet me, curiosity and suspicion on his face.
“Uhhh… I think you’ve been the victim of a theft,” I tell him. “I found this along with a lot of your clothes and stuff in a suitcase behind our place this morning.”
“Ohhhh, shit! he says, raising his hands to his head, his face clouding to shock. “Oh my God. I got home so late last night and had to park a few streets away, and I didn’t feel like carrying home my luggage in the rain. Shit, shit shit!”
We fill the time walking down the street and waiting for the crosswalk lights with the kind of talk you have when you’re forced to be with someone until it’s over. Like riding an elevator for 20 floors with a colleague you vaguely know, so you feel compelled to make small-talk. But in this little vignette there’s an element of accidental intimacy. He knows that I’ve had a look into his private life, however indirectly. But does he know that I’ve looked through everything? I guess the thieves overlooked the selection of um…adult entertainment DVDs I found tucked in a side pocket. In the whirl of activity since discovering he’s a crime victim, does he even think of it? If so, does he even care if I know or not? Is porn now part of the travel checklist along with toothbrush and wallet?
I’m not going to mention it, but in the conversation’s pauses I get to thinking about what airport security people get to paw through and what they find, only with them it’s different. They rarely get a chance to put a face to a name, and if they do, it’s all in a day’s work.
We get to my door and I show him in. I gesture to the floor and his bag and its jumble of contents I’ve put back in as orderly a fashion as I can.
“I guess you should be checking on your car now,” I tell him as a way to say good-bye as he’s on his way out again.
The story doesn’t end there.
I’d told my wife about the find as she was heading out the door that morning, so she had a look around the same spot, too. She comes home that afternoon with three CD boxes, one of which is “Time Flies” a beautifully crafted and obviously expensive 4-disc boxed set of Oasis music and videos.
“I guess I’d better head back over there,” I tell her.
First though, I fire up iTunes and proceed to copy the three Oasis CDs, contemplating as the discs are spinning how I’ve come to be stealing a great collection of music from a famous British band thanks entirely to the misdeeds of some anonymous smash-and-grab thief. I start to wonder if what I’m doing is actually theft twice over, because neither Bert nor the band has said I’m free to rip it into iTunes. But then again, does my giving it all back to him – the same day and no questions asked – absolve me? Does copyright theft even compare to original theft of the actual goods? And should I tell him that I copied the disks before giving them back to him? Would that taint his enjoyment of them forever?
I pack up the boxes and head for the second time that day to the home of someone who 12 hours before was a complete stranger to me. He answers the buzzer right away and again, I walk up the stairs.
“You were right about the car,” he tells me as I approach the door. “The back window was smashed in and my blue overnight bag is missing.”
“My wife found these near where I found your suitcase,” I tell him, holding up the CDs.
He takes the Oasis box and holds it between his fingers as delicately as if it were made of fine crystal.
“My God,” he says. “I thought it was gone forever. This album is almost like a holy relic to me…. Uhh…wait here.”
He disappears into his apartment and I can hear him rummaging around.
“I’m not much of a connoisseur, but if this is anything it’s to say thanks for all that you’ve done for me today.”
I laugh a little awkwardly and take the bottle of wine, telling him it’s nothing, really, and that I’d hope that if something like that ever happened to me, that someone out there would do the same.
And that was that. Haven’t seen him since.