Oct

31

 About the only thing that hasn't been stolen around here is the honesty to thieve with good judgment. The town is a circle of theft, like a bucket brigade out one shore and into the other. You would think it an infinite zero game, but new goods roll in faster than new hands to grab them.

Their methods are varied and creative.I'm going to write them down as I learned them – with a smile – as a victim and from other victims.

• The most common technique is door-to-door knocking. If you're not there, he goes in and takes something. If you're home, he says 'Hello', and comes back later.

• The second most common technique is shop and steal. This is a walking town, and the rows or trailers and shelters are like Walmart aisles. See something you like, put it in a basket. It is done primarily at night since neighbors tend to form neighborhood watches.

• Campfire thefts are the third most common. A thief walks from fire to fire, observing the participants, and visits each in turn's camp to rob.

• The hot pool is another tipoff to the burglar who phones a comrade to make the heist as the victim frolics.

• Thieves love Saturday night at the Music Range. They bop by, listen to a song, watch the dancers and audience, and go rob their camps. They return to the Range to substantiate their whereabouts, and at last call pickpocket the sleeping drunks.

• Arsons are timed to cause occupants to flee, so those who arrive to extinguish may plunder.

• Dog theft is rife to draw an owner from his camp to be robbed.

• It's not easy to steal where the landlord is a thief, but the man I rented from kept a key and stole from me.

• The most lucrative housebreaks occur weekly when someone is carted to jail, and the early bird gets the worm.

• Each summer people pass from heatstroke, and the thieves invade like maggots. They tear apart the walls for jewelry, marijuana, weapons, cash, and ID.

• The opportunist is a walking lookout, with eyes open and ears open and hands open every ticking minute of the day and night.

• The thief thinks, and is right, that the most conspicuous is the least obvious. Every bystander thinks the other bystanders would catch a wrongdoing.

The boldness of thieves is not surprising if you put yourself in their shoes. No one is going to notice if you train long and hard to act natural. Some actually prefer to break into the front door, and explain that they had been hired to work on it by the owner. I caught one burglar doing this, and called the owner, as he made his empty-handed getaway. Most thieves labor hard to make it so obvious that nobody notices.

Big city thieves use cars. You gotta have a car to burglar to carry the stuff and get away. You can't use a car in Slab because it would be one of the few running ones, likely to break down, and the cops would intercept it pulling out of town. So, crime is always afoot, making it more interesting for the spectators. The action scenes are contained and in slower motion, and you can take part if you choose by stepping up and tackling somebody running down the street, chased by someone else screaming 'Bloody thief!' It's guesswork to figure who's in the wrong. It could be a distraction while your own place is being plucked.

Since the robbers have only fast feet and ATV's, they must commission a pickup to haul big booty from the adjacent valleys and gunnery range. There is about one case per year, including my mine three years ago, where the burglars 'borrow' a truck from a silent partner who does not report it stolen. He is protected because, if the truck turns up, he can say it was 'stolen' and the cops will reclaim it for him. If it's not implicated, the robbers return it with a commission in the truck bed. That's what happened at my camp, where the Slab thieves hauled off about eight loads over the course of three days, and slept in my bed, and cooked on my stove. That's why I have to smile.

Another cunning ruse is circular thievery. One crime has to be concealed by another, and so others will hire you. It goes like this: A accuses B of a burglary he has committed to victim C. C hires A to beat B up, rob, or burn him out. A tells B that C was the culprit, and C turns around and hires A to perform the same crime on B. Usually, B and C end up at each other's throats, while A gloats over the ashes that have covered the evidence of his crimes. For good measure A broadcasts the circle throughout town, omitting himself, but should be the primary suspect per Shakespeare's Hamlet, 'Thou doth protest too much.'

When the enterprising burglar is not burglaring, he is planning the next one. Who has the tidiest camp, the greenest cacti, the darkest yards, dearth of dogs, or the shades pulled? A search for original simplification begins. The basic burglar MO is to get in the easiest way, avoid confrontation, and make the unnoticed getaway.

Crime is terribly revealing. Try and vary your methods as you will, your tastes, your habits, your attitude of mind, and your soul is revealed by your methods. Sooner or later you will get caught, and may think it was all worth it.

Slab City is a well-equipped laboratory to study theft, and the instruments and strategies that have been invented to thwart them. Since this may be the town with the highest per capita burglary in the nation, at the rate of about two nightly among 200 residents, it makes sense that some of the best thieves, methods, and defenses here have been fashioned here, that may be applied throughout the US.

There is a hierarchal triangle of theft in this outlaw town, where the smallest thieves are stolen from by the fewer larger thieves, until the apex is reached that is an omniscient eye. That eye does exist, high atop a hillside by Siphon #8 of the Coachella Canal. It is a 5-foot wood sculpture like the all-seeing eye of the 1" logo on the George Washingtons in your pocket. Here the smart thieves climb and perch with binoculars, telescopes, or night vision goggles, depending on the hour, to case their board in the everyday game of Slab City theft.

Almost everyone steals.

I'm about to develop a new theory of the structure of criminal activity in Slab City. Most people who do well at crime are called Slab businessmen. Just because it is illegal doesn't change the economics of a town.

Their booty is their status. If you take small things frequently without planning throughout the day you are a petty thief. However, if you steal something grand like arms from the adjacent military range you are a gentleman of society, and everyone stops by to visit. I've arrived at this by knowing many of them, from the bottom to the top of the robbing heap.

The bare bones of the skeletal structure with the omniscient eye on top are occupied by the zombie like meth junkies who rattle throughout the night sifting camps for nickel-dime stuff to exchange at two all-night drug houses for methamphetamine. Fifty percent of this town's occupants are these Jekyll – Hydes. They are creatures of habit and action who, by second nature and so without want for a design, see something they need or might need and pluck it as a normal person might take a four-leaf clover on a lawn of green grass. Living hand to mouth, their fate is to move on when they become too conspicuous, get run out of town, or thrown in the hoosegow.

The flesh of Slab, however, the fewer and best, are the lone wolves. They have a greater range, riding Mad-Max ATV's and stolen vehicles to larger jobs, utilize some planning, and sell their loot for cash to the drug houses or townspeople. They also take custom orders from the locals, as the town's mobile Sears and Roebuck catalogue. Since they have no reported income, they get the least strung out molls. They are marijuana stoners, save no money, collect welfare, and live out their final days on medication provided by the state slabbering tales of yore in depreciated trailers to their old cronies.

There are no organized thieving rings here, except catch-as-catch can. The people are just too damn independent. They are physically robust and mentally sharp to not need, and in fact, to ward off, any organization that attempts to cajole them. Those crime rings are reserved for the tiny fractions of specialists of meth manufacture, gun assembly, scrapping the military range, and smuggling illegal aliens.

Down these mean streets a man must walk who himself is not mean, who has a sharp stroke of kindness in his heart, or he would not be tolerated in Slab City. The two types of thieves – Jekyll-Hydes and Sears and Roebuck boosters – are not heroes to anyone, but neither are they villains. They are, as stated, businessmen. They are so common as to be called the common man of Slab. Each must be a complete man and yet an unusual man. He must be, in the weathered sense, a man of personal honor.

The peace of mind of these crooks is remarkable. Outside a criminal world, a guilty conscience is the emotion as a result of some action that we've labeled or perceived as being bad or wrong. However, this is trumped in this outlaw town by the idea that every resident has been so wronged in the past by a third party – authority – that he cannot be held representable for nearly everything he does. He is merely acting out against past injustices. That anyone might think he or she can do wrong proves his moral inferiority. It's a topsy-turvy world. I have yet to encounter a guilty conscience in town, which makes them all the more light-fingered, quick thinking, and fleet of foot.

None is an intellectual, and instead it seems these common men were given the weapons of light fingers to battle the intellectual man. I find petty and grand theft here like door-to-door selling: it seems easy, requiring little talent, yet few people ever will do it well, and few manage to stick with it for very long.

The brain of a Slab thief is straightforward. He has a grid in front of his mind, and for anything in the visual world to reach him it first has to squeeze through the bars. A shovel, book, bicycle, or can of beans might enter. That information has to be broken into small cubes, and then packaged in two dimensional squares which are preferable. They take up less space in his mind, and encourage him more to steal from the outside world.

Strangely, it cannot be exaggerated how important property is to the people of Slab City. For many of them, this is the first patch of dirt they have owned in their lives by right of squat on State land. The things they put on it – their trailer, shed, and belongings – are their first possessions. At the same time, there is no one but the owner to defend what is his. This is what makes the town interesting and dangerous.

For, by nature, these people who have not had are covetous of those who do. The love of property and consciousness of right and wrong have conflicting places here. The sparks fly daily! Private property was the original source of freedom. It is still the bulwark here. The Slabs they build their lives on is a broad foundation on which nearly all of their psyche rests. And then, with one match, or one large raid, the footing is gone. It happened to me, and I've watched it happen to a dozen others. The residents fall back into two groups: The fewer socialists with an idea that there is no private property, who are fond to say, 'We would live exceedingly quiet if these two words – mine and thine – were taken away.' And, the defenders who believe that property is everything, our sole guarantee of freedom, and who like to say, 'You will not rob me even for the greater good of the community.' I think that every person's property is an extension of his mind, that nobody else has a right to, but himself.

As much as property theft is a regrettable element of the human experience, this dream destination has become a University of Slabs. Like other branches of learning, its reputation spreads far and wide, drawing learners from the Atlantic to Pacific. The campus rests snugly on State property between the Salton Sea and Coachella Canal. It is a self-governed oasis where outside laws are supposed to apply at the University, but are unenforceable.

The dorms are what you bring or build from scrap. Meals and groceries are served weekly as pocket or need affords. There are cafes of old spools and tire seats, movies thrown on sheets, wide-screen cable TV at an Internet, a distinctive anarchist library, weekly concerts, an international shrine at Salvation Mountain, and frequent tourist visitors who inject a cosmopolitan sense to the campus.

The streets are safe, but absolutely crime ridden. Crime hides elsewhere, and by far the most terrifying things out there, but in Slab City it is in the open to be studied.

A monk in his cloister, a fish in the water, a thief in Slab City.Even a thief takes ten years to learn his trade, except in Slab on the accelerated program of so many teachers the program is compressed into one year. Most newcomers apprentice under an instructor and pay a 50% commission on all swag in the initial months, before a partnership often develops. Graduates of outside institutions – jails, prisons, and reform schools - may select to start alone, working steadily toward an advanced degree of education. For now, the majority of freshmen are simple observers on their lawn chairs and through astonished windows during the early months.

The instructors are among the slickest operators I've met, and I know most of them. The only ones who interest me must be things of power, handled with cat mittens, and wicked enough to inspire protest, but kind enough to forgive. I must fear him, and then triumph over the fear, and parallel his career in harmony with all of his previous developments. I am a sort of alter ego trustee.

One step into Slab University, and you will look down to see if your shoes are missing. Come, and learn from the best. And their defenses. If you're not inclined to burgle, thieve, pickpocket, or plunder, then this will be a character building experience. The study of crime at the U begins with the knowledge of oneself. All that you despise, all that you loathe, whatever that you reject, all that you presumably condemn and seek to convert springs from you.

Why am I here? Learning is treasure no thief can touch. Every single Slab shadow spells adventure. I would rather scramble around them, and right to their top and watch the criminals turn profits in a microcosm than languish on the outside. The most practical defense against the world of burglars and thieves is a thorough knowledge of it.


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