I witnessed a book theft on the Red line, heading north. It was around noon. A young woman was reading a paperback and, as we pulled into the Wilson station, a young man—no more than twenty—snatched the book from her hands and bolted from the train. The young woman was obviously too shocked to scream: “STOP! THIEF!” or anything along those lines. She merely stood up, said, “what the?” in a confused tone and watched like the rest of us as the man ran across the platform to the exit. The train driver radioed the police and the young woman was asked to exit the train and wait on the platform. There the cops would take her statement, but all of us were sure that the young man would never be found. Before she walked off, I asked her what she was reading.
“A Tale of Two Cities. My favorite book!”
Less than a week after witnessing the incident, I heard someone at work tell a similar story. Apparently, libraries across the city were also being burglarized. Many of the old buildings, lacking proper video surveillance and sophisticated locks, were easy targets. Stunned librarians arrived in the morning to find a mess—shelves knocked over, books missing, computers on the floor.
The rash of book thefts got some press. I read in the paper that a woman had her copy of Moby Dick stolen while riding the train. It was early evening, again on the Red line, this time near Chinatown. The procedure was the same: the thief waited until the train pulled into the station, grabbed the book out of her hand, and ran to the station exit. According to the article, the woman never got a good look at the thief.
“I wasn’t paying attention. Melville was too absorbing. I’m so stupid—I should be more aware of the world around me.”
Her tale served as warning; the paper reminded its readers to be careful when reading on the train. As a final comment, the woman said: “And I had just bought the book. It was brand new!”
There was suspicion by the police that the thieves were targeting new editions and recent releases only, but that theory was suspended when Powell’s on 57th and The Bookman’s Corner on Clark, both used book stores, were burglarized. Powell’s’ entire poetry section was gone, as was most of their philosophy. The bandits made off with a wide selection of the German, British, and Russian history from Bookman’s Corner.
There was much talk of the motivation behind the crimes. At first, optimistic academics speculated that the thieves were literature hungry youths bored with the limits of popular entertainment. No video game could compare to Faulkner. Transformers 2 was not sufficiently challenging to their intellect, so they pilfered Yeats. The thinking behind this was similar to the recent debates about expanding universities to include non-traditional students. Everyone, they said, deserves a college degree and, more importantly, the college experience. If grants could not be obtained, the people would steal an education.
Skeptics found this theory laughable. No young thug was willing to risk arrest simply because they were unsatisfied with pop culture. Secondly, the allure of the XBox was never going to wane, and even if it did the professors were delusional if they thought inner city youth would turn to Chaucer. Rather, they proposed a second theory: the advance of technology in the 20thcentury gave way to a 21st century where nearly everyone owned, or had regular access to, a computer, Jet Fuel Review 69 smart phone, an iPod, and countless other electronic devices. The worth of these gadgets was decreasing as their prices dropped and their ubiquity was cemented. Since hand held digital gizmos were as common as trees, their black market value plummeted. But the black market must go on, so the thieves and fences turned to books, a disappearing product. While books themselves were still being written and published, the stores that used to sell them were vanishing from the city. Yes, a few remained, but the big chains were dying. Borders had closed all its doors. Barnes and Noble was scaling back as well. Waldenbooks, the sole literary beacon of the suburban mall, was history. Subsequent to reduction in bookstores, physical books were hot commodities and any hot commodity was grist for the black market mill.
Two weeks after I witnessed the incident on the Red line, I became a victim. I was reading Nazim Hikmet, which, egotistically, I thought was too obscure to appeal to thieves who had previously avoided literature in translation. I sat secure with my poetry riding the train toward Loyola. Normally I rose form my seat, double checked my backpack, and secured it to my body while the train made its final stretch toward my stop. This time I was too absorbed in all the things Hikmet never knew he loved to notice that we were seconds away from pulling into the station. My eyes lifted from the page and I saw a young man barely out of his teens in a black hooded shirt, with dark skin, shaved head, and a chewed pen cap in his mouth. He snatched Hikmet form my hands and ran through the doors. I rushed after him. The platform has only one exit and I raced toward it, all the while keeping the thief in my sight. In his haste, he knocked over an old woman who fell down the stairs. After a horrifying tumble, she landed on the concrete below with the thief close behind. He jumped over the old woman’s body and ran through the station and out into the street. The poor woman lay twisted and inert on the ground, a mob forming around her. A stocky transit employee radioed the police. They all looked at me with accusatory eyes.
-- Vincent Francone is a writer living in Chicago. He has been published in Rhino, Spectrum, and The Oklahoma Review among other journals, and he won first place in the 2009 Illinois Emerging Writers Competition for his long poem, “Chicago.” He is at work on a novel and a collection of stories. Read his blog at: www.zombiedante.blogspot.com