Burgled in Philly

When John Davidson’s apartment gets robbed, he learns that the easiest way to get his stuff back is to have one drug dealer lie to another drug dealer while he lies to the police.

Photo by Craig Gronowski

Hanging the machine guns on the wall was a bad idea, but the burglary wouldn’t have happened if we’d just covered up the little decorative window over the front door. If you stood on your toes in the hallway and looked in through the little window, the guns were in plain sight. Almost everything was in plain sight because most of our third-story apartment was a single large room — a shoddy retrofit of a massive early twentieth-century industrial building on Philadelphia’s north side, in Fishtown, where those kind of buildings are common.

The building owner, a tattoo artist we’ll call Daryl, also lived somewhere on the third floor and ran a printing business on the first floor that employed a half-dozen people, most of whom were heavily tattooed tenants. There was plenty of activity around the building during the day and everyone made sure the main doors were always locked, so we had good reason to believe a burglar wouldn’t be able to break into the building in broad daylight, climb the stairs to the third floor, peek into our apartment, force his way in and carry off our machine guns without being caught. That was naïve. We should have covered up the little window.

The burglary happened on a weird day. I had agreed on very short notice to fill in on lead vocals for a friend’s band that night, a string group that played mostly old covers like “Nancy Jane” and “Wreck of the Old ‘97”. My roommate, Matt, had just started playing percussion with them a few weeks earlier and they were opening for Slim Cessna’s Auto Club at Johnny Brenda’s, a popular venue near our place. I was driving back from my soul-crushing job in the suburbs and trying to prepare mentally for the show when Matt called and asked if, by any chance, did I take the machine guns down off the wall before I left for work that morning. My stomach rolled over.

A word about the machine guns: one of them is mine, the other one is Matt’s, and they were for decoration. They were functional and we had ammunition, but they weren’t really for home defense or hunting. We thought they looked badass hanging on the wall — and they did.

My machine gun isn’t technically even a machine gun; it’s a 1944 Russian M44 infantry rifle, bolt-action, with a spike bayonet and a canvas shoulder strap. I bought it for $95 at a gun show outside Philly from a retired Air Force guy who buys them wholesale from a guy in Russia. They made about 11 million M4s for the war, and there’s a small industry of people who refurbish and ship them in wooden crates to sellers in the U.S. At the gun show, my rifle was sitting in a wooden crate with a bunch of others exactly like it, oiled and fully restored. I asked the Air Force guy if the rifles worked and he said he hadn’t fired any from that particular crate but that he’d fired a couple of other M4s he’d gotten from the same contact in Russia and they worked just fine. He also explained that the rifles are sighted in with the bayonet fixed out, in it the “battle ready” position, meaning that if you fired with the bayonet folded in your shot would stray to the left. I asked him if there was any way to get ammo for it and he pointed to a nearby table.

All I know about Matt’s rifle is that it’s a fully-automatic Czech-made AK-47 with a folding stock and two banana clips. It belonged to his father and Matt has no idea where his father got it, or why. I don’t think he’s ever fired it but it looks like it works just fine.

Photo by Craig Gronowski

I told Matt I didn’t move the rifles and then he asked me if I took my laptop — a MacBook Pro I’d just bought the week before — to work with me that morning. I said no and he said, “Ah, shit.”

When I got to the warehouse the cops were already talking to Matt out on the stoop. The metal doorknob on the building’s front door was dented on either side, like it had been pinched, and the cops said certain kinds of doorknobs and locks can be broken just by grabbing them with channel locks and twisting. Apparently we had that kind of doorknob. The same thing had been done to our apartment door. On the way up, I noticed that the second floor apartment didn’t have a little decorative window.

The cops told us not to touch anything but to tell them everything that had been taken. One cop wrote stuff down in a little notebook and the other one got out the fingerprinting kit. As we looked around it became obvious that the burglar must have been interrupted mid-burglary — either that or he was insane because something wasn’t right. A digital video camera on the desk where my laptop had been was unmoved, as were the TV and stereo. But a small jar of change that had been sitting on an end table next to the couch was missing. My cheap cotton H&M blazer that had been hanging in the bathroom was gone, as was my black cowboy hat from the bedroom and, incredibly, a bag of dirty clothes. Matt’s thimbles, which he wears on his fingertips when he plays the washboard (Matt plays the washboard), were gone. His laptop, however, was sitting in plain sight on his desk in the corner.

While the cops were dusting for fingerprints, the “building manager,” an ex-con who we’ll call Billy, slipped into the apartment through the back door and quietly told me he needed to speak to me in the hallway. Billy is a wiry white guy from the Midwest who spent five years in federal prison for selling large amounts of cocaine and when he got out he came to Philly to start over, renovating apartments by day and eventually selling weed and other things by night. He wore a red bandana on his head and had a large tattoo on his back of a hand flipping the bird with the words “fuck you” written over it. He said whenever the prison guards told him to shut up he would take his shirt off and turn his back to them.

Billy was connected to the neighborhood but he wasn’t really part of it. He lived in a small apartment in the back of the building and spent a lot of time hanging out on the stoop and playing pool in the tavern across the street. He knew everybody. The way Billy saw it, someone breaking into the building was an attack on all of us and it could not go unpunished. Something had to be done. The neighborhood had to understand that the building — his building, where he once told me he had $20,000 cash hidden away somewhere in case he ever needed to leave town for good — was off limits. Billy explained all this to me out in the hallway. He said he had a pretty good idea who robbed us but he had to go talk to some people.

Back in the apartment we deduced that the burglary must have happened in broad daylight. I had left that morning just after ten and Matt came home around four in the afternoon. A few of the print shop employees said they saw a guy hanging around outside the building around eleven. The cops told us we would have to come down to the station and talk to some detectives because firearms had been taken from our apartment. They were angry with us for even owning firearms and appeared to have very little sympathy for our plight, despite our explanation that the rifles were legal and only for decoration, which they thought was stupid.

A minute later Billy poked his head through the back door of the apartment where the cops couldn’t see him and motioned for me to follow him into the rear hallway. Once outside, he leaned close and whispered: “A guy is on his way here with all your stuff but you gotta get those cops out of here right now. Like, right now. He’ll be here in five minutes but if he sees cop cars out front he ain’t comin’ in. That’s the deal. Cops stay out of it, you get your stuff back, and that’s it. You cool with that?” I was cool with that.

Photo by Craig Gronowski

The timing was perfect because the cops were just closing up their fingerprinting kit, which had yielded no fingerprints, and repeating that we had to follow them to the station and that we might somehow be in trouble for being robbed of our machine guns, although they couldn’t say why. I said okay, fine, let’s go now, right now, we’ll follow you there, let’s go, and I ushered everyone out.

On the way to the station I explained the plan to Matt, how we were getting everything back but we had to keep the cops out of it. The important thing about talking to the detectives, I said, would be to keep our stories straight and not volunteer unnecessary information. It wasn’t the same as lying.

They called us in separately, Matt first, and while I was waiting Daryl the building owner called me and asked if Billy had told me what was going on. I said yes, and Daryl said that Billy knew who did it and that Billy and “his boys” had “sent a pretty strong message” to the neighborhood, to which I rolled my eyes and said just make sure you get the doors fixed. It was pretty clear that Daryl had no idea what was going on.

When it was my turn with the detective (Philadelphia detectives, by the way, are walking stereotypes of detectives — lean, early 50s, close-cropped hair, weathered face, shabby suit and tie, trench coat, revolver, 1930s-era typing skills) I gave him the whole story except the ending. He mainly wanted to know about the rifles, and I felt bad because I wanted to tell him it was okay, they won’t be out on the streets because we’re getting them back right now, you don’t even have to work on this. But I kept my mouth shut. He thought I was an idiot.

By the time we left the station we were late for our sound check at Johnny Brenda’s and drove straight there. The rest of the band was already set up on stage waiting for us and it was then that Matt realized the burglar had for some reason taken his thimbles, without which he couldn’t play the washboard. He raced back to the apartment hoping everything had been returned while I explained everything to the band. This was about ten minutes before we were supposed to go on.

When Matt got to the apartment, Billy and one of Daryl’s employees were hauling black garbage bags of our stuff in through the back door — rifles, laptop, cowboy hat, everything except the jar of change. Matt found his thimbles somewhere in there and got back to the venue with just enough time to slam a celebratory shot of whiskey before we took the stage. It was one of the best shows we’ve ever played.

Later, Billy told me how it had gone down. After he left my apartment he went to the tavern across the street where this guy Big Mike always hung out. Big Mike was the fattest crack dealer/user I’ve ever seen. Being a crack dealer and also a big guy, he was an influential member of Fishtown’s shitty criminal underworld. Billy told him that someone had hit Daryl’s building and took a bunch of stuff and Big Mike got real quiet and said oh yeah? — like he didn’t know, and Billy said yeah but it’s okay because Daryl’s got the entire building all wired up with cameras (which was a lie) and the cops are over there right now going over the tapes so it’ll just be an hour or so before they know who did it. Big Mike just stared at Billy and Billy leaned in and said, “but I bet I know who did it — I saw him, this morning,” and right away Big Mike said hold on and got up to make a phone call.

I guess Big Mike knew the guy who robbed us, a neighborhood meth-head just out of prison, but didn’t realize it was Daryl’s building, which was considered off-limits because of Billy’s standing in the neighborhood. Big Mike was pissed and called the guy and said he was coming over to get all the stuff and bring it back right now and if anyone there argued or if the stuff wasn’t all still there he was going to “crack some skulls.” (Big Mike’s threats of violence were credible; a few weeks after all this he got into a fight outside the tavern and punched a guy so hard the guy died right there on the sidewalk and Big Mike went into hiding somewhere in the depths of North Philly.)

When we got home after the show all our stuff was sitting in a pile of black garbage bags in the middle of the floor. The first thing we did was take some old newspapers and cover the little decorative window over the door. Then we hid the machine guns.

Photos by Craig Gronowski

John Daniel Davidson is an American writer and journalist living abroad. His writing has appeared in n+1, The Morning News, The Millions, and elsewhere. In the coming months, he will return to his home in Austin, Texas, via Morocco and Alaska.