I’ve been keeping a watchful eye lately on the little signs that bear witness to the gradual decline of society. As everyone knows, when prices rise, people are less able to provide themselves with the necessities. Shoplifting increases and burglaries become more common. But lately I and my neighbors have become victims of a a type of “burglary” that doesn’t involve breaking and entering. Indeed, many of us were victims and didn’t even know it right away; the crime is that subtle. What makes these thefts notable is that many of them are probably being committed not by the usual hardened criminals, but by regular people just trying to get to work.
I’m talking about the siphoning of gasoline from parked cars. In the apartment complex where I live, a number of residents, myself included, have discovered over the past few months that gasoline has been siphoned right out of our cars as we’ve slept. Most of us never knew it was happening until one of my neighbors caught a perpetrator in the act. I had noticed the week before that my gas gauge read near empty, but my odometer, which I normally reset each time I fill up, showed that I had only driven 94 miles. At the time, I shrugged it off, never guessing the real cause of this anomaly.
Of course, there are ways to protect against this sort of thing. One is by buying a locking gas cap. There is also a $5.00 device you can insert into into the intake area of your gas tank that will block a hose from being inserted while still allowing room for the nozzle of the gas pump.
But it wasn’t that long ago when such precautions weren’t necessary. After all, anyone attempting to siphon gas from another person’s automobile is taking quite a risk of being seen. Yet more often than not these days, gas thieves are willing to take that risk, although the payoff is certainly not as rewarding as other kinds of crime.
This rash of gas thefts suggests to me an act of desperation far different from the common run-of-the-mill petty crimes we are accustomed to seeing. Siphoned gas is not the sort of thing that is normally fenced, or taken with the intent to resell it to someone else like, say, jewelry often is. People who steal gas are people who are not just desperate for money, they are so broke they can’t get to where they need to go.
And we are now seeing even more acts of desperation relating to transportation. My next door neighbor’s car window was broken just so the perpetrator could pull the latch to open his hood and steal his battery. I can think of more portable -and more fungible- items an experienced burglar could steal than a car battery. This suggests to me that the thief chose my neighbor’s car to break into because it was similar in size to his own, and he really needed a replacement battery for his own car.
I don’t know if there is something about the layout of our parking lot that makes these types of thefts easier to pull off, but I and another tenant living in this complex have found the stickers on our license plates had been removed. Now, this is an act I can understand, even if I don’t condone it. No matter how destitute you may be, the government will still demand its pound of flesh, and you will find no compassion from that quarter. Whether your car is a brand new Lexus or a beat up old jalopy, and even if you own your car outright, you can lose it in an instant if you fail to cough up the annual ownership tax the state demands. If a policeman notices your car is not displaying the current tags to prove you’ve paid their annual extortion fee, he will pull you over and have that car impounded right out from under you.
For those who are struggling day-to-day making barely enough money to buy the gas to get to work, having their car impounded can mean the absolute end of everything, including their employment. What with the exorbitant fines, towing fee, and the heavy storage fees that accrue every day that car remains in the storage lot, for many working poor that means they’ll never see their car again. So for some who just can’t come up with the money to pay the registration fee, or whose car cannot pass the stringent smog tests required before they can even think about registering, it’s an obvious temptation to take a razor blade to a stranger’s license plate sticker, slice it off, and glue it onto their own.
This is risky indeed, for anyone caught displaying a sticker not registered to their own car will face penalties much stiffer than simply having their car stolen by the state. But desperate times drive people to desperate acts, and although I do not approve of this kind of theft, I certainly understand what might drive a person to commit it.
When we begin seeing batteries taken and gas being siphoned right out of parked cars, and when the need to keep one’s car on the road outweighs the risk of driving it with a stolen state sticker, we are beginning to see signs of decent society fraying at the edges. Sure, these types of crimes have occurred in the past, but never on the level we’re seeing today, at least not in my city. These are just a few small proofs that things are falling apart, bit by bit.
I’m certain there is every possibility we could witness an economic catastrophe that instantly plunges the world into sudden darkness. But right now I’m more concerned with the gradual decline I see taking place all around me. Speaking about the recent surge in gas siphoning in Los Angeles, LAPD Senior Lead Officer told a neighborhood watch group that “we’re going to start seeing some people who are normally good do bad things in these tough economic times.”
The best way to keep from sliding down that slippery slope yourself is to begin accumulating a store of food before things get that desperate. That way, if you ever find yourself with only a little money on hand, you can use that money to get to work rather than having to spend your last dollar on groceries.