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When a Really Good Deal Is Really a Steal

June 27, 1993|McALISTER J. MERCHANT JR. | McAlister J. Merchant Jr., 50, of the Downtown area, has lived in Los Angeles for more than 20 years and is a computer technical writer. He is originally from Chicago and is the father of one. and

I was cycling through an early morning drizzle when my thoughts rode off to other places and this old nursery rhyme:

Water won't quench fire. Fire won't burn stick. Stick won't strike dog. Dog won't bite pig. Pig won't jump stile, and I shan't get home tonight.

I have a friend who doesn't understand how connected his life is to mine. And yours.

For not the first time, he's "getting" some new electronic equipment. It's a gift. Sort of. Another friend is "giving" it to him, very cheap. He, the friend, got the TV because of last year's riots.

I know all this because my friend can't keep that kind of secret.

He knows the way I feel about stealing, and fencing, and receiving stolen goods. But it was such a deal!

I've railed against this practice with him before. A few years ago his high-tech hot VCR was stolen and he couldn't report it. It was evil to take that particular VCR at any price, or at no price. I tried to convince him that he was putting me and my possessions in jeopardy. As long as there's a market (him) for stolen goods, entrepreneurs (thieves) will find (steal) inventory to satisfy that market (sell).

He's not alone. He doesn't think he's a bad man. He goes to church and thinks good thoughts with people just like him. And worse!

In the aftermath of the riots, people are suffering. A mall owner in the Crenshaw area can't get the insurance company to give him the money to rebuild; a mall tenant can't get the bank to adjust his mortgage payments while he rebuilds. A mall-cleaning contractor mortgaged his house to stay in business while he waited for the mall to be rebuilt. It may not be rebuilt. He may lose his house.

This man had watched helplessly while two trucks rammed through the electronics store window; watched helplessly, frightened, as these thieves systematically removed its inventory. He watched as these "nouveau entrepreneurs" eliminated competition by filling glass bottles from the gasoline supply they'd brought with them, and burned the store to cover their crime and add to the general mayhem of that night.

And my friend now has a new TV.

If there's justification for "getting" this kind of "good deal," for how many other things are there justifications? Perhaps there's some justification for running an unpoliced red light. Perhaps there's some justification for beating a wife. Perhaps there's some justification for ethnic cleansing. Perhaps there's some justification for beating Rodney King, some justification of Stacey Koon.

What happens if I don't accept that my freedom ends where my neighbor's begins. What if my freedom only ends where he can stop it or where I don't stop. What if, besides the freedoms we share, I take other freedoms I can justify because I need them, because your ancestors owned mine, because you don't "treat me right," because . . . I work hard every day. I should be able to buy the latest, the newest, the best. After all, I'm good! I'm discriminated against. Perhaps, I do have justification. Yeah, gimme a deal!

There might be no need for justice . . . I don't have a new TV.

But my freedom does end where yours begins.

My prosperity is impossible wherever I deny you full access to yours. It isn't enough to merely get mine then pay for protection. It isn't enough to obey codified law, except to flout the unpunished. It hurts somebody. It degrades the environment for somebody.

I can't bicycle without maintaining balance and obeying unwritable laws. Streets that connect, like people, enable commerce, communication, play, work, encounter, escape. Neglect, disregard, and meanness--direct or indirect--are all detrimental to the flow, now or later.

Cycling through the streets is like this. It's riding through one city and seeing it change block by street, from what it has been to now is, sensing the changes in time and circumstance, the disparities of one place from another, while I pass buildings once burned, then razed, now gone.

My trip back took a turn through curiosity about the differences between the relationship of the cleaning contractor and his mortgage, and the relationship between a store owner and the good neighbors who protected his store through those scary nights and weary days.

How do we replicate this model? Neighbors, understanding, if not knowing. Neighbors, content in sharing an environment, if not a heritage. Neighbors living a new life while creating for their children a new heritage, tomorrow's legacy.

Water, quench thirst. Fire, light hearth. Stick, bear man. Dog, warm bed. Pig, root mushroom, and I'll share my home tonight.

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