When my beat up 2009 Jetta with 70, 000 miles was stolen on the street in front of the apartment building where I live, I felt isolated, alone and a victim. It was the big impersonal badass city of San Francisco against me, the little guy. In a noir mystery, say by Dashiell Hammett, I might have played the role of the nobody or fall guy fucked over by everyone else and who also fucks up royally and seals his own fate. Then at an event for a book published by Charles Kerr and co-sponsored by Hard Crackers Magazine, I told my tale of woe to a woman I didn’t know and had never seen before who teaches linguistics at San Francisco State University. She listened politely, smiled warmly, nodded her head as though to say she understood my plight, and proceeded to reinterpret my tale. I’m ever grateful for the kindness of strangers.
I should add that by the time I met the professor, I had my car again, thanks to my own diligence, the doggedness of the SFPD, who located my vehicle on Galilee Street in the Haight. They had it towed to “Auto Return” on Seventh Street in a kind of no man’s land, open 24/7. I came to think of the place as “Car Prison.” I saw that thousands of vehicles were kept there under lock and key and behind a chain link fence that would have challenged the Terminator himself. To get in, I had to show ID. Then I had to find one car in a sea of thousands. It was easier than I thought it would be.
In the narrative as told by the professor of linguistics I wasn’t alone, isolated and a nobody, but rather a creature of social forces: a car owner with a license to drive from the state of California, and an insurance policy that provided a real safety net. I had agency of my own, and had negotiated a path through a labyrinth of institutions all of them created and operated by human beings.
Thanks to the professor’s initial insights I came to the realization that the car thieves were part of the big social picture. They had a major role to play in a city in which car theft has become a major nuisance (to say the least) for car owners and the police. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that car theft also provides work for insurance agents and adjusters, revenue for towing companies and employment at the Car Jail. The thieves set the whole thing in motion; they create a system of sorts, much as other kinds of criminals, including murderers, bear responsibility for creating the cops, the legal profession, the courts and the prisons. The criminal justice system as it calls itself can’t be expected to abolish itself. Think of all the lost jobs and the end of the prison-industrial complex.
From the moment I was aware that my car had been stolen I suppose I should have seen the sociology of car theft and its aftermath. After all I have been a Marxist for much of my life, a political activist beginning in the 1950s, an anti-war protester arrested and jailed and beaten by the police, a professor fired from a teaching position at a university for thumbing my nose at authorities and at authority. I haven’t been a by-stander for the past 60 or so years.
In college the one book that really changed my thinking was Social Forces in American History, by A. M. Simmons. From the moment I read it and digested it, I was on a kind of social forces kick. Almost all the papers I wrote for American history and English classes were about social forces and how they shaped and determined human thinking and acting. My favorite novels were by Emile Zola and Theodore Dreiser. They’re about human beings ground down by social forces along with the workings of chance: an accident on the job that puts the worker out of work and that leads to a long slow downward progression.
Then in the mid-1970s when I was in my mid-30s, I arrived in California and had my head turned inside out and upside down. From that moment on, I heard a constant litany that said each and everyone was responsible for his or her actions and that no one was a victim. Placing “blame” on society or social forces was a cop-out, I was told. Many of those who spouted this perspective were psychologists or psychology students who didn’t urge anyone to work for the transformation of society but to go into therapy and learn not to project.
The other day, when I first explained to my sister-in-law that my car was stolen, her immediate thought was I must have left the car unlocked and provided the thieves with a perfect opportunity for a heist. They weren’t smart. I was dumb. I had a similar experience not long ago when I was “zoom bombed.” I was all set to do an online event when the screen was covered with the “n” word.” A voice said, “Fuck you, old man, Jonah Raskin,” and to the woman moderating the event, “Pop out your titties.” When I explained to friends what happened the common response was that I must have done or said something to provoke the zoom bomb. I don’t think so. I think it was random and unprovoked. I have found that if something “bad” happens to you or to someone you know, the stock explanation is that the “victim” has brought it down on his or her own head. Blaming the victim is as old as the Old Testament and it hasn’t gone out of fashion.
Ironically, my car was stolen at the very same time that I was at a demonstration and march that called for the continued closing of “The Great Highway,” as city dwellers know a major North/South artery for motor vehicles in San Francisco. The GH had been closed for much of the pandemic so that people could use it for recreation, to walk and ride bicycles and skateboards and breathe fresh air. It was recently reopened Monday through Thursday. Cars and trucks are back in force three days a week. Walkers and bicycle riders are back three days and absent four.
When I retrieved my vehicle from “Car Jail” I found that the key fob didn’t work, which suggested a break-in. Also, the interior had been trashed. The front seat, the back seat and the trunk were piled high with stuff that looked like it had been ripped off from Wal-Mart. There were cigarettes, condoms, sucking candies, shoes, leggings, a pipe with the residue of speed, and various documents with names, addresses and social security numbers—none of them connected to me.
Apparently, the thieves had used the vehicle as a living space, which prompted my brother to say, “It’s a housing problem.” Yes, it’s immense. My brother also suggested that I empty the trash from my car into garbage bags and place them next to the city refuse disposal bin on the corner. While I was doing this, a woman scolded me. According to her, I was supposed to use my own garbage containers. On my last trip to the disposal bin I saw that she had opened my garbage bags, removed the items she wanted, folded them neatly and placed them in a pile near the bench where she played music and danced all by herself.
“Another mentally ill person,” my brother said. Other individuals followed her example. My brother’s diagnosis might be spot on. He has lived in the neighborhood for 21 years. He’s also a private investigator who knows the criminal ways and the cops of the city. Still, I like to think that I was a conduit between the thieves and the “mentally ill” individuals on the street. The philanthropic thieves did good work, though they didn’t know it.
When I went to the Taraval police station to report the theft and later to receive an official form that enabled me to free my vehicle from Car Prison, I experienced some anxiety. I have been arrested and jailed by the police several times, and also beaten by cops on the street and in precincts. Inside the police station, I had to remind myself that I was not a criminal, and that there was no warrant for my arrest. I was an innocent man and had nothing to fear.
I’m curious now about A. R. Simmons Social Forces, which was first published in 1916. I don’t remember how, where or when precisely I found the book, but I want to reread it. Anyone out there have a copy to lend me? It was apparently reissued in 2013 by HardPress Publishing and is now available you know where.
Do I feel better knowing that criminals produce crime and provide stimulus to the productive forces? In a strange way I do, in much the same way that the experience was therapeutic. If car thieves didn’t already exist, Ford, GM and Toyota would have to create them.