The camera was so expensive that my neighbor Jean never figured out what all the buttons did.
I snapped photos of us sitting on the concrete steps outside our front door on Harvard Street in Cambridge — though our heads were partially, or entirely, missing from the frame, because I took the pictures with my arm outstretched, not looking through the camera’s viewfinder.
Some unsuspecting pedestrians got captured, too, like the Chinese lady who lives upstairs and always carts a laptop to her MIT lab in a suitcase on wheels.
Potential renters came by that day to check out a back room in Jean’s apartment, which is across the hall from mine. A couple of them were kind of cute, and I thought if one of them moved in, I might make a new friend. Jean and I got to feeling crazy and rebellious, so he brought out a pack of cigarettes, and we shared one, coughing between puffs, since neither of us is a regular smoker.
It was a warm night in late June, and there was a real feeling of community.
The next day, I left for a week in Canada. When I returned, I noticed immediately that something wasn’t right. The lights in the apartment were on, the stereo in the kitchen was playing, yet no one was home. An old bed sheet was half-taped, half-hammered to the kitchen window to prevent outsiders from seeing in.
Someone had broken through the screen and climbed in through the first-floor window. Jean’s camera, which I had borrowed, had been left on the couch in its black case. It wasn’t there anymore, nor was my roommate’s Toshiba M56 laptop.
I called Jean on his cell as soon as I found out. I said I had some bad news.
“I’ll buy you a new camera, I really will,” I said. “I’ll buy you a new camera, Jean.”
Jean told me I shouldn’t worry about it, it wasn’t my fault, but I kept insisting I would buy him a new one. I meant it, of course, but I kept procrastinating. First I thought I should buy him another camera. Then someone told me I wouldn’t know what kind he wanted. I thought about writing him a check, but how much for a camera that cost $500 two years ago? I thought about getting him a gift certificate at a store where he likes to shop.
It’s been almost a month, and I still haven’t made good on my promise. The thing is, I feel less guilty now, and I think about it less often. Also, Jean and I are still friends, and he isn’t angry.
But that’s not my only moral dilemma.
The burglary was the second in this apartment in three months. My roommate Cassie had been thinking of moving out for a while, because of the occasional cockroach running across the bathroom floor. But the second burglary was the last straw. She doesn’t even sleep in our apartment anymore.
My roommate and I have had a bunch of people come by to see her room, which is for rent. The rent is reasonable, the building is within walking distance to MIT, and the space is not tiny. But when we tell them about the robbery, they get second thoughts.
On the one hand, we feel it would be unfair not to tell people. On the other hand, if we tell them, we might not find anyone to move in unless they’re a desperate drug addict.
So we compromised and decided we would tell people that, yes, the place has been robbed, but without specifying how many times.
Which brings me to moral issue No. 3.
The first burglary happened the night of April 1. The thief or thieves made off with three laptops and my cellphone, as well as, we were amused to learn later, a pair of house slippers.
Eventually, I got my phone back from the police. They arrested some guys who do burglaries in the area, a detective told me, and my phone was in their possession. Because they were juveniles, the police wouldn’t tell us who they were.
Whoever the thief was, he didn’t have the time to erase his text messages. He changed the ring tone to the popular song “This Is the Way I Live.” He messaged girls from his school asking for sexual favors, without revealing who he was.
I felt guilty for reading these private exchanges and even sharing them with anyone who was curious enough to look. One day, while waiting for a train at North Station, I copied them down in my notebook, matching phone numbers, reconstructing dialogues from the inbox and outbox, and trying to figure out the meanings of misspelled and unfamiliar slang words and abbreviations.
I felt uncomfortable — even a bit guilty — about writing down the obscenities, hoping no one was reading over my shoulder. But then, I reasoned, the thief should feel guiltier about stealing my phone and using all my minutes