Berkeley Chronicles Episode #9: Neighborhood Watch

The house that we all lived in had a Target store in the backyard and was within a 2 minute walk to a BART station. Actually, the BART tracks and bike path were between us and the Target. We used the bike path pretty much all the time. We’d often cross over the bike path to get to the Target to window shop when we were bored in the house.  It was also a convenient alternative way to get to Mark’s house and to get all the way to the Berkeley campus without having to dodge cars on our bikes.

It was also a bit dangerous. There was a small gang that liked to hang out near our BART stop of El Cerrito Del Norte.  Mostly it was just a couple of kids; some toughs dressed in ripped jeans, punk rock t-shirts and buffalo plaid. (It was the ’90s, after all.) They were maybe 13 or 16 years old. It was hard to tell. I never got close enough to them to get mugged.

We were fine during the day for the most part. The bike path was clear and wide and you could see these kids hanging out from blocks away. You just took the first corner off the path you came to and went around them. They weren’t the sharpest knives in the drawer.

It was at dusk or at night that you had to worry about. You couldn’t really see them in the shadows of the track pillars. They would jump out and surprise you holding short steak knives they’d plundered from their mom’s silverware drawer.  They would demand your wallet and then take off running. They never demanded our watches or jewelry or anything else – just the money.

It happened to Sarah Beth and Fitz. Fitz had just come from buying a really nice and very expensive guitar from the local Guitar Center and Sarah Beth had met him to walk home. He had the guitar slung across his back and Sarah Beth had her purse draped across her body. They were walking along the bike path at about dusk, chatting so intently they didn’t notice the gang hanging out and waiting for them.

Tough Guy #1 looked at Fitz barked out, “Give me your money, asshole.”

Fitz responded with, “Okay. Just hang on. I’m going to take my wallet out and give you the money inside.”

Tough Guy #1 waved his steak knife around and said, “Just give me that wallet!”

Fitz said, “Hey man. Be cool. I don’t mind giving you the money, but I’m not giving you the wallet. I really don’t want to go through the hassle of getting a new license.”

Tough Guy #2 said, “Yeah, man. That is a real pain in the ass.”

Tough Guy #3 nodded and said, “Yeah. You have to wait in there for hours.”

Tough Guy #1, still waving the knife said, “Okay-okay. Just hurry it up.”

Fitz fished out the money – a whopping $3 – and said, “Okay. Here you go.”

Tough Guy #1 gaped at the 3 wilted dollar bills and sneered, “That’s it??

Fitz shrugged, “That’s all I’ve got.”

Tough Guy #2 nudged Tough Guy #1 and said, “Just take the money! Let’s get out of here!”

So they took the measly $3 and ran off, leaving Fitz’s wallet, a $1500 guitar, and Sarah Beth’s purse with $50 in it behind. Again – not quite a full picnic going on up there.

But for Duncan enough was enough. No longer could he stand idly by while people were mugged by criminals too stupid to rob people properly. He called the local Neighborhood Watch.

I had no idea that we even knew our neighbors let alone had a honest-to-goodness Neighborhood Watch. But he contacted them about forming a patrol squad and having regular patrols in the evening hours for a while.  They scoffed and said, “What you think we are? Vigilantes?

And he thought, That would be awesome!

So he contacted this group called The Guardian Angels. They are a volunteer organization of people who patrol some high-crime spots in the city. They wear dark or navy blue pants and shirts with a white t-shirt labeled “Guardian Angels” in red writing over the top. However, it’s the bright red beret they all wear that really stands out. It makes them look like a low-budget military operation. We saw them all over the city in small groups. On the BART. At different stations. Hanging out on street corners that had been particularly plagued with crime in the recent weeks. They are all really nice and they do make you feel safe.

He asked if he could start a Guardian Angel chapter in the Del Norte. The guy he talked to said, “Son, if you want to start a watch group just start one. You don’t need to be affiliated with us or wait for your Neighborhood Watch to catch on.”

So he didn’t wait.

What he did do was to start a Vampire Sabbat live action role-playing game with two other friends and about 30 of their closest friends.

On the appointed evening they all showed up. In vampire character. Complete with fake teeth, pale make-up, teased up hair or wigs, glitter (in some cases), and wearing their most revealing and dangerous-looking leather and vinyl outfits.  They paraded up and down the path between the El Cerrito and Del Norte stations for hours that night. Completely cleared the path out of all thug-like or wannabe-thug people.

This is before vampires sparkled in the daytime and right smack during the Anne Rice vampires-are-monsters part of the mythology.

They did this on and off for about a month and it got rid of those little toughs. I bet they’d never seen anything like it before in their lives. 30 people in various states of vinyl undress parading around and pretending to be vicious or seductive vampires and playing out various role-playing scenes in the night time hours under the BART tracks.

They and their steak knives never showed up on the path again.

The Neighborhood Watch never thanked him. Jerks.

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