How I Fight Crime in My Spare Time

I moved into an apartment on New Year’s Eve about a mile away from UCLA with my canine child Zoe, an American Eskimo mix. I thought as most people do that Westwood is a safe, upscale place to live.

I told the building manager, Alia, I worked during the day and wrote poetry at night. I needed a quiet apartment building. I was promised that the building was quiet.

“The students study and go to school,” she told me with a smile.

That was the last smile she ever gave me.

I guess you have to live here to see the criminal underbelly. At least in this building.

Within two weeks, I started hearing wall-shaking rap music through the walls, throbbing through my skull. I went and knocked on the door. A twenty-something opened it. Tattooed Life, a blonde Mohawk, his eyes were huge hollowed out glassy pupils.

I asked him to turn down his music.

“Go fuck yourself.”

I told the manager, Alia. Her response:

“He’s a new tenant; he can do whatever he wants. If you don’t like it, move.”

I stood there, shocked.

Then an old man, in his seventies, rushed out of his apartment charging down the hall, yelling at me.

“I’m going to sue you for harassment!”

His rage made no sense unless they were associates of some kind.

I was getting my degree in Criminology, one criminal at a time. I didn’t have to look for the criminals. They came to me.

I suddenly felt I trapped in a modern day version of Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl” and I didn’t know how to get out. I stood hawk-eyed and hollow-stomached, watching half-way down the street. Curbside service.

Then I stood in the upper parking garage watching through the slats of wood, into the back courtyard, watching the men under a tree. A steady stream of customers in a line, like ants marching in a predestined army of the lost, chanting I need this now as they were grinding their collective teeth.

They were selling whatever could be pressed into your hand, undetected. I had a birds-eye view. One handshake for the little plastic packet. Another for the neatly folded cash.

Old Man yelled at his crew of five twenty-year-olds one Saturday night:

“I’m not your father, motherfuckers, go out and sell this shit”

He was hard of hearing and obviously ran the building. Gang graffiti engraved on the glass doors, side walls, their faces.

According to one of my friendly neighbors, Helen, who lived in the building for twenty-five years, she told me the Old Man and his brother lived there even before her. Same activities. He had threatened her too. She claimed one of them had a criminal record. She never quite knew what to do.

But I did.

I wasn’t going to move again. Even if my slumlord was a drug lord. Even if I could afford to move, which I couldn’t. I wasn’t going to be bullied or intimidated.

I left fear and sanity behind long ago.

Friday night I was jolted awake by more loud music. Party on the roof. I rushed up the stairs. Drinking and a glass pipe being passed around between about twenty students and older creepy-looking men who appeared to be over forty. I called the police, but by the time they arrived, the party was over.

For weeks it kept happening. Every time I called, the police never got there in time. The dealers would disappear on other floors or jump the fences by the time they arrived.

On Saturday nights I saw three huge men, standing under the tree in the courtyard. Students and upscale broken haloed yupsters in their SUV’s driving up, runners going back and forth past my window, scaring my dog. Enough.

I called the police one last time. I was calm this time.

“I think there are drug dealers in my building. They chased me down the hall. I tried to take their picture before my camera dropped and shattered. I believe the manager is in on it. She does nothing except defend them.”

I gave my report. I was told they would look into it. I assumed they would have surveillance on the building and of course they would see what I was now seeing day and night.

“Crazy bitch, Dead bitch, I gotta .38 in here.”

The dealers yelled from their window five feet away. From the window above me, I smelled acetone, marijuana, ammonia. I thought a vat of nail polish remover had exploded upstairs. Hammering, grinding, heavy footsteps stomping back and forth from ten at night until four o’clock in the morning.

Suddenly, water flooding my sink. Black sludge and silvery specks. I ran upstairs to ask my neighbor, who I refer to as “Walter White, Jr.” or “WWJ,” not to use his sink until a plumber could arrive.

“Get away from my door, bitch, I got a Smith & Wesson.”

I called the manager. She called a plumber but again did nothing about any of my new neighbors, so I called the police- again. A female police officer offered good, solid, incredibly insensitive advice:

“If you don’t feel safe, move.”

I will always remember that.

A few weeks later, I received a voicemail message:

“The case is closed. We did not find any evidence of narcotics on the premises.”

The detective left a return phone number. I called and spoke to him. Detective G. told me dismissively:

“I spoke to the manager, and she said there was no drug activity in the building.”

My mouth dropped in disbelief. I tried to restrain myself from screaming.

“I specifically told the officer I gave the report to not to speak to the manager. She is defending them. She’s in on it! She’s giving them free rent in exchange for running drugs. I can hear their conversations in the hallway. If you had surveillance in front of his door, you would know what I hear on a regular basis.”

A pause on the other end.

“I didn’t read that in the report.”

I asked him for his email address, so I could forward the exchange from the officer as that officer initially believed the whole case was a landlord/tenant matter, not a criminal one. After that, I emailed Detective G. with any suspicious activity.

There was no sign of any of my neighbors in the stairwell, or in front of the building. No sign of Old Man yelling down the hall. I hoped the dealers had been arrested. No. They had been tipped off by the detective’s call to the manager. Of course. They went underground. It was eerily quiet for a few months.

Meanwhile, Old Man wrote me a threatening letter and left it under my door.

He was going to use all of his resources to remove me from the building. I didn’t have time to wonder what kind of resources he might have. All I knew is I had to work fast. Or hope they would move out.

In the next week, there were armed robberies half a block away, in front of another building owned by my slumlord. However, the police believed me by now. I witnessed a pock-marked drug dealer who had a brown, shaggy dog which he used as a prop on his deliveries. No dog needs to be walked every forty-five minutes.

While I was taking Zoe for an early walk at 5 A.M., I saw Pockmarked walking up the lower garage driveway with his dog and stopped at the closed gate. A minute later a skinny jumpy hooded man walked up to the gate. A quick exchange. He rushed down the street. I called and emailed Detective G. detailing what I saw.

Three days later when I walked out the front door of my apartment building with Zoe at 5:00 AM, the street was surrounded by police. Cars blocked the upper and lower garages. I thought I was dreaming as I stepped down the front stairs. The officers looked at me and then Zoe. I overheard one of the officers whispering to the other “male, shaggy brown dog.”

A moment later, my neighbor with the shaggy brown dog emerged in handcuffs, head down.

It turned out they arrested six more in the building next door, including a former UCLA student.

I was relieved for a moment. But there were more dealers. The core group of dealers including the Old Man and the manager were still there. All was quiet for a few months. They went underground, way under.

I could sleep at night again. No more blaring rap music through my wall.

I didn’t see The Old Man at all except when he walked past me to throw out his trash. He glared at me; I glared back.

Step by step I continued my mission, in worn out shoes infusing the world between the sky and truth, creating the community I thought I had moved into. Doing what I wish someone had done before me. Not there yet. I savored my first exquisite taste of justice. Once I tasted it, I wanted more. And more showed up.

A vigilant soul
Has eyes of fierce wonder
Searching relentlessly for truth
Ears listening for justice
Returning home
In footsteps of its echo

Now working full-time only a mile away, with the company’s major client being a large cell phone service, I received a cell phone as a gift with free service. The Universe gave me another tool since I was still paying off credit card bills from being underemployed during the recession, I couldn’t afford a cell phone.

A few weeks later there were armed robberies two blocks away, in front of a building also owned by my unscrupulous landlord. A quick walk around the block and I could see the new faces. Standing in parking garages, waiting, sitting on the street corner, pupils as big as quarters, jumpy, heads turning back and forth, human metronomes, up and down the street, until the next customer would walk up. A double handshake and then hurry away.

By now most of the professional people moved out of my building with several empty apartments including the one next door. Then there was another tuition hike. The students could barely afford the rent.

It was not long before six to twelve new suspicious tenants were standing in the back stairwells, chatting up the tenants in the building and across the back fence, jumping over, back and forth. I also started to see these same residents walking across campus, disappearing into the dorms.

I decided to triple my efforts and called UCLA Police Department and spoke to the crime prevention officer, Officer Ellis. I rattled off details of the last year.

“I’ve been fighting some crime in my neighborhood and these new tenants I believe are not only dealing in my building, but I also see them crossing campus during drug dealing rush hours – between six and eight at night.”

I explained the previous incidents and the arrests that were made in my building and next door. Officer Ellis interrupted me.

“I was there.”

“Excuse me?”

“LAPD called in some officers for back-up. I was there that morning. White pock-marked male, shaggy brown dog.”

I was shocked and relieved that I wouldn’t have to waste another year convincing this police officer of the blatant crimes in and around my building, and now walking across campus. I asked for his email address, so I could send him photos of the cars that were lining up at night and seemed to be making deliveries. I made good use of my cell phone.

There was little time for writing poetry now, but I continued keeping my drug dealer diary and emailed LAPD, UCLA PD, and went on the DEA website to give all the license plate numbers, descriptions and schedules I could provide.

My neighborhood was infested with activity.

Mornings I would walk Zoe and see the suspects hiding behind bushes. I reported it. There were suspects in front of Starbucks on my way to work. I reported it. A tenant was walking up the street with a bloated backpack spilling out what looked like a portable meth lab. I reported it.

When I saw the cars pull up for curbside service, I took a photo and emailed it. If I couldn’t take a picture, I got as close as I could and memorized the license plate then rushed inside to write it down. I reported it. I wasn’t going to let them take over my neighborhood.

It is my neighborhood now with dozens of wonderful neighbors. I feel compelled to protect it and them.

Photo: © Julie Anderson All Rights Reserved


Marie Scampini

Marie Scampini is a published poet, playwright, short story writer, currently working on a poetry collection and project - 1775 Poems in 1775 Days, to save her life every day, on a page, and in this world; fighting for justice, safety, and equality for all, one person at a time.

One Comment
  1. Dori Owen

    Yay for you….I admire your tenacity and vigilance. I used to live in the Westwood area, but before it became such a drug haven. I hope you never stop pushing back! ~D.

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