I pulled up to the vacant house, camera in hand. I was hoping I didn’t look suspicious to the neighbors. I think it’s a rule that when you try to avoid looking suspicious, you look suspicious.
I parked on the side of the road in front of the house and decided to talk to the neighbor. The neighborhood was quiet and friendly, up on a hill, surrounded by trees, and on a dead end. So I felt comfortable as I crossed the street and approached a mom and her young daughter, who were standing in their front yard.
“What do you know about that house over there?” I asked. Maybe not the best question to lead with, but I wasn’t here to waste time. I also went through my mental list of questions like “How long has it been vacant?” and “What can you tell me about the last occupant?”
She answered my questions — actually her young daughter answered most of them — and then I turned my attention to the house.
I worked for a real estate company that bought, fixed up, and re-sold foreclosed houses. They needed guys like me to scout out potential houses to buy. On the rare occasion, I would be able to get into these houses in order to snap some photos. But that only happened on two conditions. First, a house would have to be vacant, obviously — I can just imagine walking into an occupied house.
“Don’t worry about me, folks,” I’d say. “I’m just gonna take some pictures so some big company can decide if they want to buy your property at an auction. Excuse me, would you mind stepping out of the frame?”
Second, I had to have the correct generic key — my employer supplied me with a keyring of generic keys — to fit the generic locks that banks would put on foreclosed houses. (Also if the door was open, I might just walk in).
I crossed the street and went down the hill toward the empty house. I found the key that fit the lock, went in, and started my usual routine of taking pictures. No big deal. I finished, got in my company car, and started driving away.
I was driving down the quiet street, about to round the turn, when two cop cars whipped around the corner, sirens blazing, coming straight at me. One car stopped me in my tread, my front bumper was almost touching his. As the policeman stepped out of his car, I noticed two other cars pull passed me down the road — the second policeman as well as an undercover cop.
The officer that stopped me was approaching my car.
“Turn the car off,” he yelled. I remember his hand motions being very angry. I also remember him reaching for his gun, but I can’t confirm that.
I turned the car off and held up the key for the cop to see, my hand shaking. Next thing I remember, I was getting barraged with questions. Then the second officer showed up, and I thought I would be handcuffed any minute. They were asking me things like “Who are you? What are you doing here? Can we search your car? Will we find any stolen items?”
I felt guilty, like I needed to confess something. I felt like I had committed a terrible crime, like I was about to crack under the pressure and the guilt of what I had done, whatever that was.
But I handed them my business card, proved that I was really employed by who I said I was employed by, and they believed me. Then they became like real people – joking with me, asking me where I went to school. What happened to the angry outfit that was just before me? When did they become my outgoing uncles?
As it turned out, that house had been burglarized before. And apparently, the nice and friendly neighbor and her daughter had called the po-po on me. They thought I was another burglar. But I’m sure the little girl was enjoying herself, seeing this dubious young man who broke into the neighbor’s house belittled by men in uniforms.
As I drove away, being freed from the stern looks, hard questions, and fake friendliness of the policemen, my adrenaline was still pumping. I’m glad they didn’t look in the trunk.