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Honestly, who won’t take stuff that isn’t nailed down?

September 3, 2014


The message is written in red marker on cardboard and taped to a grey garbage bin by a fence in an alley on the south side of West Broadway Avenue. The grey bin is shaded by both a hedge and trees by the way.

“Did U “find” 2 pruning shears and a branch cutter here? Sorry, not freebies”.

Under the message there’s a phone number so people can call someone named Ted.

Ted wasted his time writing this note. It’s been there for over a week. He’s never getting his tree grooming tools back and I think he knew that when he penned his note — he was venting.

Ted’s real message to the world was that he felt he’d been robbed — he just didn’t want to come right out and actually say it. That’s why he put quotes around the word “find”.

Rather than write the note, maybe he should have spent his time and effort trying to kick himself in the backside for daring to leave tools on the ground by the garbage outside the boundaries of his private property and on the public property of the back alley.

Here’s a tip: unattended is the new free

Message to Ted: By the garbage in the alley is exactly where people all over Vancouver leave stuff they don’t want but think someone else might be able to use.

In addition to returnable bottles, people leave out “stuff”. And yes, they’ve been know to leave out gardening tools — all manner of tools.

Last week a woman moving out of her apartment near Cambie brought out a box containing a circular saw and a drill. Where should she leave it? she asked me. By the dumpster I told her and it was all gone by the next day.

This has been going on so long that when I started binning 10 years ago  the old-timer binners had already been referring to these sort of offerings as “tips” for some 20 years.

And binners have long had competition for these free objects in the lanes — particularly from flea marketeers — but also from area residents.

The people who do flea markets roll through the back alleys of Vancouver with hatchbacks and pickup trucks. The hardest-core ones have the sides of their pickup box bolstered with tall wooden sides. They love tools and ladders and scrap metal, sometimes more than they love property rights.

Residents aren’t quite so avaricious. They’re interested in items, such as home furnishings, that are in such good shape that they can use them immediately. There are also women who range through the back alleys of Fairview in the evening seeking nothing but gardening stuff: those square seedling containers and any sort of planter. They seek and they find. Because there is another group of resident who put just that sort of stuff out.

Everyone knows what the binners and homeless people take out of the lanes (or they think they know) –namely anything that’s not nailed down.

Be that as it may. They’re no longer the only ones.

Ted should have understood the long-standing convention of leaving unwanted items by the garbage but he was also right to be pissed off.

These days it seems everyone, regardless of their income, wants something for free and they will stoop to take it if they get their chance.

So there’s no telling who took Ted’s tools.

Getting or giving yourself permission to steal

Going through the lanes as I do, I regularly see people leaving stuff at risk the way Ted did. Building managers landscapers, handymen, construction workers and residents — all leave their tools in ambiguous places.

Getting back to Ted’s  tools; Everyone should be able to connect the dots between pruning shears on the ground near  hedges and trees. And I’m sure there was evidence of fresh yard work — cut branches on the ground and the like

Even if I wanted pruning shears or branch cutters (which I don’t) I would have left Ted’s alone, recognizing they weren’t garbage. They weren’t “freebies” as Ted put it on his note.

You’d have to willfully blind yourself to the obvious to take tools under such circumstances. And that’s just what people in general are increasingly willing to do.

Not just binners. I’m repeating a story now, but I caught a flea marketeer/scrap hunter standing beside his big truck, seriously eying aluminum scaffolding neatly stacked on a Fairview condo’s property.

The fellow had the nerve to ask me if I thought the building was “putting it out”. I told him “no” but I actually used more four-letter syllables to do it.

He was asking me rhetorically but he was also asking me for permission to steal the scaffolding.

I had no doubt that he would of with the slightest encouragement.

Did they learn that from homeless people?

That’s what building managers like Ted are up against. The sense of entitlement that enables people to take whatever isn’t nailed down and to take it with a clear conscience. This attitude used to be the special conceit of the poorest and the drug-addicted but in recent years I’ve watched it go mainstream.

From the poorest people who know they are thieves; through to people who might not admit it but know they’ll take whatever advantage they can. All the way up to people who imagine themselves to be perfectly honest.

This economically, ethnically and culturally diverse group have at least one thing in common: they are all willing, under the right circumstances, to give themselves permission to steal what they know doesn’t belong to them.

I’m not talking about just in the back alley but everywhere I look.

How many people won’t pick up a $2 coin, a $10 bill, a wallet? And how many people won’t keep the money in the wallet?

I have by the way — kept the cash — and dropped the wallet, with all it’s ID and credit cards, in a the nearest mailbox. I was a poor homeless person —  that was my excuse — but taking the money was theft.

I’ve heard other people living on the street justify keeping the cash as a “handling fee”. Cute right? Again we can always give ourselves permission because were so much poorer than the person the wallet belongs to.

I know someone who makes $100,000-a-year who admits they would keep the money and anything else they fancied and throw the wallet in the garbage, to teach the person a lesson.

This person doesn’t see this as theft but I do.

I refuse to kid myself. My personal definition of stealing has always been straightforward: taking things that don’t belong to me. Canadian law is much more nuanced and sees it as taking property that belongs to someone else.

But there’s no difference really. A capitalist system envisions that everything is owned by someone. Nothing can truly be free.

Saying it’s garbage is just a cop-out?

A few years ago I was beginning to disassemble a piece of a broken city sawhorse which had been run over and then abandoned by city workers in an alley. It had sat in the same spot for months. I finally decided to take some useful pieces off it before a city garbage crew finally took it a way.

I was interrupted by the freshest-faced motorcycle police officer I had ever encountered. Police officers don’t have an equivalent “new car” smell but this officer seemed fresh out of the academy.

He railed at me. No mater if the city property was abandoned garbage. It wasn’t mine I shouldn’t touch it. Simple as that.

I didn’t argue because fundamentally I agreed with him. It was a kind of stealing on my part.

My justification — my permission — was that it was trash, something in my bailiwick. I could extract value from it before it was disappeared into the landfill. And of course, I was a poor homeless person.

It’s easy to justify theft, to give yourself permission:

  • “I have bills to pay”
  • “If I don’t someone else will”
  • “Otherwise those beer cans will just go towards buying drugs”
  • “It serves them right for just leaving it lying around”
  • “I need this more than they do”
  • “I thought it was free”

The problem isn’t that some very poor, marginalized people do this. The problem is that so many so-called ordinary people are now willing steal if given the opportunity.

A once-in-a-decade opportunity

It may be ancient history but the Stanley Cup riot in 2011 is still a case in point.

The riot began only blocks from the Downtown Eastside; the poorest area in all Vancouver; full of marginalized men and women, with legitimate poverty, mental health and addiction issues.

Yet not one DTES resident, not one homeless person, was charged as a result of the damage and looting that occurred.

The riot was made up of good kids from good homes and taxpaying young men and women with jobs. All upstanding members of society. All as far from marginalized as you can be in this society. And not one of them was at the slightest risk of going hungry.

Yet every one of them could justify actually looting stores. Their permission apparently came from a natural entitlement and alcohol and that’s all.

They weren’t stealing to feed an uncontrollable drug addition. They weren’t stealing because they needed anything. They were just stealing because they wanted to and they could.

And because everyone else was.

That’s the ultimate permission to steal that seems to be working its way through society and it’s a truly corrosive trend.

Unfortunately, like Ted’s note on his grey bin, this post is more complaining than anything else.

I’m homeless and homelessness is a not part of the solution but rather part of the problem.

Admittedly it’s becoming a smaller part of the problem but that not because homelessness is falling (if it actually is) but because it seems the percentage of the general population who will cheat and steal is steadily rising.

So what I’m basically saying is Ted’s pruning shears may not have gone to buy street drugs after all. Just a rather nice bottle of Sandhill Pinot Gris. Click the image to enlarge it.

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