Anyone on the all-college mailing list will tell you: Davenport College has a theft problem. We get an email (abridged below) almost every month from either Head of College Anjelica Gonzalez or the college office. In March, we got two in one week.
Date: Thu, Mar 2, 2023
From: Anjelica Gonzalez, Head of Davenport College
Subject: Davenport student kitchen closed until further notice
Recently, the kitchen managers have implemented a new reservation system using a lockbox. Unfortunately, the lockbox has been stolen and… without approval from… Items have gone missing, and the kitchen has been left an absolute… closed until… keep in mind… make Davenport the special place that it is.
Date: Tue, Mar 7, 2023
Subject: [Davenport.all] Please return vase to college office
Attention Dport Sophomores, …Whoever has it, please…
…5pm today, no questions asked.
My first encounter with the slick fingers of my fellow Davenport Gnomes is burned into my memory. It’s April 8, 2022, and it’s sunny out, almost 60 degrees. Throngs of students lie on the grass in the center of campus. I am in a really good mood. Unbeknownst to me, someone has stolen three crucial pieces of the drum set in the Large Music Room (LMR), a student practice space in the basement of Davenport. Now AWOL:
– one bronze 20” ride cymbal
– one bronze 16” crash cymbal
– one snare drum stand
The crime scene is messy. Wingnuts and mangled cymbal stands are sprawled across the floor. A lonely, stand-less snare drum sits abandoned in the corner. The stolen items were selected specifically, if unintelligibly. I imagine the thief kept their eyes down as they ran down the long basement hallway, up two flights of stairs, and out into the bright light of freedom. I imagine their cackle of glee upon the heist’s completion. I do not have to imagine my own place in this scene; I arrived at the LMR too late to catch the thieves in the act. I discover only the mutilated remains they left behind, and my afternoon plans, ruined.
One year later, the items are still missing. In February, I did see someone walking across campus with a 20” ride. I gave him my best accusatory glare, but I couldn’t ID the suspect, and seeing as I was a good half-foot shorter than this giant, guilty drummer, I did not intercede to place him under citizen’s arrest.
Let me clarify: the Davenport LMR does not allow rentals, loans, borrowing, bartering, or the removal of any item at any time. It says so on the “Studio Guidelines” and “Key Rules to Remember,” printed on a sheet of 8.5” x 11” paper and posted on the door. The rules are also included in a document that every student must sign before they can reserve the room. Only after you have signed this document are you given the 5-digit access code, which changes semi-monthly. I will admit that until last month, the rules also directed all questions towards the “current room manager,” who graduated more than a decade ago, but the social contract is clear. As is its violation. This crime was committed by a signed agreer of the rules, a so-called participant in the cultural project of communal music-making, and a fellow drummer. This crime was an inside job.
This problem isn’t unique to us Davenporters. All over Yale University, shared property goes missing every day. Plates and mugs from the dining hall. Signs. Lamps. A couch walked out of Saybrook this fall. Metal letters have been repeatedly removed from entryway doors in Benjamin Franklin. (This one, I’m told, is a tricky fix. The letters are hard to replace, and the buildings aren’t up to fire code without them.) But those crimes are a problem for another Yalie. Davenport is my castle, and I, its knight. Or perhaps it’s my crime scene, and I, its detective. Whatever the metaphor: this one is personal.
This is not to say that I have always been a man of sterling morals. In early high school, I stood complicit to the shoplifting phases of my older friends. The theory was if you only ever steal from Target, it doesn’t count; stealing from a big corporation isn’t a crime, it’s more like revolutionary praxis. I was far too timid, too concerned with my institutionalist future to join the movement. But I’ll admit, I was sympathetic.
Literature has long mythologized the figure of the kleptomaniac: Robin Hood, Jean-Valjean, and perhaps the Pilferer Of All Time, Prometheus. These thieving protagonists are empathetic, populist heroes, and the desire to emulate them, to join the ranks of the P.O.A.T.ed, should come as no surprise. To merit inclusion in such a lauded cohort, however, the act of stealing must be driven by so desperate a need that it can only be interpreted as a righteous victory for capital-G Goodness.
I had a friend suggest that it’s about the transience of our lives here. The rooms that we inhabit are sparse, borrowed. Life here can be chaotic, and creating order, difficult. The need to moor oneself can be fulfilled—if only in part—by the collection of bits and bobs and the assertion of our right to occupy physical space. Can be fulfilled, for example, by a flower vase. I know who took it, by the way. He was damn right: it did look good on the coffee table. But before you go pointing fingers, rest assured that he brought it back—no questions asked.
But I have more questions. So I text the vase thief and he agrees to sit down with me for breakfast in the Davenport dining hall—table for two in the corner, beside a ten-foot window that douses us in morning light. Behind me, someone asks the dining hall staff about a milk allergy. In front of me, the thief clarifies that he wants no personal details included in this piece, and certainly does not want me to mention the fact that he is slurping methodically on a grapefruit as we talk. He agrees that the pilfering urge comes, in part, from a desire for “home improvement.” He thought the flowers looked pretty; he wanted them for his common room. But he likes the Prometheus theory better. “It’s obscene that an institution with this much money should care,” he tells me. “There’s no feeling of responsibility to keep the institution whole, and so I might as well take advantage of them to decorate this room they give me.” And, he adds, “they stole my chair last summer in the housing shuffle,” by which he means: I work so hard for this school, and I still end up shafted. Let me have this one small thing.
He is verbalizing a common sentiment here at Yale. Not only are the thieves heroes, Yale is the villain. The vast, faceless, irredeemable Man, who takes our tuition dollars and offers us a tortuous four years, and maybe, if we can survive it, a paltry diploma in return. Goddamn if we don’t deserve at least a vase.
But of course, The University isn’t a single entity. And often, the items that go missing are not symbols of oppression, nor hoarded treasure. They’re already ours. There’s an allegory for this, I think; something to do with sheep and the Schwarzman Center and pastoral England. And it basically goes like this: stop taking shit that we’re supposed to share! Leave it where you found it! Or, face the consequences. Thieves of Yale University: Beware. I am your Sheriff of Nottingham. I am your Javert. I am your Eagle of Zeus—hold tight your entrails.
Which brings me to April 8, 2022. It’s sunny out, it just reached 60 degrees, and I am late to the scene of the crime. Someone has stolen one-third of the Davenport drum set, a hideous violation of the social contract, and a total bummer—my friends and I had planned to lug that thing down the hall, up two flights of stairs, and out to the center of campus so that we could play jazz together in the afternoon sun. But don’t worry, I’d have brought the drum set back tomorrow, or, at least sometime soon.