IS ANYONE SAFE? 06/06/2008
 

on my first full day alone in London i was nervous, but excited.  having just moved into a brand new flat, i did not yet have internet access, so i stuck my laptop in my bag and set off to walk to the nearest place with a wi-fi zone.  i walked for about 15 minutes and found a Starbucks with "T-Mobile HotSpot" painted on the window.  i bought a lemonade and sat down at a small table to check my email.

well, first of all, in London the wireless internet is not free at Starbucks the way it is in most U.S. states.  you have to enter all of your credit card info and pay for the internet access.  this means you have to pull out your credit card and type your most personal financial information into your computer in the middle of a crowded coffee shop, which isn't the greatest.  but needing to check email, i did this.  and as soon as T-Mobile took my money and billed my credit card, my email page opened.  then about 30 seconds later my entire laptop (a Macbook) shut-down.  i hadn't done anything or clicked anything -- it just shut down.  so i tried to turn it on again, and it would not even power up.  after many failed attempts, i grew increasingly worried.

while i was having trouble with my Mac something happened in Starbucks (i still don't know what) and suddenly there was a crazy woman in her late 40s or 50s ranting and raving at the top of her lungs in front of me.  being in the middle of a city i assumed it was a homeless woman who had wandered into the shop.  but i quickly realized she was just a regular customer who had just had a negative experience at the counter.  she was screaming and cursing at everyone in the place, me being one of those nearest to her, and eventually she stomped out the door. 

i was a little surprised at this.  you might expect that kind of thing in Manhattan or L.A., but i didn't expect it in Hammersmith, England.  however, my attention quickly reverted to my non-working laptop, which had been in perfect working order prior to using the T-Mobile HotSpot service.  the laptop would not even turn on, so i packed it into my bag and headed off to find the grocery store.

as i was walking through the hallway leading up to the grocery store entrance (Sainsbury's in the King Street Mall) i came across another uncomfortable situation.  as i approached the doorway i was face-to-face with two security guards who were dragging a man out of the grocery store on the ground by his arms.  the man was, again, in his late 40s or 50s, and was violently jerking himself all over the ground, shouting at everyone around and cursing and -- wait for it -- SPITTING on anyone he could reach.  i stood there in disbelief watching the spit hit the ground.  this basically normal-looking man writhing on the floor, being dragged bodily from the grocery store, spewing curse words and spitting on people.

welcome to London.

despite the cold welcome, i went into the grocery store where i encountered my first confusing shopping trip.  on my walk back home, broken laptop in tow, i passed two police officers giving a ticket to another man on the sidewalk, presumably for public drunken-ness.  the man was filthy and had a grimy backpack which was unzipped and revealing a collection of over-sized empty beer cans.  very nice neighborhood, i thought, considering this was all happening in the middle of the afternoon a few minutes from my flat.

about a week later i was sick and found myself in the pharmacy waiting for a prescription.  while strolling the aisles i heard a hard, loud crunch and looked to my left.  two men had just crashed to the floor in a fist fight and a third man was diving into the brawl.  i quickly realized that one of the men was a security guard and the other two men were criminals of some kind.  a fourth man jumped in (another store employee) and even a female customer landed on the ground to assist the security guards.  from a few feet away i watched this attack in disbelief again.  the fight went on for what seemed like a very long time as people screamed for police and rushed around the store (a Boots drugstore, for the record).

it took the police an AMAZINGLY long time to respond.  in the time it took i learned that the two men had shoplifted (in fact, i watched one man shake about 12 containers of Bare Minerals makeup out of his pant leg) and then they had attacked the security guard in their attempt to exit the store.  when the "police" arrived they were just two people in plain clothes with handcuffs and walkie-talkies on their belts.  no uniforms, no weapons.  i later learned that this is because handguns are illegal in England, and not even city police carry guns.  i'd never seen such a thing as police with no weapons.  how the hell are they supposed to handle criminals if they have nothing but their bare hands and a set of handcuffs?

this was all new to me, coming from Los Angeles.  but i am not going to get into a political discussion about handgun control here.  i just wanted to point out that "keeping the peace" in London must be incredibly hard without weapons in the hands of law enforcement.  it's almost laughable. 

in the meantime, the big story on the news that week was about the end of a trial involving a "goth" couple who had been randomly attacked, the male having been kicked in the head repeatedly until he was in a coma, and the girlfriend, who, trying to come to his aid, had been killed by being kicked to death on the ground.  the criminals convicted?  two 15- and 16-year-old white boys with no motive except that they didn't like the clothes and hair on the innocent couple passing by.

there seems to be a lot of no-motive youth violence in England.  in fact, knife crime is an almost daily topic of news reports in England because once you ban handguns, the next weapon of choice is a knife.  and this is very scary to me because i think that even a coward can fire a handgun, but it takes a truly violent being to physically stab another human to death.  and stabbings are a fixture on London's evening news.

every city has it's flaws.  i know this very well.  you can't live anywhere in 2008 and expect it to be free of crime.  but i've never lived anywhere that reports the volume of random crime that London does.

and i don't know what's worse:  the high number of crimes and crazy people blanketing my neighborhood, or the public's total indifference to the madness.

it makes me scared to go buy milk in the middle of a sunny afternoon.

and that's not good for anyone.