Just When You Thought It Was Safe to Go to the Corner Mailbox

Guest Blog by Nancy Boyarsky

I’m insatiably curious about people and the things that go on around me. Sometimes I see things on my morning walks, for example, that strike me as odd and pique my interest. Below is an example, but let me preface my tale with a caveat. To the police, our lower Westwood neighborhood is one of the safest in L.A.—although it might sound not so safe to someone living, for example, in a small-town in the Midwest.

Lately, we’ve had been a scattering of home burglaries and a few street robberies. But most criminals working the area have taken to stealing from cars. The latest wrinkle in car-related crime involves night-time theft of auto parts, like tires and airbags, sometimes catalytic converters. For those of us with homes so old that our garages can’t accommodate modern vehicles, cars have to be left in the driveway or on the street. So we lock them up and hope for the best.

But I’m talking about another type of crime. I witnessed it on a day when I set out to mail a letter. Although the mailbox is only a block away, I drove because it was my first stop in a round of errands.

A young man, late teens to early 20s, was at the mailbox. He was wearing a T-shirt and khakis, and he looked clean-cut. Besides, it was mid-day. Broad daylight. No alarm bells went off in my head.

As I drew closer to the mailbox, I noticed something odd. Instead of depositing mail, he was pulling out envelopes, a few at a time. He had a wire that looked as if it had been fashioned from a coat hanger. He was using it to poke in the box and snag mail.

When I realized what was going on, I decided not to stop. Instead, I circled the block and came back, parking a few houses away from the mailbox. I pulled out my cell phone and called 911. After the usual “what-is-your-emergency?” greeting, I explained that I was, at that moment, witnessing a crime. Even as I said this, the young man had stopped rifling in the mailbox. He’d stepped back and was now scanning the street, as if he expected someone to pick him up.

The 911 operator told me that a crime involving mail wasn’t an emergency, but she would transfer me to someone who would know what to do. I went through several connections, each one seemed puzzled by my complaint. Finally, the last person I spoke to said that a mailbox wasn’t within the preview of the LAPD; it was the property of the U.S. Postal Service, and thereby a federal matter. He gave me a phone number so I could report the problem to postal service.

Meanwhile, the young man, apparently giving up on his ride, was looking around, consulting his watch. He didn’t see me, or if he did, he didn’t give any indication.

I dialed the number for the USPS. Ten minutes or more had passed since I’d first spotted the ongoing crime. But the young man was still on the corner, and I’m not one to give up easily.

When I reached the number I’d been given, I realized it was the general information line for the postal service. The automated voice asked me which language I spoke. In some frustration, I pressed “one” for English. Then it asked if I wanted to track a package, get post office information, ask for re delivery. I was encouraged to sign up for more information at myuspc.com. Finally, I was asked to say in a few words what I wanted.

The young man had started to walk away, taking his time, not in any great hurry.

I kept at it, trying to make the automated call system understand that I wanted to report a mailbox break-in. I’d just about exhausted synonyms for “break-in” when a live person came on the line. By now the perpetrator had disappeared. The man at the postal service listened to my story, then asked for the postal box’s location. He said he’d report it to the local supervisor for my area. I realized that he was somewhere else, maybe in Des Moines, or even Washington, D.C.

Later, I contacted my neighborhood association and learned that people had been complaining that they were unable to use their local mailboxes because someone had put a sticky substance in the mailing mechanism, so envelopes got stuck and did not actually drop into the mailbox. Obviously, this was a more sophisticated approach than using a bent coat hanger.

The next issue of the neighborhood association’s newsletter gave a list of sticky mailboxes. Ours was on the list, even though glue had never been the problem.

With that, I decided that my career as a crime fighter was over. At least for me, writing fiction about crime is more rewarding.

Nancy Boyarsky’s latest mystery, Liar Liar, featuring private eye Nicole Graves, can be purchased at BookPeople.

INTERVIEW WITH MAX ALLAN COLLINS

Max Allan Collins is probably the crime fiction author who has had the most impact on me. In my teens I discovered his private eye Nate Heller and was hooked. In following his work, a real life character pops up through the years, famed Untouchable Eliot Ness. It came as little surprise he wrote a biography about the federal agent and his fight with Capone along with historian A. Brad Schwartz, Scarface and the Untouchable:  Al Capone, Eliot Ness, and the Battle for Chicago. It was great honor to talk to one of my heroes about one of his.

Scarface and the Untouchable: Al Capone, Eliot Ness, and the Battle for Chicago Cover ImageMysteryPeople Scott: You’ve used Eliot Ness in your fiction for over three decades and wrote and produced a play about him. What draws you to him?

Max Allan Collins: As a kid I saw the original Desilu Playhouse production of “The Untouchables” with Robert Stack, which led to the TV series.  I was a huge fan of the show and fascinated by the basis in history, although as we know the series played fast and loose. I was already a Dick Tracy fan, and Ness seemed to be a real-life Tracy. Years later I would discover that Tracy’s creator, Chester Gould, actually based Tracy on Ness and the Untouchables.  My Nathan Heller private eye novels, which are fact-based and set in Chicago, seemed to cry out for Ness to be my PI’s police contact. After his appearances in the Heller series, Ness starred in four books I did about the Untouchable’s Cleveland years, as well as comics appearances in Road to Perdition and a Batman graphic novel, Scar of the Bat.  I intended the play to be my last word on the subject…until my co-author came along.

MPS: Prohibition era Chicago is one of those places and times that are iconic in our history and captures our imagination, like 1870s Dodge City and San Francisco in the sixties. What is do you think the appeal is?

MAC: It was a specific time — like the Old West, it didn’t last long — and the misguided social experiment of Prohibition led to a wild period in which criminals often became anti-heroes and the public was largely in on the law-breaking, by way of ignoring the 18th amendment.

MPS: What the book reminded me is how young both Capone and Ness were when they started out. Do you think their youth helped define the kind of gangster and lawman they were?

MAC: I do, and that aspect of their combined story has always fascinated me — particularly since Hollywood traditionally cast much older actors in the roles.  My co-author, A. Brad Schwartz — who is a Princeton history major in the doctorate program — is about the same age as Ness when he took Capone on.

MPS: Did you learn anything about the two in working on the book that surprised you?

MAC: The similarities were striking — immigrants with fathers who had made good, honest lives.  But also there were the fun facts, like straight-arrow Ness lying about his age to land a federal job, and Capone and Ness living on the same Chicago street for many years.

MPS: There have been several books on Capone. Was their a certain way Mr. Schwartz and you wanted to approach him for yours?

MAC: Not to disparage all of the books, but many were weak or poorly researched, particularly where Eliot Ness is concerned.  Authors seemed to love taking Ness down a bunch of pegs from the Hollywood version, but didn’t bother really digging into who and what this man really was.

MPS: Outside of Ness and Capone did you discover another person in the book you found fascinating?

MAC: Edward O’Hare, father of the war hero O’Hare Airport was named for, was a fascinating, shifty fixer, who has often been painted positively by historians when in fact he was a manipulative, slippery character.

MPS: Did you find anything that contradicted Eliot Ness’ memoir The Untouchables?

MAC: The memoir has been much criticized, yet a lot of it really happened.  The co-author, sports writer Oscar Fraley, took great liberties by moving historical material around for dramatic effect.  Things Ness did prior to the Untouchables — the Chicago Heights investigation, for example — were depicted by Fraley as happening after the formation of the Capone squad.  Ness was at the end of his life, needing money desperately, and allowed the book to be essentially a non-fiction novel.