Only in Wheeling: Chuckling at Crime

Crime is no laughing matter.  One human perpetrates a transgression against another human, and both parties are irrevocably changed.  That’s the very nature of crime.  It’s a violation of the basic social contract between human beings living in a community, and as such, crime has serious implications for the entire community.  And there’s certainly nothing funny about that.  Except for when there is.

Having grown up in Pittsburgh, I was no stranger to crime.  Thankfully, my family were never victims of a crime, and we never knew anyone who had committed any serious crimes.  Nonetheless, crime was a palpable part of the world I lived in.  Many a night I would be playing in the family room—sorting my baseball cards, playing a board game with my sisters, or some other innocent childhood activity—and the evening news might be playing in the background.  Throughout much of my childhood I was too young to truly comprehend the stories those newscasters were telling, but in general, Pittsburghers wouldn’t flinch at a newscast that led off with arsons, stabbings, armed robberies, and even murders.  These terrible human-community transgressions would also undoubtedly be littered across a series of front pages delivered to the doors of Pittsburghers on a daily basis.  Crime was just a fact of life growing up in a big city.

When my family moved to Wheeling in 1990, my father continued his nightly ritual of reading the daily newspaper when he got home from work.  Aside from the fact that this activity would take him roughly 1/3 the time—The Intelligencer being only about 1/3 the size of The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette—my father noticed one other crucial difference: the crime report.  Shortly after becoming acquainted with The Intelligencer, my father discovered a daily column titled “Wheeling Today,” which housed the daily crime report.  But rather than detailing arsons, stabbings, or armed robberies, the “Wheeling Today” column in 1990 often included notes about things like a bike that was stolen from a resident’s porch or a toolbox that was taken from an open truck bed.  This was what constituted a crime report in Wheeling?  A missing bicycle and a few stolen tools?

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It wasn’t long before checking the “Wheeling Today” column became something of a family event, a kind of curiosity for us, surefire fodder for dinner conversation.  I’d be lying if I said we didn’t, at times, chuckle at the crimes reported in the column.  We certainly meant no disrespect by our chuckles.  We clearly recognized that the bikeless resident now walking to work or the plumber who needed to replace his tools before reporting to work the following day were victims.  Those people had undoubtedly felt the burden of the breach in the social contract.  No, our mild amusement at the “Wheeling Today” column was not out of disrespect for victims; it was a release valve, a kind of cathartic, psychological expression of relief.  When you grow up in a city where journalists need to decide which arsons, stabbings, and armed robberies to report on a daily basis, it is easy to become hardened, guarded, and tense.  So when we moved to a city that, in order to fill its newspaper’s crime report column, had to go so far down the list as to note a lifted toolbox, we were finally able to drop our guard and release that tension.  Our chuckles were that release; they were our tacit way of communicating to each other our relief; they were an expression of our satisfaction at the relative safety and comfort afforded us by our new Wheeling home.

Certainly times have changed since 1990, and as a result, the crimes have changed (and even the drugs that fuel many of the crimes have changed).  Nonetheless, our area can still boast of its reputation for safety relative to larger nearby cities.  And reading the “Wheeling Today” column taught my family to trust in that social contract once again, to trust in the community of which we were now a part.  Only in Wheeling would a stolen bike or a lifted toolbox actually make the crime report . . . and that’s why I live here.