I was sitting on the couch when the shots were fired. I was not sure they were gunshots at first. They could have been fireworks. I am not an expert on such matters and besides, I had a somewhat stressful workday and was deliberately not paying attention to the goings on of the outside world.
Instead, I refocused on the game I was playing on my laptop. Some time later, Becca came into the living room and told me that there were gunshots at the corner of Elizabeth Street and San Jose Avenue, half a block from our home.
“I read it on Citizen,” she said. Citizen is an app that sends alerts of local crimes and other unpleasantness. Becca uses the app to help fuel her disenchantment with San Francisco so when the time comes to move up to Portland, there will be no second thoughts.
I decided to install the app as well, but not for the same purpose. It’s not that I lack disenchantment, far from it. It’s just that I was already acquainted with the city’s nastiness back when my fondness for the place was unwavering. Besides, the app would likely only alert me to the misfortune of those I didn’t care much about. In the end, all it would fuel is my schadenfreude.
The post-installation payoff was immediate. As I was was reading comments about the alert (at least one person was decrying “snitches”), the cops arrived and investigated the scene as they are wont to do when shooting is done by non-cops.
Of course, shots fired neither by nor at me only hold my interest for so long. I like a little quirkiness in the crime I read about. The more an incident resembles a scene from Reno 911! the less real danger it presents because it does not seem quite real.
Florida has traditionally filled this need. Whenever I read a news article with a Sunshine State dateline, I expected there to be some guy high on jenkem and naked as a jaybird, running down the street with a meat cleaver in his hand and a rubber chicken hanging out of his anus. I giggle at these stories, but know deep down that every one of them is a peek inside the soul of America.
Or something like that. Your soul-of-America mileage may vary.
I decided to use the Citizen app to find a bit o’ Florida in my own backyard. I did not have to wait long. The next morning, I saw an alert about a “MAN ARRESTED FOR TRYING TO STEAL BABY.” Then there was “AGGRESSIVE NUDE WOMAN THROWING ITEMS AT TRAFFIC” and later, “MAN PERFORMING LEWD ACTS” at a BART station. It was wonderful and I wanted this kind of entertainment to continue. Being as crazy as I am isn’t always easy, but there is some comfort to be had by being surrounded by stuff that’s even crazier.
It didn’t work out that way for long. Some wise, old grumpy pants once said, “The problem with the common man is that he is unbearably common,” and the same holds true for the common criminal. In the end, the Citizen app proved not to be showcase for warped performance art, but rather for dull, violent people doing dull, violent things.
The app inundated me with robberies, fistfights, stabbings, and whatnot, all at an alarming rate. Since I was used to getting my news through conventional news outlets, someone has to consider it newsworthy for it to appear on my radar. With the Citizen app, there is no baseline threshold to speak of so I get everything. On one level, I really shouldn’t find this all that surprising. I’m no stranger to this kind of misbehavior. People suck. I have known that for years.
This is not just armchair misanthropy talking. I have personal experience to back it up. Though I am not prone to committing acts of physical violence, I have often been sufficiently impaired to make myself an inviting target. As a result, I have been in a few unfortunate situations. None of them made the papers.
Another thing I noticed is how random and senseless the violence is. Again, it’s a case of confirming my suspicions rather than surprising me with some great revelation. I never for once thought there was a grand choreography at play yet something in my brain expects some modicum of rhyme and reason.
I think that’s a holdover from how I’m used to getting my news. I don’t think the outlets are concocting overall themes as part of some media conspiracy, but the themes exist nonetheless. Some stories get reported because they’re a big deal all on their own. Other lesser stories might get omitted if not for being somehow related to the big-deal stories. As soon as you have related stories as part of editorial decisions, cohesion is manufactured. Real life makes a lot less sense.
As depressing as Citizen can be, I am not about to remove it from my phone because of the treats it occasionally throws my way. Just two hours ago, there was a report of a man at 17th and Capp throwing used needles at pedestrians. Good for him. AIDS and darts should go together.
Like an abusive partner with a box of chocolates, this app knows how to keep me coming back for more.