Serving Mr. Crackhead

Tales from the Unlivable City.

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A year after moving in, Storm Pusztay has nothing left - to steal. - Walter  Novak
A year after moving in, Storm Pusztay has nothing left to steal.
Storm Pusztay's small Slavic Village home looks like it's been evacuated. The first floor contains almost nothing. The second has little more than a bed, a dresser, and a TV. Everything else is gone, taken by thieves.

Pusztay was in Virginia last fall, the first time his home was hit. He's a commercial roofer by trade, and travels for a living. He got a voice mail from his sister; come home right away.

The bad guys had come through a back window, taking all that was immediately pawnable -- DVDs, movies, a TV, tools. "Anything you could sell real quick," Pusztay says.

The cops arrived and said a detective would be by to see him. Nobody showed. Pusztay called again. Nobody called back.

A few weeks later, the bad guys arrived again. "They just took whatever tools they left behind on the last job," he says. And his bike.

The thieves were obviously not from the mastermind branch of the criminal family tree. They were plying their trade within the cramped, battered homes on East 50th, where peeling paint and vacant windows would likely inform a more skilled craftsman, "Hey, moron, we don't have much to steal." They also tried to cash a direct-deposit check receipt at a nearby bar, apparently not noticing the "NON-NEGOTIABLE" stamped across it.

But they secured their place among the idiot elite when Pusztay caught one of them riding his bike. It just happened to be his next-door neighbor, who was too stupid to pawn it before he was caught. Pusztay had seen the man watching his house, had witnessed the telltale jitters of a crackhead.

He confronted the man. "I said, 'Dude, you broke into my house.' He said, 'Oh, I bought it off some guy.'"

But the man offered no resistance when the small, soft-spoken Pusztay grabbed his bike back. "He gave the impression 'I'm caught.'"

Pusztay again called police, but hung up while waiting on hold. He is a city dweller, after all, and he understands the rules.

There were 8,100 burglary and breaking-and-entering cases in Cleveland last year. Detectives in the third district, which covers Slavic Village, are assigned on average a new case every two to three days. When you don't arrest someone right away, they begin to pile up. Cuyahoga County now has 12,000 outstanding arrest warrants.

This is triage work. In Cleveland, detectives are one-size-fits-all sleuths, pursuing rapists, murderers, and low-rent burglars alike. If you're on the hunt for the village predator or trying to find the latest guy to shoot a store clerk, a bike thief is an afterthought. Pusztay didn't want to waste the cops' time. "I knew they had other situations, major."

He is an amiable, reflective man; he could live with it.

What he couldn't live with was the third time the thieves came calling, last month. There was little left to steal, so they took what they could. Copper piping from the basement. A garage-sale filing cabinet. "They got stuff your grandfather would hand down to you, like a harmonica," Pusztay says. They even tried to steal the water heater, but were too impatient to let it drain.

Pusztay knows who did it. Muddy footprints on the kitchen floor matched those in the snow on his neighbor's driveway. But the man disappeared. The cops can't find him.

This time, however, Pusztay's resilience was shot.

He came to Slavic Village as a first-time homebuyer. He wanted to be near the ethnic festivals, the easy freeway access that could take him to any job in the city. This is exactly the guy you want buying in Cleveland -- a workingman, good with his hands, the kind who can take a century-old home and restore its dignity.

"When I moved here, it was a cool neighborhood," he says. "People were dynamite."

A year later, the view from his porch isn't so pleasing. The girl across the street is missing. The county took away another neighbor's children. Thieves have stolen the aluminum and steel siding from nearby houses, leaving large, glaring scars. "Everyone around here has something missing," says Pusztay.

You could find the same tales from Collinwood to Cudell. Call it the Quiet Crisis, but it's really about people like Pusztay -- those who work for a living, then life in Cleveland takes it away.

He has no beef with police. They're like working stiffs everywhere -- too much to do and not enough to do it with. "I can't put the blame on the cops," he says. "They're starting to look like me. After a hard day's work, they're dragging butt."

Yet his goodwill doesn't extend to city leaders. After the third burglary, he called the City Council offices to see what could be done in Slavic Village. The woman he spoke to was a model of Cleveland government -- one part defeat, one part imbecile. "They told me I should have my stuff locked up in some kind of safety-deposit box," says Pusztay. "She told me I should budget my money more."

Yes, that's the cure: Always keep your TV at the bank, and make sure you save 80 percent of your paycheck for the thieves.

It's been a month since Pusztay's been to work. He believes his house will be repossessed, but he doesn't really care. What's the point of breaking your back on a roof when your labor only goes to subsidize a crackhead?

"I'm not working, because you can't function," he says. "Everything you're working for is disappearing every day."

On the day the bankers arrive, he'll just be one more guy who lost his will to the Unlivable City.

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