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New York City, 3 a.m. On a corner, beside a mailbox, are stacked a dozen plastic boxes. You could take them home to use as bookshelves, or to store your winter clothes. But you don't.

The plastic boxes are stamped Property of U.S. Postal Service. And stealing U.S. Postal Service property is a felony offense. Even if it doesn't feel like stealing. Even if the boxes are just sitting out there, unchained, unprotected, seemingly abandoned. Like an old chair nobody wants any more. Like a stack of old magazines. Like an abandoned suitcase that might contain wads of cash, or live snakes, or someone's socks and sweats.

At 3 a.m., unlocked unprotected seemingly abandoned objects are fair game in New York City or any city. Unless they're marked Property of U.S. Postal Service. Then you walk by quick. You don't need that kind of trouble. You don't need to do time for taking home a plastic box. You don't need to find yourself at Riker's, surrounded by guys who've shot cops or stabbed their own families, and you there for picking up an empty box.

At 3 a.m. on a New York City street corner you can sell dope, sell guns, or sell your own body. But if you see an empty plastic box, just keep walking.

24 March 2001
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