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Sara Foss's Thinking It Through
by Sara Foss

Thinking It Through

A Daily Gazette life blog
Her column and blog rolled into one

I’m a law-abiding citizen with a fear of getting busted

I’ve always feared being accused of a crime I didn’t commit.

And I don’t think I’m the only person with this fear.

There’s an entire subgenre of films devoted to this fear — thrillers such as “North by Northwest,” about an innocent man who, mistaken for someone else, is pursued across the U.S., and “The Fugitive,” about a surgeon wrongly convicted of murdering his wife. And the list of convictions overturned as a result of DNA testing continues to grow.

Deep down, I know my fear is ridiculous.

I’m a law-abiding citizen, for the most part. My greatest crime is speeding, although I did drive around for nearly a decade without a front license plate. I don’t steal, and when a cashier accidentally gave me an extra $10 in change the other night, I gave it back. I pay my taxes, and I make sure that my car is inspected each year and that the registration is up to date.

My overall record is pretty good, but I experienced a slight twinge of fear the other night, when a police offi cer knocked on my door to ask whether I had seen a missing 11-year-old girl. (I haven’t heard another word about this, so I’m assuming the child was located and returned to her family.)

“I haven’t seen her,” I said.

This seemed to satisfy the cop, but he returned about 10 minutes later, asking for my name and contact information, so he could put together a list of the people he’d spoken to. This second visit, which occurred shortly before 11 p.m., was enough to convince me that I would soon be arrested for the abduction of an 11-year-old girl. “I didn’t do it,” I imagined myself protesting. “I don’t know who she is.” I pictured myself languishing in jail, proclaiming my innocence.

As time has passed, my fear of being implicated in a terrible crime has subsided.

But I do have a second, related fear, and this one never really goes away. I often worry about being accused of a crime I actually did commit but either committed without realizing it or without knowing that it was a crime. This is a lesser fear, since any crime I’m unaware of, or unaware that I’ve committed, is likely to be a lesser crime. A broken tail light is a good example of what I’m talking about. I’ve been stopped for this several times by the police, and I’m always completely unaware of it.

I tend to be wary of new laws, and my fear of breaking them by accident might explain why.

For instance, last week I read that the city of Schenectady is considering a law that would make scavenging from curbside trash illegal.

I seldom pick through other people’s trash, but I used to accompany my friend Heather on her trash-picking excursions. Heather makes large-scale sculptures out of found materials, and she viewed garbage night as an opportunity to acquire some much needed supplies. One night she called me up and asked me to help her carry parts of a stove, sink and small refrigerator that had been tossed to the curb back to her apartment.

I met her outside and we walked around the corner, where Heather used a screwdriver to take apart the appliances, and I helped her lug the pieces back to her place. We weren’t the only people out there, either: Trash pickers were roaming the neighborhood, in search of treasure. Heather later used the appliance parts to build a miniature kitchen on wheels, painted aqua.

Schenectady is concerned about trash pickers because it can make money off recyclables, mainly by selling the copper in old electronics, but not if scavengers haul away the valuable recyclables first. One City Council member argued that once trash is placed on the curb, in the city’s right-ofway, it is owned by the city.

This logic made me feel like a bit of a thief.

I’d always assumed that trash picking was an urban tradition — one of those weird activities that city people occasionally engage in, and one of the perks of living in a place with garbage pick-up. In Albany, I often see old furniture and books out on the curb with a sign that says “Free” attached to them. And it doesn’t bother me when people pick through my recycling bin and take away the cans and bottles — if someone in need can use my trash to make a few extra bucks, fi ne.

But I digress.

My point is, I become worried when laws target behavior in which I’ve engaged.

I was similarly irritated by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposal to ban the sale of sodas and other sugary beverages larger than 16 ounces at restaurants, stadiums and movie theaters. I’ve really cut back on my soda drinking, and I don’t think I’ve purchased a soda larger than 12 ounces since before Lent, for which I gave up drinking soda altogether. I understand that drinking lots of soda is bad for people; I reduced my soda consumption for a reason.

But I also feel that, as an adult, I should be able to purchase a soda larger than 16 ounces if I so desire. And making nit-picky little rules regulating how people drink soda will pave the way for similar regulations on desserts, fried food and other things I like to eat.

Of course, nobody likes to deal with rules or regulations — or interact with the police under less than ideal circumstances.

In general, I’m fairly accepting of rules and regulations, and I respect that the police have a job to do.

But I do feel some solidarity with the trash pickers and soda drinkers.

Perhaps because I’ve been in their shoes.

Foss Forward makes a weekly appearance in print, in The Gazette’s Saturday Lifestyles section. You can email Sara at

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