Tarp Theft!

This morning at work, Stephen and I spotted a homeless guy squatting down on the side of the house next door. We had an excellent view of his activities through our open blinds.

Hoping to avoid what I assumed was an upcoming deposit, I noisily opened and shut the back door.


Unfazed by the door slam and unconcerned by the barking dogs, he gathered up his intended prize: A blue plastic tarp. 

As he shuffled past our building with his new acquisition, I re-opened the door and poked my head out.

I asked him what he was doing.

He explained that he was borrowing the tarp because he didn't want to get caught in the rain without some protection.

"So you are just going to steal their tarp?"

"No, I'm just borrowing it." He explained, offering me his hand.

I shook his hand. "What is your name?" I asked.

"I'm Dave", he replied.

"How long are you going to borrow it?" I asked.

"For a week".


At that point Dave walked off with the tarp. I probably should have continued to lecture him, or taken some other action, but I didn't.

I thought about it all day. The tarp had been being used, and its theft left some building materials exposed. It didn't rain.

I believe there is a point, where stealing something to save your life is justified. But he'd have to have been a lot closer to death.



I expected a ton of email from this story. There were eight.

I know you did not ask, but here is my opinion anyway :)
I think you should have at least called the police, followed up with a brief note to the offended neighbor. Odds are the police would have done nothing, but your conscience would not be gnawing away at you. As an alternative, tarps like the one you describe are very inexpensive; drop a new one off with the neighbor!
Dave B

Tell us if the tarp returns.
You never know, stranger things have happened. Maybe you are being pranked.
The True King of Argentina

Hey, regarding your moral dilemma, you state that "I believe there is a point, where stealing something to save your life is justified. But he'd have to have been a lot closer to death.'
This has nothing to do with how to solve your moral dilemma, but why would he be any closer to death without a tarp? Unless rain would cause flooding, or perhaps cause him to become cold and then get hypothermia or something, rain is not going to bring him any closer to death. Rain does not cause any 
kind of communicable diseases nor does it make you any more susceptible, at least according to current research.
Just wondering what your line of thinking was on this.

You should have offered the homeless guy $2.00 and a ride to Harbour Freight Tools so he could buy his own tarp. All he really needs is a small one. Who knows what else the homeowner was going to do with that big tarp! 
p.s. my friend in Alaska has decided her wedding invites will feature blue tarp on them since in Alaska the nickname for blue tarps is "Alaskan Flags."

You should send that into "The Ethicist" Randy Cohen at the New York Times. Great dilemma.
Nigel H. Mendez
University of Minnesota Law School

Rob -
So where'd you get the tarp for the re-enactment? You should offer that 
tarp to your neighbor to cover the building materials. It would be like 
giving a tarp directly to the homeless guy and you would absolve yourself of 
any guilt from having failed to prevent Grand Theft Tarp : Sacramento.



Indeed, Mike was right. I realized that as a well-sheltered Californian, I had very little use for my blue tarp except for crime re-enactments and creating shade structures at Burning Man.

I folded the tarp, unfurled it at work, and draped it over the neighbor's woodpile. The original tarp had only been missing for about 3 hours.

I didn't bother to tell the neighbor. I wondered if they would notice the switch. The new tarp was a bit larger and wasn't weighed down with bricks.

It was fun to help out. This was one of those situations where I could be a good neighbor without the intervention of a natural disaster.

Almost two months later, I was rewarded with a nice gift tin of Mrs. Field's chocolate chip cookies! The neighbor brought over the cookies for Christmas for "putting up with her barking dogs" and for replacing the tarp.

My boss had told her about the tarp-theft-and-replacement, and she appreciated the help!


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Oct. 31st, 2004, updated Dec 24th, 2004.

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