Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Kibbeh Stalker - a short story by Laura Kina

The 2nd package left by the "kibbeh stalker"
December 16, 2012

The Kibbeh Stalker by Laura Kina

A holiday story, of sorts, about neighbors, food profiling and home security.

We got a good deal on our house, a brick vintage 1920s Chicago bungalow with a two-car garage and small, enclosed backyard. It was shortly after 9/11 and located next to a Pakistani mosque. I was drawn to the nearby ethnic South Asian grocery stores of West Roger’s Park Devon Avenue where I could get a steady and affordable fresh supply of fruits, vegetables, rices, and spices for my cooking habit - a creative alternative and outlet to my career as an artist and college professor. My husband, Mitch, was nostalgic for the old Jewish neighborhood this had once been, where his orthodox grandparents used to live.

I stood near on open upstairs bathroom window my first day in the house - the sonorous minor keyed call to prayer from the mosque intertwined with Mexican mariachi music from a Sunday afternoon backyard family barbecue and the low thumping base of a sub-woofer pumping out rap music from my neighbor “Big Eric’s” car that he was working in the street. When we walk our dogs around the block, the smells are similarly polycultural – the sweetness of steamed basmati or jasmine rice, the savoriness of simmering dal, curry, grilled kabobs, or warm corn tortillas and the fresh scent of detergent drift from the exhaust fans and vents. Once, I went to get the mail, and in-between the bills a squirrel had left a gift of chapatti pilfered from a dumpster from an Indian restaurant on Devon Avenue. Exposed telephone and cable wires link the houses in the neighborhood and if you look up, it’s not uncommon to see sneakers thrown across the line as well as bagels left by the squirrels that hang from the wires like odd Christmas ornaments.

We’d lived there ten years when the first package arrived. It was Thursday, October 25, 2012 during the Muslim holy day of Eid-al-Ada. I’d gone out to the grocery store, during my afternoon studio break from painting, to get supplies for the evening dinner. When I returned, under our wooden patio table with the faded red umbrella I’d forgotten to put away, I found a white plastic grocery bag stuffed with warm minced ground lamb kibbeh. The bag said “100% Zabiha Hallal” and was neatly closed with sailors bowline knot. I assumed it must have been a mistaken gift for one of our neighbors. Maybe it was for Mr. Kahn two houses down? After opening the package to look for a note, I tossed it in the trash, only mildly wondering why someone had come into our backyard rather than leaving it by our front door.

On Friday afternoon of the 26th of October, just when I returned from a brief errand, the same exact package arrived – again 20+ warm ground lamb meat kibbehs in the same bag with the same signature knot. I thought to tell Mitch about it this time as it seemed someone was waiting for me to leave the house before delivering the package. I was still convinced it was a mistaken gift for another neighbor.

Almost a month passed until the next mystery package arrived. It was Friday, November 16th at 6:16 am when I heard our little Shiba Inu dog Bongo wildly barking, something he usually doesn’t do. We were busy getting ready to get our daughter Midori out the door to the school bus on time. I walked into the kitchen and felt a draft of cold air. An intruder had just broken into our house through a back door Mitch accidentally left unlocked when he let our dogs into the backyard. There was a gray bag of food on our kitchen counter. I could tell from the knot that it was from the same person who left the packages from before. I nervously opened the bag and this time found clear plastic bags filled not only with the same kibbeh but also a bag of hot boiled chicken and something that looked like empanadas. We called the police to report the kibbeh stalker. It happened to be the Hindu holiday of Diwali.

The 9-1-1 operator reluctantly sent out a patrol car to respond to our odd intrusion. The officer shook his head when he heard our story. “So let me get this straight, you left your back door unlocked?” he grilled us. He didn’t seem to care that someone had broken into our house since technically it was not “breaking and entering” and because we left the door unlocked and they didn’t take anything. We got a lecture on how unsecure our house was. “Aren’t you going to take the bag for fingerprinting?” we implored. “This ain’t CSI,” the cop sarcastically informed us. “Chicago police can barely find time to process the finger prints when there’s a body involved.”

We’d have to solve this ourselves. “It has to be someone local,” I surmised. The food was warm each time and I knew I had seen the bag before. After Mitch drove Midori to school, we proceeded to drive up and down Devon Avenue comparing the graphic design and wording on the mystery bag to the grocery store awnings. After three passes, we found a match. We cornered the store manager, Zarina, who said her name sounds like Sarina with a Z, who was just getting into the office. “Did you see anyone in here earlier today who purchased these items?” We told her about the bag of kibbeh. Her head was modestly covered in a silky hijab, her hands decorated ornately with mendhi and she was wearing a Nike tracksuit, high tops and a tough Chicago accent and attitude. She conceded that it was her store’s bag but they don’t sell precooked items in their deli. “Let me reassure you,” she teased, “I’m Muslim and I can tell you their ain’t no Muslim holiday that involves breaking and entering and leaving meat products!” “The police aren’t going to do shit,” she went on, “I have my ways of making shop lifters pay.” She encouraged my husband to consider getting a handgun for protection.

“Was this a hate crime?” I wondered. An outsider would know we were Jewish because of the mezuzahs on the doors and the conspicuous sukkah that pops up in the fall. Why were they giving us unkosher meat? “Breaking into my house does not feel like a gesture of neighborly love,” I told my friends, “someone out there has a very sick sense of humor.” “Perhaps it was an odd art school college prank,” they suggested. In my ten years of teaching I have seen very little evidence that most of my students know how to cook beyond instant ramen noodles.

But what about the food clues? They didn’t match up to the South Asian and Jewish restaurant demographics of the hood. We know our neighbors pretty well and this didn’t seem like their food either - Lori is gluten free, Bob and Anna are vegans, the houses next to us are Mexican or African American, or new immigrants from India, Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates, China, or Vietnam. “This must be an impostor,” I thought.” Besides mixing up holidays from two different religions (Eid-al-Ada and Diwali); plain boiled chicken, not in a sauce nor grilled, is something a non-cook might pass off as food unless you are making chicken stock or sick or something. Most of the time when I order kibbeh it's from a Middle Eastern Lebanese restaurant. And this area of West Roger’s Park and Devon Avenue is not the neighborhood for this. And empanadas...that's more Spanish, Filipino or Latin America isn’t it? “This must be a prank for sure,” I surmised. But who out there hates us?

Mitch runs sober living residences in Chicago and our #1 suspect became a mentally ill “person of interest” who had been cyber bulling us the year before. He is a college-educated, white male in his 20s who I’ll call “Stan” who actually listed “cyber hacking” on his LinkedIn profile. After relapsing, Mitch had to ask him to leave one of the sober houses. These are the rules, after all, of a sober living environment. Out of the blue six months later Stan started demanding his money back in increasingly hostile text message threats. Mitch agreed to meet with him in person to discuss the situation but Stan insisted the money be sent at once through Paypal. The dollar amount kept increasing and Stan started to set ultimatums that if it wasn’t received by a certain hour he would do something “big” to our family. He threatened to expose a fabricated affair, reminded us that he know where we lived, and where I worked. He started e-mailing me too. All along we tried to file a police report and obtain a restraining order but we were told that unless one of us had a romantic affiliation with Stan or lived with him before, we could not legally get a restraining order. The state laws on cyber bullying were confusing, at best.

One night, Mitch had texted Stan back to meet him in a public place at 7 pm and he informed him he was bringing his attorney with him. Stan wrote back that was not acceptable and if the money wasn’t sent by 7 pm that night, he was going to come to our house. Mitch left to the appointed meeting place at 7 pm to wait. I was at home with Ariel, Mitch’s teenage daughter, and our seven year-old daughter Midori. There was a snowstorm rolling in. We were nervously poking at our food and the girls started to talk about what they would do if a person broke into the house. To my horror, they exchanged tips and demonstrations on how they would take the intruder down. “Kick him in the balls!” my seven year-old exclaimed. Ariel asked if I had the guts to use a kitchen knife to poke his eyes out. Disgusted, I suggested that they seriously might be better off finding a good hiding place and calling the police. Just then, at exactly 7 pm, someone loudly knocked at our front door. Bam-bam-bam! I leaped up from the dinner table, started cursing and threatened the person outside the door.

I heard a little boy’s voice pleading that he had just come to offer to shovel our walk. He ran away and I felt horrible for having exploded in front of the kids. “That’s it,” I resolved, “no more being scared.” After two weeks of cyber bullying we got a detective on the case who suggested we simply stop responding. If Stan had really wanted the money, he would have met with Mitch. What he was getting off on was the attention of making us scared. The detective paid Stan a visit to ask him to stop and we successfully obtained an open warrant for his arrest should he threaten us again.

But would Stan break into our house and leave bag of food? I knew I had seen these particular kind of kibbeh before from Kedzie Avenue in the Albany Park neighborhood of Chicago where many Lebanese Christians had opened Middle Eastern restaurants. Stan used to live in Albany Park. We knew he had gone back to the streets. We checked to see if he was currently in jail. He wasn’t. After more careful thought, this kibbeh stalking didn’t seem like Stan’s M.O. The intruder was not demanding anything. They were spending money to buy or make us food. Was this an act of kindness?

We had a home security system installed just to be safe.

On Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, against my better judgment we went to a suburban gun shop to look, just look, at filling out the license for a gun. We had planned to pick up mace and Maglite flashlight anyway. Some testosterone filled family members had worn me down. Was I getting in the way of my husband’s “manliness” and right to protect his family? Was he just being a sissy? The paperwork said it would take five weeks and that we would need to enroll in gun shooting classes. I guess that could be fun? It is a sport and maybe it could be a new common interest, something new to share after fifteen years of marriage. There are no shooting ranges in the City of Chicago so we’d have to go out to one of the far suburbs, we were told. I grew up in the country in the Pacific Northwest near Banger Military Base so I’m no stranger to being around military personnel or knowing folks who actually have bomb shelters stocked with years of food rations in their backyards. But seeing these guns, NRA posters, and all of the law enforcement gear and civilian dooms day prepping equipment, especially the imposing featured M&P 22 semi-automatic assault rifle display, gave me chills down my spine. Most of the items in the store were dusty. With all the legal restrictions on what they could and couldn’t sell, business was slow for this store that was too close to the city border. Much of the inventory seemed to be antique revolvers, Smith & Wesson and Glock nine-millimeter handguns. I looked at an old Colt 45 in a glass case and thought about my own grandfather who had safely guarded his family motel and trained my mother to be an expert rifle marks woman on recreational hunting trips. My mom knows how to tie sailors knots too from her years of Scouting. None of this was passed on to me.

I certainly couldn’t see myself using a gun. I know I would panic. I imagined Mitch with a gun, my husband who is always on the cell phone for his real estate business and easily distracted and who chronically leaves things on the roof of his car and drives off. Earlier that week he left his new cell phone on the roof when he went to pick up family members from the airport. Once he drove off with a box of our taxes on the roof that were subsequently scattered into a busy intersection. No, he would surely hurt himself and leave it somewhere where the kids could find it. This was a very, very bad idea. I shouldn’t have even walked in the store. They had a Black Friday sale on flashlights but were out of mace. I could use the flashlight while walking the dogs anyway. We would have to go to a sporting goods store to buy “bear mace” for joggers.

On the Sunday after Thanksgiving at 11:45am the kibbeh stalker returned. They broke into our yard
and left, of all things, a bag of turkey soup. Coincidentally this happened right after all our holiday guests left, Mitch had gone to work, and I had just finished donating a large batch of our turkey soup to one of the sober living residences (we had reached the post-Thanksgiving turkey leftover threshold). I made Mitch race home and call the police. Again, skeptical officers arrived and told us we must be on a mistaken food drop off list from our church. We told them we don’t go to church. They advised us to post no trespassing signs. Apparently, if you do not explicitly state “no trespassing” it is not against the law to walk into a private enclosed backyard. They suggested we put locks on our gates; that we were basically asking for it if we don’t bother to protect ourselves. So off to Home Depot I went. After the 4th mystery package I was convinced this was not a friendly gesture.

We decided it was time to let our neighbors know. I made up fliers with a picture of one of the packages and asked if anyone had information on the “mystery gifts.” I listed out the facts and dates of the four “break ins” and Mitch, Midori, and I went knocking door to door to inquire if our neighbors knew anything. We started to notice who had security cameras, bars on their doors, and even deadbolts on their screen doors. Many of the owners of these fortified houses reported being broken into in the past, hence the added layer of security. We also noticed most houses had a spiritual protection system too - Allahu Akbar signs, crosses, Feng Shui Ba Gua mirrors, and mezuzahs. No one had any information.

With the idea of gun ownership safely off the table, I began to think about getting a more imposing watch dog. After bedtime stories one night, my daughter Midori and I googled “Family friendly watch dogs.” Shepherds were the top suggestion. Shiba Inus, which we have, were at the bottom of the list.

When Mitch and I were both single we each had Shepherd mixes – Mitch had a brown Doberman Pinscher-Shepherd named Rudy who was his constant companion. Rudy used to run off leash next to Mitch while he rode his bike along the Chicago’s lakefront and was even welcomed to drink with Mitch at his old neighborhood bar. Rudy had a very deep bark that would rise at the end and sounded like the word “Baruch” as in “Baruch Atah Adonai.” I had a Shepherd mutt named Mahitabel, who I’d named after the 1920s comic strip about a cat and a cockroach – Archy and Mahitabel. I was an art student and in to being obscure.

I had recently graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and was living on my own on Chicago’s near west side. It was a spring day and I was walking Mahitabel around a grassy open park when I heard a rat-tat-tat and everything went into slow motion. I saw all the kids in the park who had been playing baseball and basketball up to that point fall to the ground as if they were in a stop, drop and roll fire drill. I looked to see what they were reacting to and saw a white Chrysler Labaron with a maroon hard top slowly driving by a row of red brick apartment buildings. A man was standing up through the sunroof and was spraying the building with bullets. Not being a seasoned city girl, I did not have the stop and drop instinct yet. I naively screamed, ran home, locked the doors, and soon moved to the north side, where I thought I’d be safer.

As the years passed, our family grew and our work schedules got more hectic. Our dogs correspondingly got progressively smaller. We had finally settled on Shiba Inus, mostly out of convenience and partly because they are a cute ancient Japanese breed. My brother and his wife, who is Chinese American, had adopted a Shiba from a rescue association and they were so enthusiastic about the breed. I joked that it seemed like the Asian American thing to do (my father is Okinawan from Hawaiʻi). Although I was leery of the cult like Meetup groups Shibas seem to require (for some reason, they prefer to play with their own kind), I’ve trusted my brother to help me with important life decisions, such as cars, before so we followed his lead.

First came Lola, a sesame with an impossibly fluffy curly tail who we got at six months of age. We let Midori name her and she suggested the name after the Dr. Seuss character Lolla-Lee-Lou who had an obsession with acquiring ever more extravagant tail feathers. Mitch liked the name because it reminded him of his old punk days and the Kink’s song “Lola,” which is about a drag queen.

After a season, I projected that Lola was lonely. She spent her days laying on the arm of our leather couch and staring out the front window and sighing. We got her a male companion, Bongo, a redheaded black and tan who was named in honor of Mitch’s former amateur career as a bongo and conga player. The two Shibas are like cats - quiet, skiddish, aloof, and stealthy with occasional burst of wild energy where they chase each other in circles. They are also like rats who have a taste for devouring home decor. They eschew dog bones and treats in favor of nibbling on drywall, the corners of all furniture, the stairs, the carpet. During his first six months, Bongo ate our leather couch that Lola had previously loved. They were both banned from the living room. But despite their lack of overt affection, and their quiet assassin tendencies, we have grown to love them.

The Shibas love to dig holes too and they had progressively destroyed our tiny backyard. In September we finally got around to putting down new sod and we all took a family oath not to let the dogs pee or dig in the backyard again. But just this once more I let them out to do their business. It was Friday, December 14, 2012 during Hanukkah when the kibbeh stalker paid the next visit.

Bongo, proving he was in fact a certified watch dog, started barking and growling at our now padlocked back gate. I raced outside without putting on my shoes. There stood an elderly Asian women so short that all I could initially see was a band aid on her forehead and her salt-and-pepper bob pulled up into baby doll ponytail with a red ribbon on the top of her head. She was trying to open the gate. She didn't speak any English except to say the word “lock”, pointing at the gate. She reached up over the fence and handed me a plastic bag with the signature knot and a “Have a Nice Day!” message printed on the front. I thanked her as if I had never seen such a gift before. I asked her where she lived and she responded in what I think was Cantonese, pointing to the north. I realized that I didn’t have the key on me to open the back gate. In the moment I was wondering what to do as I stood in my fenced backyard in my now wet socks, she turned around and walked away. She was shuffling in tan orthopedic sneakers and wearing cranberry high water polyester pants and a tan long sleeve shirt. She reminded me of my own late Grandma Kina. She paused for a moment and then stopped to see if our front door was unlocked.

I carefully undid the knot of the bag she had given me. Inside were two clear plastic bags containing warm kibbeh and empanadas.

Fifth package left by the "kibbeh stalker"


  1. what a great read! Next time call someone to translate.. I'm dying to know why.. ( i speak cantonese :) I am reading this at the airport on my way to hawaii. Have a great New Year's, Laura!Johnny Yang

  2. You're very brave, Laura -- I never would have dared open any of those bags without calling the cops first!

  3. Please update this story -- does it get even better?