Hard to Swallow 

Restaurant takeover robberies are ruining East Bay appetites, a tampon machine gets bent in Orinda, and a hoser soaks Piedmont.

You're tucking into a nice quiet meal, reaching for the soy sauce, and — damn. A stranger with a gun is demanding that you give up your wallet and lie on the floor. Restaurant floors look different from close up, when you're fearing for your life. And a homey, old-fashioned downtown San Leandro sushi bar might be the last place on earth you'd expect to fear for your life. But hey.

The night after Thanksgiving, two men burst into Tsuru Sushi — home of the E. 14th Roll, the Crazy Tommy Roll, and the San Leandro Roll (smoked salmon, avocado, and cucumber) — around 9 p.m. One waved a semiautomatic handgun. According to San Leandro police, the men forced twenty diners onto the floor, robbed them, emptied the register, and then fled in a silver vehicle.

It was one in a spate of recent East Bay restaurant takeover robberies. Oakland cops say Asian merchants appear to be prime targets. Two youths invaded Grand Avenue's Coach Sushi (home of the Caterpillar Roll and the Rock 'n' Roll) on November 29. Three men invaded Jong Ga House (home of dol sot bi bim bap and cold kimchee noodles), also on Grand Avenue, on November 24, terrorizing twelve patrons. On November 28, two masked men burst Pulp Fiction-style into Antioch's South North Dragon Restaurant (home of tangerine chicken and dim sum). On November 22, two men staged a takeover at El Cerrito's Yuet Foo Restaurant (home of stuffed tofu and rock-cod string beans).

The Tsuru heist surprised police, says San Leandro Police Lieutenant Tom Overton. "That was pretty bold." Two nights later, two masked men hit San Leandro's Blue Bird Cocktail Bar. "These takeovers are dangerous," says Overton, whose department has now launched an undercover operation in local eateries. What really bothers him is that some of the suspects are so young. A sixteen-year-old and a twenty-year-old ­— both Oaklanders — were arrested on suspicion of robbing an East 14th Street Domino's Pizza on November 30. Overton says these two are not suspects in the Thanksgiving-weekend heists, whose perps remain at large.

So much for bon appétit.

Flying blind: Someone reportedly shone a laser light into the cockpit of an aircraft flying over downtown Walnut Creek around 5:30 p.m. on November 20. According to the police log, the aircraft was flying southbound from Concord Airport at 2,000 feet. Federal agencies have been known to prosecute such beamery aggressively: After admittedly beaming a laser light at an airplane and helicopter in 2004, a New Jersey man was arrested and charged under the Patriot Act. The criminal complaint filed against him by an FBI special agent reads that "defendant David Banach did knowingly and willfully interfere with, disable, and incapacitate a driver, captain, or person, namely an aircraft pilot, while employed in operating and maintaining a mass transportation vehicle, namely a chartered Atlantic Aviation aircraft, with reckless disregard for the safety of human life." The Concord laserer "is probably some person who's got a new little toy," says Mike Voss of the East Bay Terrorism Early Warning Group, "and who isn't thinking of the ramifications."

Bloody hell: Hygiene is all well and good, but was it really necessary for someone to force entry into a tampon machine in the women's restroom of an Orinda business? It is recorded as "vandalism/malicious mischief" in the police log for November 9.

Day jobs: Daytime burglaries are plaguing several neighborhoods including South Berkeley and Oakland's Laurel District. The OPD has warned Laurelites about teenage and twentysomething thieves lurking on streets. Watching residents leave, they ring the doorbells of those just-vacated homes; if no one answers, pop goes the window.

Malice in Wonderland: In tranquil Piedmont, meanwhile, a caller reported someone "maliciously turning on multiple hoses" on November 23.

Paper trail: Watching their trash and paper-recycling bins being rifled through by strangers who carry off the gleanings in shopping carts and trucks, citizens know that recycling is a source of much-needed income for some — yet, reasonably enough, they also fret about crimes ranging from identity theft to trespassing. Among other precautions, Oakland's Department of Public Works recommends shredding bank statements and other sensitive documents before putting them outside. The papery plot thickened last month when reports were filed with the Oakland and Berkeley police departments after witnesses watched individuals removing large quantities of free publications (including this one) from curbside dispensers in both cities. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed Assembly Bill 2612 in 2006, criminalizing the removal of 25 or more copies of free publications at any one time with intent to sell, barter, or recycle for cash. Paper isn't worth much. The Berkeley Recycling Center offers $90 per ton — and administrative manager Kathy Evans says she wouldn't buy pilfered Bay Guardians, Open Exchange magazines, or East Bay Expresses: "We're pretty careful. We don't take paper that looks really fresh. ... We watch out for that stuff, but some places don't." As for trash-riflers: "We call them poachers."

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