Rebuilding the Wall 

You have $2,000 to replace your stolen CD collection. Time to rejoice, or time to panic?

It all started with the pants on the living-room floor.

That struck me as odd. I don't usually keep my pants on the living-room floor. In fact, a lot of things struck me as odd when I came home from work one day last fall: the opened dresser drawers with their contents thrown everywhere, the jimmied-apart window, the back door standing wide open. I don't think I quite understood until I got to the shelves that previously held my CD collection. Empty. Dust where hundreds of albums used to sit, the detritus of college radio DJ geekdom and years of collecting. I put my hands out to touch the vast nothing that had settled upon the shelves. The idea that all that my music had disappeared was unfathomable. You'd have an easier time voluntarily separating me from my spleen.

I think the first person to say the word "burglary" was the 911 dispatcher.

The thing about having your record collection stolen is that when you tearily confide this to your music nerd friends, they are not sympathetic. Oh, no. They stare at you with rank envy. Apparently, music nerds secretly desire to scrap their entire collection and start over. What could be better than casting off those records you keep only for sentiment's sake, all those youthful buying mistakes, the albums you only listened to twice, or the ones with only one good track? Then, they say, you can rebuild a better collection, as pure as diamond, as precise as Swiss timing.

In theory, it doesn't sound bad at all. But what happens when somebody decides to scrap your record collection for you?

Let's go back to that night when it was just me, the pants, and the empty shelves.

It is cold. The dispatcher has warned me not to touch anything until the police get there, so the wind blows through the still-open window and back door. And just in case the scene is not yet creepy enough, while prowling through the backyard to see if the burglar had accidentally dropped anything of mine on the way out, I discover a fairly large knife lying in the bushes. Nice. It gives me something to think about while waiting for the cops.

For the record, that night's call response time:

Domino's Pizza: Twenty minutes

Oakland Police Department: 7.5 hours

Seven and a half hours is a long time to spend alone envisioning your brutal stabbing death. Luckily, I had previously made other plans for the evening. In a tremendous stroke of irony, a friend and I had chosen that night to double our collections by burning each other's CDs. There's an analogy to be drawn here about whether burning copyrighted materials constitutes a thievery only slightly more subtle than breaking into someone's house. But the moment my friend arrives with his laptop, all I can think about is how desperately I want to fill the enormous void that has suddenly appeared in my life.

We go ahead with our now slightly surreal plan. Waiting for the OPD, we pirate away. We copy Erlend Øye, Lemon Jelly, Señor Coconut, Smokey & Miho. It is like throwing stones down a very dark well.

The cops take so long to get there that we run out of discs to burn; my friend goes home, and our bootlegging operation avoids detection. Once they arrive, the police are terribly nice about everything. They dust every shiny surface in the house for fingerprints that don't materialize, and provide helpful hints to prevent future break-ins. They fill out a report and estimate the monetary damages. But music is not money.

For the next few days, people keep asking if it's scary to live in a recently burgled house. (This is after they are done openly salivating about wiping out and rebuilding their own record collections.) Not really, I tell them, although there are sneaker tread marks on my bedroom door, which I have gotten into the habit of kicking open in case anyone is hiding behind it. Instead, I am developing a low-grade anxiety about what has become of my favorite albums. Although I am fairly certain that they have actually been disposed of at the flea market, I imagine my burglar listening to them around his house and totally failing to appreciate them. Would he know to play both discs of Dusk at Cubist Castle at the same time? Is he using the Tigermilk case as a coaster because it has a picture of a naked girl on it? Does he know that the 2 Many DJs albums are imported all the way from Belgium?

I spend a lot of time staring at my empty shelves. I console myself with the idea that a music collection is not an object; it's just the physical manifestation of your own personal tastes and hard-won knowledge. It is, essentially, all in your head. And because you always have the blueprint with you, it can be rebuilt.

A clever friend suggests that I try to recoup my collection from local record stores where the burglar might try to resell it. Most record stores have a theft recovery policy: Bring in a list of what's missing, and if someone comes in to sell a used collection that looks suspiciously like yours, they'll buy it for bottom dollar, then sell it back to you for the price the store paid. "There's a ring in hell reserved for people who steal record collections," the guy from Streetlight promises in comradely fashion when I give him my list.

Okay, maybe not everyone is so nice. When I call Amoeba and list some of the missing albums, a buyer snarks, "You're better off without the Superchunk."

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