Local Legends | The Monkey Thief

The MonkeyThief Photo illustration by Tim Milk

Today The Local begins a recurring feature in which East Village historian Tim Milk takes a look at some neighborhood legends.

The spate of apartment break-ins that has gripped the East Village lately prompts me, by dint of experience, to say what I know by instinct is true: that we have been lulled into a collective stupor, and have become dizzy with the misconception that New York is safe.

Now, wait, let’s look at the term and what we expect of it. Safe is what we always want to feel, outside of our homes as well as in – calm and assured that we dwell in a world free of danger. But let me make one thing clear: I know my history, and I’ve been around the block. New York has always had crime. Our homes are always at risk.

Take the case, for example, of the Master Monkey Thief of the East Village.

When I first came here in 1979, urban myth had it that the police were hopelessly baffled by a series of burglaries. Back in those days, most people had these steel window gates that retracted accordion-style in a diamond-shaped pattern. The protection they offered, compared to modern gates, was minimal. The space between diamonds was perhaps eight inches, big enough to allow some nefarious stranger’s arm to reach inside. Horrors! They were also easily twisted apart by strong guys with crowbars. But as long as those old rattling gates held fast, the evil was kept outside.

But lately the cops were called to crime scenes where the window gates had not been forced, but the place was nonetheless robbed. There was, by the way, no sign that the lock had been picked or that the door was broken. Indeed, somehow, by one means or another, the apartment door had been unlocked from the inside to allow the burglar to enter.

And so, they had to wonder, how did the perp get through the gates? The detectives pondered every scenario, and in the end had only one conclusion: that the perp had an accomplice, and the accomplice was a monkey.

Only a creature as small as a monkey could have slipped through the gates, they reasoned. The long arm of the law, therefore, sought the monkey in all directions. God help the man who ever kept a monkey, and many East Villagers did suffer the third degree: had they seen any monkeys? Monkeys on the street or in the vicinity lately?

The case, they say, was finally cracked when an elderly lady found a tiny little boy wandering the halls of her building. He couldn’t have been more than three years old, wide eyed and curious, all smiles and charm. The lady then noticed the door of her neighbor’s apartment hanging wide open, and saw a stranger come out with a brand new TV. The little boy then turned to the red-handed man.

“Papa!” he cried.