The Experiment That Made Me a Wanted Man

I. Introduction

The following is an experiment that preceded my week as a wanted man. It began in my hometown in the suburbs. There, life is a box. We live in box-shaped houses. We stay inside and look out box-shaped windows. We go to box-shaped stores. And, after all the shopping, we go to a box-shaped Starbucks, to relax. At each corner of the city, we have a park, two of which are "resident-only." There, we have soccer games on Saturday. There, we have nice barbecues.

Sometimes, I wonder if this is it. Over a two-hour period on a recent Sunday, I sought to find that out: what happens when something arrives that fits in no box?

II. Purpose

To present my town's citizens with an unexpected situation by leaving strange gifts and letters on their doorsteps; to take note of their reactions; to see what they will do under unusual circumstances.

III. Hypothesis

Upon discovering the odd item and attached note on their doorstep, almost all of the citizens will throw it out and never think about it again. A few, however, will be somehow changed by the event, perhaps inextricably.

IV. Procedure and Materials

Time: One hour and forty-five minutes
Performed: September 22, 2002


1. My garage is filled with things we don't use anymore, like a baseball helmet, a jigsaw puzzle, and bowling pins. I find these items; collect them; put them in a cardboard box.

2. I choose which items (50 total) I would like to give away to neighbors, usually the strangest and most unusual ones. I write notes and attach them to the items. The notes pertain to the specific item, but then I get bored and anxious so I write a form letter and use that for the rest.

3. I drive around my neighborhood and choose houses at which to leave the notes and items. I stop in front of a house, get out of the car, place the present and note at the doorstep, and run away, nervously, hoping they do not see me. I do this 49 more times, at other houses, usually ones with front doors close to the sidewalk.

4. After the car is emptied, I return home and wait for responses at the email address mentioned in my letters.


Here are the items I left at citizens' homes:

Brooms, red soccer cones, stone fish archaeology kit, hand shadows book, Freddie King's instructional guitar film, paper artichoke, Easter egg basket, paper pigeon with a worm in his mouth, hand-written version of Padre Nuestro, ti plant, fine art photographs, orchid fertilizer, pink satin clothes hanger, glitter, tomato juice in a can, blown up tiki man, sponge, flower pot, ping pong paddle, Major League II soundtrack, AOL 7.0, giant Mickey mouse sucker, plastic hippie-themed cups, dry erase board cleaner, Zone energy bar, calculator, colored pencils, sunglasses, bunny figurine, banana, packets of herbal tea, Chinese finger lock, baseball helmet, old shoes, electronic fishing game, set of Pogs, Smurf jigsaw puzzle, black toner cartridge, prepress edition of Richard Bach's The Ferret Chronicles, straw hat, fishing floats, snorkeling goggles, bowling pins, The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, blue stuffed tiger, soccer cleats, telephone headset, bobble head figurine, barometer, electronic handheld edition of Wheel of Fortune, collection of gems and fossils, beach-catch game, chopsticks, leopard skin sheets.

Below is the general letter I attached to most of the items, all of which I wrote under the pseudonym of Santa Clause:

Hey you,
If you only had [this item], what would you do to save the world? I know you could do it. I know you could. I know you could use this and you could survive! You could save everyone. Tell me how. Tell me how. Now: this used to be mine. And I'm giving it to you. I would appreciate if you would write something for me. Email me. Tell me a story. Send me junk mail. Tell me your name. Tell me about your family. Tell me your fears, your longings, your hopes. Tell me something no one else knows. Tell me the world is going to be okay. Here is my email address: If you want, just say hi. Thank me for the present. It's all I ask. Thank you. Thank you. Remember my friend, life is a beautiful thing. Random moments like this are what make life interesting. Thank you for your time. I look forward to hearing from you.
Your friend,
Santa Clause

Sometimes, I substituted the general introduction paragraph for one specifically pertaining to the item. For example:

Freddie King instructional guitar film:
Have you heard of Freddie King? He was what we like to call "a sudden force in Southern black popular music." That means he was basically God. With this video, you will play like Freddie King. Freddie King is dead. You are the only person in the world who now owns this video. It is up to you to keep the legend of Freddie King alive.

V. Data/ Observations

Packages delivered: 50

Direct responses from citizens to my email: 2 out of 50 (or 4%)
Of those: 2 were positive (100%), 0 were negative (0%)

The actual responses (names changed) are included below:

From: 'Richard Nixon'
Re: thanks
well i got this on my door step and was just wondering who you were, so we can talk. thanks for concerning
richard nixon

From: 'Martha Stewart' Re: Ti Plant
Dear Santa Clause,
Thank you for the ti plant. The world is going to be OK! Take it from me... I know… I have connections! :)

Number of Policemen attempting to contact me: 2
Here are those emails (names changed) below:

From: 'Queen Shiva'
Re: Suspicious Package
Dear Sir or Madam,
My name is Queen Shiva, and I am with the Police Department. You recently left a package and a letter on the front yard of one our citizen's homes. The citizen did not appreciate either the barometer, nor the letter, which consequently made him/her very uncomfortable. That citizen, as well as myself, request that you immediately cease and desist any gift giving or attempting to contact him/her in the future. Any continued attempts to contact will result in criminal prosecution against you for charges of harassment and possible stalking. Thank you in advance for your compliance. Sincerely,
Ofc. Queen Shiva
Police Dept.

From: 'Darth Vader' Re: letters
The Police Department has taken several reports regarding letters that have been left on homes in our jurisdiction asking these people to contact this website. I would like for you to contact me at the phone number provided below as I wish to speak to you about this matter briefly. Thank you in advance for your cooperation.
Insp. Darth Vader
Police Department

From: 'Darth Vader' Re: question
We have received more reports of the items that you have left at homes in [our city]. In particular, I need to ask you what the "Blue" colored substance was in the Tupperware container. This is a concern of ours and I would greatly appreciate a response so that this substance can be identified. Thank you in advance for your cooperation.
Insp. Darth Vader
Police Department

Complaints to the police (according to the Police Department): "Numerous"… "several" …. "several more."

Blurbs/articles covering the situation: 1
Included in the local newspaper: 1 (100%)
The New York Times: 0 (0%)
The blurb appears in full (street named changed), below:

4:62 p.m. 1200 block of [Stuffy] Avenue. Suspicious circumstances. A suspicious package containing a barometer was found on someone's front lawn...

VI. Observations

The day after I dropped off the packages I received my first two emails. The first was a grateful thank you note from a lady who appreciated the ti plant. The second was a request to cease and desist from the Police Department. I was surprised, shocked, by the police officer's letter because 1) I did not expect anyone to take action as this citizen did, 2) I did not foresee the possibility of criminal prosecution for stalking and harassment and 3) At fifty dollars, the barometer was the most expensive and most useful item I had distributed. This third point bothered me tremendously. How could anyone "not appreciate" a barometer? I used that barometer for my seventh grade science project. With that barometer, I discovered the direct relationship between temperature and air pressure. He's not using it to determine today's air pressure. No. Instead, he's turning it over to the police as evidence in the criminal harassment/stalking case against me.

I did not respond immediately to the officer's email. I thought that maybe they could track my email or something, but then I remembered this Law & Order episode. The cops hunt down an alleged pedophile/serial killer and the criminal sends them an email. The cops ask a techie in the lab if he can track the sender's location, and the techie says yes, but it would be too much work. I figured that if it was too much work to track down an infamous pedophile/serial killer, then no one would bother tracking down a shady character who writes letters under the pseudonym Santa Clause, leaving barometers on doorsteps.

I responded. What compelled me do so was this: the officer only mentioned one of the packages and there were 49 others yet to be reported. If more reports came, then he would think I was some sort of serial stalker/gift giver. They could put me in suburban jail for life! I confessed! Said it was me! I told them about all 50 letters, that it was all a mistake, a big mistake. At school I watched my back for men in trench coats, swat teams, undercover agents. I had to watch for people trailing me in the halls. Someone must know that I'm Santa Clause. I was in the police blotter!

The following day I received another email from another policeman, along with another grateful thank you note from another citizen. The two types of letters always seemed to arrive at the same time. This email was from an inspector, who I think is higher up the police ladder than an officer. He had received multiple complaints about letters from this city's citizens, and made no connection or reference to the officer and his cease and desist order of the previous day. The inspector wanted to talk. He wanted to bring me in, just briefly. But that's what they always say. They lure you in and they lock you up and the next thing you know, you're a national crime spectacle.

I copied and pasted my letter of apology of the previous day and sent it to the inspector. I wanted to ask which citizens complained, what items they received, but I knew that would be pushing it. Maybe, I thought, the inspector, the officer, all the complaining citizens and I could pose for a picture for this very article. But the idea soon passed away. This correspondence was not the end of my stint as a wanted criminal. The explanation that it was merely an experiment did not satisfy the inspector's next question, sent the following day: what is the blue substance contained in the Tupperware container?

I had not thought of it like that, when I chose orchid fertilizer as one of the gifts. But then, reading the inspector's letter three days later, knowing the source of his suspicions, it dawned on me how this blue substance, this orchid fertilizer, could be interpreted as a suspicious substance, a form of chemical warfare, delivered directly to this poor citizen's home. No! I wrote back. It is orchid fertilizer! It's funny looking, don't you think? That's why I picked it, because it's such a strange, funny blue color.

But I was sure it was too late. Here I am: Santa Clause, the stalker, the harasser, the suspected terrorist. I, Santa Clause, was connected to the "Axis of Evil." It was time to turn myself in. I called the inspector's phone number. He wasn't there. I told his voice mail who I was, that I am very young, that I did not mean for the blue orchid fertilizer to threaten anyone, and I left my phone number. He had me. He knew it all. He even knew my real name.

VII. Results Summarization:

Two citizens appreciated their gifts enough to respond. The majority of citizens did not respond. "Several" to "numerous" citizens reported the mysterious gifts and notes to the police. Two policemen worked on the case.
Possible charges: stalking, harassment, terrorist threats.

When I finally contacted the inspector, he understood. He knew that I was young and stupid and this was an immature thing to do. He also said it would make a great article. I thought so, too. On the following Monday, I went down to the police station to close up the case and clear my status as a wanted man, a criminal. I filled out a form and they put me on file and told me I was lucky: HAZMAT was on their way when I had called and told him the blue substance was only orchid fertilizer--just in time to stop the chemical experts from coming.

VIII. Conclusions

A significant percentage of citizens felt enough passion or emotion to act upon the strange circumstance. Some felt a sense of thankfulness and thus responded kindly to the email address. Others felt afraid or threatened and thus contacted the police. These two different groups--polar opposites--defined the conflict of the experiment, showing that such a strange moment can be interpreted in very different ways. The wording of the letters, most likely, contributed to the greater negative response. While I sincerely desired to connect with the recipients of the items, I did not convey this well, partially because of the little time spent on writing the letters. The opening, "Hey you," was supposed to be a friendly hey-you, but some might have interpreted it as a threatening HEY YOU!, in a derogatory sort of way, how a bully might say it. The request for their responses might have seemed a little over-the-edge, a little too desperate. And the actual contents of letters matched the oddity of the items.

The items themselves probably determined negative and positive responses. The greatest positive response came from a woman who had received a lovely ti plant; the greatest negative response came from a person who did not know what the item was.

My intention was to create an unusual situation. Unusual is often associated with the Unknown, and that, probably, is what made people contact the police. The giver of the item was Unknown, and, sometimes, the item itself was Unknown, and this made people--in fact, it makes all people--scared.

This circumstance hovered over the city's box. It was foreign, scary, strange. And the citizens wanted it out. They pushed this unusual moment away, closed the lid on the box, and tried to forget about it, so they could continue their lives--unchanged.

Whether remnants of this moment still linger in the box of our city, I do not know. Whether the woman, who enjoyed receiving the ti plant, is at all changed, I do not know. My guess is the moment has passed, leaving the city completely, and now floats somewhere in space, outside the box, in the Unknown.

Kevin Feeney, 16, attends St. Ignatius in San Francisco. He edits a small literary journal called Thought.

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