Cardboard cutout cruelty

From the TIME piece entitled Fake Transit Cop Spooks Bike Thieves

Unable to pay more officers to patrol its transit stops, the Boston area’s debt-laden transit authority has resorted instead to cardboard replicas of police officers to help deter crime.

Since it installed two, life-sized cutouts of 10-year veteran Officer David Silen earlier this summer, the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority has curbed bike thefts at one station by 67% compared to last year, according to WHDH.


It reminded me of an incident that occurred in 2004 when Elysha and I were living in an apartment together.

Our school had a parade float that students decorated and rode on each year. Part of the decorations were life-sized cardboard cutouts of students, including actual photographs of students’ faces. These cardboard cutouts were stored on the school’s stage when not being used on the float, and every time I walked through the empty auditorium on the way to pick up my students at the gym, I would turn left, spot one of these cutouts on the stage, and jump right out of my skin.

They scared the hell out of me, and I wasn’t the only one who reacted this way. There’s something creepy about the frozen image of a two-dimensional child with a realistic looking face and a cartoon body, arms raised to the sky.

Cute for a parade float. Terrifying in real life.   

Seeing the opportunity for a prank, my principal, Plato, convinced Elysha to bring one of these cardboard cutouts home with her on a Friday afternoon and hide it somewhere in the apartment to scare the hell out of me. I was working at a wedding that night, so she would have as much time as needed to find the perfect hiding place. But regardless of where she placed the cutout, she found that it frightened her just as badly as it had frightened me back in the auditorium, even when she knew that it was there.

The thing was scary. Plain and simple.

Guilt began to sink in as the night progressed, as well as legitimate fear over what might happen if I found this cutout in a darkened closet or looming over my bed. She eventually came to the conclusion that the prank was too cruel and and decided to back out. Instead of positioning the cutout in a place where I would see it, she would hide it and admit to the prank in the morning. But as she searched for a hiding place in the apartment, it occurred to her that every place she hid the thing might also be a place where I could unknowingly stumble upon it.

In fact, the better her hiding place, the more terrifying the cutout would be in the unlikely event that it was found.

Why she didn’t just return the damn thing to her car is beyond me.

Finally, she decided to place the cutout in plain sight, where she reasoned that it had no chance of frightening me. Our back door, which was also the door that we entered the apartment, as made of paned glass, so she placed the cutout in front of the door, facing outside, and she left the lights on so I would see it while coming up the walk. With plenty of forewarning, she reasoned, the cutout wouldn’t have a chance to frighten me.

I arrived home around 1:00 AM and unloaded my car. Because I had gone directly from work to the wedding, my arms were full as I started up the walk. I was carrying a large plastic box, full of tools, wiring, batteries, CDs and spare parts for my sound system. On top of the box was a smaller case of CDs that I had brought home to restock. On top of that was a gym bag full of the clothing that I’d been wearing at school that day. On top of that was the garment bag that had held my tuxedo. The pile was so large that it blocked my vision, so instead of looking forward, I was navigating the brick walkway to the house by staring down at the bricks.

Once I arrived at the door, I fumbled with my keys, attempting to balance the precarious load while thrusting one hand forward to unlock the door. I actually managed to unlock the door and push it open before I was finally able to look up.

Staring me in the eye were the eyes of the cardboard cutout.

I screamed. An honest-to-goodness scream of terror. The scream of a little girl who has seen the boogieman and knows that death is upon her. I jumped. My hands flew into the air like small birds, launching the plastic box, the CD case, my gym bag and my garment bag into the air. The lid of the box flew off midflight. A horde of batteries, wiring, screws, screwdrivers, paper and CDs rained down upon me.

Elysha couldn’t have frightened me better if she had tried.