E R N I E ' S H O U S E O F W H O O P A S S
Much like the crabs story I posted two years ago, this is a tale I've always wanted to tell but never quite found the right time to do so. With the demise of the store chain in question having been recently completed, and the untimely departure of my phone, I figured it was now or never. So the first time every told in its entirety... here goes.
I begged Doug Cole to hire me. Begged him. My father always told me the best way to make sure you are hired for a job is to be the person who calls back first. So I did. And second. And third. I haunted this man for two weeks straight to give me a job. And when Doug the store's general manager finally called me back to tell me he was bringing me on in the Lyell Avenue Chase-Pitkin's lumber department, he also told me they really didn't need the help but he was so impressed by my tenacity that he had to give me a shot. I was genuinely grateful.
And for the next six months I worked my fucking ass off for him and the lumber manager, Derrick. I learned the fastest, carried the most, waited on the most customers, man I was a little seventeen year old lumber god. And then something happened that would ultimately change my life: I watched a fellow employee steal something. His name was Jim, and he went to the same school I did. And I watched him steal a set of four 'Road Runner' mudflaps with the trademark 'Beep-Beep! for his car. We were the only two people outside in the lumber/gardening yard and I asked him why he was carrying these things since they obviously belonged over in automotive. Just then, a car pulled into the lot and provided Jim with a receipt to load one 2x4. Jim went and grabbed the board and loaded threaded it through the car's windows, punched the man's receipt to show the item was picked up, and tossed the mudflaps into the back seat. The man then drove off. I was dumbfounded. The whole process looked pretty painless to me. At this time of night there was nobody else out here, so we pretty much had the run of the place. And for the next few weeks, that's how it went. Whatever items we could get to the outside lumber area, were pretty much ours for the taking. There was the occasional close call if another employee or customer happened to wander outside right at the moment of 'the drop' but they wouldn't know what they were looking at anyway, so it wasn't a big deal.
And then came the opportunity to ratchet things up a notch. The store closed at 9pm and on Thursday evenings, there was a crew of four employees that came in at 8:30 and worked until midnight, stocking shelves. That four man crew consisted of a manager Dan (whom everyone called Flipper because he was born with a broken arm which never healed correctly, leaving it more or less useless), Jim, Marc, and another guy. The other guy was leaving, so they needed to fill his place. I enthusiastically jumped at this chance; you get to wear regular street clothes, you can crank up the radio, there are no customers to both you, plus it was overtime pay. So with Jim and Flipper's recommendation, I was in.
Needless to say the entire store is locked up during these late night marathons so if you needed to run outside for anything - say to grab something from your car - you had to ask Flipper for the store keys. Need your contacts solution? Get the keys. Forget your sandwich? Get the keys. Want to grab that CD you promised to loan to Jim? Get the keys. And during one of these trips from the back of the store where lumber was, I realized I'm holding the store keys in my hand and I'm walking past all of this 'good stuff'. What kind of stuff? Well just go down to your local Home Depot or Lowes; what you see is what I was seeing. And it was all just begging to be taken. I started off with benign stuff just to test the waters. A pack of batteries, a mini Mag light, a pack of razor blades. All crap that I could claim I was grabbing for store use, in case I got busted. Which I wasn't. Neither was Jim and neither was Marc, who was now in on things as well. So batteries gave way to a little higher end stuff; phones (regular house phones, sorry), electronic stud finders, cordless drills, wrench sets, that sort of thing. Every Thursday it was the same thing. The three of us would gather up a handful of stuff and stack it by the front door. Then one of us would innocently ask Flipper for the door keys so we could run out to our car and [insert excuse here]. Flipper would hand them over and we'd nonchalantly disappear down the aisles, up to the front and carry an armload of loot out to our car. We'd return the keys to Flipper a few minutes later and nobody was none the wiser. Later after work, we'd head over to the Nick Tahoe's parking lot to divide up the stuff. It wasn't ever much, but it was something. And it was such a fucking rush.
But ever the perfectionist, I was constantly searching out ways to improve our little operation. And one day, Flipper inadvertently showed me how to do just that. He asked me to help him carry some broken down boxes out to the back dumpster. So he disabled the back door alarm, put his key in the lock and when that back door opened up to the blackness of the alley that ran behind the entire length of the story, I about blew a load in my pants. We walked down the four concrete steps, past the abandoned tractor trailer with two flat tires, past the stack of old pallets and over to the dumpster. All the pieces of the puzzle for the perfect heist were sitting here waiting for me. My heart raced just at the thought of what we could rail out of there.
That night, we did a test run. I grabbed something that we couldn't previously grab before due to its size, a big fucking Shop-Vac. And after forgetting my contacts case in my car, out the back door I went, ducking down under the back wheels of the trailer, leaning a dirty old pallet in front of it to block any prying eyes, and back up and in. Later after work I drove around to the back of the store and sure enough, untouched like virgin snow was my new Shop-Vac. Don't ask me what the fuck a seventeen year old was going to do with a Shop-Vac, that didn't matter. I stole it fair and square and that's all I was worried about.
And with this new avenue of egress available to us, the sky was the fucking limit. All through summer and into the fall, about the only thing we didn't get out that back door were the fucking ride on lawnmowers and that's only because they wouldn't make the stairs. We even stole CB radios and used them to coordinate grabbing the goods after the end of the shift; Jim and me in our cars each posted at one end of the alley watching for cops and Marc in his blazer grabbing the stuff behind the trailer. Chase-Pitkin had their own rent-a-cops who were supposed to be making roving patrols around the building but they were a fucking joke. Both security and management were completely clueless; Marc was even awarded Employee of the Month during the peak of things. When management finally did notice their losses piling each month, they put the power tools behind locked display cabinets, so made copies of the keys. When they built huge wooden cabinets in the back stock room to house excess stock, we just unbolted the hinges. And Flipper, bless his heart he really was a nice guy, was oblivious to it all.
It got to the point of we were actually taking orders from people. I'd have friends go 'shopping' at 5pm and hand me a list of what they wanted, and I'd deliver the goods to them at school that Friday. When I'd pull into the school parking lot before classes started, within five minutes I'd have a small crowd around the hatchback of my Ford EXP and everyone shoving money in my hands. We had life by the ass and I loved it. To us those goody-good students who worked shitty minimum wage jobs for bum paychecks, and took the bus to work and worried about buying gas, were dead. They were suckers. They had no balls. If we wanted something, we just took it.
So anyway, things continued in this Henry Hill Goodfellas lifestyle for quite awhile. You'd be amazed at how popular you get once you're recognized as the guy who can 'get things'. It gives you a whole new appreciation for Morgan Freeman in Shawshank Redemption. Only I wasn't dealing with rock hammers, I was dealing with roofing hammers. And all of that changed exactly one week before Thanksgiving.
It was a typical Thursday night for us. We had stacked one metric assload of stuff back by the rear door, ready to go outside as soon as we got the key. But there were still a few more things on the 'shopping list' so we weren't ready to ask for the keys just yet. Our shelf stocking duties brought us not only to lumber department, but to all the other departments in the store; electronics, plumbing, hardware, gardening, you name it. I had just gathered up a nice stack of business phones from our good friends in electronics, had made my way back through the store and about halfway through the back stockroom towards our stack of stuff. Just by chance, I had just walked behind a stack of boxes when I heard the swinging double doors to the stockroom push open, followed by the voices of Flipper and Jim. They were on their way to the breakroom to grab a cup of coffee, a candybar, whatever. Flipper was talking to Jim so his head was turned to face him thus preventing him from seeing me. I made eye contact with Jim and motioned that he need to get Flipper out of there, and in a fucking hurry. Here I was in the back room holding a stack of phone in my arms when I'm supposed to be in the front sales area stocking light bulbs. That's going to be tough to explain if I get caught. I needed a super huge major hardcore all the bells and whistles distraction so that I could make my way back up front right fucking now, and Jim knew it. He gave me the nod. So even as Flipper's footsteps drew closer, I had a sense of relief, because I knew Jim was going to help me out.
And then, standing there with these phones in my hand, heart racing, seconds away from being caught, I bore witness to one of the greatest acts in human stupidity that I have ever witnessed. The kind of distraction I was hoping for was for Jim to fall on the ground, clutching his ankle and screaming in pain. Or to accidently knock over an enormous pile of boxes sending them cascading onto the floor. Or to drop $5.00 in spare change on the floor and explode into laughter as the coins danced their little dance. No, instead of these things -- which would have kept Flipper from walking back and finding me -- Jim's brainstorm of a distraction was to casually call out, "Hey Dan."
Flipper (Dan) casts a look over his shoulder and says, "Hey," and continues his march around the boxes where I am. I have only seconds to react. Since the skills of teleportation and invisibility still escaped me at the time, I set the stack of phones down and grab a nearby broom. What the fuck else could I do? "What are you doing back here?" Flipper inquired. "I, uh, needed a broom." Flipper looks at the very out of place stack of phones, and up at me, then back at the phones. "Leave that here and get back up front." "You got it." I mumble as a beat feet back up front. I cast a quick glance over my shoulder and see Flipper starting to look around more. He would undoubtedly find our stash of ready to go goodies. Fuck.
The rest of the evening occurred as uneventfully as you might expect. There's wasn't much conversation as Jim, Marc and I exchanged very worried glances when Flipper wasn't looking. When we had finished putting away all the stock, all of us made our way back into the break room to punch out and gather up our coats and such. Flipper didn't say much and didn't look any of us in the face. As he led us to the front door, he didn't follow his normal routine of setting the alarm before following us through the door and locking it behind him. No, this time Flipper didn't set the alarm as he opened the door for us and allowing us through. "Good night," he said quietly as he shut the door behind us. I stood there and watched as he turned around and walked towards the back into the belly of the store. A cold shill ran down my spine, and it wasn't the cold Rochester air.
That Thursday evening, the same as countless others before, we drove over to Nick Tahoes. Only this time the jovial mood that usually accompanied us was markedly absent. We went inside, ordered burgers and took in a booth in the far back so we could talk among ourselves. That pending sense of doom that hung in the air like death made us each realize the jig was up. Me being Kid Klepto was used to getting the third degree about missing stuff, so I wasn't quite as frazzled as the other two were. And so we crafted ourselves a story. It was a simple story, making it impossible to foul up when asked. The story was this: we had never stolen anything before, this night was our first attempt at doing so, and we chickened out because we didn't want to get caught. That was it. No fluff. No sparklers and fanfare. Just a very simple story. Stick to the story and we'd be alright. An idiot could do it.
After I had gotten home that night I was laying there in bed replaying the night's events in my head. Were things as bad as they had first seemed? What lie could I tell to perhaps explain the out of place merchandise? And then... oh fuck, I left the coffee pot on! Tonight was my night to have turned the coffee pot off, and in the confusion of getting semi-busted, fuck I forgot to turn it off. I picked up the phone and called into work, fully expecting to get the stores voice messaging system. Once it beeped, I'd leave Derrick a message to check the pot a.s.a.p. Besides, this was a good way for me to show that yes I was a good little company man after all! (See previous comment about guilty people always trying to prove themselves). But much to my surprise the voicemail didn't answer. Doug Cole did. At 1am on a Friday morning. I explained about leaving the coffee pot on, and after letting me finish he curtly thanked me and hung up. Huh.
I think I mentioned before, that these little excursions all happened on Thursday nights. Since we were there late, the four of us had Fridays off. I went to school just like normal and some time after I got home, the phone rang. It was Derrick, my lumber manager, and he asked if I could come into work wince they're short handed. The holidays were fast approaching so I knew things were busy at work, plus hey, the extra face time might let me do a little recon and see if anyone was able to piece things togather from last night. I grabbed my bright blue Chase-Pitkin smock and headed out the door. I arrived at work about fifteen minutes later and at first appearance everything seemed normal. The same people smiled and said hello to me. Derrick asked me to hurry up and punch in because they were swamped. Maybe things weren't going to be so bad after all.
Back in the break room, there were about a dozen or so employees gathered around a sandwich platter that management had sent down in sort of an impromptu Thanksgiving party. You know the drill; a few dozen small rolls, folds of turkey and roast beef, some tomato slices that were starting to gel up, slices of cheese and a community pot of mayonnaise. There was also a metal bin of Coke and Diet Coke stocked up with ice. Everyone's hands were buzzing like mad, everyone trying to stuff as much free food in their mouths as they could before the clock ticked off 4:00pm and we had to punch in. Since I had already eaten the food didn't interest me that much, and I set about finding an open locker to store my stuff. The lockers were at one end of the long break room table. At the other end sat a man. It was Doug Cole. This struck me as odd since management had their own break room and this one was for the 'little people'. But hey it was the holidays, so maybe he was trying to mingle. Only he wasn't talking to anyone. He wasn't grabbing for a sandwich. He wasn't supping a Coke. He was just sitting there. He was staring. At me. When I knelt down to stuff my shoes into one of the floor height lockers, I could feel his stare burning through me. As I stood up, his eyes never moved. In between us was a small flurry of people reaching and grabbing and laughing. He and I paid no mind, our stares locked on each other. I soon looked away like a submissive puppy.
Tick! The clock struck four and the crowd of people moved from the table over to the timeclock. They filed through one at a time and out the door, each laughing as they stuffed stale bread and room temperature cheese into their mouths. I secretly yearned to switch places with them. I was the last one to punch in, not because I was lazy, but because I was hiding behind the crowd of people hoping that when it thinned I would find Doug Cole had mysteriously disappeared. He hadn't. He was still there. Like Max Von Sydow in some 50's horror film. And still, he stared. As I nestled my timecard back into its slot and began to work my way towards the door, Doug took a step and blocked it. "Can I speak to you for a minute, Ernie?" Oh bollocks.
I followed him the dozen or so steps to his office and when Doug swung open the door, my vision fell upon a uniformed Police Officer from the Town of Gates, sitting behind Doug's desk. My tiny seventeen year old testicles shriveled up, dropped off my body, ran down my pants leg, and made a break for it. I would find them three weeks later at a bus stop in Toledo but that's a story for another time. Also in the room, sitting over to the right, was the store's assistant manager names Mike SomethingOrOther. I'll be damned if I can remember his name. I keep wanting to say Michael Knight, but obviously that's not right. His last name did start with a K, though. Anyway, Doug took a seat next to Mike, leaving one lone single seat vacant. It sat directly across from Doug's desk. Directly across from the cop. It didn't take much for my knees to come unhinged and I fell into the seat with a flop. I think if that seat wasn't there, I'd have gone right down to the floor, through it, only to emerge in China a few days later. I did my best to maintain my composure, I really did, but I'm sure they could all see and smell the fear on me. There were a few minutes of very awkward silence but I'll be damned if I was going to speak first. As far as I'm concerned, if one of them didn't speak, we'd still be sitting there today.
But the golden silence didn't last. The police officer spoke first. He leaned forward in his chair, opened a black binder where I could see he had already written several things, and inquired, "Do you have any idea what I'd like to talk about?"
Just stick to the plan and you'll be okay. Just stick to the plan...
"Do I have any idea what he'd like to talk about?" Well, there's the $64,000 question, isn't it. And I'd love to tell you my response was the result of watching The Usual Suspects or Goodfellas, where the bad guy always forces the cops to show their hand while giving nothing up in return. Yes, I'd like to tell you that my response was all part of the three golden rules; Deny. Deny. Deny. But it wasn't. And when I mumbled, "No, I don't," with a weak voice and a dry mouth it was only because in some fantastic way I was hoping all three of these men would exchange puzzled glances with each other, shrug their shoulders and say, "You don't huh? Well, okay then, our mistake. Sorry to have bothered you and enjoy the rest of your day." But of course they didn't. In fact, the police officer seemed very prepared for my response and had began to reply before I even finished the word "don't".
As I'm writing this, I've sat here for a few minutes and tried to remember the exact specifics of the conversation, but it's been a long time. So while I can't spew off exact quotes anymore, I do remember the framework of the ensuing interrogation, and it went like this...
The evening before, Flipper realized he had stumbled onto something very out of place and suspecting we might be behind the 300% spike in losses over the past few months, called Doug into the store. When he got there, Doug called Mike in as well. For the next few hours the three of them went through the store, focusing on the back room, and found all the neat shit we had stockpiled to steal. I of course denied this as not knowing anything about what they were talking about. Doug then says they captured video of us on the security cameras. I asked to see the tapes. Doug reports they've already been sent off to Chase Pitkin security headquarters for review. At this news, I paused and considered something.
The security cameras he's speaking of would have been housed in the new mirrored globes that were just installed in various points around the store. One of the advantages of working in the lumber department is we were always being hoisted up on forklifts, or climbing around on the big 30' tall racks, giving us good vantage to see that the aforementioned mirrored globes were in fact EMPTY. As in void of cameras. As in just for show. At least all the ones we looked at were empty. But there were a few we couldn't examine since they were located out of our department and out of view. So for a good ten seconds I sat there and tried to calculate the chances that I was really on film stealing a whole bunch of shit. Were they bluffing? Or were there really tapes? I wondered if halfway across the city, there were engineers in lab coats examining this footage like it was the U2 surveillance photos of Cuba. Fuck.
In the end, I caved. I'm not proud to admit that, not that I'm proud for having stolen a bunch of shit from an employer that treated me pretty well, but looking back I just hate to have been beaten at my own game. There were no fucking tapes. But being a scared teenager, I believed them. Their bluff worked. And so, I told them everything. I told them how we were planning to steal some stuff and how we just wanted to be able to give away some really good Christmas presents, and how the more we thought about it we didn't want to get caught and arrested, and how after chickening out we stashed the stuff in the back hoping someone would just think it's out of place stock and simply put it back on the shelves. And oh my God, we had never done anything like this before, and oh my God were we sorry and the last thing we wanted was to get in trouble, and oh my God here I was sitting here talking to the police, and oh my God my father was going to kill me, and oh my God I'd do anything to take it back.
The police officer seemed indifferent to it all, he just kept writing down what I was saying. I mean the guy has probably been to murder crime scenes, so what's a little petit theft to him, right? Doug Cole on the other hand sat back and with a look of satisfaction on his face, obviously please that his little security camera rouse worked. Michael on the other hand, was a different matter. So permit me a quick tangent if I may. Doug Cole, as the store's general manager, was a tall, good looking and charismatic man. Like our friend E.F. Hutton, when Doug Cole talked, people listened. He was an attention getter. The same was not true for his assistant manager, Michael. He was a short man, somewhere just above the five foot mark as I recall. When he spoke, people looked around with a confused look on their face, only to glance downwards and go, "Oh hey Mike, I didn't see you there. Did you say something?" He had somewhat of a Napoleon complex. As I was concluding my Oh-Woe-Is-Me act, Mike seemed to realize that the situation was unfolding without any contribution on his part, so he piped up with, "So who tried to take all the tools from the contractor's office?"
That of course would be me. You see I had suddenly gotten the urge to assemble myself a toolbox. God knows what for, since my brother was the mechanic in the family and the number of nuts and bolts I have turned in my life can probably be counted on two hands. But for whatever reason, I wanted to have a nicely equipped toolbox and like everything else, I decided to steal it. But being a purveyor of nice things I was not satisfied with the retail grade crap; I wanted the good stuff. I wanted the contractor grade tools. And so, during one of the trips out to my car with Flipper's borrowed key set, I stopped by the hardware department and made myself a copy of the key to the special Contractor Supply Office. During the previous night's looting, I let myself in and much like Peter and Stephen in Dawn of the Dead, did a little shopping. These tools, devoid of their packaging, were in one of the boxes discovered by Flipper, Doug and Mike during their early morning scavenger hunt. But since unwrapped tools would not fit into my Oh-Woe-Is-Me mantra, getting pinched for this simply wouldn't do. "Because I am going to find out who tried to take them, that I can guarantee you." Mike quipped, making sure Doug overheard how determined and authoritative he sounded. And I remember this. I remember being tremendously offended at his arrogance. You guarantee? You guarantee? You guarantee you're going to catch me? I sat there, stung and insulted. The fucking audacity! So I made up my mind about one thing. I wasn't sure how this whole situation was going to play out as a whole, it was too early to tell. But one that I was going to guarantee, was that Mike's guarantee was going to fall on its face. And it did. Throughout all the questioning and interrogations, throughout all the interviews and standing before judges and signing of affidavits.... they never found out it was me. No matter how much Mike pressed the issue with the cops and the lawyers, I gave him nothing. Why? Because fuck him, that's why. Arrogant fuck.
Anyway, back to my confession. I spelled out for them what we were going to take and how we were going to do it. How that maybe someone might be able to stash some stuff out back, and how one of the hardware display cases was left unlocked, which is why we had so much stuff from behind locked cabinets. In complete and utter falsehood, threw myself at their mercy. And when I was done, the police officer informed me of the crime I had committed, and I could face fines and jail time, and have a criminal record, and how much money an attorney would cost, and did I really think it was worth it. Of course I played the part of the remorseful fool, all the while going over my story in my head and trying to make sure I didn't give them too much information. You see, lying on such a large scale is a very dangerous thing. When you're asked the same question two different ways and ten minutes apart, you have to make sure all of your answers jived. One slip up... if three Eastwing hammers and two mahogany levels turns into two Eastwing hammers and three mahogany levels, and you're fucked.
But I evidently played the part convincingly, because the police officer informed me that per a previous conversation he had with the store manager (Doug), they wouldn't press charges if nothing had been taken. And nothing had been, I assured them, going into my we-chickened-out speech again. The three of us would however be fired (duh), banned from the store (duh again) and would have to sign an affadvit detailing what we did and how we did it. I agreed. The officer stood up and reached back on his belt, and came out with his handcuffs. Fuck. Any color that had returned to my face made a hasty retreat again. Were those really necessary, I asked. They were he said, standard procedure and there were no exceptions. Although he would cuff my hands in front since he was sure I posed no threat to him. I told him I understood, but is there any way they could take me out of the back, so I didn't have to walk through the store in handcuffs? The officer said he had no problem with that if Doug didn't. And that's when Doug Cole, the man I had completely fucked over for the last three months, extended one last act of mercy to me. He not only agreed to let me be taken out via the back door, but asked us to wait a minute while he cleared all of the other employees from the back stock area so I could salvage a little pride. Bless his heart, he really was a nice guy. My father would have stripped me down naked and beat me with a belt as he marched me around the store.
And while Doug was shoo'ing everyone out from the back and the cop was going to get his cruiser to drive it around back to pick me up, Mike was left to guard me. He took this opportunity to again grilled me on the person responsible for trying to take the contractor tools. And you know what, if he was a nice guy like Doug, I might have thrown myself on the sword as one last gesture to say I really was sorry. But he wasn't. He was an asshole. So instead I gave him stugots.
When the back room had been cleared and the officer had returned to pick up his new prisoner, I flopped my jacket over my wrists to hide my handcuffs, and was escorted through the very back door I had used to steal a lot of shit. The cruiser hadn't warmed up yet and the vinyl seats were cold on my legs and back. After the officer had shut the door behind me and was walking around to let himself in, I had the first moment of complete privacy in the two hours since this ordeal began. "Oh fuck," I said out loud but to no one in particular. But in that despair, there was also some hope. I had gotten all three of us off with a mere slap on the wrist. Just fired and banned from the store? For all the shit we had actually gotten away with? That was the teenager's equivalent to slitting your ex wife's neck, being chased in a white Bronco, and then being acquitted because of some cheap gloves. I had faced off with the store manager and the police, and had come out on top! I certainly wasn't pleased at the fact that I was sitting in the back of a police cruiser and had handcuffs on, but all things considered, did a fucking awesome job at damage control. I know this sounds horrible, but I was actually kind of proud of that fact. And best of all, with no charges being filed, there was no way my father was going to find out. That my friends, was the real score.
And so off to the Gates Police Headquarters I went. And in a tiny interrogation room with white walls and while ceiling, seated on a metal chair and writing on a metal desk, I once again regurgitated my web of lies. How we were planning to steal some stuff and how we just wanted to be able to give away some really good Christmas presents, and blah-blah-blah.
As I would finish one page and move on to the next, the officer would look over what I had just written. He would remind me that I should leave out emotions and expressions of remorse, since these documents were used to express only hard facts. "It's going to be okay," he assured me," I had made a mistake but it wasn't the end of the world." I courageously agreed he was right and somehow managed to find the strength to continue my affidavit. A few times, I accidently snuck in an, "I'm so sorry" or, "I was so scared" because I was still playing the game. I wanted anyyone and everyone to see that I was super duper sorry, and that they should do everything they could to let me go as soon as possible because I sure did learn my lesson. I steeled myself with the thought that this whole unfortunate event would probably be over in an hour, and all because I had the God given sense to just stick to my fucking story.
And I want to say that I was on page three or so, when another detective came in and asked to speak to the officer outside. I continued writing because there was a big ass mirror in there and presumed I was still under the watchful eye of someone. I had just gotten to the part where I had been called back into work the next day, when the officer returned. His face looked stern and some how disappointed. He told me there was a problem with my affidavit and I remember thinking, "Wow they really take this no emotion thing pretty seriously." And that's when he told me that Jim was in another interrogation room, and he was telling a very different story from the one I had told. Jim's story dated back about three months and included such juicy tidbits as leaning pallets used to hide stolen goods and Shop-vacs and CB radios and dividing up loot in Nick Tahoe's parking lot.
Oh, and by the way, this whole Chase-Pitkin story is going somewhere; it's leading up to the event that forever cured me of stealing. And no, it wasn't getting arrested for grand larceny, either.
In Stephen King's novel Dolores Claiborne, the title character is being interviewed by police regarding the death of her husband Joe. In her mind, Dolores likens the police interview to walking through a field laden with traps and pits and rocks on which one could become entangled. So every time the inspector asks her a question, Dolores would count off in her mind, "One my pretty pony. Two my pretty pony. Three my pretty pony," before answering. This allowed her both time to think out her response and not fall into any of the inspector's traps, and yet not seem too eager to answer, either.
And I had just spent the last two hours My-Pretty-Ponying our way through the Pitfall of Pitfalls. I had spent great care and effort covering up our complex and inconceivable truth, with a simple and utterly believable lie. Only to feel myself drug back into the pit of despair by a blithering idiot. When the officer confronted me with all of these details of our escapades -- very specific details which in no way shape or form could have been a guess -- I knew I couldn't react how I wanted to. Because what I wanted to do was throw his coffee cup against the wall, and tear off my shirt, stand up on my chair and scream down at him, "Aw C'mon! I mean what the fuck! We knew we were going to be questioned, and that's why I specifically laid out a very simple story so that these two fucking idiots would be able to stick to it without cracking under pressure. I had already done all the heavy lifting; I was the first fucking interview! All Jim had to do was stick to the motherfucking story and he evidently couldn't even do that!" I wanted to lean over to the officer and say, "No that can't be right. We had the concocted the perfect lie last night and even rehearsed it over some Nick Tahoe's cheeseburgers. Nowhere in our lie was anything about the Shop-Vac or the CB Radios which I had these two fucking balloonheads get. So do me a favor, maybe go back and check your facts again?"
But of course I couldn't do that. No, I couldn't do that any more than I could continue denying having actually stolen before, thanks to Jim, whom I shall henceforth refer to as The Rat. And what the cops had expected to be a simple ten minute routine interview just to confirm the story I had told them, turned into a full blown, "Hey get a cup of coffee and go to interview room seven, there's some neat shit going on in there," fiasco. And The Rat had laid it all out for them, starting with the mudflaps and running all the way up to the fire sales I used to throw in the school parking lot on Friday mornings. How we asked to borrow the keys to go outside, making copies of the ones we needed from time to time. How we checked the security bubbles and found them to be empty (that's right, empty!). How I escalated everything by discovering the back door route and made the two of them get CB radios so we wouldn't be surprised while gathering up the night's take. And the coup de gras: how the night before I had worked out our cover story at Nick's after realizing Flipper had stumbled onto our little operation. About the only thing he didn't tell them was my fucking employee number. Marc, who was the third interview, didn't have a chance. he was ambushed with every detail The Rat had just spilled out, so all he could do was nod his head and agree with everything.
So of course now the investigation moves from the discovery phase, which had almost winded down to a closing to this little dirty affair, to the asset recovery phase. Yeah that's not so much fun. That's where the cops load you in their patrol car (no cuffs this time) and take you home to retrieve all the neat shit you've been stealing. And as my heart thumped in my throat as we turned down the corner of Marlow street and pulled up to my house, what to my wondering eyes should appear? Not my parent's car, that's what. They weren't home. I glanced around and waited for the neighbor's curtains to be pushed back so they could get a better look at the TWO Gates police cruisers sitting in front of my house, but that didn't happen either. It's like the entire street was sleeping. There was -- no shit -- a light dusting of fresh snow on the ground. It was like a little pre-Christmas miracle just for me.
And so into the house and up to my bedroom we go. Myself, the uniformed officer who was with me from the beginning (fucked if I can remember his name), and two detectives form a semicircle around my closet. And when I open it and pull back the blanket I had been using to cover up my "Christmas presents that I didn't want anyone to peek at," all you saw were Chase-Pitkin price tags. (Why not take the tags off, you might wonder? Well how the hell else would I know what to charge people?) And just like you see in news footage whenever a flood hits the midwest, the four of us formed a line from my closet to my bed. Only instead of passing sandbags to build a levee, we were passing cordless drills, and cordless ratchets, and extra batteries, and programmable thermostats, and radar detectors, and cordless phones, and multi-line speakerphones, and paint sprayers, and laser levels, and wrench sets. And when we were done, a pile that came up to eye height had grown on my bed. It took the four of us three trips each to bring everything out to the police cruisers. And when we were done, one of them happened to ask in amazement, "Did we get everything?" And me -- for some unGodly reason choosing now of all times to suddenly find the path of truth -- reply, "Nope, now we go up to the attic." And up to the attic I led them to another pile not quite as big as the first, but still sizeable none the less. "Now did we get everything?" And me, keeping right on trucking towards Truthville, lead them over to our CHRISTMAS TREE. Where yes, I unwrapped a few choice gifts revealing more power tools (tags removed this time).
When we were done, we had filled the trunks and back seats of two cruisers, with a few items riding shotgun in the front seat of one. It was quite the, uh, take. And in a far off kind of way, I sat back and for the first time was really able to look over and admire what I had accomplished. I mean sure I was getting busted, but man I stole a lot of shit. Seriously. I came in and these two thimbledicks were sneaking mudflaps out by the lumber yard. Now I had a Chase-Pitkin outlet store in my fucking closet. Well, at least I did. And as we were sitting back and looking at the two fully stocked cars -- I swear to God the cops ever had a hint of admiration on their faces too -- a set of very familiar headlights began to cut their way down Marlow street. Yes, those headlights. It was that moment that I realized any chance I had of making some sort of clean getway was gone. I was now going to be in this for the long fucking haul, baby.
I'm not quite sure what goes through a parents head when they come home to find police cars from another town parked outside of their house. I was standing there with them, so obviously I wasn't hurt and that ruled out any sort of accident. Plus why would there be detectives in an unmarked car? No, to this day I still don't know exactly what my parents were thinking, but from the looks on their faces, it wasn't good. The two detectives in the unmarked car had already gotten inside and were ready tomake their way back to their headquarters to start a stolen goods report. The officer however would obvious want to speak with dear old Mom and Dad and answer a flurry of questions. So now he, my befuddled parents and I made our way back into the house where my parents took a seat at the kitchen table. The officer was standing in the archyway, near that door that led down to the outside door we had just come from. I chose to stand, with my legs up against the heat register, trying to ward off the chill from standing outside with no jacket on.
My parents were obviously very eager to know what the fuck was going on. And I will never to the day I die, ever forget how I told them. I realized it was such a serious and grave situation that I was grasping at any straw to lighten the mood. Anything. And deep down I knew it wasn't the right time for a joke, but still it came out anyway. "Well," I began, "remember when you asked me where I was getting some of these tools from, and I told you I was getting them at a discount?" "Yes," my mom responded, still clueless with disbelief with what I was about to hit her with even though she knew what was coming. "Well, that discount was sort of... 100%"
And then there was a very long, and very awkward pause in the Stewart household. A pause that seemed as overpowering as the silence that accompanied it. No one's face moved. The ticking of the clock seemed deafening. The metal grate that covered the heat vent started to burn my fingers but I didn't move. Not even the fucking dog lifted his head. I mean a fucking eternity of stillness and silence, like we had been imprisoned into some bizarre Normal Rockwell painting.
My father was the first to move. And much to my surprise, it wasn't to leap up out of his chair and beat my ass as I had fully expected him to do, cop standing there or not. Instead he just lowered his head and sighed. My mother, on the other hand, has a more visceral reaction. As she looked up at me her face started to crumble. A muscle twitch in the chin. An eye slowly started to squinch down. Her mouth slowly closed from its seat of shock and curl downwards. And before I knew it, she was weeping.
I think that was probably the lowest I have ever felt in my entire life. At that moment, I would have been delighted to have my father jumped up and smack me around. Or to have my mother throw a frying pan at my head, as I had seen her do to my brothers on occasions when they got into serious trouble. But I had crossed the line. And to have them sit there and just be broken people, man that was fucking horrible.
The remainder of that evening was pretty uneventful. My parents thanked the cop for bringing me home, and ironically enough, he had to give me a ride back to Chase-Pitkin to pick up my car. Needless to say I took the long way home. Not much was said around the house that night, and the evening capped off with everyone going to bed reallllly early.
The next week was Pins-And-Needles Week. The latest official word from Chase-Pitkin was they weren't going to press charges since they believed we hadn't actually taken anything. Since they was recently proven false (thanks, you fucking Rat), but not hearing anything to the contrary, I didn't know what was going to happen. At my mother's insistence I had to call up the police station every day and ask if I was going to face charges. And each day it was the same, "We haven't heard back from Chase-Pitkin yet." Since we all know I was eventually charged, you know how this part of the story is going to end. And I have to say looking back, that the week of not knowing what was coming, was actually worse than after I knew what was going to happen. The uncertainty was a killer. It's like you don't dare plan for anything because you don't know if you're going to be around. I imagine I must have felt a little like how a death row inmate feels when he's waiting to hear back on his final appeal.
Anyway, it was the Wednesday before Thanksgiving -- late on that Wednesday actually -- that a definitive answer came back. Yes, I was going to be charged. And what was I going to be charged with? Well, since the total value of the items I returned had just crept past $1,000, in the State of New York that makes it Grand Larceny in the Fourth degree which is a Class E Felony. I had hit the big time. But here's the fucking corker: The Rat and Marc each stole just as much shit as I did, but they didn't return as much. In fact, they returned a whole lot less.... enough to keep them well under the $1,000 limit and hence they were each charged with Petit Larceny, which is only a misdemeanor. And the corker to the corker? When The Rat drives to school after the Thanksgiving break? Yeah the fucking RoadRunner Beep Beep mudflaps are still on his fucking car. No shit. But I've got the felony charge. Right.
A few weeks later, just before Christmas, was the first appearance before the Judge. I forget his name too (but I'll be damned if I can forget Doug Cole...). And you could tell from his demeanor that while yes I was facing a big situation, he's also seen a lot worse. He runs through all of the, "Do you realize the consequences of what you've done?" and, "Do you have any remorse?" questions, and I reply with all the right answers. Okay, next court date is sometime in late January, but right after the first of the year I have to meet with a case worker who will evaluate me and provide some recommendation to the judge as for sentencing.
But in the meantime, there's something else I have to take care of. You see I was in the Delayed Enlistment Program (DEP) for the Air Force, and now I had to let my recruiter know what happened. So I mosey on down the Federal Building and call SSgt Berardi out into the hallway so I can talk in private. He was playing a recruitment video for some noobs and I didn't want them to hear what was going on. Yes, admitting you've been arrested can be somewhat embarrassing, thank you very much. So I hit him with it, "Uh yeah, I sort of got arrested." And his response was something that I've always found profoundly stupid, "What did you do that for?" Oh, because I was fucking bored. Like I woke up the other morning and said 'you know my life sure can use some excitement. And nothing says excitement like handcuffs, so let's rock.' Blah-Blah_blah, he lets me know my guaranteed job in my guaranteed career field is safe, just so long as I get this all taken care of before I'm scheduled to leave in May of that following year. That gave me five months to get this buttoned up, which I thought was plenty of time. I leave feeling relieved that at least this little indiscretion wouldn't spoil my plans for the Air Force. Then a week later I got a letter from the local recruiting branch telling me I had been kicked out of DEP and my job forfeited. Awesome.
So I ventured into the new year unemployed, with a felony charge hanging over my head, and having been shunned by Uncle Sam. It was not a very good new year.
The meeting with the case worked went better than I had imagined it would. It was at the City Government building downtown and like most city buildings at the time, looked more like a bomb shelter than a place of business. Cinderblock walls painted a pale green. A floor made up of linoleum squares in a checkerboard pattern. Florescent lights buzzing angrily overhead. My case worker was a skinny black guy, I remember that. And he like the judge, gave off the impression that he'd seen much more shady characters than me come across his desk; not that either was going to let me off the hook. One of the first issues he wanted to address was the fact that the other two guys insinuated I was the 'ring leader' of our little crime spree. Of course this was true, if for no other reason that the other two guys weren't bright enough to start a fire with two sticks, even if one of them was a match. I wanted to explain how if one of my compatriots had the brains of a curly asshair, then I wouldn't even be sitting in his office having this conversation. But I couldn't very well say that, now could I. My mom, bless her heart, maintained that I was a very good kid who had just fallen in with the wrong crowd. Which, aside from having very sticky fingers, I really was a good kid. The case worker spoke to me both with and without my parents in the room. After mom and dad were sent out for a cup of coffee, the case worker asked me things like, "How is your home life? How's your relationship with your parents? Is anyone abusing you?" Very touchy-feely type questions. After ten minutes or so of that, he had gotten all the information he needed to make a recommendation to the judge. I explained my situation with the Air Force to him, and he asked a few more questions and took a few more notes. We parted ways with a handshake and out the door I went.
It was about this time that I got another job, too. Right across the street from Chase-Pitkin was a small hardware store. The owner's name was Jack and when I applied for the job, I spilled the beans to him. How I was arrested and facing charges for stealing from the store across the street. And bless his heart, Jack gave me a chance. Even gave me time off work when I had to leave early to do my community service, which I'll talk about tomorrow. And I worked my ass off for Jack. Showed up early. Stayed late. Unbelievable kind and helpful to customers. But eventually, I stole from him too. Yep. But like I said when I started this whole story, I was a fucking klepto when I was a kid. No amount of shame or punishment or fear or pain or anything could stop it. I couldn't not steal. I don't know why, but I did. But I'm getting ahead of myself here. My January court date rolls around and here's what the Judge spelled out for me. Since I was just a tender little tyke of only seventeen years, I was going to be given the status of Youthful Offender. That means that assuming I satisfy all the requirements the court sets down for me, my record would be expunged on my eighteenth birthday. The requirements were as follows:
And just a small bright spot here. As I said, I was sentenced to 48 hours of community service, which I completed at the very same school where I went to grades 4-6. Met my 5th grade teacher while I was running a floor buffer. Yeah, that was awesome. More on that tomorrow. And my accomplice Marc, he got 32 hours. And The Rat? Yep, The Rat got 64 fucking hours of community service. Fuck him.
In grade school, I used to be in the Boy Scouts. My Troop Leader was a man named Jack Cook. Jack was not the janitor at #43 school on Lyell Avenue, which as I mentioned earlier, was the school I attended for grades 4 (Mr. Gorman), 5 (Mrs. Mahar) and 6 (Mr. Gerber). I was still close friend's with Jack's son Tim, so Jack came to know about my little soiree with Johnny Law. At this he suggested I might be able to complete my 48 hours of community service working under him, volunteering at the school with janitorial stuff. And since well, that sure as fuck beat picking up trash on the side of the road, I suggested that solution to Mr. Caseworker, who thought it was an acceptable solution.
And so one Monday afternoon at 6pm, I knocked off early from my new job at the hardware store and drove to the old brick school that was both very strange and yet very familiar, all at the same time. In truth, if I wasn't there under the circumstances I was, it was almost kind of cool. My various duties required me to have access to all the places I was curious about as a kid; that padlocked door in the basement across from the cafeteria, that trapdoor at the top of the ladder in the main stairwell, fuck I even got to climb behind the big fucking bronze Teddy Roosevelt statue that stood in the main foyer. Doing that as a student would have equaled instant detention and a phone call home so my father could beat my ass. One evening was entirely filled by setting up some 300+ chairs in the gymnasium for an assembly the next day. As a kid, I always wondered how these chairs got set up; now I know. Guys doing community service.
One evening I was running a floor buffer on the second floor, on the very same hallway that my little feet used to pitter patter. A short black woman wearing these big fucking frying pan sized glasses came walking my way. I had seen that walk before. It was my fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Mahar. I kept my head down, feigning determined concentration on the floor buffer I was running. Which if you've ever run one of those things before, you really do need to pay attention otherwise you're looking at a couple of cracked ribs when that fucker come a spinnin. But anyway, my clever face down disguise wasn't anywhere near enough to fool the keen eye of Mrs. Mahar. Her pace slowed as she grew close. Look down. Look down. "Ernie? Ernie Stewart?" Fuck. SO year I ended up seeing one of my old teachers while doing community service in the grade school I used to attend. if that didn't put your life in perspective, not many things would. We talked for a bit and I explained about the little 'misunderstanding' I had with my recent employer. She chastised me and then offered some words of encouragement, as she had done no less than a thousand times in the past.
And for eight days, that was how I rolled. Paying off my debt to The Man six hours at a time. I swept, I mopped, I buffed. I emptied trash and set up chairs. I carried boxes and scrubbed graffiti. But even that fun came to an end. At the end of the eighth day, Jack filled out my compliance forms and gave them to me so I could pass them along to the case worker. He added his name to the growing list of people who told me, "And keep your nose clean for now on." And I did, at least for a little while. But old habits die hard.
So while my kleptomania never approached Chase-Pitkin scale again, let's just say that the computers I built as a little side job might have run hotter than most. So what, pray tell, did finally bring my one man crime spree to an end? No I didn't find God, and as I previously hinted, punishment and shame didn't do it either. It was a hard drive, if you can believe it. A 400Mb hard drive that someone else stole, and before you ask, no it wasn't mine.
It was stolen from Frederick Computers Plus, my first real employer. I had been there only two or three months when it happened. The hard drive in question had been sitting on the shelving of a vacant cubicle ever since I had been hired; I know this because I walked past it every day on the way to my little home away from home. Its presence there always struck me as a little out of place because what the hell was the inner guts of a computer doing as the lone occupant of a cube, but like I said, I was new so what the hell did I know? And one morning, it just wasn't there anymore. I didn't pay it any mind honestly. For all I knew someone came and put it in it's proper place.
And then the questions started. "Have you seen the hard drive that was on the shelf in that cube?" And, "You don't happen to know where that hard drive went, do you?" It began to occur to me that this hard drive was probably not back in its rightful place, and as the FNG I feared attention might focus on me. And what both amused and baffled me the most was... I didn't take it. Usually, whenever something turned up missing I was the one to blame. I was prepared for these, "Have you seen...," type questions. But I was unprepared this time because I had no idea something was missing. My heart raced. My palms grew clammy. And just like there was a little James T. Kirk in my head, ("Mr. Sulu, shields up!") I began to mentally account for my whereabouts; the wheels in my heard churning to see what lie would fit the facts and give me a good alibi.
That's when "It" hit me. "It" was the realization I made when I stepped back for a moment and said, "Whoa. I don't have to think of any lies here, because the truth will work just fine. I'm not the guy who boosted this hard drive. I don't have to concoct any kind of a story and don't have to worry about remembering the details of it later. I don't have to worry about answering the same question the same way when it's asked a different way. I can just sit back on my ass with a big grin on my face, and not have to worry one bit about anything they want to ask me, because I DIDN'T DO IT. There's going to be some other poor son of a bitch squirming on the hot seat for this one. This is fucking awesome!"
I don't think this was any huge leap of morality, but more of a understanding of which path had the least resistance. I'm serious when I say this, stealing something and then having to lie about it is mentally exhausting. Assuming you get away with the act itself, you then have to worry each and every night that Person-A is talking to Person-B -- "Yeah I think he took something from me too, but I haven't been able to catch him" -- and wondering if they're going to outsmart you the next time. But if I hadn't stolen anything to begin with, there would be no conspiracies to worry about.
This was the first time in my life when I finally understood that being able to sit back completely worry free in any given situation, was more valuable than whatever it was I was contemplating stealing. I think that's the key that eludes a lot of people, like the waitress that boosted my phone. You should have seen the look on her face when she got called up to the front where the restaurant's owner and I were waiting to talk to her. She didn't know whether to shit or go blind. And as pissed off as I was and as much as I wanted to reach over and strangle the little cunt, I kind of felt sorry for her too. Because now for the rest of the time she works where, she's going to look over her shoulder and wonder if she's being watched. When raises come out and she gets a little less than everyone else, she'll be left to wonder if that's because of actual merit or if 'they're on to her'. And when she glances over and happens to catch the daytime manager looking in her direction, she'll be forced to wonder if he's been told to keep an eye on her or not. All that doubt. All that suspicion. All that energy wasted looking over her shoulder. And for what? A fucking cellphone? Bah, not worth it.
Just buy the fucking thing and treat yourself to a good night's sleep. It's what I finally learned to do.
Oh, and one note on the Chase-Pitkin thing. It took me years before I had the courage to go back in there. And when I did I half expected someone to recognize me and start chastising me like the old beggar lady in The Princess Bride. But no one did. And if anyone did recognize me, they sure didn't show it. I was just another anonymous customer. But when I was checking out I noticed how all the power tools had been moved up to the front of the store and secured in a steel cage locked with double padlocks. I have to admit, I was a little proud. Because when you've stolen enough to influence the day to day operations of how a chain of store does business, brother you've stolen a lot of shit.
So long Chase-Pitkin, ye hardly knew me.
Yesterday I received a flood of reader feedback to the reader feedback featured in yesterday's post. And like the original reader feedback, the vast majority of this new reader feedback on the original reader feedback was positive. This of course means there were some sour apples and thus some of the new reader feedback on the aforementioned reader feedback was negative. I would like to share some of this new reader feedback with you now. But breaking tradition to how I posted the reader feedback yesterday, this new reader feedback will be indented so as to not confuse my feedback to the reader feedback with the reader feedback itself. Reader feedback.
Which brings us back to the old adage, "If you want something done right, you've got to do it yourself."
See, that's why I run a blog and you don't. I can polish a turd and make dogshit taste like Beef Wellington. But seriously, with some of these reactions you'd think I'm in the KKK or something. How about we draw a little distinction between [the past] and [the present] eh? And in the end, neither Robert or Tomm or any of the other guys are going to stop visiting. Because they, like everyone else read with trembling hands, every fucking word of my story. Because as much as you hate me, you were rooting for me just like you were Keyser Söze. So yeah, they'll be back to read every word of my next story too, just like you will. So don't be ashamed.
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