Illustration by Russell Christian.
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Slackjaw by Jim Knipfel
I've tried. I've spent many long minutes trying to dredge it up. But for the life of me, I simply cannot remember the first thing I consciously, intentionally stole. For most people, I imagine, who've never made a regular, even obsessive habit of stealing things, that First Time would remain etched as indelibly on the gray meat of their brain as that first beer or first sexual experience.
But in my case, hmmm. I know I don't remember stealing any comic books or candy as a kid. I was too cowardly. In fact I don't think I stole anything until my late teens, but I could be wrong about that. By the time I was in my early 20s, it was such a daily habit--going into stores and taking whatever the hell I wanted, sometimes three or four times a day, often at the same store, without a care and without any fear whatsoever--that the beginnings are lost in the flurry of what followed. It was as much a part if my daily routine as drinking or smoking. By the same token, I guess, I can't remember my first drink, either. I remember that first cigarette, though. Lit it while leaning against the sign in front of the American Heart Association building in Minneapolis during my first visit there. A Lucky Strike. No cigarette since has tasted better. But that's beside the point, and I've told that story already.
Petty thievery was a given way of life for many years. I stole books and food and wine and smokes, whatever I was in the mood for. Only got stopped once, and the store owner in that instance let me go. He obviously didn't want to deal with the cops any more than I did.
Before moving from Minneapolis out to Philadelphia, however, my future ex-wife made me promise that I'd give up the habit. I agreed without much regret. I was getting sloppy and cocky. Way I was going, I would've fucked up bad before too long.
It was a good and wise promise to make. When I landed in Philadelphia, first thing I noticed was the extensive security measures taken by most every retail outlet in town. Even the Korean grocers had installed magnetic scanners at the doors.
So my thieving days faded behind me. My grifting was just picking up speed, to be sure, but the outright, clumsy thieving was gone. Just as well. Not only because of the security technology, but as I began to lose my sight, stealing would've just been a stupid and frustrating ordeal. Never would've ended up with what I wanted.
Really funny thing was, it was right after I quit stealing things that I began an inexorable, accelerated slide into devastating poverty, a streak that would last for the next ten years.
Of course, there's always that possible connection--that by stealing, I was able to save a little money. Not much, certainly, but enough to eke by on. Enough to cover the rent at least. When I had to start spending money on food and wine and smokes again--things I would normally have just taken--without much of any new income coming in, it was all gone in a matter of weeks.
But that's just a guess on my part.
So, yes, I led a reasonably crime-free life for some time, all through the marriage, from Philly up to Brooklyn. I starved, yes, but I also wasn't arrested after not paying close enough attention to what I was doing.
And that may be why I can remember the last thing I consciously, intentionally stole as if it happened earlier this morning (which, by the way, it didn't).
I was living in Brooklyn. Was trapped in Brooklyn, to be exact, since I was waiting for a check and didn't have the money for a subway token. I had to get a story to the paper I was writing for at the time in Philly. And since I had no e-mail, getting the story down there required an envelope, which I didn't have. I had the stamps I needed and the paper the story was typed on. I just didn't have the manila envelope I'd need to send it.
So I put on my shoes and strolled up the street to the stationary store to buy myself an envelope. It was a nice day out, and I had something like 65 cents in my pocket. More than enough, I figured, for the type of envelope I required.
But when I got to the store and worked my way back to the envelope section, I discovered that the type of envelope I needed cost 85 cents. Bastards!
Unfortunately, I needed that envelope, so I started scheming. I did have a credit card with me. I tried to save it for emergencies--dire, hopeless emergencies. I thought about it and decided that this counted as a dire, hopeless emergency. The card was near the breaking point as it was, and to complicate matters, I knew I'd need to buy at least ten bucks worth of merchandise before anyone would think of accepting it, so I began wandering the shelves with my envelope.
I picked up some nice pens, a Rolodex, some erasers, a picture frame, a staple remover--things I had absolutely no use for whatsoever, but things that would add up to over ten bucks. Maybe I'd be able to return them the next day. Finally certain that I had enough, I made my way to the check out counter.
Before I even made it to the counter, however, I saw the big sign posted next to the register, a sign I never noticed as I was making my rounds, tallying things up: "No Credit Cards Accepted."
I stared at that sign for a moment, standing there in the middle of the aisle, trying to hold my ungainly armful of cheap office products together.
"Oh no," I muttered aloud.
"Yeah, I'm afraid so," the cashier said, smiling sadly. She saw where my eyes were aimed, and read the expression on my face.
"Well, if that don't beat all."
"I'm real sorry," she said,.
"Oh, well, I guess that's okay. Just have to come back a little later."
I turned around and walked back down the aisle, slowly replacing things on the shelves. As I was doing this an idea started brewing. An old idea. My heart began a mild skitter. Did I still have it in me? I wondered. Did I still have the magic hands? That was the question. If I blew it, I'd never be able to come back to the store again, and it had been a very useful outlet for me in the past. At least I wouldn't have to add anything to the credit card, and that was a relief. I was all alone in the apartment now too, so I had no promises left to keep to anyone.
It would be fine. Yes, if I still had the old touch, if I didn't think about it, I'd be just fine. Just go about my business. Act dejected as if I'd really wanted those pens and that picture frame and the staple remover. Ah, yes, that staple remover. Would've been so much fun. One final quiet, lingering look as I put it back on the shelf.
Then around the corner in the back to the next aisle, past the index cards and the White-Out and the Post-It notes of every color of the rainbow. Past the regular envelopes, the padded mailers, the manila envelopes, up the aisle--this was the test, stop, thinking, look casual and defeated--past the cashier, who was reading her newspaper, and out the front door, the big envelope dangling from my left hand, the side opposite her. Made no flummoxed attempt to conceal it, just walked out with it as if I'd walked in with it ten minutes earlier. Easy as pie. If they had a security system, it obviously wasn't designed to detect envelopes. Cut a hard left away from the store.
I felt the air on my face again. I could smell traffic exhaust and garbage instead of pencil shavings and magic markers. My stomach curled up and did a little dance. My steps picked up as I moved further and further away from the store. Don't look back to see if you're being followed. It's a dead giveaway. Just walk normally. This is your goddamn envelope, after all. Nothing to worry about. Nothing at all.
I crossed the street and headed down a residential block. Home free. And the apartment only a couple blocks away. I finally let a smile creep across my lips.
Yessir, I still got it. I do, indeed.
I was so fucking pathetic.