I Am Not a Crook!



The Pathmark jail, among other places

Neighborhood: Brooklyn

It was Richard M. Nixon who said it best when he uttered those immortal words: “I am not a crook!” For the record, he also said, “I have never been a quitter,” just before he resigned the presidency back in 1973. So go figure.

I have always thought of crooks as cartoon burglars wearing Lone Ranger masks breaking into places in the dead of night to steal stuff by flashlight. By that definition I am not a crook either. Although at one time in my life there were some people who might have picked me out of a lineup for crimes somewhere between shoplifting and petty thievery. For a number of years in my rebellious youth, right around the time that Nixon was dropping bombs on Cambodia to end the war in Vietnam, and Spiro Agnew was taking kickbacks and evading his taxes, I did accumulate some things that didn’t belong to me, mostly books that I wanted but couldn’t afford. In my “socialist days,” I considered that everything I wanted should be free and taking it was simply a way of “equaling the scales of justice.” It was an idea that Abbie Hoffman encouraged when he published Steal This Book! Hell, Abbie would have been disappointed if I didn’t steal it. And because college textbooks were so outrageously overpriced (Damn those robber baron authors and publishing houses!) and a liberal college education my birthright, I was not beyond cruising the aisles of college bookstores, scraping off USED stickers from books with my fingernail when no one was watching and pasting them over NEW ones.

If that method failed, I sometimes resorted to jamming soft covered novels, the required reading in all those English courses, down my pants legs. And once I limped out of Barnes and Noble with the hardcover copy of The Sense of the 60s chaffing between my sweaty thighs. I figured the authors, Paul Dolan and Edward Quinn, both my college English professors, didn’t really need the royalties. Of course I did all this in the days before electronic surveillance was used anywhere outside of the White House.

My hero was Victor Luciano, a classmate and an expert in the art of the five-finger discount, who had reduced stealing to a science. Victor “shopped” only when the bookstore was filled to capacity and there was gridlock at the check out lines. That was when Victor went into action. He strolled up and down the aisles with an armful of new textbooks he had pulled from the shelves, casually marking the pages and underling passages. Then he carried the books back to the resale window where he pushed into the crowd waiting to redeem their used texts for cash. He didn’t even have to leave the store.

“I made so much money one semester,” he told me in a collect call to the Student Lounge from the downtown detention center on Boerum Place, “it was like having a half tuition scholarship. Now do you think you might be able to take up a collection and raise some cash so I can make bail?”

My petty criminal career came to an end in my thirties, the afternoon I tried to avoid standing in an unusually long checkout line at Pathmark to pay for a six-pack of AA batteries. My kids were in the parking lot in the getaway car with the motor running waiting for me to take them to the beach. After I slipped the package into my tie-dyed shirt pocket (I was still holding on to some of my hippie ways), a burly security guard materialized from the shadows and apprehended me.

“But I…I wasn’t…You can’t…” I stammered in a panic, close to tears.

“Don’t make a scene, buddy. Follow me,” he said, as he hustled me through a black door into a back room.

A tribunal of inquisitors was seated behind a desk in front of a bank of closed-circuit TV monitors looking at me with disappointment. Someone read me my rights. And then the chief inquisitor said, “We aren’t going to arrest you-” He let the words hang in the air. “–on condition that you sign this.” He showed me an affidavit admitting that I was a crook, although not in those exact words. “–and promise never again to shop in Pathmark.”

I eagerly signed the paper admitting my guilt. To get out of there I would have signed a confession admitting to kidnapping the Lindberg baby or selling atomic secrets to the Russians. And then the security guard ushered me, red-faced, out of the store to face the fury of my overheated kids.

With advancing age all of my passions have cooled. And these days my “sins of choice” tend to be more of the gluttony and sloth variety. Even lust has lost some of its luster. Rarely am I am tempted to take things that don’t belong to me, partly because I have developed a conscience and the vague feeling that stealing might be wrong, and partly because I would hate to open up an old can of worms. Despite my signed affidavit, I continued going into Pathmarks secretly whenever the need arose. Albeit I picked stores far from home, and at first I wore various disguises, like glasses and a fake beard, but as time passed, I grew more bold and began once again shopping au natural. But mostly I don’t steal things because I don’t think I can outrun a burly security guard, or anybody else for that matter. However, several years ago after I started traveling and staying at hotels and motels across the country and the world, I did begin a practice that involves towels and washcloths.

“They are souvenirs,” Victor Luciano said at a recent college reunion. He was long out of that Brooklyn slammer, a retired financial investment broker and now a card-carrying AARP member. “Those hotels and motels expect you to take their towels and stuff. Believe me, anything with their name on it is up for grabs. They provide for it in the rates they charge people for their rooms. Not only do my wife and I have complete sets of drinking glasses, ashtrays and silverware, but a closet filled with white monogrammed terrycloth bathrobes too.”

In truth, I have never actually taken hotel towels. I do have scruples. But I remember my back room experience, and I wouldn’t want to face some smarmy concierge who forced me to open my suitcases before check out. But even if I succeeded in making a clean getaway, I would always be looking over my shoulder, worried about receiving a bill in the mail, or getting an extra charge on my Discover Card for full retail towel price.

So instead of stealing them, I have initiated what I call the “Washcloth and Towel Relocation Program” (WaToRePro, pronounced “What a repro”). And wherever I travel I take with me from home a number of thin, worn white washcloths and towels and exchange them along the route for newer, better quality and higher-grade items. My bathroom décor may be monochromatic, but the quality of that décor has improved manifold.

Since the inception of WaToRePro, I have amassed a large assortment of new washcloths, down-soft plush face towels, and luxurious bath sheets that are far superior to the Wal-Mart substitutes I left behind. I have even upgraded my initial WaToRePro exchanges of Motel 6 and Day’s Inn acquisitions for some top of the line stuff from the Marriot Marquis and Waldorf Astoria.

The “Washcloth and Towel Relocation Program” has proven to be so successful that I recently expanded it to hotel bed linens, including sheets, matching pillowcases, comforters and an occasional pillow. But that is just the beginning. If all goes according to plan, in the spring I am hoping to improve another aspect of my life, my personal wardrobe. I will soon improve my appearance when I upgrade my thrift store and St. Vincent de Paul clothing-drop ensembles and begin exchanging them for the finer things from Lord and Taylor, Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus, everything from underwear to suits. I am looking forward to the new and improved me. .

Although I may not be completely honest, like Richard Nixon, I am not a crook!

Joseph E. Scalia has published the novels FREAKs and Pearl, the short story collection No Strings Attached, and a collection of family-inspired stories about growing up in Brooklyn and titled Brooklyn Family Scenes. (All available from Amazon).

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