The world is so full of a number of things,
I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.
- Robert Louis Stevenson

Monday, 11 October 2010

Countdown: 6 - Attitude with no History (Part IV)

Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten. I’m trying to tell you how I became a thief. The shoplifting, that might have been my first attempt at it. Well, it wasn’t actually. Before that I had sometimes taken some money from my mum’s purse, although never without feeling, well, not so much guilty as cheap. Dirty. Low. And when she sent me for groceries I often kept some or all of the change for myself. I usually did that with a rather clear conscience, calling it a carrying fee in front of myself. Once, when I was about 10, I stole a really cool key chain with a skull pendant from Leo, even though I knew I would never be able to wear it. Everyone would instantly recognize it. I stole it anyway, and I felt curiously good and bad about it at the same time. But none of that made me a thief. At best someone who stole.
All of this was before I went to juvie, obviously. This is what lead up to my arrest, to the whole year before that blacked-out Friday night in Neukölln, and my final break out at Wotton-under-Edge. My fighting problem was at its worst then, and I knew I was about to be kicked out of school. The rozzers were regular guests at my mum’s flat. I was going to counselling twice a week, but that was a total waste of time. I mean, I suppose it cannot work when you do not tell them what’s really on your mind. But how can you when you cannot even tell it to yourself, when the very thoughts they want to hear are the pain you are trying to get away from, are exactly that which is so bad that getting the shit beaten out of you is a welcome distraction. How can you reach someone for who being tortured has become addictive, the thing to look forward to?
The next school year my academic performance was really going below par as well. I mean, I am no genius, but when half your class is still struggling with the common language, it doesn’t take much to stay abreast. But that year, well, I couldn’t even muster the effort for that. By the spring of 07 it was clear that I would have to repeat the year if nothing was done. My mum made me take private tutoring, even though we really couldn’t afford it. All through summer I had to job to pay her back some, and the planned trip to my aunt in Gloucestershire fell flat also.
I managed to scrape by, just barely in French and Chemistry, but enough to move up to 4th form. With all my studying and jobbing, babysitting little Nicky, and the thing with Hendrik, I had hardly spent any time with my mates all summer. So when sometime in late August after football training Hector suggested a poker game at Old Luisenstadt Graveyard I felt more than obligated to agree.
My mum returned from work around 10 pm. ‘Nessa, Nicky, and I had already had supper. When my mum looked in on me I pretended I was studying for school, but I had hidden a Travis McGee novel inside the massive chemistry textbook. Nicky was asleep. Mum and ‘Nessa talked for a while in the kitchen, then Mum withdrew into the living room, where she slept on the sofa-bed.
Around midnight I went to the loo. Mum had fallen asleep over a crossword-puzzle. I pulled the cover up to her shoulders, put the biro and the puzzle book onto the couch table, and turned off the light. When I put on trainers in the hall, ‘Nessa came out of the kitchen.
“What the hell do you think you are doing, bro?”
“Just going to see Orcun.” Since he lived next door I figured that would be the easiest answer.
“And you are putting on a jacket for that?” She pointed out the tracksuit top I was wearing. Say about her what you want, but my big sister is a sharp one.
“Didn’t say I was going to see him at his place,” I conceded.
“You are not happy unless you are fucking things up, aren’t you, Rikki?”
What can I say? She’s right I suppose.
The night was bloody marvellous. The air was damp and cool, hazy with a hint of mist from the canal. It smelled of dust, straw and dew, just the way a summer night is supposed to smell. I biked down Admiralstrasse, Grimmallee, and Körtestrasse, and no ten minutes after leaving the house I climbed the fence of the graveyard.
I was the first and I had some time to visit ‘Nette’s grave. Leo found me there. He had brought beer and handed me one. I lit a fag for him. He squeezed my shoulder and we went over to the big stone angel with the chipped off face that guards the oldest part of the grounds. Hec and Orcun joined us there.
We stayed until dawn. On the way back to Kotbusser Tor we stopped at a bakery. Officially it was still closed but we went to the back door and the apprentice sold us a couple of warm sesame rings anyway. And when I let myself into the flat, mum was waiting for me.
I had expected her to sleep in, since that week her shift at the supermarket didn’t start before 10 am. Normally she wouldn’t have been up before 8. But Nicky had had a colic that night and his implacable crying had woken her around the time we left the graveyard. She had only meant to look in on me to get a glimpse of her youngest peacefully asleep or something, but when she had found me gone she had pressed ‘Nessa for info and ‘Nessa had told her I’d been gone all night.
My mum has never had the energy to care much about my private life, but with all the bother and expenses of getting me through the previous school year, she totally blew her top this time: I was grounded for three weeks, football training and all. I was to go to school and back right after. When she was at work, I was to call her from the phone at the flat so that she could see via caller ID that I really was where I was supposed to be, and she made sporadic calls to make certain I staid in. I was supposed to use the time to study. Of course she couldn’t know what this would cost us all in the long run. None of us knew what this would lead to. Because in those three weeks I discovered that art and joy of larceny.
Over the summer I had read Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. I had liked it a lot and read a number of interviews with Mr. Gaiman about the book. I learned that one of the books he had used for research had been The Big Con by David Maurer. I had tried to get that at the library, without success. What I had found instead, amongst a lot of books on card and coin tricks, was How To Be A Professional Confidence Artist by former Michigan rozzer Dennis M. Marlock. HTBAPCA isn’t actually meant to be a how-to book, or if, it’s rather meant to be a how-not-be-scammed book. In the end, I think, it mostly is a why-confidence-artists-are-really-not-cool-at-all book. But to me it was a revelation.
If I hadn’t been grounded I may never have read it. It didn’t look particularly interesting, but rather dull, a small press pamphlet. So I had put it aside and more or less forgotten about it. I might even already had gotten a reminder from the library to return it. But then I was grounded and once more began using my entire waking time to read. And eventually I picked up Mr. Marlock’s pamphlet.
At first I wasn’t really that into it. The writing is a bit too smug for my taste, too cocksure. The first chapter is on change raising. It sounded positively barmy. I was certain that what he explained would never work in real life. But the good thing about that technique is that you can at worst only embarrass yourself with it. Even if caught no one can prove you did anything with criminal intent.
I was bored. I was pissed off at my mum. I felt another fight coming on. No idea with who, but my blood temperature was rising, and I knew that sooner or later someone would be along, just when I was about to boil over. And I would be in trouble again. I needed a distraction. Hendrik, who had kept my temperature down for the last couple of weeks, was gone from my life for good, so there wouldn’t be any help there. So when my mum sent me to buy groceries one evening I decided to give it a try.
Like I said, this wasn’t the first time I stole something, but still this was different, I knew that, even before I did it. This was serious. I wished to defraud someone deliberately and see if I could not learn what it had to teach me. I wasn’t setting out to pinch some chewing gum or cigarettes, this wasn’t giggling excitement, a lark to pass the time. That I went at it alone was telling enough. This was like drinking on your own. When I went into the supermarket on that August afternoon, I went like a samurai going to battle.
At the supermarket they have these shopping trolleys that take a Euro coin as security deposit. It was early evening, rush hour at the checkout lanes. The sales girl had just started processing a mum with three hyperactive kids when I approached her about some change to release one such trolley. I had to wait a good while for the sales girl and the mum to get everything tallied, paid, and packed away (again, amidst kids climbing on the conveyor belt and other waiting customers, begging for sweets, and chasing each other around). I kept hovering patiently behind the sales girl and smiling benignly at the kids. This was going just as I had hoped.
By the time she was free to help me, she was quite apologetic and thankful for my patience, but at the same time also under pressure to get on to the next customer in line, who had already been waiting even longer. I handed her a twenty Euro bill and got a tenner, a fiver, and some coins in return. I smiled again and began to say thank you, when in putting the money away I discovered a 1-Euro-coin sized token that you can also use to release a trolley. I slapped my forehead and asked her to please take the fiver and the coins back, in return for a tenner, as I really did not want to carry all that lose change around.
“Okay,” she sighed, and took the fistful of money I put back into her palm, while giving me another tenner.
With just that hint of uncertainty and doubt in my voice I said: “That should be all.” Just enough to make her check if she really got the whole 10 Euro worth of change, enough to make me seem innocent if she hadn’t gotten all. And of course, she hadn’t. I was two Euros short. That was odd. I was puzzled. Hadn’t I just handed her back what she had given me? Had she really given me the full amount in return for my twenty? I searched my pockets while the annoyed murmuring from the queue was getting louder and more urgent. She still remembered my own patience with her and the mum, but worry lines were beginning to show on her face.
I put the tenner between my lips and patted myself down with both hands. There, some change, most of it in coppers. I count out three fifty cent coins, one twenty and one ten cent piece, that is two Euros.
“Look here,” I said, taking the tenner from between my lips, now obviously very embarrassed and in a hurry. “Here is twelve. Together with eight I just gave you that is twenty. Just gimme back my original twenty note and we are done; after all, I got the token for the trolley.”
Under pressure from the customers she counted the money and right enough, twenty Euro. She gave me back my banknote and let me go. She had a somewhat troubled look on her face, but even trying to think it through she could not find any fault. She shrugged it off, and hey, I was a polite and honest looking German boy, not some pidgin speaking Turkish hoodlum or a Yugoslav gypsy, it was probably alright.
But if you have been keeping count you know that there was nothing honest about the whole transfer, and in the end she paid me 10 Euros for the dubious pleasure of my company. I left with my old twenty and a brand new tenner from the supermarket till – and then took my token to another supermarket around the corner to do my shopping there, just in case she caught up later.
When I left I felt great. It wasn’t the money, though for a 14 year old from a household where a single mum had to work 2 jobs to see her family fed and clothed, 10 Euro is nothing to be sneezed at. But that wasn’t what gave me that incredible high. No, having been able to fool her, messing around with her in plain sight, und under the scrutiny of dozens of annoyed witnesses wishing me to hell, and still getting away with it… what a rush!
I did it as often as I could. When my mum ended the grounding, I spent my afternoons on the shopping miles of Berlin and milked every small and mid-sized store I could. I avoided the really big places, large department stores and such, figuring they would have cameras and detectives and that they might have schooled their cashiers to catch this form of deception. But I hit all the little boutiques, the expensive sweet shops that sell gift hampers and gold wrapped pralines by the ounce, and all the other shops scattered along Tauntziehen, Wilmersdorfer, Tor, and Schlossstrasse, around Hermannplatz and Leopoldplatz. I only steered clear of the area around Oranienburger and Kotti. I was too familiar a face in my own Kiez to risk getting a rep for change raising there. Word would have filtered back to my mum.
I made some fascinating discoveries. Computer shops were amongst the easiest targets – they were used to handle large amounts of money and the personnel was definitely more interested in the technical than the commercial side of any transaction. But every now and then there would be a math wiz amongst the nerds that would make me at once. Often enough they wouldn’t suspect foul play at all, though, but just correct me, complacent in their mathematical savvy.
Kindness is definitely a down if you want to go far in the business world: Friendly shop keepers are much easier to dupe than grumpy, forbidding ones. Gender and age on the other hand seem to be in no way related to how easy a mark can be suckered.
Every now and then I encountered a cashier that was trying to shortchange me as I was trying to raise the change. Shortchangers aren’t exactly thick on the ground, but shockingly common if you try enough. One time we both recognized each other at the same time. It was a cheap jeans shop off Rosa Luxemburg Platz and the garishly made up half-Arabic girl might have been doing it out of sheer boredom. Certainly her chewing gum held more fascination for her than her few customers – who, truth be told, turned out to be only window shoppers. But she was skilled enough to obviously not have started with it that day. Of that I am certain. When we made one another we looked at each other, first guiltily, then angry, sizing each other up. And then we both had to laugh. We each took back out original investment and I left, strangely relieved. I had met myself, and we had disliked each other less than I would have expected.
But as fun as raising change is, it is a somewhat elaborate con for a usually pretty low gain. Once you start to fish for larger sums than ten Euro people tend to get much more careful. (Once I did walk away from a computer shop with two fifty Euro notes that I had let them give me for allowing them to briefly handle the five hundred that I had brought along. I never could repeat that stunt, though, and eventually got into trouble for trying. I had to leg it and leave behind a good deal more than those one hundred, so in the end the attempt to go for big fish was a net loss for me.) Which meant that eventually I began to hunt for other games.
Most grifts require two or more peeps – usually at least one roper who engages the mark and a cap who comes in and takes over. Those that can be played by a lone grafter require some serious skill at sleight-of-hand when for example you swap the mark’s money at the crucial moment for a wad of worthless scrap paper faced back and front by a single real banknote. So, after doing a bit of research, and beginning to train my fingers to do what I wanted them to while I was focusing attention elsewhere, I decided that I might as well pick pockets directly. In the end, that to me is the purest form of the art: Your dexterity and skill at misdirection against the mark’s perceptiveness and presence of mind.
I said my first time going out to raise change I went like a Samurai going into battle. In a way that is of course total bollocks. The very essence of a Samurai is that he follows a lord, that he adheres to a code. A true Samurai is never selfish. He sacrifices himself for his lord, not just his life, but his personality, his innermost being. With Hendrik I actually tried that, even though I suppose in the end I failed. Or he proved unworthy of the sacrifice. I still do not know which it was. But being a thief I did nothing of the sort. It was utterly selfish. But there still was something of Bushido in all this.
Life in every breath. Focusing all of existence on a single moment, letting that moment expand to fill the entire universe, so that time stops and each second becomes an eternity. When I stole, everything else ceased to exist. I finally had found something better than fighting. I had found something better than wanking, better than sex. It was my daily worship, my mass and prayer.
If books had been my heroin than thieving became my cocaine.


  1. Did you ever find The Big Con by David Maurer?

    I'm getting a little lost in the threads so I will try from this point on to look at each 'post' as an individual piece of writing.

    The dialogue with your sister at the door is is great, and then transitioning to the night outside felt very natural, letting her have the last word and all that.

    The whole account of your first change raising is awesome but explaining it all out at the end seems a little too heavy-handed -- "But if you had been keeping count you know..." Maybe let the reader work it out for themselves or something?

    I really liked the meet-up between you and the short-changer. The last line really did it for me - "I had met myself, and we had disliked each other less than I would have expected."

  2. The thing with change-raising, I see your point. Do you think it is clear enough for the reader to get it? I don't like drawing the conclusion for him either. But the whole scheme is designed to be psychologically hard to catch. When I tried to explain the technique to peeps irl they mostly took quite some time to understand where the cheat lies.

  3. And no, I never read "The Big Con".