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i only robbed one bank

I only ever robbed one bank. Technically, what I did might fall under the rubric of mail fraud but I still (only occasionally but to this day) will braggingly insist that I once robbed a bank. The deal went down in a large eastern city I will not name for obvious reasons. Statutes of limitations may come and go but I am no lawyer (obviously) and have no more than a minimal desire to tempt the hands of legalistic fate. So I can only say that the story begins with me fucking up my life monstrously in one city and then, when discovered, being dragged back to another city — as if with a vaudeville hook — by my concerned parents. They offered free room, board and psychological consultation at a nearby clinic, all gratis. It was not an offer I found appealing from my dope-perch but it was one I was encouraged to believe I could not refuse. There were implied threats that I no longer can recall but they must have been towering in order to make me go back. Once I got there I refused treatment and immediately began indulging in the sorts of behaviors that had brought me onto my parentsʼ radar screens in the first place. Within 30 days I was asked to leave my new (old) digs. I had to find a job and a pad. I ended up at a place called the Midtown Hotel, an anonymous and deceptively humble name for a structure grandly erected in the 1920s before the Depression and occupying a lordly overview of an upper middle class neighborhood hard on the heels of the corporate headquarters of Americaʼs largest and greatest firm. It was once a midwestern jewel, that neighborhood. That hotel was once comparable to the Commodore or the Stanhope or the Drake. It was still quite nice, at least on the outside. The neighborhood, though, had gone to heroin and, as a new arrival, I should have noticed this immediately and turned and run in the other direction. The truth is, even had I been observant enough to notice the track marks on the pavement, there was, at that time, probably nowhere else for me to run. At first I felt pretty cool living in that neighborhood even though I was not availing myself of the many narcotics that were on sale. The whole area was like a farmerʼs market of drug and weapons dealers and I was blissfully immune to the landmines of their world because I was uninterested and uninvolved (though not unaware). All of that changed quickly. The hotel owner had been employing me at minor carpentry and painting jobs, spackling, electrical, occasionally plumbing. I was a jack-of-all-trades and a master of none. Then someone got sick and I was asked to do front desk duty — sorting mail, answering the phone and putting through calls in and out of the 1930s switchboard in the hotel lobby. Walter, my co-worker,  was somewhat jealous. The other parts of the building were truly decrepit, horrific really, and required lots of tedious, mindless labor. Entire floors had been boarded up and closed off to all but us workers who daily fought a losing battle with the rats and the hemmorhaging plumbing and chipping leaded paint. Goldie, the old Jewish lady who owned the joint and who was widely hated in the neighborhood, seemed to like me. I have since come to believe that she was favoring me with easy assignments back then only as a way to fuck with the other, older, employees. She didnʼt like any of them and they hated her, and that most definitely included her ʻhusband,ʼ Bob. My cushy new posting afforded fringe benefits, mainly the oppurtunity to rifle the mail of any former resident too foolish or secretive to leave forwarding information after theyʼd departed the hotel. The days mail also usually included letters addressed to former guests whoʼd had the temerity to die without warning anyone. It seemed to me like this correspondence became mine once I sorted it and ascertained that no one was ever likely to come searching for some missing personʼs missing letters. How I managed to secure myself in this knowledge I no longer remember. What I do remeber is that quite a few pre-approved credit card options were pouring into the once proud, once glamorous lobby of the Midtown Hotel for transients. There didnʼt seem any reason to ignore or destroy these offers, at least not right away. Inevitably, with poverty slithering toward me from every direction, it began to seem almost like a moral imperative to fill out these simple forms and avail myself of some serious lines of credit which would otherwise go unused. Perhaps by coincidence all of the cards were backed by the same bank. When the cards began to arrive sixty days or so later, it was imperative that I quickly come up with a plan for exploiting them and I suppose I did so in a rather hasty fashion. PIN numbers duly arrived by separate mail and the game became cash withdrawls from every possible ATM machine in the city, the more widely spread, the better. Since there were dollar-amount limits each day, the scam would take several nerve-wracking days, perhaps a couple of weeks, to complete. Of course at any time, with surveillence cameras and the like, there was a chance that I would be spotted at the machine and popped like a bubble, like a common junky thief. And I wasnʼt even a junky, not yet. My accomplice was only vaguely aware of what I was doing. He was a tall, stately, black cab driver named Joe Sampson. Sampson had an authorial presence, very intelligent and periodically menacing as in a community theater drama of physical intimidation that played itself out on occasions that seemed to be dictated by the moon and the tides. I knew him because he was a drummer Iʼd played with and he was a valued friend and competent ally but sometimes a little bit crazy. He was very well-read -- mainly politics and the more intellectual science fiction novels -- but still a down-and-out street urchin like almost everyone around back then. Joe drove me in his taxi one thousand miles on one occasion because I told him I would let him get up on stage and play with Rashied Ali, John Coltraneʼs last drummer. I did and he did and it sounded very nice. That summer, though, I needed him to drive me hither and yon cleaning out the teller machines of Southeastern ********* in a concerted and deeply illicit effort to raise enough money to relocate out of town. We drove all over that town in its oppressive heat. We passed ancient factories and modern industrial parks, mom and pop bakeries and cafes and valleys of fast food hotboxes, shimmering in their fog of sunlight and grease. There was certainly never any thought given toward making robbery a career, nor was it ever within the realm of possibility for a fellow like me to actually GO INSIDE a bank and rob it, with or without a weapon. I didnʼt and still do not possess those kinds of steel nerves and brass balls. Nevertheless, I managed to grab a few thousand before I became too scared to continue. My plan began to break down. I wanted out of town and out of the hotel and its 8-hour days of spackling and pounding and moving and lifting and dunning tenants and killing bugs and answering phones but the plan called for staying put until the inevitable half-hearted police inquiries were finished without solution. Only in that way, I reasoned, would suspicion glance off me harmlessly; if I split, theyʼll know it was me. So I stuck with the plan, though it was far more difficult than I had imagined would be the case. Having money made it hard to stay put but I had decided to keep the job and stay in the moldy room. I began to get bored, especially when, after 90 days or so, no police had so much as made a phone call inquiring as to the unpaid balances accruing to credit cards of folks allegedly living in our hotel. Surely the overwheliming concentration of cash withdrawls would have sent up a red flag. I began to get very anxious and very bored at the same time. So I did what any other psychotic criminal would do: I started buying coke. I must admit that the cocaine killed the boredom but only for a week or so, after which it merely served to intensify my nascent paranoia. ʻNascentʼ is in fact not a fair word, not nearly strong enough. During that late summer I first found out what paranoia really was, albeit still in only a mild concentration. It was because of the rat. Iʼm not sure anymore how long I lived with the rat, certainly no more than a few days. The night the beast obliterated any remote possibility of coexistence started auspiciously indeed. That was the morning I overslept ( of course I overslept, I was up all night the night before, shooting cocaine and wondering how to best leave town and finding no answers) and was awakened by a mildy miffed Walter dragging me to the second floor to paint and kill bugs. I answered the door and let him in, oblivious to the fact that there was a large plate of marijuana sitting on the nightstand next to the rust stained Murphy bed which was still folded into the peeling wall; I had slept in a chair during that early morning. Walter glared at me. “Do you really need it, Paul?” he said. Do really need what? Was he suggesting that I was a pothead?  “Do you really have to have it?” he veritably shouted in my face watching for the inevitable fear that accompanies any bust — any finding out —no matter how petty. I began to stammer, grasping at a potential string of words that might form an explanation. That was when Walter slapped my back and started cackling with satanic laughter. “I was just fuckinʼ with you man...” and all that shit. I later learned that Walter had at the time been studying to become a state police investigator and I realized that I probably should have been much more concerned. I put in full hours that day and then a few more hours on the switchboard and then I went out for a Greek dinner. I took a cab, Joe Sampsonʼs: I never went anywhere in the neighborhood, except up to the corner grocery/diner/liquor store on foot. That summer a hooker had been slashed to pieces in the diner and the whole neighborhood was spooked beyond the pale of the normal violent heroin jive. I still walked to the diner, though. But I digress. Returning from dinner and remanding my fresh take-home loaf of Greek bread to the tiny refrigerator, I plopped myself down on the wormy Murphy bed and immediately became aware of a persistent noise. The trap Iʼd placed in the broken out space behind the refrigerator (where a wall should have been) had managed to catch a ...mouse ...or a rat? It was a rat and it was wounded but not dead. I was starting to assess the situation and the coke was not making the outlook any better. The damned beast was caught but not ready to give up. All night long it dragged the trap around with it, scraping the cement floor (which was innaccessible to me) and screeching at a surprising volume. All the while the cocaine angled its way to the center of my aching head like a slow moving bent arrow greased by the cries of the dying rodent. There was, purely and simply, no escape except the obvious one. In the morning I called Sampson and had him take me to the airport. In retrospect it was the lack of police concern that unnerved me and sent me running. That and the rats. I made a pretty good haul, all told, and so did Joe Sampson. On the plane out a beautiful black woman sat next to me while I shivered and sniffled. “You must be doinʼ somethinʼ,” she said, “that donʼt sound like allergies to me.” Indeed. The hotelʼs owner, Goldie, was found dead a few weeks later, stabbed two dozen times. Her gay ʻhusband,ʼ Bob, immediately turned up missing. The hotel changed its name soon thereafter. The money was great but it only lasted a few months. Robbing banks is a tough way to make a living. 

~ Paul K.

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Reader Comments (1)

I'd heard bits of this story over the years, but to read it in its entirety was really fun. Please post more, Paul!!

March 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDanielle T.

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