When I claimed a few weeks ago in the Tower Records story that I’ve never stolen anything, I was totally lying. I’ve stolen tons of things. I guess I really should have said I’ve never shoplifted anything. Because, oh boy, have I stolen things. My criminal activities were limited to one night, but I’m pretty sure that excuse would not get me far in a court of law. “Sorry I killed my wife, officer. It was only one night.” Nope.
It was early in the fall of my freshman year of college. My high school friends and I had arranged an impromptu reunion at Michigan State. I was staying at my sister’s place, in the heart of the student ghetto. My friends and I set out from her house around 10 o’ clock and began making the house party rounds.
Every school has its own code of party ethics, and Michigan State was no exception. Open house parties were the rule of thumb at the time. You did not need to know anyone in the house to attend; so long as you paid $2 to get a cup, you could drink as much as you wanted. By contrast, at University of Michigan parties, you could drink for free, but it was considered poor form to crash a house party where you didn’t know anyone. If you wanted to drink with a bunch of people you didn’t know at U of M, you went to a frat. The beer was free there, too, but it was generally impossible to get to the keg. I wrote a song about it. Here it is.
The trick was to buy a cup at one party and then wander from party to party with that same cup so you only had to pay once. Fiendishly clever, I know. We were in college, after all.
We were in the kitchen at our second or third party when I noticed my friend Jonah (not his real name) rooting around in the refrigerator.
“What are you looking for?” I asked.
“Food,” he said. “I’m hungry.”
He pulled a block of cheese out of the refrigerator, then began rifling around the drawers for a knife. He found a pair of scissors in one of the drawers and handed them to me.
“Here, take these,” he said. “I’ve been needing scissors.”
I didn’t think anything of it. It was just a pair of scissors, after all. Who buys scissors? You just have scissors. The owners of the house just had these scissors, and now we had them. They would manage to find another pair somewhere. One always does.
The scissor and cheese heist was such a success, we decided to see if there was anything else in the kitchen we could use. Jonah moved on to the freezer.
“Well, lookee here,” he said, pulling out a fifth of vodka. And then, mysteriously, a package of bacon. “We’ll need this too,” he reasoned. “For later.”
I think it was the bacon that really set the whole thing off. The bacon turned it from a mere scavenging session into a competition over who could get the best swag. When we found our friends and told them what we’d been up to, they all wanted a piece of the action for themselves. We began working our way through the house in teams, sticking to the shadows. When no one was looking, we’d pop open a drawer and grab whatever lay inside. Before the heat could catch on, we regrouped and move onto the next house party.
As the night wore on and our intoxication levels increased, we became more brazen. We moved on from drawers and started grabbing things in plain sight. At first, the objects were small … an electric shaver from the bathroom, a pencil jar from the desk … but the small items quickly proved unchallenging, forcing us to take it to the next level. I began to wonder if things had maybe gotten out of control when I saw Jonah walking out of a house with a microwave.
After an hour or so of unchecked plunder, we bundled our ill-gotten gains up in our arms and headed back to my sister’s house. She and her roommates weren’t home yet, so we let ourselves in and spread our winnings out on the carpet to take a good luck at what we’d accomplished. Included in the final tally were not one but two microwaves, the bacon, the vodka, the shaver, the scissors, a couple of phones … not cell phones, mind you, but home phones. (Cell phones didn’t really exist in 1993, and even if they had, I’d like to think we would have considered them off-limits. We weren’t real thieves, after all. We were property liberators.) I used to have the entire list hanging on my wall, but I just looked through my old notes and it doesn’t seem to exist any more. But trust me, it is far more extensive than you could imagine. I know it included a toaster and a fair amount of kitchen supplies. Oh, and my favorite thing of all: the owl wall hanging that you see at the top of this page. I still have that one. It’s been in every apartment and house I’ve lived in since then.
Seeing all of our work in the light of day, I got a sort of sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. What had we done? Others were nonplussed; a few of my friends headed back out to see what else they could score. We didn’t want or need any of this stuff, mind you. We were a gang of Winona Ryders, sticking sweaters under our shirts for the thrill of the grift.
Eventually, my sister came home, and that was when the full weight of our adventure really hit me. “Where did all this stuff come from?” she asked.
“We stole it,” I said. “We’ve been stealing.”
She was completely baffled. And pissed.
“Why would you do that? And why would you bring it back to my house?”
“I don’t know,” I said meekly. “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”
The next morning she drove us to one of the houses we’d been to and made us return everything we’d taken. She didn’t make us go up to the door and apologize, thank god, although we would have done it if she’d insisted. My sister can be plenty intimidating when she needs to be. We just unloaded everything on the lawn with a note reading “Sorry.” I don’t even know how much of the stuff actually came from that house; we were just happy to be rid of it. It felt like we were doing as close to the right thing as we could do without exerting the slightest bit of energy.
And that was really, truly, the last time I’ve ever stolen anything.
Well, not quite. There was that one frat party at U of M where I took every toothbrush in the bathroom. But those guys were dicks and I maintain to this day that it was a pretty good prank. Can you imagine waking up the morning with a raging hangover and stank breath and not being able to brush your teeth? Oh, the humanity!