To Catch a Thief
I have never stolen anything in my life. Well, that’s not true. When I was younger I would sometimes go to Perry Drugs in the Clio Plaza and stick one magazine inside another magazine, thus getting two magazines for the price of one. There’s really no reason to buy a magazine as large as Rolling Stone unless you’re going to stick a Metal Edge inside it.
But that’s not really stealing, that’s just taking advantage of uninterested minimum wage workers. I never grabbed an item from a shelf and stuck it in my pocket, or went into someone else’s room and took one of their toys. That I never did.
I have, however, been wanted for retail fraud.
It was my second or third week of college, and I was at Tower Records in Ann Arbor with my friend Sofia. They were having a big sale and the price gun was sitting out on top of a row of CDs. I really wanted this CD by a band called Possum Dixon, so I punched myself out a new price tag and voila! $6 markdown. I should have realized from my time spent in the retail trenches that stores do not just mark merchandise down willy-nilly. There was no way a 2 year-old CD by Possum Dixon, a CD that the record label had no reason to promote, would be on sale. Retail logic played no part in my decision, though. I was a rebel. I laughed in the face of logic.
I took the CD up to the counter and to my surprise, they let me buy it. I was feeling pretty good about myself as we left the store. Until one of the security guards stopped me at the door.
“Can we talk to you in the back?” he said.
“What’s going on?” Sofia asked.
“Nothing,” I said. “I”ll handle it. Don’t wait for me … I might not return.”
The guard took me deep into the control room, where the other security guards were waiting to tear me apart. You could smell the testosterone in the room as I entered.
“Nice job, guy,” one of the guards said. “We got the whole thing on tape.”
“Okay,” I said. “I’m guilty. You saw me. What do I have to do?”
“One – pay us ten times the amount you marked the CD down. That’s $60. Two – never come back here again.”
“That’s it?” I asked. “That’s all I need to do?”
“Yep,” the guard said.
“Do I get to keep the CD?” I asked.
“I don’t see why not,” the guard answered. “You paid for it.”
Luckily, I had my checkbook with me, so I wrote them a check on the spot. I was a little bummed about not being able to go back to Tower, but there were approximately 7 other record stores within walking distance, so it wasn’t that much of a loss. In retrospect it seems a little weird that they would have a rule where they charged ten times the amount of money I marked the CD down. That’s a pretty convoluted rule. But at the time, I didn’t care if the dude stuck the money in his pocket; I just didn’t want to have to call my parents from jail.
Unfortunately, the Tower police weren’t very concerned about what my parents thought. About two months later, I got an irate call from my dad.
“What the fuck?” he screamed. “You just got a letter from the Ann Arbor police saying you’re wanted for retail fraud! What the fuck?”
I explained the situation to my dad, and he managed to cool down somewhat. Retail fraud certainly made it sound a lot worse than it actually was. He gave me the number of a police officer in charge of the case and I assured him I would take care of it.
I hung up and immediately called Ann Arbor police.
“Well, you’ve got two options,” the cop in charge of dealing with price fixers told me. “Number one, you can plead not guilty, and we’ll take you to court. Number two, you can plead guilty and we’ll put you in the first offender program.”
“What happens in the first offender program?” I asked.
“First offender program is a $300 fine, 90 hours of community service, and 6 months of probation.”
That sounded like kind of a rotten deal, especially since I’d already paid the guys at Tower $60 for nothing. But I was torn, because I knew I was guilty. I decided to call a campus lawyer to get some advice.
“Always plead not guilty,” the lawyer told me.
“But I’m guilty,” I said.
“Doesn’t matter,” he answered. “The courts are so backed up that they’ll stick you at the bottom of the pile and you’ll probably never have to deal with it again.”
So I followed his advice. I pled not guilty. And the lawyer was right; I was never contacted again. I felt a little strange about it, because I knew I was guilty and I have a life rule that I will never lie under oath. I have not been able to demonstrate that rule yet, but if I ever end up on Judge Judy, be assured that the other guy is the one lying.
There are two postscripts to this story. The first postscript is that I wrote a fan letter to the band, Possum Dixon, telling them the lengths I had gone to to get their CD. One night when I was home from college, the lead singer of the band, Rob Zabrecky called me on the phone.
“Hey man,” he said. “I just wanted to let you know that we thought your letter was hilarious.” It was probably the only letter Possum Dixon ever received.
We talked for a few minutes. He told me the band was on tour with Frank Black, who used to go by the name Black Francis when he was a member of the Pixies.
“Do you call him Frank, or Black?” I asked.
“We call him Charles,” he told me.
Before we hung up, I made some really embarrassing comment about how we were now friends. Rob sort of half-chuckled and hung up, never to call again.
The post-postscript is that just last year, I was at the Magic Castle with my friend Ryan, a magician. The Magic Castle is a somewhat mysterious and exclusive LA club where magicians perform magic for other magicians. You can’t get in without an invite from a member of the club and you have to wear a suit and tie.
We were waiting at the bar for one of the shows to begin, when Ryan saw another magician he knew.
“Hey,” he said, introducing me, “this is Rob Zabrecky.”
“Rob Zabrecky?” I asked. “You didn’t use to be in a band called Possum Dixon, did you?”
Turned out: yes, he did. Same fucking guy. 16 years later, the guy who’d called me from across the country after I wrote him a letter about how I was wanted for retail fraud for marking down his band’s CD was now a working magician who just happened to be at the same weird magician bar as me and my friend who just happened to know him. I told Rob the story of our coincidental early encounter, but he didn’t appear to remember any of it. It’s possible he immediately remembered my weird comment about how he was my friend and he was feeling embarrassed for both of us. I maybe shouldn’t have ended the conversation by telling him we were clearly destined to be together.