33. Things I’ve stolen- #1, #2, and #3. (2015)

I don’t consider myself a person who steals, necessarily; certainly not a thief. But I have stolen a handful of non-basic items each from equally unusual locations, and if presented with the option of a do-over, would handle at least a few of the situations differently. In no particular order of vulgarity or priority:

#1: Hedgehog from a pet store in Eastview Mall
(Re-handling: same.)

I worked at the mall for a period of time as a teenager, and while doing so made friends with an interesting girl that worked at the nearby music store (once upon a time there were these cool little retailers that sold almost nothing but music and assorted music-related novelties). She was unusual and, if for no other reason, we got along because neither of us felt any more at home in our weird work settings than we did in our own skin, but we were both really good at pretending in… both.

As we got to know each other and began to rely on the commiseration during our overlapping workdays, no stone was left unturned when it came to addressing things we disliked about the mall, or that which we loved outside of it. One particular conversation uncovered that she had always wanted a hedgehog, and that she found it especially hard to go near the awful pet store near the entrance of the mall because as one of the smaller, oversight-types of pets, they were treated and maintained horribly.

Mall pet stores, even at their very best, are terrible and damnable- and this one was far from a shining example of the species. Not long after our conversation I began investigating, and though until that point I’m quite sure I had never seen one in real life, I decided I was going to liberate one of those poor captive pincushions and give it to her as a gift.

The idea of simply buying one had crossed my mind, but as a part-time mall health food store employee, $65 for a spiked hamster might as well have been $650… and there was no theatre in paying for something they shouldn’t have been selling anyway. I concocted a thorough- albeit risky- plan and presented it to my intended accomplices.

It was a four-person scheme- the out-of-store diversion, the in-store distraction, the mid-store watchdog, and the hands-on liberator. As it was my idea, I elected to take the risk, and intended to stuff the prickly little rodent into a Gap bag that had been pre-filled with clothes, towels, and newspaper. The hands-on part of the plan very simply involved me reaching into the cage, grabbing the hedgehog, putting it in the bag, and then casually walking out of the store.

Here are a few things I had not considered/ known prior to the liberation:

– Hedgehogs are surprisingly sharp when they are mad, and extremely difficult to grab quickly and quietly, even though I kept telling it that this is for its own good.
– When removed from their familiar environment, hedgehogs freak out like one of those idiotic hippies on drugs at a terrible outdoor festival. That little sucker was bouncing around in the bag like it was on fire and had a bee in its britches.
– Hedgehogs also make a loud tick/ chirp when alarmed, and I was sure that if the sight of the Mexican jumping bean running wall-to-wall in the used Gap bag didn’t draw attention, the noise certainly would.

The others had excelled in their roles. Accomplice #1 knocked over a garbage can in the main mall, and then began shouting and carrying on as if possessed… The sole pet store employee watched attentively, as we had hoped, and the in-store distraction began talking to him in an effort to keep him there. The watchdog gave me the signal, and I then began the most ham-fisted theft of a hedgehog ever to go on record.

Somehow, between the screaming kid with an afro in the main mall, the bizarre conversation initiated by accomplice #2, and my uncanny ability to act normal when things are anything but, I managed to walk out past the employee with a gyrating, clicking, and now blood-covered Gap bag containing a hedgehog that would be given as a gift that very same day, and in the very same wrapping paper. He was appreciated completely (especially when accompanied by the story of his escape), given the name Elliot, and lived happily for nearly a decade after his sketchy but successful release from captivity.

#2: TV from Sears in the Buffalo mall (Re-handling: same.)

My cousin and I had a love/ hate relationship as teenagers. We both liked to circumvent rules and challenge things that seemed better left alone, but with very different motivations and with very different goals in mind. I didn’t trust him as far as I could throw him, and justifiably so, but we partnered-in-crime when the opportunity arose because we had complimentary underhanded strengths. Basically, it was a mischief-oriented circle of snakes that very often led to near-brushes with trouble larger than either of us probably realized at the time.

After causing some trouble, getting away with it, and knowing it was time to leave, we noticed a strange sign in front of the electronics department in the Sears store we were cutting through on our way out of the mall. The look we gave each other after stopping to stare certainly may have resembled one staged in a movie or sitcom- confused but curious, pleased but suspicious… What we had come upon was a sign stating “Please excuse our dust- we’re renovating our security system.”

Nearly unbelievable, still to this day, but there it sat… baiting us to see what it really meant. The only logical thing to do was walk a few laps of the store to evaluate staffing and exit strategies, and then find something suitably unreasonable to attempt to walk out with. Confidence is a big part of successfully taking anything that isn’t yours, and we wanted to insulate ours by not simply relying on their thick-headedness; We performed our due diligence, continued to shake our heads in confusion as to the giant “Steal from us” sign they had put up in arguably the most expensive section of their store, and then began the selection process.

We decided based both on youthful exuberance and misguided confidence to attempt to lift up and take out a large, flat-screen TV. Flat screen TV’s were very new at the time, and the one we had our eyes on was not cheap. My cousin knew that his one friend was moving into a new apartment that very week, and was sure we could get at least half of the retail price from him in cash; If it worked, it would be more money than I ever had at one time. A quick trip to a payphone in the main portion of the mall confirmed it, and all of a sudden we had both a timeline and a buyer for our highly questionable, yet-to-be-attempted plan.

For some reason in our heightened state cookies seemed like the best use of our time. After sharing and inhaling a bag of what contained probably 30 tiny chocolate chip cookies (they came 12 or 24 to a bag, but the girl at the cookie store seemed to like us… ), we decided that the idea wasn’t going to get any better, and to just get on with it.

The plan was simple: Walk into the electronics section and look around a bit, acting as if we were waiting for someone, say hello to at least one of the employees working the area, and then pick up the large box containing the TV and walk out the double doors located not 50 feet from the sign that birthed the entire idea.

We needed to keep our heads up, walk slowly, and even voluntarily set the box down and joke with each other once during the trip; teenagers in the midst of stealing a giant television, we thought, wouldn’t be patient with the process of removing it from the store. Who knows if it worked, but giving any onlookers the feeling that we weren’t stealing seemed like an important consideration.

I was walking backwards and he was walking forwards, and so I got the final view into the electronics section and the adjoining aisles of the store. No one even really looked at us- people’s eyes passed over, but none set, and the mixed feeling of my back hitting the exit door was one of relief and confusion. We weren’t out of the woods yet, but once we crossed the threshold the chance of anyone coming for us dropped exponentially. Once we cleared the doors we walked to the nearest loading dock and placed the box on the adjacent curb.

For as potentially disastrous as a situation like that could have been, the finale was about as uneventful as it could have been; My cousin’s friend showed up on time, we loaded the box into the back seat of his car, and he paid us in cash… We ended up with $325 each, and at the time that might as well have been $3,000.

We collected ourselves, made our way to the front of the mall, and called my aunt from a payphone to come pick us up.

Like nothing had ever happened.

#3: ‘Welcome to Vermont’ sign
(Re-handling: different. Fuck that.)

Anyone that has traveled extensively by car knows that breaking monotony (even alongside the bizarre cast of characters I’ve been fortunate enough to run around with) gets harder as time goes on. Some people listen to audio books, some people sing to themselves… we would often choose to make a sport of taking something during our journey and passing it on as a gift to someone when we arrived at our destination. It was mostly simple things: Weird posters and displays from rest stops, traffic cones with city markings, an occasional holiday decoration… Oh, and, one time, the giant metal ‘Welcome to Vermont’ sign.

We would frequently overestimate our navigational abilities and underestimate time and distance, and end up with abnormal amounts of ground to cover in troublingly short amounts of time. In this particular instance, we were on our way from Rochester, NY to Middlebury, VT to pick up the kid that played bass in our band and drive him back to Rochester to make a record. The recording was to happen over the course of one weekend, and he didn’t get out of class in Vermont until 6pm on Friday; the only thing that made any sense was to give him some time to have dinner, pick him up around 10pm, drive straight back to NY, put a whole record together in 48 hours, and then deliver him back.

When the time vs. distance ratio made little-to-no-sense, but the destination was important enough to roll the dice, there was only one driver I trusted. Our friend Curly was a perpetual-motion troublemaker, and also as good-natured and reliable as it got. While in high school, our band would frequently commit to out of town shows as far away as Cleveland or even once or twice Michigan, and his relentless commitment to both fun and trouble was the only thing that got me there and back between last bell in the afternoon and first bell the next morning.

The drive to Vermont was beautiful, and we had excellent hardcore from both NY and Cleveland and plenty of chocolate peanut butter Little Debbie ‘Nutty Bars’ to help us keep the pace. Our hustle limited our hands-on sightseeing, and by the time we neared Vermont, we were a little antsy and our gift basket was empty.

Conversation turned to what we might give away at an upcoming show of ours that was starting to look like it might be a big one. Neither the show nor the giveaway were anything that anyone was losing sleep over or biting their nails in anticipation of, but that never mattered to us. We handled each and every one as if it were the most important, because to us, and possibly even just one other person, it was.

Having made it from Rochester without needing to break for gas, we stopped at a small store not far from the state line to refuel, get a snack, and stretch our legs. At some point during the pit stop we both looked up the road and noticed that there was a tall cover of grass surrounding the ‘Welcome to… ‘ sign, and the wheels started turning. It was dark by then, and what had started with a little joking and laughter had now turned into us looking for a secluded place to park within short distance of the potential target.

We hustled from the parking spot to underneath the sign during a break in traffic and evaluated the situation. It was secured to the frame with six bolts, appeared to be roughly the footprint of the backseat and trunk of the car, and made it a point to tell us that it was due for a vacation and had been looking forward to doing some traveling.

As usual, we had both a wrench and a blanket, and one began the extraction process while the other watched vigilantly for cars and/ or foot traffic. Two weird-looking New Yorkers abducting the welcome mat to the hippie capital of the eastern United States would likely not have gone over too well, and with the car more than a stone’s throw away, we weren’t in an ideal flight position.

We had alternated between bolt removing and watching, and were down to #6. As was often the case with bike repairs, or music gear repairs, or anything of that nature, the last thing you want is usually what you get: The final bolt was not moving, and we were way too deep in the process to turn back now. The sign was hanging crooked and forward, and we had been working on it for nearly an hour. The only other tool we had at our disposal was a tire iron, and so as last resort, we decided to try to smash it free; thankfully it worked. Un-rusted, we would likely have been out of luck, but it appeared no one had taken the sign down in a while.

When the bolt broke, the sign fell, and we quickly draped the blanket over it and ran as fast as two kids carrying a dinner-table-sized piece of wiggly aluminum could run. It fit in the car, luckily and barely, and as soon as the trunk closed we got the hell out of there and finished the first leg of our ridiculous weekend journey.

The sign ended up spending the weekend in a dorm room of the fancy college, much to the chagrin of one of the occupants, and then made its way home with us en route to becoming one of our most memorable, and certainly our riskiest, giveaways.

Next:

#4: Life-sized manger scene from a church in Fairport, NY. (Re-handling: Different, kind of.)

#5: 5-string bass from undisclosed location.
(Re-handling: Same. Fuck those condescending pricks.)