You gotta suffer if you want to sing the Blues. If you want to write convincing crime fiction, you have to know some criminals. Up close, on a first name and a.k.a. basis. They tend to be a suspicious and sometimes violent lot, so this could be tricky and possibly dangerous. But Art is sometimes a stern mistress, and nobody said this would be easy.
The best way to get to know criminals is to engage in crime. At least marginally. Drug addiction is a quick and sure path. A dizzying percentage of our prison population is serving time for drug-related offenses. So, the minute you pick up an illegal substance, you’re well on your way to understanding the ins and outs of outlaw activity. If a life of misery and despair doesn’t appeal to you, there’s always gambling. Of course the type of compulsive betting that’s likely to expose you to genuine bad guys is no picnic in the park, either.
For the squeamish or morally stubborn, an alternate entre’ into the underworld might be through working in the Criminal Justice System. Parole officers, social workers, and cops come into contact with miscreants all the time. The problem here is that the relationship is usually strained, to say the least. It’s nearly impossible to gain real insight into someone’s psyche who is constantly lying to you. People on the wrong side of the law tend to say what they think people on the right side of the law want to hear. It’s simple self-preservation.
My introduction to the exciting world of lawbreakers came by way of the US Government. Three decades ago the economy was in pretty rough shape, and jobs were almost as hard to come by as now. In a fit of humanitarianism, the federal government instituted a program similar to the Depression Era’s WPA. One of the unintended results was that, at least in my town, it attracted every shady character who could scratch his name on the application. Plus me and a handful of other guys desperately seeking honest labor. To describe me as a Babe in the Woods would be eerily accurate. Especially since we actually spent a lot of time in the woods, clearing brush and cutting trees and generally trying to look busy.
On my first day I met my first criminal. Let’s call him Ray. He was on a work release from Somers Prison. For some reason we hit it off. Probably because we had a common enemy. We were designated as a two-man chainsaw team, and we spent a lot of time trying to keep from being ripped to ribbons. Neither of us had ever used any kind of cutting tool more dangerous than a pair of scissors. We eventually graduated to the wood chipper crew, but I digress.
The days were long, the work repetitive, and Ray liked to tell stories. It made the mind-numbing labor tolerable. He’d been locked up for dealing in stolen merchandise. And possession of drugs. And refusing to rat on some guy. I was never clear on the exact charges, and I didn’t ask. I quickly learned that if I kept my mouth shut, his would keep going. This habit of silently listening, with the occasional knowing nod, served me well with all the felons I became friendly with.
Ray and I took our breaks together and, after a while, began to socialize after work. It wasn’t long before he loosened up enough to school me in everything from how to boost a car radio, to the method of wrapping the butt of a pistol with electrical tape to avoid fingerprints. It didn’t matter that I never showed the least inclination to use any of this information. Ray just assumed the responsibility of passing the knowledge along, just in case. Kind of like an uncle who feels every boy should know how to bait a hook, whether he wants to fish or not.
Some of the other people I got to know on the job made Ray seem as discrete as a mute priest. They struck me as pitifully proud of their crimes, past and present. I soon realized that most of these guys weren’t caught through brilliant police work. If they weren’t shy about talking in front of me, it was only a matter of time until they shot off their mouths to someone who mattered. And talking wasn’t all. I witnessed drug transactions, hot items bought and sold, and I was there the day a particularly scary individual fired several shots into the side of the tool truck. When someone asked him what he was doing, he said he borrowed the pistol from his cousin and wanted to make sure it worked. He went on the say he was planning a B & E for that night. When the same guy asked what was up with the gun, the shooter came back with one of the most chilling phrases I’ve ever heard: “In case anybody’s home”.
The job lasted exactly one year, the term of the program. In that time I got to know shoplifters, burglars, one stickup man, and a lot of people with a criminal bent but no particular specialty. I discovered the purely professional crook was rare. A little like musicians who need a day job to make ends meet. I also found out that familiarity breeds complicity. If you’re around all the time, people begin to assume you belong. I’ve lost touch with everyone I met during that year but, whenever I need a crooked character, they’re right there for me.
Sometimes I wonder whatever happened to Ray. I ran into his girlfriend about six months after I’d last seen him. She was angry that he hadn’t listened to her when she warned him that nobody would keep anything valuable in a warehouse with a three dollar padlock on a wooden door. Ray’s big heist turned out to be fifteen cartons of Left sneakers. Seconds, at that. The cops were laughing so hard they could barely handcuff him. And if that wasn’t bad enough, on his way out of the court appearance for the Sneaker Caper, he got caught stealing a rack of dresses, twenty yards from the courthouse steps. For all his knowledge, he couldn’t get past the impulsiveness that seems so much a part of criminal nature.
Sometimes people can fool you. Sometimes people can change. I like to think that Ray is doing all right and not sitting in some prison cell. Or worse. And I like to think that if he found out how much of him I’ve borrowed over the years, he’d be glad he was able to help out the innocent kid who was, for a brief time, his friend.
Lester Thees can be found on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/dp
Leaving Town is his new novel.