One Step off the Narrow

    The day I grabbed a microwave meal out of an Albertsons freezer and stuffed it down my pants, is the day I realized I might have a problem. My father once told me, “This one time, I caught a guy stealing my guitar. I tackled him and choked him for fifteen minutes til’ the police came. You know something, that’s the worst thing you could be in this world—A God damn thief.” And that’s exactly what I had become.

    The first thing I ever stole was a miniature rubber Heman from daycare. I told myself, it’s not really stealing if it fits in the palm of your hand; which it did ever so snugly. I continued to follow this logic and whenever my dad took me to Home Depot, I pocketed all the bolts and screws collecting dust under the shelves. Since they weren’t in a bin, I decided I was actually doing them a favor by helping ‘tidy up.’ In Kindergarten, I finally got caught for stealing a ball of yarn, so I decided it best to give up my pilfering ways, at least until I met Eric…

    Eric and I were fourteen, and into the finer things in life, such as skateboarding, vandalism, and smoking Titan Philly cigars in the alley behind Fast Break. We used to take the trolley to the mall where Eric stole everything from incense candles to shoeshine; once, he even stole a stone gargoyle. I was still scarred from my run-in with the law as a Kindergartener so I usually just created a distraction, while Eric did the dirty work.

    One day, Eric and I took the trolley to see Kingpin at the theatre. When we got to the teller, I realized I’d forgotten my wallet. We stood debating about what we should do when Eric’s eyes lit up. “I’ve got it,” he said, throwing a finger in the air. “When the next person exits, we’ll just slip in behind them, go straight to the bathroom and hide in some stalls for awhile til’ the coast is clear.”

    “Uh, I don’t know, man. The people at the concession stand will see us for sure.”

    “Aww come on. They’re way too busy to see us, and besides, if we get caught, we’ll just tell them we had to take a piss.”

    I had to admit, the plan was flawless. We waited until an old man came out. Eric grabbed the door and mumbled, “Ooh, I gotta pee so bad,” then we scurried to the bathroom. It was so easy. I don’t think I bought a movie ticket for the next two years.

    Ninth grade, I took things a step further. Eric and I were broke and needed new clothes, so we began going to stores like Ross and switching tags; which still gave me the comfy impression that I wasn’t technically stealing. I said I’d only do it once or twice, but when I found out how easy it was, I couldn’t quit. My closet was growing increasingly full, but all my fly new gear made my mom suspicious. One day, while leaving for school, she grabbed my arm.

    “Patrick, where you getting the money for all these new clothes? I know the $20 bucks you get for mowing the lawn each week ain’t paying for ’em.”

    “Aww, don’t worry about it mom,” I popped the collar on my new suede jacket. “I bought them off some crack-head at a gas station. You’d be amazed the deals those guys have.” Everything was going according to plan. It wasn’t until Eric tried to buy a tuxedo coat for the price of a pair of socks that the cashiers finally caught on.

    Shortly after, I became a gangsta rap connoisseur, and was obsessed with expanding my CD collection. But unlike sneaking into the movies or switching tags, I was no longer “technically” stealing–I had graduated to straight jack-mode. Stealing had become bigger than just getting shit for free. I craved the adrenaline, the scheming, the feeling of walking out that exit, having outsmarted the security giant once again.

    Now, the hardest thing about stealing CDs was removing those bulky plastic cases that guarded the anti-theft stickers inside. To accomplish this, Eric and I created a two-part system. I entered Target, stuck a few thuggish albums down my pants, and went to the bathroom. Eric was waiting in a stall and I entered the one next to him. I used a screwdriver to pop off the cases, then I peeled off the security stickers. Next, I slipped the CDs and screwdriver to Eric. That way, if security saw me go in with the goods I would leave evidence free. This operation continued until the release of a little online program called Napster. Sure, downloading music on my parent’s dialup connection wasn’t exactly what I’d call an adrenaline rush, but how could I complain when so many free jams were only a click away. I was in gangsta’s paradise.

    When I started partying, I found out that not only was alcohol expensive, but it’s hard to get when you’re only sixteen. Yea, I could get a bum to score me some booze if I gave him a few bucks for his afternoon King Cobra, but that was usually a hassle and most bums were sketchy to do business with.

    Sometimes we’d walk into Albertsons wearing a coat, stuff a bottle of Hennessey or Alize down our pants, and booze it up Tu Pac style at the park. But a few bottles here and there couldn’t quench the thirst of a whole party. That’s when we devised the ultimate beer run. Eric and my friend Ryan walked into Rite Aid while a group of us waited out on the loading dock. Moments later, they came bursting out the back holding two 30 packs in each hand. I held the door open and we stampeded into the stockroom pillaging any alcohol we could find. One friend had his hands full of Coors, I took a box of Jack Daniels, and someone even grabbed a case of White Zinfandel Arbor Mist for the ladies. Like a pack of wild barbarians we stripped the booze pallets down to their wooden skeletons. We filled the get-a-way truck with a supply alcohol that could last through a nuclear holocaust—yea, we might starve, but we’d sure as hell never be thirsty.

    Eventually, stores started blocking the backdoors with pallets so we couldn’t open them. This deterred us momentarily, but as always, we just attacked from a different angle. 4th of July was on its way, and we were going to throw our annual beach barbeque and watch the fireworks. We were determined to make this bonfire the one that would bury all others.

    A friend told me about an emergency exit inside Albertson’s meat department that would be perfect for a run. So that night, after the butchers went home, three of us entered Albertsons and began loading up shopping carts. It started out with only the “necessities;” you know, some London Broils, hamburgers, ketchup and a few cases of beer. But once it dawned on us that everything was “free,” our shopping spree escalated into a deranged version of that game show “Supermarket Sweep.” Eric started throwing boxes of condoms into his cart. Ryan was frantically snatching blocks of cheese, kitchen utensils, chocolate bars, and bottles of whiskey and Scotch. I turned in my London broils for filet mignons, prime ribs, and pretty much anything with a price tag over twenty bucks. Then things morphed into who could steal the most outrageous item. Ryan piled a set of plastic chairs in his cart, I grabbed a barbeque and stacks of charcoal, but once Eric fished a live lobster out of the aquarium, we knew it was time to leave.

    With our carts stacked and teetering like Jenga towers, we bounded for the emergency exit. I bolted onto the freshly mopped floors of the meat department and immediately slipped on my ass and slid straight into the base of the meat grinder. The emergency sirens screamed as we exploded through the door. We laughed like a pack of escaping lunatics as we charged toward the get-away truck. In less than a minute, we were loaded and skirting unseen into the night.

    We were ready to celebrate the shit out July 4th that year. We all sat around in new plastic chairs, holding Budlights in beer koozies, soaking in the sun ’til our skin turned pink as the shrimp kabobs roasting on the barbeque. When night came, we piled palettes onto the bonfire, and sat around passing blunts. A cheerleader sat on my lap and we stared into the flames. I was woozy from all the eating and drinking and doing my best not to fall out of my chair or puke on her back.

    The fireworks were about to start when someone yelled, “Hey, hide the beer, the cops are coming.” Everyone scrambled to conceal the booze and weed, but for some reason, I pushed the girl off me and went stumbling towards the ocean. The cops yelled for everyone to stay put. One pointed a flashlight at me, but I kept running and dived into the freezing sea. I figured if I swam out far enough they wouldn’t come after me. Suddenly, the first fireworks ripped through the night. I treaded water and watched the colorful sparks fall like confetti. Maybe it was the beauty of it all, or the fact that I had drunk a six pack of Tecate and a bottle of Admiral Nelson’s spiced rum, but I burst into a vomiting rage. I thrashed back towards the shore heaving my guts out and sucking in salt water. When my feet finally met the sand, I stood and watched the cops slap the cuffs on Eric and a few other friends. I thought about my dad saying how one step off the straight and narrow leads to two, or something like that, I was too drunk to remember the rest. I bobbed in black water as red, white, and blue fireworks glistened through darkness. As “I’m Proud to be an American” rang out from a distant stereo, I watched chunks of filet mignon swirl around me. And as a flashlight beam grew closer, I took a deep breath and sank below the surface.

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