The outlaw life

When I was in college, one of the many jobs I cycled through (including busboy, dishwasher, flapjack turner and hash browns slinger, assembly line hack at a plant that built transistors, stone shoveler, bathroom scrubber, copy boy, high school sports stringer, telemarketer, and ticket-taker at a movie theater) was working the counter at the just-off-campus location of a well-known international rental car company. I’d fill out contracts and try to sell customers useless “insurance,” send them on their way,  check ’em back in when they were done, note how much gas was in the car, scribble down the odometer reading, do runs with other students to the airport to pick up more cars and, most often, simply sit there, in a little shack in the corner of a gravel patch just off University Avenue and Scottsdale Road, trying to make a few bucks to go toward tuition. And, of course, toward beer.

That’s where my criminal life, previously limited to kid stuff like lifting candy bars from supermarket checkout lanes and pocketing a pack of Swisher Sweets from the local grocery when I thought little cigars were cool — I was, like, 10 — really began.

A little touch of lawlessness in a person can be kind of admirable. Not assault or drug smuggling or gun running or anything like that. And nothing as blase as income tax evasion or vandalism or panties shoplifting, either. That’s just stupid.

Think, though, of someone who makes a preconceived, willful decision to break a law. A substantial law. Someone who is willing to say, “Ah, what the heck, it’s worth the gamble.” There’s something to be said for that person. For having the nerve to tell society to take its “laws” and shove them. For being brave enough to face the consequences of being caught.

I’m not that person. But I have been.

Once in college, a friend of a friend had a friend who could have used some help selling dope. A poor college kid working a bunch of odd jobs, scratching for tuition (and beer money) could make good coin selling a little harmless weed to some well-off frat douches. But there was always the possibility of jail time, and running into some mean dudes who didn’t like college boys, and just the whole idea of selling drugs. Plus, I just couldn’t stomach calling Dad back in Delaware if I got caught. After a few hours of thinking  about it, I declined.

The criminal itch remained unsoothed, though. I was a rural kid from a large family looking for a little excitement in the big city, I guess. Boundary-testing, maybe. Leash-pulling. I was probably a little bored.

One day, sitting in that little shack on that corner in Tempe, it occurred to me that I should take one of those flashy new Mustangs we had out on the lot for a spin some night. A little joy ride. Maybe out in the desert. Just to see how fast I could get her.

So it was that one late afternoon, just before closing time, I pocketed a set of keys. I snuck back later that night with a buddy. We slipped into that Mustang, criminals that we were, and headed for some dirt roads on the outskirts of Tempe. I floored it a few times, dirt spraying behind us, did some donuts in the dust, probably bought some beer on the way back and dropped that baby back on the lot a few hours later.

Truth be told, I probably got it to about 30 or 40 mph out in the desert because — I remember being aware of this — one thing that I did not want to do was wreck that car. I was reckless, maybe. But I wasn’t stupid. I didn’t want to have to explain to Dad that I trashed a stolen car.

The whole truth is, the whole idea of “grand theft auto” didn’t occur to me until much, much later. Never even crossed my mind that night. But, yeah, if the owners of the franchise —  great guys who were always very nice to me and paid me pretty well for a couple years — had wanted to, they could have turned me in. If they had caught me. Which they didn’t.

I fudged the contracts a little the next day, adjusting the mileage and the gas readings on the little red Mustang’s rental history. I hosed down the car. I sent it out with someone who didn’t check the mileage or the gas. I got away with it. Clean. And I never did it again.

For one brief 24-hour period so many, many, many years ago, I was a certified badass.

These days, of course, when I go to bed past 10 p.m. I feel like an outlaw. The craziest, most rule-bending thing I do, probably, is when I put the big forks in the salad fork slot in the silverware drawer, leaving the tiny salad forks to mercilessly bang about in the big-fork slot.

(The big forks, I argue, fit perfectly in the salad fork slot. Better for one set of forks to fit nicely, I argue, than to have both sets shifting around in wrong-sized slots. It’s simple logic.)

(This prompts criminal thoughts, I think, in Mary Jo.)

A few weeks ago, I was looking for some lip balm in Publix. (If that doesn’t say Ten Most Wanted, I don’t know what does.) I found a nice two-pack of Burt’s Bees, then wandered over to the bakery section to buy some Christmas cookies. This is my life now.

I put the lip balm down to examine a 2-pound tray of cookies — Carts? Who needs ’em? — put the cookies back down, picked up the lip balm, started for the register, saw something else, put the lip balm down to pick that up, put it down, picked up the lip balm again, saw some more cookies, finally grabbed them and headed to the checkout. When I finally sat down in the car with my cookies, I felt the lip balm, in my back pocket where I had put it. Without thinking. Honestly.

I lingered there in the car wondering whether I should trudge back through the parking lot, explain how I had forgotten to pay for the lip balm — it was like $5 — and play the part of the honest, suburb-dwelling, law-abiding citizen that I am and have been for so many years.

The rain was falling. It was cold. I was tired. I had a long drive to Cincinnati ahead of me the next day.

I reached over, poked the ignition button and drove home, smiling all the way.

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