The Last Heist

Secretly, I’ve been working on a book.  And this is one of the chapters. Actually, one of the last chapters.

Like always, walk in and play it cool.  The whole thing always amazes me – how can two guys, dressed in black, carrying large duffel bags be so inconspicuous?  How do we get away with this every time?

Then Jan starts the whole thing.  It’s standard by now.

“Everyone down on the ground,” he yells as he pulls out his gun.  “This is a robbery, and if everyone plays it cool, we all get to leave.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I see a little kid holding his mother’s hand.  He looks at me funny, not sure what is happening.  Then he smiles and waves.   I wave back.  No reason not to be nice.

As I watch Jan jump from teller to teller, I realize he’s moving slowly.  Too slowly.  But it isn’t just him.  Everything is moving slowly today.  I close my eyes, shake my head, and try to concentrate.

I look back at the little boy.  He’s crying now.  It breaks my heart.  I want out of here.

“Move it,” I yell to Jan.

“Shut up.”

“It’s taking too long.”

“I said, shut up.”

But I won’t give up.  Something’s not right.  I want out of here.  Everything’s moving slower.  Slower.  I start to yell, “Listen, forget the rest.  We’ve got enough.  Let’s just…..”

But I never get to finish.  From the back –  behind the tellers, the wooden cabinets, the large office desks –  there’s a gunshot.  A single one.  Then another.  Everyone in the bank starts to scream or cry.  And then I hear what I think is a third, but it is actually the door banging open as a security guard comes running from the back.  He’s bleeding from his chest.  Or is it his stomach?  His face is ashen, and as he runs, he bumps up against desks, chairs, walls.  There’s a trail of blood behind him.  He’s King Midas, except everything he touches runs with blood.

“There’s two more in the back,” the guard yells, tripping over a lady that is lying face down on the ground.  She screams as he falls on top of her, his guts starting to come out of his shirt.  He lands on his stomach and I see that the back of his shirt has a gaping hole it in and is soaked with blood.

“Beat it,” I yell to Jan.  My feet feel like lead, though, and I wonder if maybe we had a bad hit before coming in.  What happened to the good days of cheap H?  Good H.  Pure H.  I feel as if I am running through concrete.  Jan continues to empty each drawer, but by now I want out.  “Fuck the lot!  Just beat it. The cops will be here soon.”  I run towards the back, from where the guard came, and bust through the door.

Mickey is in the back room, kneeling next to Deb.  “She’s shot,” he said to me.

“How?  What the fuck were you two doing in here anyway?  Why weren’t you in the alley?”

Mickey looks me square in the eyes.  “There’s fucking cops everywhere.  Plain suits, uniforms, vests.  This is rotten, Danny.  Rotten.  Someone knew. Why do you think there was a fucking rent-a-cop in the back, and not out front?”

I have a sudden urge to vomit, but then it is gone.  My mouth is dry and my lips are pasty.  I run the back of my hand across my face and realize I am sweating.  A lot. Through my shirt, my hat, down my back.

“Danny – what we gonna do?  We got to get Deb out of here.”

“How much blood she lost, you think?”  I look down at Deb, and she’s panting, eyes wide open, staring straight up at the ceiling.  There’s no blood on the floor, at least not yet.  Her sweater is wet, almost purple.  It’s just her left side, right below her ribcage. “How much?” I ask again.  Mickey shrugs.

“Deb darling,” I touch her face.  “Deb, sweetie – you hear me?  We got to get out of here.  We got to go.  Can you move?”  She turns her head to look at me.  “Deb, I gotta look, okay?  I’m not going to hurt you.”  She looks over to Mickey, and he grabs her hand.  I reach down and pull up her sweater.  As soon as I pull it back, blood pulses up through a dime-sized hole in her stomach.  Her entire front is covered in blood.  I think of the security guard out front.  I put my hand on the hole, trying to stop the blood from coming, and Deb moans.

“Danny, Danny, Danny,” Mickey whispers and pulls back my hand.

I sit back on my knees.  Shit.  Fuck.  This is bad.  The nausea hits again.

“Danny, where’s Jan?”  I give Mickey a blank look.  “Jan?  Is he out front?  What’s taking him so long?  This is rotten, you know? “

I nod.  I know.

Jan bursts through the door, with two bags full of money.  “Cops are coming,” he says.

“What about the customers?”

“Gone – ran out after you left me alone.  What was that for?”

“What was that for?  If you hadn’t notice, nothing was right.  Gunshots.  Bleeding guards.  I told you to bail.  Then Mickey says there are cops coming to the alley.”

“Already here,” Mickey motions out back with his head.

“Out back?  You sure?” Jan asks, cooly.  He walks toward the back door.  “That’s early.”

“You think I fucking made this up?” Mickey yells.  “All of it?  Deb and I only came in because we wanted to warn you.  But when we came in the fucking guard shot her.”

“So you shot him?” I ask.  Jan, halfway to the back door, stops and looks at us.

“Fucking hell, I did,” Mickey snarls at me.

“It’s fine,” I say.  “Look…”

“Its not fine,” Jan says.  He turns and looks down at Deb for the first time.  He puts his hands on the back of his head, his elbows out like wings, and paces.  “Not fucking fine.”  Mickey and I just stare at him.  He paces more.  “Not fucking fine,” he yells, and kicks a filing cabinet over.  No one says anything, and I realize we’re wasting time.  Stupid.  I stand up, grab one of the duffel bags, toss it to Jan.  I pick up the other, and bend over to grab Deb.  “Mickey, pull her up.  We’re moving. We can’t stay.  Jan, you gotta give us cover.  How far is the car, Mickey?”

“Fuck the cash,” Jan says and drops the bag.  Mickey and I haul Deb up.  She’s limp, and her eyes are closed.  Her sweater is heavy with blood, and she slips through it as we try to keep her between us.

“I said, forget the cash.”  Jan walks over to me and pulls the bag from my hand.  “It’s marked.”

“How?” I ask.

“What do you mean how?  Its marked, that’s how.  Traced.  They know. They knew.”  No one says anything.  Jan rubs his eyes with his forefinger and thumb of his right hand, pinching his nose.  Without opening his eyes he says, “We go out the front.”

I drop the bag, and wrap both my arms around Deb.  I start to drag her towards the door.  My heart is still pounding, like it is going to jump from my chest, and my legs tremble.  I fumble with the doorknob, and turn.  Jan and Mickey stand in the center of the room, staring at each other, and not leaving.

“What did you do, Jan?”

“We gotta go, Mickey.”

“What did you fucking do, Jan?”  Mickey runs toward Jan, but Jan steps to the side, and throws a fist into Mickey’s face.  Mickey spins around toward me, blood already coming from his lips and nose.  He drops to his knees, and keeps himself from falling flat with his hand.  He stands back up, keeping his eyes locked with mine.

“Jesus,” I say, looking at Jan.  My throat goes dry, and I feel my eyes start to burn.  I loosen my grip on Deb and she slides to the ground, limp.

“You fucking cunt!” Mickey runs at Jan again, arms swinging, but Jan is taller and bigger. He wraps his arms around Mickey’s head and shoulders, and throws him down against the filing cabinet.  I open my mouth to say something, but nothing comes out.  I struggle to put it together.  Kind of.  Mickey is crawling on the floor, trying to stand, crying.  “Aw fuck.  Aw…  Did you?”  He looks up at Jan.  “Did you?”

Jan hasn’t moved from the spot.  I realize now how pale his skin is, how blackened his eyes are.  And he’s thin, and haggard looking.  He stares at me, and his eyes are flat, gray, and dull.  Suddenly, Mickey jumps up from the floor, with his gun pointed at Jan, and screams. Not a word.  Not a curse.  Just a painful yell.

Jan doesn’t move.  He sighs, “Mickey.  We have to go.  Now.  And we have to go out the front.  Do you hear me?  The front.” He motions towards the lobby, and starts to walk.

Mickey cocks his gun. “No man.  Not we.”

“Mickey, you can’t get out without me.  Seriously.”  Jan stands with his face towards the door, and squeezes the bridge of his nose with his finger and thumb.  Behind him, Mickey sways back and forth, shaking his head.  Jan continues in a slow, calm voice.  “Mickey, we have to go now.  Deb is….”

“Don’t say it,” Mickey says. He sways some more, then yells, running towards Jan, and puts the gun against his head.  “What did you do Jan?  Why?  Why man?”

Now I figure out it.  My hands and legs start to shake, and I realize my heart is beating faster than I have ever felt it.  “Mickey,” I say.  “He’s right.  We have to go now, and we have to go with Jan.”  I bend down and grab Deb underneath the arms, and haul her up. “Come on.  We’re wasting time.”

I struggle with Deb, and no one moves.  We all just stand there. The tears are balancing on my lids, and when I blink they run down my cheeks.  Jan stands facing the door still, but I can see his face.  His eyes are closed – he looks almost dead.  Mickey is crying so hard he can barely breathe.  Finally, he sobs, “Go.”  Jan takes a step towards the door, and Mickey jumps up behind him again, gun to his head.  “Slowly,” he adds.

“I know,” Jan says.  He looks at me, but I only turn away, and step aside so he can open the door.  He walks through, with Mickey behind him, still holding the gun in both hands.  I reach down and grab Deb’s legs beneath her knees, and carry her into the lobby.  It’s empty, except for the guard.  He’s on his stomach, the left side of his face against the marble floor.  It looks as if he tried to crawl towards the door, after everyone else left.  There’s a swath of blood on the floor behind him.

The entire front of the bank is glass, and there is a crowd gathered in the street.  Some people stand at the edges of the building. I don’t see any cops.  “Now what?”  I ask.

“Out the front,” Jan says.  “We always go out the back, so that is where they are suppose to be.  They aren’t expecting us to come out the front.”

“You first,” Mickey says, and pushes Jan with the gun.  Jan stumbles forward one step, catching his balance.  He takes a deep breath, and pushes open both glass doors.  Inside, it had been quiet, so the noise that greets us shocks me.  Cars honks at the people in the street, the wail of sirens in the distance.  As we come out, the crowd backs up, and a woman screams.

Jan turns around.  “We need to…”  Before he can finish, Mickey shoots him in the head, and he falls backwards with a loud thump.  More screams come from the crowd, and people start to run in all directions.  Mickey puts his gun in the back of his pants, turns to me, his face covered with tears.  “Come on.”  He turns and starts to run toward the south corner of Thorndale.  I don’t move.  “Danny!  Run!”  He turns and seeing that I haven’t moved, comes back and grabs me.  I start to run with Deb in my arms.  “Danny,” Mickey says.  “Danny – she’s dead.  Leave her.  She’s dead,” he cries, putting his head on my shoulder.  I look at Deb, and her skin is pale, lips white, mouth slightly open, eyes closed.  I slowly kneel, and put her down to the ground, and touch her face.  It’s feels strangely rough – and my hand is so covered with blood that I leave two red smears on her chin.  I try to rub them off with my sleeve, but Mickey reaches down and grabs me.  “Fucking run, Danny.  Run!”

I get up and run after him.  Finally, my legs feel normal, but my heart still feels as if it will explode.  We turn the corner onto Thorndale, and facing us is the car Mickey got the night before.  I go towards it, to hop in the passenger side.

“No,” Mickey hisses.  “They know it is ours.”  We stop, standing still, confused.  Behind us, to the east, we hear the rumble of the El coming to the Thorndale stop.  We both turn and sprint across Broadway towards the massive stone bridge that keeps the El above the city.  As we go past a sewer grate, Mickey tosses the car keys down it.  We hop the turnstile and bound up the stairs for the south bound trains.  There are only a few people, and no one notices my blood soaked clothes, mostly because everything I have on is black and hides the blood.  Finally the train arrives, and we enter in the last car, which is empty.

I sit down in the seat nearest the door.  Mickey stands with his head hanging out the door – looking up and down the platform.  Finally, a chime announces the doors are closing, and Mickey pulls his head in, and walks to stand in front of me.  With a lurch, the train moves towards the next stop.

Suddenly, I burst into tears.  Uncontrollable, gut wrenching, sobs.  Mickey stands in front of me, and puts his hands on my shoulders.   I shove him to the ground, and then lunge towards him.  I drive my shoulder into his chest, and warp my arms around his waist, grabbing for his gun.  But he is bigger, and stronger, than me, and with both legs kicks me back up against my seat.  I hit so hard it knocks the wind out of me.  He gets up, and grabs my head in his hands, and pulls me into his chest.  “It was rotten,” he sobs.  He holds me so tight I can’t move.  I am crying so hard I am leaving wet spots on his shirt.  “Fucking rotten,” he says again.

I nod.  I know.  I think I knew from the very beginning.


Joe Camel

I work for a sales company that promotes cigarettes.  Camels, to be exact.  It’s really not a bad job.  I go to bars, meet great people, keep myself amply supplied in the nation’s most expensive legal habit, and I love it.  In short, I get paid to be a slacker.  Occasionally, customers ask me if I don’t feel guilty about my job.

“You’re promoting cancer,” they protest.  “You’re encouraging people to pollute the earth.”  And as they sip their microbrews, eating greasy cheese sticks, I ask how am I any different than the bartender?  Doesn’t he promote cancer?  Doesn’t he encourage people to massacre one another with their cars in the streets?

To this, they say nothing.  And I know to leave them alone.  Until later, after a few more beers, and the bartender has pointed out my name is Joe, they come begging for my wares.

Isn’t that a riot?  My name truly is Joe.  Joe Ravenna.  I really think I got the job because of my name.  I’ll admit to being kind of a shady character – head shaved bald, nose ring, a tattoo on my temple, two on my fingers.  I don’t exactly make the best first impression.  I usually wear black, shin-high combat boots.

But, when I introduce myself to a drunken frat-boy or to a teased-hair sorority chick as Joe, and whip out my pack of Camels, I can tell by the smile on their face I am guaranteed a sale.  They cannot resist the temptation of going home later that night, and saying to their drunken frat-boy clone of a roommate, “Dude, I like, bought these from Joe Camel.”

I’m a marketing wet dream come true.

I usually get from bar to bar by bus.  Thankfully, many of the buses here run late enough into the evening that I don’t have to cab.  The other night, while I was waiting for the 18 to come along, some fag waltzed into the bus stop. It was pouring down rain, and he wore a tweed jacket, working hard to have that “aren’t-I-all-pathetically-wet-and-cute” look.

“You just missed the 15,” I said, dropping my Camel bag to the ground beneath me and opening up a spot on the bench.  “The 17 will be here in 10 minutes, and the 18 is suppose to be here now.”

“Oh, thanks,” he said as he sashayed his way towards me.  “I just need to cross the bridge, but it is raining so darn hard.”

Queenie, I thought.  And a very good looking guy.  Thin and probably works out.  Despite the fact that everything he had on at the moment was drenched, he dressed well.  It occurred to me he probably writes poetry.  Good thing he is gay, or us straight guys would be in trouble.  “I thought about walking,” he continued, sitting cross-legged next to me.  “But I really was worried about getting my shoes all wet.”  I looked down, seeing his brown, patent and suede, saddle shoes.  Fashionably unfunctional.  Very him.

“Ah, not worth it,” I said, watching the rain pour down.  I took a long drag on my cigarette.

“Mind if I bum one,” he asked?  Without removing mine from my lips, I pulled my pack from my breast pocket and flicked my wrist.  One solitary cigarette slid half-way out of the box, pro-offering itself.

“Thanks,” and he placed it between his lips.  “So.  What do you do?” he asked, puffing between words as I lit his stick with my Camel emblazoned lighter.

“Sell cigarettes,” I said, putting the lighter away and finally getting a chance to flick my growing ash.

“Get. Out,” he said blowing smoke out of the side of his mouth, and emphasizing the beginning of each word.  He was fully flaming now, foot kicking over crossed-knee, slightly bent wrist, hand brushing back his hair.  “You go from bar to bar then?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “I like it. I have about 8 places I hit regularly throughout the month.”

“Pay well?”

“Nope.  What about you.  What do you do?”

“Grad student,” he sighed exasperatedly.  “Writing my thesis on Walt Whitman.  Don’t know what I’ll do with that.”

We sat for a moment, enjoying our cigarettes and the silent company.  A shuttle pulled up, and dropped 3 people at our stop.  They gave us dirty looks as they stood out in the rain.  You’re not supposed to smoke in the bus shelter.  City law.  But I’ll be damned if I am going to give up my warm, dry seat.  My taxes paid for this shelter, just like theirs did.

Finally, the 17 showed up.

“This will get you across the bridge,” I said.

“Thanks,” he said, and crushed his smoke out on the bottom of his shoe.  He grabbed his bag, and climbed aboard.

Suddenly, I felt alone.  The women standing next to me kept coughing while throwing me disapproving glances.  Out of spite, I offered her a Camel, to which she cleared her throat most indignantly and walked away.  As I puffed on the last bit of my cigarette, I missed the fag; he was a nice guy.

Eating: In Celebration of my new Food Course

Starting this summer, my colleague (and friend) Brian Bouldrey and I will be teaching a new course called The Culture and Politics of Food.  In honor, I hunted through my journal to find an essay I wrote over 12 years ago, procrastinating from doing lab work.  So here it is.  Enjoy!

                                                   Eating Out in the Field


I’ve always considered eating more than just a basic life sustaining behavior.  Sure, you can argue that at the root of it, as biological organisms we must eat to stay alive.  But as humans, we have evolved into something more than just life sustaining creatures.  We do more than eat.

We feast.  We indulge.  We experience.

Some of my most cherished memories are of meals – or revolve around meals.  As sophomores in college, my two best friends and I went to Chicago for our spring break.  There we found a small Mexican restaurant that was nestled tightly beneath the tracks of the El in Evanston.  The menu itself was not extraordinary – chips & salsa, burritos, margarita and fried ice cream.  But something about the mere sharing of the food made the evening unforgettable.  Whenever the three of us get together, we still reminisce about that night.

Years ago I was in New Orleans for the Society for Neuroscience conference.  New Orleans is the city of Sin – and gluttony is well represented there.  You don’t just eat – you feast upon dishes that tantalize your taste buds.  And over red beans and rice, gumbo, shellfish, beer pints and Etoufee, a fairly eclectic group of people became friends. We were a hodge-podge of scientists, each brining to the table a little of whom we were.  There was Mark who bluntly told everyone he met that he was gay, Cat and her deep rooted spirituality that fought against all the science she learned and loved, Deanna who searched for meaning to what she was going through, Scott and Jun who just wanted to make sure that everyone that evening was having fun.  And me – me just content to sit and watch it all, to be part of it all.  To know that I belonged somewhere, to some group.  There was something about the free flowing of food that allowed us all to open up and share.  As we ate more (we fired through three dozen oysters and more pitchers of beer than I care to count) we shared more of ourselves – maybe it was because as we ate there was literally more of ourselves to share.

How is it we bond emotionally to those we share food with?  How could something so simple – just putting food in our mouths – become the focus point of celebrations and anniversaries?  Perhaps it is because we somehow expose our vulnerabilities; that by eating with someone we implicitly acknowledge how we are all equal?  We are all dependent upon food.

Why is it we feel compelled to eat with those we desire?  Why do we have romantic dinner dates?  Why is it that we find it so rewarding to fix meals for those we love?

Why food?

Because, I think, it is what we are.  We eat.  And for whatever reason, I personally love to eat.  I love to eat simple foods – barbeque chicken and corn on the cob for the 4th of July, to fondue of shrimp, venison, and wild caught turkey on Christmas Eve.  I think it is because it gives us something to remember.  When we are left with nothing, when our friends are in other places, when your lover is gone and with another, we still have something that makes us complete.  We still exist.

We still have food.

Pie Today. And Every Day.

Americans are getting bigger, and one of the first places to look when hunting for the reason is how we eat.  As biological creatures, we need to eat.  But across all cultures, all languages, eating is more than just a basic need we fulfill everyday – like breathing.  Meals are celebrations and events.  When I come home each year to visit my parents, my mother fixes salmon because she knows it is one of my favorite foods.  It is just one of her ways of showing affection, and gratitude that I made the long trip.

We do more than just eat to stay alive.

And how Americans eat has changed drastically over the past fifty years.  When my mother got married, my grandmother bought her two books: The Betty Crooker Cookbook, and a current edition of the classic cookbook, The Joy of Cooking.  The Joy of Cooking was first published in the 1931, and perusing the recipes is a history lesson in how American households shopped and ate.  The very first chapter is dedicated to the food we eat: Calories, fats, and carbohydrates.  Then we get to entertaining and planning meals, from the types of glasses you should use for serving orange juice each morning to the cocktail glass you should have chilled and filled at 5 PM each day when your husband comes home. There are pictures of cows and pigs showing the names and location of the cuts of meat, so you knew the difference between a shank and a brisket.  There are entire chapters dedicated to the ‘basics’ of cooking, such as the art of double-frying, making a roux, and the difference between blanching and paraboiling.  But more importantly, the recipes read as if you are going to go out back and slaughter the cow yourself if you want steak tonight.   Cooking at home required not only understanding how to create a balanced menu of meals, but was a time consuming process.

French Fried Goodness

After World War II, Americans enjoyed what is called the Golden Age of Food Processing.  Advances in technology took much of the work out of making food.  In the Joy of Cooking, making Never Fail French Fries is no easy task.  First you need to slowly heat a stockpot of oil to 330 degrees.  After slicing your large potatoes, you first blanch them in 90-degree water for 15 minutes and dry them on cloth.  Once the oil is hot enough, you fry them a small handful of slices at a time.  After about 3 minutes fish them out and let them cool  – while you crank the oil up to 375-degree.  Fry a second time, then take the out and season.  Serve immediately (or after letting them cool for just a minute or two).  From start-to-finish takes 40 minutes, including preparation and cooking time.  Today you can buy a bag of pre-cut, pre-seasoned French Fries at the grocery store.  From freezer to table is 14 minutes – If you bake them in the oven.  Microwaving them is even faster.

So we get food faster?  Why does that make us fat?  It is not the speed that contributes to our growing girth:  It is the convenience.  For my mother, getting French Fries for dinner was a special treat – and a fatty one.  Potatoes have long been a staple of the American diet (in the 1960s American ate about 20 pounds of potatoes a year).  But the easiest cooking method (and the healthiest) was baked.  You threw it in the oven for an hour, and then finished cutting, dicing, and mixing the rest of the meal.  And a large (12 oz), plain baked potato is fairly healthy:  220 calories, almost no cholesterol or fat, and 10% of your daily protein needs.  A serving of Ore Ida Classic French Fries (about 1 oz after cooking) contains 110 calories, and 1.5 grams of saturated fat.  So if you ate 12 servings (the equivalent of that one large potato) you would have 1,320 calories.  And with French fries available everywhere now, they have become the standard American side dish (60 pounds of potatoes per person, in 2009).

Americans do not cook like we use too, and this French Fry Effect, so to speak, is everywhere.  When I was in graduate school, I lost a bet to a friend of mine, and my payment was making her a homemade strawberry-rhubarb pie.  I pulled out my Joy of Cooking, and started reading it, and realized I was going to need flour, water, eggs, butter, sugar, strawberries, and rhubarb to get the job done.  Simple enough – but as a single-male, the only items I actually had in my kitchen were the water, butter, and the eggs.  Had I not promised to make the pie from scratch, I would have bought a pre-made pie crust, and a can of pie filling (assuming Libby’s made strawberry-rhubarb filling).  Instead I bought all the ingredients, and spent about 90 minutes from start to finish, fulfilling my obligation.  Don’t get me wrong – the pie was delicious (if I do not say so myself).  But not something I wanted to do every night, in addition to making myself dinner.  That strawberry-rhubarb pie was a treat.  Pies took time, and were served on special occasions.  But today, you can buy one frozen at the grocery store, pop it into the even (next to the tray of French Fries, no doubt) and have it every night.