A Taxi Driver on Stealing
By Dmitry Samarov / Images Courtesy Dmitry Samarov
We moved to Brookline, Massachusetts from the USSR in 1978 when I was seven. Brookline’s a well-to-do suburb of Boston and for the first few years we lived there we didn’t have much—certainly less than most of the other kids I saw in school. The stores filled with things we couldn’t afford were overwhelming, but I had a solution: I started to steal.
I can’t remember the first thing I took without paying, but in third or fourth grade I made friends with a kid named Andre from Venezuela whose father was some sort of visiting diplomat. The family didn’t seem to want for much. His folks left cash lying around all over the house. From time to time a stray $20 would find its way into the bushes by the Devotion School playground somehow. After retrieving it, I’d generously treat all the other kids playing dodge to pizza and video games.
At ten or eleven I got a paper route. The worst part of the job was collecting payments on Saturdays. We had a quota of $25 or $30 per week or we wouldn’t get paid. I quickly realized however that the guy running the operation wasn’t much of an accountant: he didn’t keep very close tallies of who was and wasn’t in arrears along my route. As long as the requisite amount was delivered to him he seemed happy, so I’d hand in all the checks and pocket the cash payments.
Coolidge Corner was rife with Jewish delis, toy stores, and various other establishments where pilfering wasn’t much of a challenge. Irving’s was good for candy and baseball cards, the old ladies that ran the little store barely even tried to keep up with the waves of school kids shuttling in and out. Brookline News & Gifts was so overstuffed with merchandise that there was no way the proprietor could tell what was walking out the doors. Many action-figures and Matchbox cars that my folks couldn’t or wouldn’t get for me found their way home down Babcock Street that way. Jaffe’s Pick-A-Chick was the place to pick up the soda and candy needed to watch afternoon cartoons with. If I took off my coat and draped it over my violin case, there was room underneath to hide whatever refreshments were required on a given day. The one time a glass liter of cream soda shattered on the floor as I was trying to walk out the door with it, the clerk—not realizing what was going on—felt bad for the clumsy boy with the violin and gave me a free bagel to make up for it.
From time to time I’d get caught. I got kicked out of Woolworth’s and was told not to come back (on one of the few visits I wasn’t actually swiping anything), but most times when I was caught red-handed, I’d just turn on the tears or fake enough contrition to be let off without much serious consequence. Dealing with my mother’s disappointment wasn’t quite as simple as placating the shopkeepers but neither was it an insurmountable obstacle. Time and again the waterworks was a fine and effective answer to her questioning my lack of conscience. I can’t say that much of what she said sunk in; I only tried to appear appropriately chastened so she’d let me go about my business. The concept that what I was doing was wrong didn’t really register; there were things I wanted and if I didn’t have the money to buy them I’d get them whatever way I could. The idea that some people have more and others less made no sense; there were just wants and the various means of satisfying them.
The low point of this early part of my thieving career was when my friend Dan and I emptied out the contents of a girl’s piggy bank. We both had to go back and publicly apologize for that one. We likely had to say out loud why what we did was so wrong but I have no memory of that particular explanation. My mother wanted to think that I did these things under the influence of a ne’er-do-well pal, but I don’t remember having to have my arm twisted to do wrong in that instance or any other for that matter. Dan and I hatched many, many schemes. The day we found out that there were stores that bought used books and records was particularly inspired. We raided our parents’ bookshelves repeatedly whenever funds ran low. He found out his mother’s ATM password so that became another revenue stream. I chipped in by periodically going through the wallets of my parents or any house-guests that had the misfortune of staying with us at the time.
At around fourteen I got a job at Kupel’s Bagels, the first of a long succession of service industry positions that continues to this day. I never had a problem working hard but keeping it above board at places which often paid a hair over minimum wage was more than I could manage. My family and friends got dozens of bagels, pounds of cream cheese and lox, not to mention more hamentashen than they knew what to do with. I added a couple shifts at Edibles restaurant down the street; this yielded whole tortes from the freezer, hand-scooped Frusen Glädjé ice cream, and complimentary bowls of chili for anyone that asked. Next I was on to the Coolidge Corner Movie House where “returned” ticket-stubs and “damaged” tubs of popcorn buttressed my earnings. I will say that I kept it to a modest, marginally-acceptable rate there as I actually liked the place and the people I worked with (unlike the previous establishments as well as most of the ones after). Not enough not to do it at all but enough for it to give me pause while slipping the bills into my pockets.
I started art school in the fall of 1989. Art supplies are exorbitantly expensive and I wasn’t shy about lifting a $50 brush here or a $70 tube of Cadmium Red there in the name of economic justice. Art books aren’t particularly affordable either. Luckily, the clerks at the Art Institute gift shop weren’t that observant in those days—the fact that a monograph with a hundred full-color reproductions might cost $15 didn’t strike them as odd. At Kroch’s & Brentano’s on Wabash, a heavy-set woman—the house-dick—caught on to my price-sticker swapping and escorted me down to the basement where she snapped a Polaroid and added it to her rogues’ gallery. It might still be decorating that windowless room to this day had the store not been shuttered years ago. I was told not to return if I wanted to avoid prosecution but I was back in within a week or two. The store was next door to school after all.
Across from my first Chicago apartment at Foster and Sheridan sat a Dominick’s supermarket. One day me and my girlfriend went in to shop. Out in the lot afterward we were followed out by the store manager who asked me to follow him back to his office. He hand-cuffed me to a pipe, took a $10 bill out of my wallet to pay for the razor blades I’d lifted (thinking them overpriced), then brought me back change. Another man was detained in that room. A search of his pockets yielded a thick roll of bills, the grocery bags at his feet crammed with unpaid-for items. The manager threatened to call the police, though I doubted very much that he would. I was let out with a warning not to return or else; the other guy stayed put—he’d doubtless be less lucky. Outside, my mortified girlfriend made me swear that I wouldn’t do anything like that ever again. I promised I wouldn’t, though I promised more to get her off my back than out of any true contrition or embarrassment. I never lost sleep over my behavior, though I did cut back a bit for a time.
In 1997, I moved back to Chicago after four years away. I’d spent most of that time driving a cab in Boston. After a couple weeks’ search I got a job at Pearl Art & Craft. The pay was $6.50 per hour. A guy named Balthazar was assigned to train me. He spent much of our time together bragging about all the things he’d stolen from the place. He was an odious individual—not someone who’s lead most would’ve followed—but that didn’t stop me from making off with more than my share during my six-month stint there. The company didn’t use barcodes on their merchandise, which made keeping track of the inventory much more dependent on the employees’ honesty. They didn’t inspire much loyalty with the lousy pay and disrespectful attitude, so honesty among the staff was a rare quality indeed. There was a myriad of ways to get the things we wanted out of the store past management’s intermittent attention. The easiest was to send a friend with a cart piled with paints, canvases, pastels, and the like through checkout and ring them for a $0.79 eraser or better yet, a $0.30 piece of charcoal, then divvy up the loot afterward. If I was charged with pricing sable brushes—which entailed hours of sitting and writing out the digits on the metal ferrules—two piles would form on the “done” side: one for them and one for me. I bought a van a couple months after I got the job and sometimes at the end of the day I’d back it up to the loading dock and a couple of us would fill it with opaque projectors, easels, and drafting tables. Throughout the shift there were boxes stashed throughout the store, usually up above the display racks in overstock, that were gradually filled with items needed to fulfill orders. My orders, that is. I’d sell to former professors at the Art Institute, as well as other artists unfortunate enough not to work in an art supply store. It got to be exhausting and stressful—as if I had two jobs rather than one. I left and got a job delivering Thai food. Not long after a coworker was caught stealing and prosecuted. An undercover detective was hired and the company finally started using barcodes. I couldn’t say how much I took in all, but I wouldn’t be surprised—if made to answer for it all—that there’d’ve been significant jail-time involved.
Eventually, I went back to driving a cab. There’s nothing to take there, though a garage owner once accused me of stealing a water pump when one of his jalopies broke down on me en route to the burbs. Where I’d stashed it and for what purpose he never explained. Some drivers will take passengers the long way, or rev their engines unnecessarily to make the meter move faster, but I don’t. The job doesn’t pay that well, yet, somehow, it manages to keep me between the lines. I never had a bottoming-out or reckoning type of moment with all my thieving. I just got tired of looking over my back. When I picture the immigrant kid wanting the same toys as his well-to-do American classmates, I don’t feel much of my present self in him. I rarely want what others have these days—material or otherwise. The thing I learned from stealing is that you can never steal enough, nor make up in that way for what you haven’t earned.
I’m just trying to earn it these days.
The Russian-born Dmitry Samarov is a prolific painter, watercolorist, and sketch artist, and is the author of www.chicagohack.com, an original blog brimming with the cab driver’s art and his dry, empathic, often hilarious stories. Samarov’s first book, Hack: stories from a Chicago Cab, was published by University of Chicago Press in October 2011.