Dereliction of Duties

I met the nicest criminal today. He wore a bright green and white horizontal striped polo shirt—not a black hoody like a normal criminal would. I’m pretty sure he wasn’t a meth addict. Just a guy in his early 30’s, who ate real well, with his hair pulled back in a pony-tail.

I was at work, rushing to meet Ursula for lunch, but first I needed to mail a card. The fastest way for me to get to the mailroom is to cut through the break-room from the outside of the building to the inner hallway.

I swung the door open to the break-room, walked past the Pepsi machine, noting out of the corner of my eye a guy standing very close to the side of the machine. I thought it was odd—maybe he was loading it with bottles of soda? Even in that quick glimpse though, I knew he wasn’t wearing a uniform and thought it strange.

As I headed to the interior break-room door, I saw it was closed. It was never closed. I knew something was up for sure. “Shit,” I thought. “I don’t want to know what creepy stuff’s going on. I just want my lunch. I’m starving.” I almost walked out of the room, feigning ignorance. But, I thought that would be irresponsible, so I turned around to look at him.

He was hugged up tight against the vending machine. At first I thought he might be humping it, but then I saw the crow bar in his hands. He was prying open the seam near where the contraption sucks in the dollar bills. Hmm. Did the beast eat his money? No, no, Cathy! People don’t carry around crow bars when they buy soda!

The assulted Pepsi machine

Then I understood. He looked at me apologetically like he had just cut me off in traffic and felt really, really bad. He snatched a dollar bill out of the machine. He looked at me again, then back to his little gold mine to grab another. After he had a few bills accumulated, he shoved them into his shirt.

Why isn’t he running out the door? He could have escaped without me even getting a good look at him. Damn. Why is he forcing me to confront him? I don’t want to. He should be running out the door. What sort of criminal is he anyway for God’s sake?

“What the hell are you doing?” I finally say, trying to sound intimidating. But really, I sound as casual as if I’d asked the barista at Starbucks, “Can I get a tall two pump white chocolate mocha, please?”

“Sorry,” he replies. He makes no move though—just keeps filling his shirt with dollar bills, now one at time.

This time, I decide, I’m going to sound stern: “I think you better get out of here,” I say. But instead the words come out like I’m his accomplice. More like: “Hurry, Dude! Get outta here before someone really mean walks through that door and you’re busted for real!”

“Okay,” he pleads. “Sorry. I’m sorry.” He says “Okay,” but he’s not moving. Instead he looks at me as if I just caught him taking a piss in the trash can and he was doing his best to hurry even though he was mid-stream.

I’m still perplexed by the apology: Sorry for what? “Sorry I’m interrupting your lunch when it’s 47 minutes past the time you normally eat.” Or maybe, “Sorry for stealing, but I only need three more dollars before I have enough to buy my dog a pretty collar with rhinestones. Bear with me here.”

Admittedly, I didn’t know what I was going to do next if he didn’t leave. He was being so polite. Who was I to be rude? Finally, satisfied he’d held me at bay longer than I could stand, or maybe satisfied he could now buy his dog a pretty collar, he walks to the door. But, instead of just walking out and not looking back, he is looking back. At me.

It was a weird moment, but the cop’s daughter in me said, “Quick, memorize his face and clothes!” So, I did. I took it all in. Every detail. Possibly Hispanic, hasn’t shaved, but isn’t that hairy anyway, could lose a few pounds, and wearing a really ugly shirt. Done.

At last he leaves. I open the other door to the hall. I don’t want to call the cops. I’ll be late. And I told Ursula to meet me at the car and I won’t be at my car because I’m here, dealing with shit I don’t want to be dealing with.  Why bother? I don’t care about the pop machine. That shittin’ machine takes a buck-fifty from my pocket every time I buy a soda. A rip off! Let him have the money—the soda monster deserves being robbed in return.

But then our building administrator’s voice is in my head: “You what? You didn’t call the police?”

Okay, okay. While I’m looking around for a phone, I remember I have my cell phone. But, do I have campus 911 number programed in my phone? I check. Yes, I do, because I’m a former cop’s daughter and these are the things you do to be prepared—you know, just in case.

I dial and walk outside to see if I can see the guy. Nope, he’s gone. Oh, well. Time to get lunch. I’m beyond starving now.

I look around for Ursula, afraid I’m going to miss her.

The dispatcher in my ear is very serious: Where is he now? Which way did he go? What did he look like? I’m sending an officer right now.

“Look,” I say, “I’m on my way off-campus. I have to meet someone. Can you just have the cop meet me in an hour?”

“Oh, no. You’re the witness. You have to stay to talk to the officer.” I just roll my eyes.  

Now I’m looking out for Ursula more than I am the courteous thief.

The cop comes. He says he has other cops looking for the guy.  I explain what happened. We laugh because the guy was so sorry. Then I spot Ursula walking out and I open the door and scream, “Ursula! I’m in here!” She comes in and when I tell her what happened she laughs, too, but really Ursula laughs at everything. I love that.

I describe the guy to the cop like a good witness, over and over. No, he didn’t have a Spanish accent even though he looked Hispanic. No, I didn’t really notice his pants. Yes, he was really sorry. Super polite guy. Yeah, real nice.

I write down everything about myself on a card for him. “Do you really need my social security number?” I ask?

“No,” he says, “Just your work information is fine…and your driver’s license info. Oh, and your phone numbers.”

The irony doesn’t escape me that I’m the one being treated like a criminal here. That dude is off buying his dog collar and now it’s 72 minutes past my lunch time, and I’m impatient and bitchy and really fucking hungry.

“Can I leave now,” I ask?

“I’m running this all through my head trying to see if I got everything—trying to decide just that,” he says, flipping through the pages of his nifty little notebook full of crime-fighting details.

I grab my stuff. I’m headed to the door nodding to Ursula to follow me out. “Okay?” I ask.

“Sure. You can go.”

Finally. Food.

Later, back from lunch, I told a co-worker what happened. He said, “I would have told him to put all the money on the table and if he didn’t do it I would have tackled him!”

“Really?” I was puzzled. “Over $10 from the Pepsi machine?”

My dad’s response was similar: “See, Cathy, if you had your concealed weapons permit, you could have pulled your pistol from your purse and held him at gun point until the police got there.”

After hearing everyone else’s version of how things should have gone down, I could see how neither my polite new friend, nor I, acted the way we should have. He wasn’t a typical psychopath and I’m no Charlie’s Angel. But so what? I think in the end he and I did just fine. After all, he just wanted a few bucks, and I… Well, I just wanted to eat my lunch.