Archive for the ‘martial arts’ Category

The lorry park offered free showers and a Transport Café. When the suczka  in the BP shop wouldn’t sell me fags, I went into he café for a coke and swiped two packs from tables I walked past. The driver had gone for a shower and a meal and I idled away the time at the Outdoor Activity Centre net to the petrol station, studying advertisements for white-water rafting and bungee jumping and other exciting adventures for rich pussies. Later the driver cam back carrying a pack of four large cans of Stella, which he shared freely. I got the narrow top bunk, and together we listened to a Best of Italian Opera mix and talked for a while about the Highlands, and the freedom of the road, and how it was disappearing a little bit every year. Then we settled down for the night.

I felt very comfortable in the cosy shelter of the lorry cab, in spite of the pain in my shoulder. I enjoyed the smell of patrol, beer, male sweat, and aftershave, the hypnotic lights from passing cars that came through the cracks in the drapes and moved white bars across the walls and ceiling, and the sound of the petrol station and the rain on the metal roof directly above my head. Eventually I drifted into sleep, and for a few hours I found rest in the deep sea silence and darkness of dreamless sleep, before the nightmares started again.

My dreams of that time came in two shades. Either it was that of the madding crowd. I would be in some place thick with peeps. Sometimes it was my old school, or the Prinzenbad public pool, where I used to go with my mates in the summers in Berlin, or it could be something from my recent life, like, say, a theatre or gallery I’d hit with Charley in Edinburgh, or the Headrow in Leeds, where I’d worked with Julie, or the camping site at the Big Chill. Wherever it was, it always began with me going about my business, alone. But then something would happen with the crowd. Sometimes they would start to mutter and talk amongst themselves, too low for me to understand. Sometimes I realized they were talking in some language I didn’t know. And then they’d begin to stare. Someone might ask me something in gibberish and get angry when I couldn’t respond. Or they’d start pushing me around, and shouting all together at me in an unintelligible cacophony of exclusion. In the end though the real horror wouldn’t come from those crowding me from head on but from someone being suddenly in directly in my back, touching me from behind, hot breath on my neck, too close to bear.

In the other kind of nightmare, I’d be stalked. Those would begin with me alone in some place that had been populated on moments ago, you know, Mary Celeste like. There would be food on the tables, and steaming mugs of tea. Tellies were on, flickering, but set to a quite murmur. There might be open books about, or fluttering newspapers, or unfinished letters, the pen still lying on the paper, the ink not yet dry. At first it wouldn’t be eerie, but seemed perfectly natural. As if I knew where they all were, and why. Sometimes I could hear peeps nearby, around a corner or behind some wall. Never loud, but, you know, present in their absence somehow. I knew they weren’t far.

But then something would enter. I’d notice motion behind a row of trees perhaps, or hear a floorboard creek beyond a door that’s been left ajar. Whatever It was, It would slowly come closer, prowling, lurking, circling me, moving behind furniture, or behind me. And I would realize that all those peeps that moments ago still had been just around some corner, that they were all gone now. I was all alone. Even if I’ start to shout for help, nobody would be there to hear me. Nobody would come. And I would become afraid. Terrified. I never had a clear idea what It would do to me when It caught, but I knew that anything would be better. Anything. Anything but that.

That was the dream I had that night. When I woke up with a start I painfully hit my head on the ceiling of the cab. For a moment I was convinced that It had followed me from the dream and was now going to grab me. Then a large lorry passed outside. It’s headlights illuminated the entire cab and I saw that nobody was there except for me and my still snoring host.

Too shaken to lie down again I got dressed in the darkness, grabbed my bag, and crept out. I lit a fag, crossed the A9 and the fields beyond, and climbed down the bank to the shore of the river Tummel. There I stripped and stepped directly into the cold, rain-swollen waters, and washed the stink of fear from my skin. The current was pretty strong. The water surged and swelled around me. In the distance I saw otters glide through the waves, look up, and disappear.

The overcast sky was beginning to grow grey when I walked back onto the shingle beach. I was shivering, partly with the cold, and partly still with the tension from the nightmare. I stepped into my boots, tied the lose laces once tightly around each ankle, and began training Aikido, hard enough to break out into a light sweat again. I kicked shadowy enemies, blocked their invisible blows, and rolled across the ground to evade their attacks, the pebbles scratching my back bloody. When I was done the shivers had passed.

There was hardly any traffic sounds from the A9, down there in the river valley, and when I finally got dressed, the birds around me began greeting the new day. My aunt is mad about songbirds, you see, she got her garden planted especially to attract them, and she is always pointing out one or the other of her little feathered friends, which is how I knew most of those that started singing all around me then: Thrushes and Robins, Tits, Siskins, and Blackbirds. And with their dawn chorus my soul, too, suddenly took wing, and soared, rose above the gloom of the night, rose, and rose, and revelled in the glory of the new day.

“All your life,” I sang quietly. “You were only waiting…”

“Blackbird” echoed with Aimee Mann’s gentle, hesitant voice in my mind, and I hummed along as I walked back up the riverbank and then northward, between the river and the road.

Continued here

Ponyboy was crawling around in the rain and the muck in the alley behind the pub. I helped him to his feet, put his left arm around my shoulders, and with some effort got him to tell me where he lived. Fortunately it wasn’t very far.
All the way I revelled in the warmth of his body as he leaned, shivering, on me, and the feeling of his rain-slick, greasy, clammy skin against my palms, and in brushing against the barbells piercing his nipples and only too visible under his wet My Little Pony tank top, and in the smell of puke, and sweat, and cigarettes, and pot, and some medical stink that I assumed was from his smack addiction.
I realized suddenly that it had been over a year that I had quit my own H addiction, and that I’d gone completely without since. Being a thief had completely replaced my libido. Sure, I had wanked, quite obsessively at times, but the last time I’d gotten any of the real stuff had been that time Hendrik had made me wear his girlfriend’s clothes and had then screwed me, calling me by her name all through, and demanding of me to answer in a ridiculous falsetto voice and pretending to be a horrible caricature version of her.
Amına kodum, was I ever in need of a good fuck.
But nothing of the sort happened that night: I finally got Ponyboy into his flat, a dank, one-room cellar affair that smelled as if it hadn’t been aired out ever, while for the last two years every weekend two unwashed teams of rugby players had had wild orgies in there, and in between the place had been used alternately as a meth kitchen and a field hospital. The gray sheets of his bed actually felt greasy. I dumped the near comatose boy onto it and lay down next to him.
Ponyboy said something that sounded like “I’ll be back in a moment” and started snoring. I lay next to him for a while. We were both still fully clothed (well, I was, he was still wearing his stage outfit), and soaking wet from the heavy rain. When I started to shiver, I took his bed covers that were lying – I swear, I’m not exaggerating here – in a heap on top of loads of unwashed underwear, an overflowing ashtray, and several half eaten, already partially mouldering, and mostly tipped over cups of instant noodles. Hence, it too was wet in several places, and just extremely nasty. I think the only way to ever get it clean again would have been to burn it. I think I have slept cleaner under bridges and supermarket loading docks.
That night it was the perfect cover for me. I put it over myself and Ponyboy, hugged him tight, and just lay there in all that grime, and wetness, and soaked in his presence. After a while I got too horny to bear, unbuttoned my jeans, and wanked until I blew a load into my boxers. For a brief while I fell asleep.
Very early that morning I stole out of Ponyboy’s cellar flat, and rang a very annoyed Charley out of his bed. I pestered him until he connected me with an ethically challenged locksmith who would make me a copy of Ponyboy’s front door key without asking any questions. (He did take a pretty hefty fee, but what was I really going to do with all the money Charley and I were making?)
That done, I sneaked back into Ponyboy’s place, crept under the cover with him, and woke him with a blow-job.
What can I tell you about Ponyboy? We didn’t really talk about much. He was somewhere in his early 20s and enrolled in something artsy and futureless at Edinburgh University. He was from Gretna, in the very South-East of Scotland, near the English border, and claimed he had been conceived in the shadow of the Lochmaben Stone. My favourite tattoo on his body was the phoenix rising from his crotch, and the three symbols on his back, one of each shoulder blade and one on the nape of his neck. I supposed they were the letters “G” (or perhaps “C”), “Z”, and “J” (or maybe “I”). Each was about the size of my palm and heavily ornamented in skulls, bones, blades, screaming faces, hangman’s nooses, and other symbols of death. At the time I sort of assumed they were his initials, though I never asked him for his name.
He asked me once. I was lying on his bed, on my side, hogtied, and trousers around my ankles. He had lit a fag and put it between my lips. I watched crumbs of still glowing ash fall and burn tiny holes into his rumpled, gray sheets. He was sitting next to me, naked, glowing in fresh, post-orgasm sweat, and folding little fighter jets from his huge stacks of sheet music – his rents had once made him learn the piano, but he had since sold his instrument to pay for H. He tried to knock the fag from my mouth with his paper planes, but all he could hit was my belly and shoulders and the top of my hat.
“Wha’ is yer naem, ma wee sluagh?”
“What does it matter to you?” I tried to growl around the cigarette, but it fell from my mouth. Fascinated we both watched it burn a big, smouldering hole into the sheets and mattress, but eventually it winked out and nothing really caught fire.
“No’in,” he admitted, and rolled me onto my stomach.
For the most part my routine that second week in Edinburgh was to be woken by nightmares and sneak out hours before Morpheus relinquished his hold on Ponyboy. If it was early enough that the city was still mostly asleep I’d go to walk to Holyrood Park, go for a run, and practice Aikido in the valley between Arthur’s Seat and the Salisbury Crags. Then I’d return to Curtis’s, Matt’s, and Marci’s flat for a shower and maybe a change of clothes, and go to a Laundromat nearby to wash what I’d worn the day before. Around noon I’d meet with Charley, who’d usually make me eat something, and we’d decide what games to play that day.
Eventually we’d end up in some pub, get pissed, and I’d bid him good night. Then I’d walk over to Ponyboy’s and peek through the window. When he wasn’t home, I’d just let myself in and nap on his bed till he arrived. When he was there, I’d watch him through his window until there was a good moment to sneak in and sort of just materialize out of thin air next to him. He must have figured out that I had a copy of is key early on, but I think I managed to startle him at least a bit every day.
I really liked my time there, and in a way Charley and Ponyboy became very close friends, probably the closest I ever had aside from Leon. But after two weeks – two weeks of increasingly unbearable nightmares at that, I started to suffocate.
So I invested some money in new equipment like waterproof clothes and lovely 10 eye oxblood Doc Marten’s boots to replace the Chucks I had worn to tatters. And sometime in the afternoon of Thursday, 21 August 2008, without ever saying good-bye to either Charley or Ponyboy I walked to where Telford Road becomes the A90 and struck out my thumb.
And that was my Edinburgh episode. I’ve never been back, and I left nothing but a long line of hurt marks and two blokes who didn’t know anything about me. I thought that with leaving Charley I had finally turned my back on Leeds for good, too. Never in a million years had I thought that Edinburgh could ever come to haunt me. It would be half a year before I would figure out how wrong I was.
In Edinburgh I finally returned to my webspace. What, you thought I learned to write such stunning prose in school? Nah, I had a nice space on Yahoo, the old 360 that they eventually got rid of, where I had virtual friends, and where I could write the stuff nobody in my real life could give a flying fuck about. In fact, a lot of what I’m telling you here originally appeared on Y360 and – after that was gone – on multiply.
I had established my online presence in early ’07, mostly putting up Neil Gaiman quotes, taking the piss in other bloke’s comments, and chatting with dirty old men.
Some of those friendships actually endured.
There was JD, an Asian-Australian Christian, who began by wanting pics of my butt in undies, but ended chatting with me about religion and literature. There was “Uncle Ed”, the obese, insecure shoe salesman from New Jersey, who in all seriousness tried to get me to mend my wicked ways while audibly drooling whenever he asked me about my sins. There was Jim, the seventy year old ex military intelligence chap who lived in a little cabin in the wilderness of Michigan, tended his vegetable patch, and couldn’t for the life of him admit that he was into young blokes. He, too, wanted me to repent, but when I wouldn’t, he was quite content just to talk about people, politics, and philosophy instead. And there was Matt, the black father of two teenage daughters, who dreamed of having a white boy as his slave. We sort of got into a father-son sex role-play that over time got to be less and less about sex and more and more about being father and son.
Not all of them were naughty, mind you. Shawn, for example, a queer HIV+ ex-amphetamine-junkie from Philadelphia, and writer, director, and producer of small but increasingly successful Off-Off-Broadway plays, made it abundantly clear that he wouldn’t talk with me about anything sexual until at least my 18th birthday. We began chatting when I was 14, so if that had been his aim, he certainly was in it for the long haul. No, he was perfectly happy to just be a pen pal, follow my blog as I was following his, comment, listen, advise, and chat.
Or Bo, the unemployed teacher and writer of a sport celebrity biography and a historical novel, who claimed to be 100% straight (but who had a curious tickling fetish and a penchant to befriend teens on the web), and really never bothered me about wanting to cam or anything of the sort, but was just interested in talking about life, the universe, and everything.
I hadn’t blogged or chatted with anyone for over a month when I went back online from the ESCape Internet Café on London Road in the New Town of Edinburgh on August 13, four days after I had left Leeds. My online friends were suitably impressed about my daring, or dutifully admonished me to be sensible and return to my mum, though I suspect most of them didn’t believe a word of what I told them. Only Jim actually figured out a way to follow my IP addresses and reluctantly decided to trust me on the rest of what I blogged. He also became an increasing pain in the arse about me stopping this nonsense.
The other thing I returned to in Edinburgh was regular training. When I had been nine years old it had become apparent that my regular and unacceptably violent fights were part of a pattern. I was sent to a kiddie shrink and to Ergotherapy – and to an Aikido Dojo. Once I started doing Aikido my fights really did seem to abate. Of course, then my dad up and left, and two years later after a fashion so did ‘Nette. That was when things became really bad, rozzers and all.
But ever since then I had trained martial arts almost religiously. I always liked how it complemented football. Football was about interacting with the external world, about strategy, and friendship, and fighting the enemy. Martial Arts was about the internal enemy, about discipline.
Some people have raised eyebrows and commented that it was a really stupid idea to teach a troubled, violent kid how to dish out hurt more efficiently. But I am certain, if it hadn’t been for Aikido and for my sensei, I probably would have become a killer a long time ago. It really helps, you know.
Anyway, a while ago my sensei had kicked me out of the Dojo for dishonourable behaviour. But I continued to train on my own, mostly up on the roof above Berlin. I even did while I was locked up in juvie. It helped calm my nerves. But when I got back out, I stopped. The internal enemy had won anyway, hadn’t he? What was the point of continuing to fight a lost battle?
In Edinburgh I returned to training. I went for regular runs in Holyrood Park. Those two weeks I spent in Edinburgh it was raining almost constantly. Seriously. Even by British standards it must have been the wettest August in ages. Once it got so bad the sewers backed up all the way into the flat where I was crashing. I woke to screams of disgust and the stink of sewage soaking into the carpets.
I learned to love running up and down Arthur’s Seat in the pouring rain. The sweat and rain and mud all would become one and my self would almost dissolved in all the grey, brown, and green.
Mostly I ran so I wouldn’t lie awake on the couch, chasing sleep that just eluded me. There was too much I didn’t want to think about as I lay there and stared up at the ceiling. To avoid that my choices were either exhausting myself to the point of collapsing into comatose sleep, or drinking myself into a stupor. On some nights I resorted to the latter, but even I knew I felt much better the next day when I did the former.
Of course, after a week of this Charley introduced me to Ponyboy. I continued training, but after that I had other things to distract me during the nights.

Continued here

I did stop fighting. I had stopped after that one fight with Hendrik, at the beginning of our affair, back in June. That had been the last time, actually the last time until Samuel, almost one year later. And when H and I went our separate ways, I started stealing, and I didn’t have to do it anymore. I know, nobody believes me, but it is true. That thing with the rozzer in my mum’s flat that the judge got herself so worked up about, that doesn’t really count. I wasn’t trying to hurt her at all, you see, I didn’t even know she was there.
If Kreuzberg is one of the bad parts of Berlin, then SO36 is one of the bad parts of Kreuzberg. And the Kotti, the Kottbusser Platz, a market place, roundabout, and U-Bahn station, is the living, beating, rotted heart of SO36. At the Kotti it’s easier to find a pusher than a rozzer. At the Kotti German is barely recognized as business language, it is the sign of the outsider, the visitor, the tourist.
The Kotti is surrounded by tall, bleak, prefab tower blocks. And for as long as I can remember we have lived in a small, three-room council flat on the top level of one of those towers. My room had formerly been mine and ‘Nette’s together. Later I had to cede it to Lukas for a couple of years until he finally went away to join the military. The room was tiny and lightless, not much more than a walk-in closet. There was the mattress directly on the floor (it had been bunk beds while I shared with ‘Nette), a tiny desk, a chair, stacks and stacks of books and CDs, a rickety wardrobe, half of which was occupied by even more books and music, and still space enough left to turn around on your own axis without bumping your elbows or stepping on something – if you were careful and did it standing on one foot.
The only window was narrow and high on the wall. But that window was the best part of the whole room, and why I really liked living there. For the wall that window was set in for the most part separated our house from the next one, but ours was a few meters higher. The window was set so high because the roof of the next house ended just there. Which meant that through that window I could climb onto that neighbouring roof, a roof ten stories over the surrounding streets and courtyards, and watch all of Berlin spread out around me.
That roof has always been my favourite place in all the world. Whenever things got bad, I would get up there, smoke, drink, and let my legs dangle from the rim and my eyes travel over the skyline. Usually that alone would be enough to calm me down. And if it wasn’t I’d practice aikido during sunset or sunrise. Corny? Sure. But have you ever done it? Well, then don’t laugh. Just believe me, it feels great.
Of course the roof was also a great place to get away in the other, less metaphorical sense. There was a door directly to the staircase, and you could jump down to the roof of the next house and get into the staircase there. Lots of entrances and exits.
So when the rozzer came knocking that day that was what I tried to do – get away. Only she was much closer on my heels than I thought. Literally. When I kicked around to wriggle out of the window onto the roof she was just reaching for my ankle. Instead she got the sole of my trainer smack in the kisser. There was the crunch of cartilage and bone and a lot of blood. And the last black mark on a long list of such marks, convincing the judge that I was one pitch black sheep in dire need of separation from the flock.
Maybe it was an understandable mistake. Given my record why should anyone have believed my claim that I hadn’t intentionally hurt that lady copper. I was neither know for my pacifism or restraint, nor for speaking the truth. Especially not to my mum. But that one time it was the truth, goddamn it, it was.
It was only after I landed in juvie that they began to take note of my lack of further fighting. I was the model inmate. And they totally misunderstood that, too.
I only studied so hard for school because being inside was so mindbogglingly boring that even irregular French verbs were a welcome distraction. Also, I wasn’t stupid enough to go stealing from peeps I was locked up with. I mean, come on, folks. I was the bloody youngest bloke in there, by a margin of a whole year. And the others were there for stuff like drug trafficking, rape or assault – and not kicking a rozzer by accident during arrest but of the deliberate baseball attack sort.
Of course I was not going to steal from anyone there, I was not going to rip anyone off. And even I was able to discipline myself enough to not go psychopath on some bloke who would have been not only way stronger than me but who in all likelihood had a whole gang at his back, though there were times I had to walk away and beat my fists bloody on a wall to stay clean.
But none of that kept me actually on what the guards, the social workers, the shrinks, and my mum looked at as the straight and narrow. No, I just got along. I figured out the rules of the game and I played by them, not because I believed in them, but because it was the only way not to lose. When I saw a chance to bend or break those rules without repercussions for myself, I did so. Of course, there were less possibilities within the limited game of juvenile hall. But when I met Uncle Valya, I jumped at the chance to learn how to.
So maybe you could say that this was really where that path began, in Old Luisenstadt Graveyard, playing poker with my mates. Or by breaking up with Hendrik. Or I was pushed on it by whatever it was that made me fight and that could only be placated by becoming a thief.
Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten. I’m trying to tell you how I became a thief. The shoplifting, that might have been my first attempt at it. Well, it wasn’t actually. Before that I had sometimes taken some money from my mum’s purse, although never without feeling, well, not so much guilty as cheap. Dirty. Low. And when she sent me for groceries I often kept some or all of the change for myself. I usually did that with a rather clear conscience, calling it a carrying fee in front of myself. Once, when I was about 10, I stole a really cool key chain with a skull pendant from Leo, even though I knew I would never be able to wear it. Everybody would instantly recognize it. I stole it anyway, and I felt curiously good and bad about it at the same time. But none of that made me a thief. At best someone who stole.
All of this was before I went to juvie, obviously. This is what lead up to my arrest, to the whole year before that blacked-out Friday night in Neukölln, and my final break out at Wotton-under-Edge. My fighting problem was at its worst then, and I knew I was about to be kicked out of school. The rozzers were regular guests at my mum’s flat. I was going to counselling twice a week, but that was a total waste of time. I mean, I suppose it cannot work when you do not tell them what’s really on your mind. But how can you when you cannot even tell it to yourself, when the very thoughts they want to hear are the pain you are trying to get away from, are exactly that which is so bad that getting the shit beaten out of you is a welcome distraction. How can you reach someone for who being tortured has become addictive, the thing to look forward to?
The next school year my academic performance was really going below par as well. I mean, I am no genius, but when half your class is still struggling with the common language, it doesn’t take much to stay abreast. But that year, well, I couldn’t even muster the effort for that. By the spring of 07 it was clear that I would have to repeat the year if nothing was done. My mum made me take private tutoring, even though we really couldn’t afford it. All through summer I had to job to pay her back some, and the planned trip to my aunt in Gloucestershire fell flat also.
I managed to scrape by, just barely in French and Chemistry, but enough to move up to 4th form. With all my studying and jobbing, babysitting little Nicky, and the thing with Hendrik, I had hardly spent any time with my mates all summer. So when sometime in late August after football training Hector suggested a poker game at Old Luisenstadt Graveyard I felt more than obligated to agree.
My mum returned from work around 10 pm. ‘Nessa, Nicky, and I had already had supper. When my mum looked in on me I pretended I was studying for school, but I had hidden a Travis McGee novel inside the massive chemistry textbook. Nicky was asleep. Mum and ‘Nessa talked for a while in the kitchen, then Mum withdrew into the living room, where she slept on the sofa-bed.
Around midnight I went to the loo. Mum had fallen asleep over a crossword-puzzle. I pulled the cover up to her shoulders, put the biro and the puzzle book onto the couch table, and turned off the light. When I put on trainers in the hall, ‘Nessa came out of the kitchen.
“What the hell do you think you are doing, bro?”
“Just going to see Orcun.” Since he lived next door I figured that would be the easiest answer.
“And you are putting on a jacket for that?” She pointed out the tracksuit top I was wearing. Say about her what you want, but my big sister is a sharp one.
“Didn’t say I was going to see him at his place,” I conceded.
“You are not happy unless you are fucking things up, aren’t you, Rikki?”
What can I say? She’s right I suppose.
The night was bloody marvellous. The air was damp and cool, hazy with a hint of mist from the canal. It smelled of dust, straw and dew, just the way a summer night is supposed to smell. I biked down Admiralstrasse, Grimmallee, and Körtestrasse, and no ten minutes after leaving the house I climbed the fence of the graveyard.
I was the first and I had some time to visit ‘Nette’s grave. Leo found me there. He had brought beer and handed me one. I lit a fag for him. He squeezed my shoulder and we went over to the big stone angel with the chipped off face that guards the oldest part of the grounds. Hec and Orcun joined us there.
We stayed until dawn. On the way back to Kotbusser Tor we stopped at a bakery. Officially it was still closed but we went to the back door and the apprentice sold us a couple of warm sesame rings anyway. And when I let myself into the flat, mum was waiting for me.
I had expected her to sleep in, since that week her shift at the supermarket didn’t start before 10 am. Normally she wouldn’t have been up before 8. But Nicky had had a colic that night and his implacable crying had woken her around the time we left the graveyard. She had only meant to look in on me to get a glimpse of her youngest peacefully asleep or something, but when she had found me gone she had pressed ‘Nessa for info and ‘Nessa had told her I’d been gone all night.
My mum has never had the energy to care much about my private life, but with all the bother and expenses of getting me through the previous school year, she totally blew her top this time: I was grounded for three weeks, football training and all. I was to go to school and back right after. When she was at work, I was to call her from the phone at the flat so that she could see via caller ID that I really was where I was supposed to be, and she made sporadic calls to make certain I staid in. I was supposed to use the time to study. Of course she couldn’t know what this would cost us all in the long run. None of us knew what this would lead to. Because in those three weeks I discovered that art and joy of larceny.
***
Over the summer I had read Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. I had liked it a lot and read a number of interviews with Mr. Gaiman about the book. I learned that one of the books he had used for research had been The Big Con by David Maurer. I had tried to get that at the library, without success. What I had found instead, amongst a lot of books on card and coin tricks, was How To Be A Professional Confidence Artist by former Michigan rozzer Dennis M. Marlock. HTBAPCA isn’t actually meant to be a how-to book, or if, it’s rather meant to be a how-not-be-scammed book. In the end, I think, it mostly is a why-confidence-artists-are-really-not-cool-at-all book. But to me it was a revelation.
If I hadn’t been grounded I may never have read it. It didn’t look particularly interesting, but rather dull, a small press pamphlet. So I had put it aside and more or less forgotten about it. I might even already had gotten a reminder from the library to return it. But then I was grounded and once more began using my entire waking time to read. And eventually I picked up Mr. Marlock’s pamphlet.
At first I wasn’t really that into it. The writing is a bit too smug for my taste, too cocksure. The first chapter is on change raising. It sounded positively barmy. I was certain that what he explained would never work in real life. But the good thing about that technique is that you can at worst only embarrass yourself with it. Even if caught nobody can prove you did anything with criminal intent.
I was bored. I was pissed off at my mum. I felt another fight coming on. No idea with who, but my blood temperature was rising, and I knew that sooner or later someone would be along, just when I was about to boil over. And I would be in trouble again. I needed a distraction. Hendrik, who had kept my temperature down for the last couple of weeks, was gone from my life for good, so there wouldn’t be any help there. So when my mum sent me to buy groceries one evening I decided to give it a try.
Like I said, this wasn’t the first time I stole something, but still this was different, I knew that, even before I did it. This was serious. I wished to defraud someone deliberately and see if I could not learn what it had to teach me. I wasn’t setting out to pinch some chewing gum or cigarettes, this wasn’t giggling excitement, a lark to pass the time. That I went at it alone was telling enough. This was like drinking on your own. When I went into the supermarket on that August afternoon, I went like a samurai going to battle.
At the supermarket they have these shopping trolleys that take a Euro coin as security deposit. It was early evening, rush hour at the checkout lanes. The sales girl had just started processing a mum with three hyperactive kids when I approached her about some change to release one such trolley. I had to wait a good while for the sales girl and the mum to get everything tallied, paid, and packed away (again, amidst kids climbing on the conveyor belt and other waiting customers, begging for sweets, and chasing each other around). I kept hovering patiently behind the sales girl and smiling benignly at the kids. This was going just as I had hoped.
By the time she was free to help me, she was quite apologetic and thankful for my patience, but at the same time also under pressure to get on to the next customer in line, who had already been waiting even longer. I handed her a twenty Euro bill and got a tenner, a fiver, and some coins in return. I smiled again and began to say thank you, when in putting the money away I discovered a 1-Euro-coin sized token that you can also use to release a trolley. I slapped my forehead and asked her to please take the fiver and the coins back, in return for a tenner, as I really did not want to carry all that lose change around.
“Okay,” she sighed, and took the fistful of money I put back into her palm, while giving me another tenner.
With just that hint of uncertainty and doubt in my voice I said: “That should be all.” Just enough to make her check if she really got the whole 10 Euro worth of change, enough to make me seem innocent if she hadn’t gotten all. And of course, she hadn’t. I was two Euros short. That was odd. I was puzzled. Hadn’t I just handed her back what she had given me? Had she really given me the full amount in return for my twenty? I searched my pockets while the annoyed murmuring from the queue was getting louder and more urgent. She still remembered my own patience with her and the mum, but worry lines were beginning to show on her face.
I put the tenner between my lips and patted myself down with both hands. There, some change, most of it in coppers. I count out three fifty cent coins, one twenty and one ten cent piece, that is two Euros.
“Look here,” I said, taking the tenner from between my lips, now obviously very embarrassed and in a hurry. “Here is twelve. Together with eight I just gave you that is twenty. Just gimme back my original twenty note and we are done; after all, I got the token for the trolley.”
Under pressure from the customers she counted the money and right enough, twenty Euro. She gave me back my banknote and let me go. She had a somewhat troubled look on her face, but even trying to think it through she could not find any fault. She shrugged it off, and hey, I was a polite and honest looking German boy, not some pidgin speaking Turkish hoodlum or a Yugoslav gypsy, it was probably alright.
But if you have been keeping count you know that there was nothing honest about the whole transfer, and in the end she paid me 10 Euros for the dubious pleasure of my company. I left with my old twenty and a brand new tenner from the supermarket till – and then took my token to another supermarket around the corner to do my shopping there, just in case she caught up later.
When I left I felt great. It wasn’t the money, though for a 14 year old from a household where a single mum had to work 2 jobs to see her family fed and clothed, 10 Euro is nothing to be sneezed at. But that wasn’t what gave me that incredible high. No, having been able to fool her, messing around with her in plain sight, und under the scrutiny of dozens of annoyed witnesses wishing me to hell, and still getting away with it… what a rush!
I did it as often as I could. When my mum ended the grounding, I spent my afternoons on the shopping miles of Berlin and milked every small and mid-sized store I could. I avoided the really big places, large department stores and such, figuring they would have cameras and detectives and that they might have schooled their cashiers to catch this form of deception. But I hit all the little boutiques, the expensive sweet shops that sell gift hampers and gold wrapped pralines by the ounce, and all the other shops scattered along Tauntziehen, Wilmersdorfer, Tor, and Schlossstrasse, around Hermannplatz and Leopoldplatz. I only steered clear of the area around Oranienburger and Kotti. I was too familiar a face in my own Kiez to risk getting a rep for change raising there. Word would have filtered back to my mum.
I made some fascinating discoveries. Computer shops were amongst the easiest targets – they were used to handle large amounts of money and the personnel was definitely more interested in the technical than the commercial side of any transaction. But every now and then there would be a math wiz amongst the nerds that would make me at once. Often enough they wouldn’t suspect foul play at all, though, but just correct me, complacent in their mathematical savvy.
Kindness is definitely a down if you want to go far in the business world: Friendly shop keepers are much easier to dupe than grumpy, forbidding ones. Gender and age on the other hand seem to be in no way related to how easy a mark can be suckered.
Every now and then I encountered a cashier that was trying to shortchange me as I was trying to raise the change. Shortchangers aren’t exactly thick on the ground, but shockingly common if you try enough. One time we both recognized each other at the same time. It was a cheap jeans shop off Rosa Luxemburg Platz and the garishly made up half-Arabic girl might have been doing it out of sheer boredom. Certainly her chewing gum held more fascination for her than her few customers – who, truth be told, turned out to be only window shoppers. But she was skilled enough to obviously not have started with it that day. Of that I am certain. When we made one another we looked at each other, first guiltily, then angry, sizing each other up. And then we both had to laugh. We each took back out original investment and I left, strangely relieved. I had met myself, and we had disliked each other less than I would have expected.
But as fun as raising change is, it is a somewhat elaborate con for a usually pretty low gain. Once you start to fish for larger sums than ten Euro people tend to get much more careful. (Once I did walk away from a computer shop with two fifty Euro notes that I had let them give me for allowing them to briefly handle the five hundred that I had brought along. I never could repeat that stunt, though, and eventually got into trouble for trying. I had to leg it and leave behind a good deal more than those one hundred, so in the end the attempt to go for big fish was a net loss for me.) Which meant that eventually I began to hunt for other games.
Most grifts require two or more peeps – usually at least one roper who engages the mark and a cap who comes in and takes over. Those that can be played by a lone grafter require some serious skill at sleight-of-hand when for example you swap the mark’s money at the crucial moment for a wad of worthless scrap paper faced back and front by a single real banknote. So, after doing a bit of research, and beginning to train my fingers to do what I wanted them to while I was focusing attention elsewhere, I decided that I might as well pick pockets directly. In the end, that to me is the purest form of the art: Your dexterity and skill at misdirection against the mark’s perceptiveness and presence of mind.
I said my first time going out to raise change I went like a Samurai going into battle. In a way that is of course total bollocks. The very essence of a Samurai is that he follows a lord, that he adheres to a code. A true Samurai is never selfish. He sacrifices himself for his lord, not just his life, but his personality, his innermost being. With Hendrik I actually tried that, even though I suppose in the end I failed. Or he proved unworthy of the sacrifice. I still do not know which it was. But being a thief I did nothing of the sort. It was utterly selfish. But there still was something of Bushido in all this.
Life in every breath. Focusing all of existence on a single moment, letting that moment expand to fill the entire universe, so that time stops and each second becomes an eternity unto itself. When I stole, everything else ceased to exist. I finally had found something better than fighting. I had found something better than wanking, better than sex. It was my daily worship, my mass and prayer.
If books had been my heroin than thieving became my cocaine.
Continued here