I came to extreme poverty late in life, and did very badly at it. I should have done some kind of crime. But what kind? That’s what I couldn’t figure out. What kind of crime can you actually do, if you aren’t a lawyer and don’t understand computers?
There were certainly plenty of people who could have offered me some advice on the matter. We were living on a boat, moored in a skuzzy little harbor full of small-time criminals. The one guy who went off to a job every day was a figure of awe and mockery, a freak. Everybody else scavenged or stole to buy their booze and weed.
But crime didn’t pay, at least for these guys. They were as poor as we were. Poorer, because they needed a lot of cash for their chemicals, and we stuck with free government Prozac.
They talked a good game, crime-wise, but their lives were more than just bad—they were ridiculous. Horrible, stupid things happened to them on a regular basis. Like Chris, who failed to notice that his boat was resting lower in the water every day. It finally sank right under him. I hear he’s living in his van now. Then there was Mike, who used to ride with the Angels and still had a classic Fu Manchu, maybe the last on the continent. He was dropping prawn traps, drunk as ever, when he managed to wrap a rope around his legs and found himself zooming to the sea floor, a big screaming mass of live bait. He was proud of having cut the line and made it back to the surface, but everybody else was so sick of the story they wished he hadn’t had his knife with him when he took his dip.
Those people forced me into something like a partial revaluation of my values. There was no honor among these thieves. I mean, you think you know that already, but in the early winter months, when our murderer friend rowed over through the sea ice with a propane heater and shared it with us—with us and his pale young friend Benny—we were deeply moved. You’d have to have been through what we went through, begging the respectable people of British Columbia first for jobs, and at last simply for shelter from the first blizzard—and getting not just rejections but loathing, utter disgust that we might need help. At least Johnny-the-double-murderer, fresh from 17 years in Collins Bay, a venerable medium-security institution in Ontario, didn’t despise us for needing help. He was proud to help us, and that counted for an awful lot with me and Katherine. We still talk about the night of the first big snowstorm, when we begged for shelter at the thrift store, then the public library, and got nowhere—but when we rowed over to Johnny’s boat in desperation, he just said, “Go over to your boat, I’ll be right over!” and rowed over with his propane heater. That night Johnny and his catamite lay in their sleeping bags a few feet from us, all warmed by that blue sunflower of Propane. We wanted badly to believe that they were our friends; there were no other candidates.
We learned soon enough that even murderers can’t be trusted. We fled the boat in mid-winter, with the sea ice grinding at the hull, and by the time I made it back to collect our stuff it was all gone, pawned by Johnny. He had every intention of paying me back, he explained, and that was the last I heard of it.
In fact, that was the only crime that seemed to pay out on the boats: talking newcomers out of their money by offering to do repairs, or befriending them in a heavy-handed prison manner. That worked, at least on us, but the trouble is, you end up with what Flann O’Brien succinctly described as “paupers impoverishing each other.” There’s got to be a better, braver, more honorable form of crime than that.
We went over the possibilities many times, sitting hungry and cold on that damn boat. Not that crime was our first thought. You don’t want to know how hard and long I tried for every job in Canada. The locals have all the teaching jobs well wrapped up, though. Like Limonov said, “In America, every profession has its mafia.” Nice legal mafias. That’s the apex of the crime pyramid, and it soon became clear it was as closed to overeducated immigrants as the Sicilian original would have been.
Then we panicked and just tried for a job, any job. You can’t get “any job” these days, though. You may think you’re being very flexible, but McDonald’s doesn’t actually want a fifty-year old, slovenly, slightly crazed academic taking orders. You’d be surprised what snobs they are. Call-centers didn’t want me answering their phones with my expensively trained voice. Inuit villages hundreds of miles inside the Arctic Circle didn’t want me teaching English to their kids. It was astonishing; it seemed improbable, excessive. Until you got back to the boat in the evening with no food and no propane, sleeping two-to-a-mummy-bag for warmth.
When you’re literally out in the cold, in the middle of thousands of nice warm houses, you think about home invasion first. It must be some Pleistocene brainstem connection: Me cold…Them got warm and foodzez…beat them heads in and take foodzez.
That was the only sort of crime that came naturally to me, arising naturally from the long cold walks past rows of warm, well-stuffed houses full of smug, stupid householders. You start to wonder, how hard would it be? Just knock on the door with something, anything, a tree branch, a piece of pipe.
You’ll never do it, at least I’d never do it, but you sort of wish you could. I had a more practical version that made a little more sense: find a house occupied by a single aged recluse, somebody who kept totally to themselves. Knock-knock, bang-bang, and spend the winter there, leave in the spring.
It was a comforting notion, no more than that. As Nietzsche said about suicide, it got me through many a long night. But it did nothing about the fact that we were utterly broke, poorer than I thought it was possible to be in North America.
So I began brooding on more practical crimes. Like burglary. It seemed so simple, conceptually: you break into houses and steal things. So far so good. Well no, actually, not when you start looking at particular houses. Who lives in that house? Do they have a dog? I dunno. How am I supposed to know? What do you do, hide in a tree all night and take notes? In theory, maybe, but I was fifty years old and even after months of cold, short rations and rowing more than a mile a day to and from our mooring, I still weighed 200 pounds and I’d look stupid getting cherrypicked down from my surveillance tree by the firemen and cops with the local tv crew taking pictures.
Say you got into a house, what would you do then? In the old days, Oh, those bastards had it easy; people kept actual cash around. They could steal actual money. The only people who keep cash now are Chinese and I was not going to rob Chinese people. So what could you take from these houses? A bunch of “valuables”? What are “valuables” anyway? Jewelry? Suppose you manage to break into a house, get a lot of jewelry, get away with it. You still have to sell it somewhere. Even a middleclass nerd like me knows pawnbrokers are paid informers. You have to know a…I believe the word is “fence.” I could have asked around with the various creeps and sleazes on the boats, but they gossiped like old ladies about each other; not even I could imagine them keeping quiet with info like that.
It seemed to prove the same thing every attempt to find work had proved over the past year: I was unemployable. Even as a burglar. You have to network, like the brochures say—make those long-term connections with reliable, ahem, “fences” and other mainstays of the criminal economy. Without connections, you were doomed.
The only thefts anybody on the boats talked about were pitiful, like Johnny boasting about how he got chocolate-covered coffee beans from the bulk bins and managed to pass them off as chocolate-covered raisins, which were cheaper. Or how he’d lifted a lot of firewood from a construction site by the dock where one of the smug Canucks was putting up a huge new house. It seemed shameful for a guy who’d done at least two murders to be bragging about stealing wood scraps.
And I knew I couldn’t even get away with smalltime stuff like that. There’s an age, around thirteen or fourteen, when kids try shoplifting. I knew lots of them. They never got caught until they hesitated. But I was all hesitation, even then, with the result that though I never had the nerve to steal so much as a grape, I was always getting stopped and questioned by store detectives. Guilty without a crime, that was my permanent status, and I knew the cops would pick me up if I even looked at any scrap lumber. You can’t fake that kind of crazy, the kind you need to steal. You need to feel utterly righteous as you walk off with stuff, and I felt guilty just buying things, had a bad habit of apologizing to the checker at the grocery store.
The real, sensible, practical crime that boaties talked about was growing and selling BC Bud. As one of the boaties said, “We do take pride.” Weed farming was high-profit, low-risk—there was even this legend that it was legal to grow three or less plants for your own consumption. That may have been true, for all I know; I hated the smug, stupid law-abiding Canadians so much by this time I wasn’t even going to ask.
Johnny the murderer talked about setting us up as front-people in a grow op he knew about: “I told my buddy Nate, these guys are perfect, the lady doesn’t even drink, the guy maybe has a glassa wine now and then , they don’t smoke at all….” That was true; neither of us could stand marijuana. Naturally the one drug I hate is the one that the whole country loves to be all tolerant and sweet about, the bastards.
But like all the other crime around those parts, it was just talk. These peoples’ lives fall apart too fast for them to put any of their plans into practice. Chris’s boat sank, Johnny’s ex-wife called and, last I’d heard, he’d dumped his bum-boy and was waiting for her to show. It was bound to be an exciting reunion; her version of flirting was to say, “So, when you get me on the boat, am I going in the water?”
And then he was arrested in Esquimault for picking up a hatchet that he just found on the sidewalk. At least that was his story. And then some other disaster, another buddy who didn’t pay the rent on a room where he was growing some plants. And then we lent him our car, our last possession, out of gratitude, honor among prospective thieves, and he drove it without oil till it burned out, and by the time he told me where he’d parked it they’d towed it and there was no money to get it back.
So we were as hopeless at finding a crime as at finding lawful employment. It made you want to sue the movies. Who wouldn’t want Travolta’s hitman job in Pulp Fiction? Cruising around high on the best heroin, shooting skate rats. But it doesn’t seem to work that way. We knew somebody who’d been an enforcer, and he didn’t have a dime. None of them did. You end up vaguely aware that there must be a higher form of crime, something with computers and real estate, but that the people you think of as criminals are in no position to access it. You’d have to start young, get in with all those legal networks, teachers’ unions or nurses’, something with a pension plan and accounts. The horrible snobbery of the world, that’s what we left with. Everybody a miserable snob, every door closed, every membership list already full with a waiting list.
Editor’s Note: Dr. Dolan would like to thank the English Department of the University of Victoria, British Columbia, “…for getting rid of me because I dared to teach first-year comp students to disagree with the sanctimonious Monbiot articles they were assigned to paraphrase, thus allowing me to experience the sensual extravaganza of extreme poverty.”
Buy John Dolan’s novel “Pleasant Hell” (Capricorn Press).
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