Crime really does pay. Until, that is, you get caught. Then it stops paying really quickly.

Illustrations by Robert Meganck

“May I help you, sir?” the store manager asks. “Umm…thanks anyway,” I reply. “I’m just fine.”

No, I am not fine. I am standing here in the canned-goods aisle of the Soviet Safeway on 17th Street with a backpack full of contraband. And I am so busted.

“Can I look in your bag, sir?”

Safeway imposes a ruthlessly enforced smile policy on its employees. The customer is always right. But not me. Not today. I am a wrong number. And the store manager, who is built like a massive 12-ounce beer can, is not smiling. For one mad moment, I think about bolting for the door. But freedom is at least nine aisles away, and there is this 200-pound unsmiling beer can standing in my way. Besides which, my sprinting days are effectively past me. Anyway, even middle-aged scumbag shoplifters have their dignity, however tattered.

“Oops,” I say.

And then Beer Can’s hand is clamped on my elbow as I’m marched behind the meat counter and up the stairs to the store office. A small rubbernecking crowd of store employees gathers, soon supplemented by a couple of cops. I am directed to unpack my satchel.

It is a lot of stuff. A big bottle of Excedrin and two smaller bottles of gingko biloba. (Like I said, I’m not getting any younger.) A half-dozen packages of chocolate chips and pecan pieces. A couple of rib-eye steaks. And two cartons of Camel Lights.

Beer Can can’t believe it.

“Who the hell gave you the cigarettes?” he snarls.

“I just asked for them at the office,” I say. Then he really puts the Safeway smile policy away on a back shelf. The fact of the matter is, thanks to my individualized Safeway self-help discount policy, I haven’t paid for a cigarette in almost two years. And Beer Can has smiled and handed me many a carton himself. Beer Can is really pissed, and I can’t say I blame him.

The loot is loaded into my arms, and the Safeway security guard—a kindly and bumbling old gentleman, upon whose kindly and bumbling nature I have been counting these past several years—snaps some Polaroids. Not a pretty picture. I am not smiling. But, then, I don’t work for Safeway, so I don’t have to smile. At least I now have the perfect shot to enclose with this year’s Christmas card and newsletter.

Beer Can bustles off to have my stolen groceries totaled up. Turns out to be $130 worth of stuff. I am impressed and somewhat shocked. So is one of the cops, a woman who rather reminds me of a black, uniformed version of my older sister. “Uh, uh, uh,” she tuts. “Ordinarily, I’d just suggest they have you sign a stay-away order,” she says. “But this much stuff, we’ll have to arrest you.” I look over at Beer Can. His face tells me that Safeway would probably like to have me nailed to a tree.

Yep. I am going to jail.

As the cops go through the usual drill—running my name, depriving me of my shoelaces, and patting me down—the woman’s partner asks me: “So, what’s the deal? Are you homeless? Are you on drugs?”

Oh Lord, I think, that might be the most graceful possible explanation for my behavior. But he’s dead wrong on both counts. I may dress as if I lived in a refrigerator carton under a railway overpass somewhere, but I rent a small, neurotically tidy apartment on 14th Street. And I have been a drug addict, for many years desperately so. But at this juncture, with my shoes nearly falling off and my hands being cuffed behind my back, I haven’t had a shot of dope or a sip of booze or a puff of pot in more than six years.

I have no interest at all in getting into the whys and wherefores with D.C.’s Finest, but the fact of the matter is that I have, in my self-imposed middle-aged poverty, simply fallen back on a very bad old habit. In my checkered youth, I was both a drug addict and a thief. Being a drug addict is one of the few things I know that we get worse at the longer we practice it. But I was always a pretty good thief. I could pull cigarettes off the checkout-counter rack and stick them in my pocket while chatting up the clerk. I could walk off with half the meat case under my coat and not break a sweat. Bookstores and department stores were just as vulnerable to my light-fingered amorality. It’s not as if I were burying the fences in hometown Minneapolis in boodle, but the boosting meant I could set aside my cash for feeding the monkey, and I confess that, at the time, I had no real compunction about ripping these stores off.

At some point, though, in my mid-20s, I just couldn’t stomach the stealing anymore. It was several years before I could go into a store without feeling the guilt of a potential predator, but I broke the boosting habit. And even when I got strung out on dope again, in my mid-30s, I wasn’t stealing from stores.

No, it was being a freelance writer that lured me back into a life of crime, something they don’t warn you about on those matchbook ads that say, “You, too, could earn money with your writing!”

I started small, and before I knew it, I couldn’t conceive of paying for any grocery or drugstore items that I could simply walk off with. Because I was relatively skilled at it—even strolling away with a 6-pound frozen duckling once—I felt perversely entitled to do it. Surrounded by all those smiling Safeway workers, I even came to believe that we all had reached some sort of cozy mutual understanding.

Of course, I wasn’t completely deluded. Every time I walked out of the store, I knew I had gotten away with something yet again. The couple of times I didn’t get away with it, I was simply forced to move on to another store. I knew with certainty that someday, if I kept it up, I would end up standing before a judge. Unlike the teenage junkie I had been, I wasn’t comfortable thinking of myself as a thief and couldn’t justify stealing with any rhetorical revolutionary bullshit about property being theft or re-expropriating my surplus labor. I had no real excuses. But, Christ, have you priced cigarettes lately? It’s outrageous.

And, despite what Dick Tracy keeps saying, the truth is that if you are remotely crafty about it, crime really does pay. If it didn’t, even our cretinous criminal class would have wised up long before now. Crime pays—that is, until you get caught. And then it stops paying in a big way. And really quickly.

All in all, though, I actually feel a sort of relief that my crime spree is now over. Unable to stop stealing on my own, I’m now getting an able assist from the strong right arm of the law.

I’ve been arrested only once before in my life, and that was 30 years ago—for the same offense, not so coincidentally. I forgot how much handcuffs hurt. Even more painful is the “perp walk,” in cuffs, shoes flapping, out through a gawping crowd of morning shoppers and onto the sunshine of 17th Street. I am installed in the hard plastic back seat of the MPD roller, and it’s off to the 3rd District lockup.

Big Sister, my driver this afternoon, is in a chatty mood, and she confides that I’ll probably just get a citation requiring me to turn up in court on a certain date.

My first couple of hours in the clink, therefore, I am pretty calm, if also quite disgusted with myself. My bad ankle is starting to hurt from being herded around with no laces in my shoes, and those metal bunks are ridiculously hard and cold in the wintertime. But I’m in a cell by myself, and I should be home—only four blocks away—by midafternoon.

Then it all goes to shit. It turns out that, because court is still in session, I can’t be given a citation. And, because there’s no time to process me downtown today, I have to spend the night in jail. And, because I turned down my initial offer of a phone call, there is no way to let anyone know where I am. At this point, I am handed a couple of rock-hard stale doughnuts and moved into some other guy’s cell for the duration.

“I thought you were supposed to be a good boy,” my new “celly” says, smirking, as I shuffle in. Oh, God, what fresh hell is this? My new roommate is a guy with dreadlocks, in his late 20s. He looks vaguely familiar, but I have no idea who he is.

“You have no idea who I am, do you?” he asks.

Turns out he is someone I knew from meetings of my addiction-recovery fellowship. They say the program works. I guess it didn’t work for Mark (as I’ll call him here). He’s never put much real clean time together and has been back “out” full bore for more than a year, supporting his requirements by boosting requested items from stores. Mark has umpteen busts and outstanding warrants for shoplifting in Montgomery County and is more than likely looking at some time. But his high hasn’t worn off yet, and we compare notes about recovery—and about boosting.

I am embarrassed to be behind bars with six years clean. So much for setting an example for the newcomer to the program. But Mark is impressed that I was taking off Safeway, which he considers a tough hustle, for so much booty and on such a regular basis. I am childishly grateful to have secured even this small shred of street credibility. I am not sure I have ever felt so white and so middle class in my entire life as here in the bowels of the D.C. justice system.

Speaking of bowels, dinner comes around 5 o’clock. It consists of the same sort of stale bologna sandwiches I was served the last time I was in jail, three decades ago. They could easily be the very same sandwiches. To wash them down, there is a vile sweet red punch poured from jugs that could just as easily contain drain cleaner.

There’s no smoking in today’s modern and healthful penal environment, so I am jonesing bad for a Camel Light. I haven’t had a cup of coffee for hours and hours, and a filthy caffeine-withdrawal headache begins to constrict my brain. This is January, so it’s damned cold in the cellblock. I realize that if I am not careful, I am going to talk myself into some kind of delusional state of dope sickness. I experience a moment of gratitude that I am not, in fact, dope-sick, and neither is Mark. These would be close quarters indeed to share with anyone squirting body fluids out of both ends.

So, like most of life’s unpleasantnesses, this is just a matter of waiting out the horseshit. Real sleep is impossible, and Mark is bumming out big time and has nothing to say, so I am grateful for whatever diversions come our way. Some of them are sad, and some are funny. The Army NCO, a veteran of 17 years of service, who was hauled in on some sort of cosmically ill-considered homosexual-related indecent exposure beef, is just sad. As a matter of course, the MPs will pick him up after the civilian court is done with him. And cops keep coming back and saying things like they’ve called his wife to come and pick up his car. A couple of times, I hear him weeping in his cell—his career and his marriage likely both in a shambles.

Finally, at least, a kindhearted lieutenant comes back and tells him that those other officers were just fucking with him, that no one has called his wife. That compassion is counterbalanced, however, by the gospel-spouting female officer who comes back in the early hours of the morning to spend 15 minutes haranguing our wayward sergeant that he will have to get right with Jesus before he can ever get right with Uncle Sam and with his missus.

The funniest diversion is the Moroccan fellow who is hauled in during the wee hours for stiffing a bartender. The way he carries on, you would think his jailers were about to beat the soles of his feet with a bamboo cane.

“Please, please, sirs, I am innocent. Let me out of here. I have never been in trouble before. I am begging you, like a human being!” Over and over and over at the top of his lungs.

Finally, the arresting officer wanders back, having run the name and record of this green-carded visitor to our fair shores. “You lied to me,” he says. “You said you’d never been arrested, but here I see you are a hardened criminal.”

“Oh no, sir, it is not true. I am begging you, like a human being.”

“Well, here we have an arrest last year for solicitation of prostitution.”

“Oh no, sir, that was a misunderstanding. Just because you ask the price of a car does not mean you want to buy the car. I am begging you, like a human being.”

“And then there’s a charge of assault before that,” the officer says, riffling through his printout.

“Oh please, sir, that too was a misunderstanding. He hit me first. But I apologize to him. I apologize to the bartender. I apologize to you. I am begging you, like a human being.”

That shrill human begging continues for another two hours, interspersed by shouts of “Shut up, bitch!” from the other inmates, halfhearted threats of something to really cry about from the officers, and—most entertaining of all—a poorly staged fake heart attack by our hysterical friend so he can go home and get his nitro tablets. Finally, just to get some peace for the remainder of the night, the cops kick the whiner loose on a citation.

The evening’s final diversion is both sad and funny. A stunningly beautiful transvestite is locked up on a solicitation charge. He couldn’t be more than 20 years old. He is wearing a very tight mock-leopard-skin outfit, very stylish but not something you’d want to be caught wearing to the policemen’s ball. His knee-high black patent-leather platform boots really don’t work at all without laces.

The cops, of course, couldn’t be more contemptuous. But, to his enduring credit, the young drag queen plays the whole sordid scene like Elizabeth Regina mistakenly hauled before the magistrate for vagrancy.

“Officer, could I have a chair, please?” he calls out at one point.

“What do you need a chair for?” comes the shout back from the front of the station. “Sit on your bunk.”

“But this bunk, it’s…it’s…nasty,” Her Majesty retorts.

A long silence as the officer walks back to the cells. Another long silence as he stands studying the long-suffering princess. “You have issues, don’t you?” he finally asks.

After a long, long, long night, it is a relief when in the cold, gray dawn we few, we band of brothers, are finally searched yet again and cuffed together with plastic bailing ties for transport “downtown.” Riding in the transport van is like being locked inside a Khrushchev-era Soviet space capsule: a metal bench beneath you and a metal wall right in front of you, and no way to keep your balance, because your hands are tied. Being but mere sides of misbehaving beef, we are left in the van for almost an hour in the freezing garage beneath the courthouse.

So it is yet another moment of relief when we are finally herded inside by U.S. marshals—the garbage men of the criminal-justice system—to parade through a series of holding cells while we are processed by Pre-Trial Services and prepared for our shining moment in court. I am hungry and cold, and my bad ankle is killing me. I would pimp my own mother for a drag on a cigarette.

Many of the guys in here are treating their detention like an Anacostia High School reunion. But I am feeling very much alone. If I thought it might do any good, I would beg the U.S. marshals just to let me go home and I would never do anything bad ever again. Lord knows how folks do real time: I am bored and have nothing to read and haven’t sat on an upholstered surface for almost 24 hours. Worse, I know that this is nothing as far as what the American corrections system has to offer. And, moreover, that I asked for every minute of it.

The highlight of the downtown phase of my brief incarceration comes when a rubber-gloved Pre-Trial Services guy comes by to collect urine samples for the mandatory drug test. Mark, who hasn’t had much to say for at least a dozen hours, sidles up and asks me to fill his cup with some of my program-certified, drug-free piss. We are in a 12-foot-by-12-foot open-barred cell with maybe 10 other guys and an unshielded toilet in the corner and the Pre-Trial Services worker standing right there looking through the bars like a veterinarian at the zoo. Under these circumstances, I’m not sure I’ll be able to drain the weasel on my own behalf, much less for a brother fallen from recovery.

What the hell, I think. Screw the drug war. I palm Mark’s piss cup along with my own, and he stands behind me, as if waiting in line, while I pray to my bladder. I feel a sense of real triumph, therefore, when I fill not only my cup but Mark’s. Chalk one up for the bad guys.

Then it’s off to another holding cell behind Courtroom C. As miserably uncomfortable as I am, I still find some shreds of gratitude to cling to. Most of these guys have outstanding warrants and failures-to-appear. No matter what the immediate beef, they are going to languish in jail until Monday at least, and this is only early Saturday afternoon. The cells are packed, so I crouch on the floor by the toilet in my holding pen and play the waiting game. Those not passed out are loudly fronting and talking shit.

I have nothing to say until Mark, in the next cell, starts asking me if he can borrow a couple of bucks for the commissary. Very self-conscious about being turned into the First National Bank of David, I shimmy a couple of dollars out of my pocket and pass them over. During intake, I and my fellow guests of the city were stripped of pretty much everything save our clothing—sans, of course, belt and my much-lamented shoelaces. We were allowed, though, to keep one piece of ID and any cash we are carrying, presumably to avoid arguments later with the property clerk about misappropriated funds.

A derelict crouched next to me also asks for a couple of bucks. Knowing I have to draw the line somewhere, I say no. Fortunately, he doesn’t throw any attitude. Everyone else, soon to be standing before the judge, is on what passes for his best behavior. And so I wait.

Finally, my reservation with justice is up. The bailiff calls my name, and I am escorted into the glare of the courtroom. Just gazing at polished wood and waiting for my moment of judgment while seated in an upholstered chair seem like a taste of heaven. I know I am now only minutes from that cigarette, and I can’t wait. I am confused, though, that I have not yet talked to a public defender. Maybe they are going to no-paper me, I think. Man, Mr. Beer Can at Safeway will crap a brick if I just walk.

Instead, when I am called before the judge, a rather disheveled fellow whom I’ve never laid eyes on before in my life scurries up to stand beside me. My defender.

The rest of it runs like clockwork. I am released on my own recognizance with two conditions: One, that I stay out of the Soviet Safeway. Not a problem, Your Honor. Unless I went in disguised with a beard of bees and a pair of wax lips, they wouldn’t serve me, anyway. And, two, inexplicably, that I continue taking my antidepressants. I have no idea where that one came from, though Pre-Trial Services did quiz me about any medications I might be taking. Is there a basis for some sort of pathetic I-am-a-victim American-style defense here? Your Honor, I steal because I am depressed. Ah, who cares? I have no plans to go off my meds, anyway, and can’t wait to get out of there. I contritely agree to keep popping the Prozac.

I sign a paper stipulating that I am a scumbag and due back in court in a month’s time. I shake my lawyer’s hand, and I am so outta there. I hobble to the nearest convenience store to cop a pack of smokes. That first butt, despite a long night of fantasizing, tastes like burning dung and makes me feel dizzy and sick. So I smoke another one. And then it’s limping on my bad ankle back to the 3rd District to reclaim my wallet and my watch, and then home to the life I left the day before for a quick trip to the grocery store.

To cut an already long story short, the system does work, apparently. Because I have been scared straight. I no longer steal from stores—a reformation for which the new P Street Fresh Fields might be duly grateful. Again, it’s a hard habit to break, but I like and respect myself a lot more when I pay for what I want.

This being my first offense in the District of Columbia, the Justice Department, in its benevolent wisdom and wise benevolence, has granted me 40 hours of community service in lieu of conviction. I really have learned my lesson. And so, when you see me in my orange jumpsuit picking up trash on 14th Street, please be kind.

I am begging you, like a human being. CP