Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Heist that Wasn't

Did I ever tell you about the time I nearly got arrested for attempted bank robbery?

It happened like this.

I grew up in a small town where there really wasn't much for young people to do. There was an arcade (which we all called "The Arcade" to such exclusion that I don't think I ever knew the actual name of it), but since only 1980's punks and losers hung out at it (much scarier than modern punks and losers), we never went there unless we had a spare period and it was broad, bright daylight.

We had a couple of video stores but those, too, were small, badly lit shops, most likely fronts for illegal activities, and choked with gritty pornography and scary horror movies on greasy, well-thumbed VHS. Anyway there are only so many times you can watch Ferris Bueller have a Day Off. Soon, you start looking for something to DO.

We were Christian kids. Christian kids attending a Christian school, which in those days didn't mean "We had to leave the school property to smoke." We really, truly, honestly were upstanding and ethical, with great morals and integrity. Which meant if we wanted something to Do, the answer would never be "drugs" or "each other".

By the time we were in our late teens, we were thoroughly bored.

After graduation, there was an ecstatic summer in which anything was possible. Graduation gave us the first sense of completion most of us had ever known. Those first jobs had given us a tiny taste of money and choice. Come the fall, with formerly-daunting local college classes suddenly feeling like "just more school", we looked around and realized we hadn't moved: we were still in our hometown, only with later curfews.

We were restless, with the shine still on our drivers' licenses, and gas at 59 cents a liter.

One Friday night, within 24 hours of finally doing the road test and earning the right to drive unattended, I borrowed the family car. It was a small-ish Pontiac station wagon, dating from sometime late 80's. It must have been the newest car we had ever had and was a dashing shade of navy blue. I drove to a friend's house in the gathering darkness, the road lit by the orange cast of intermittent streetlights and the warm glow of possibility.

In the basement of James' house, we began our Friday night question-and-answer ritual. The opening dialogue never varied.

Whaddya wanna do?
I dunno, what do YOU wanna do?

After that came a finely-tuned round of suggestions, coupled with vetoes. We ran through them all with the ease of long practice.

Wanna play Pictionary?

Wanna go to the arcade?
Too many punks with concealed knives.
[Insert side conversation about someone's latest encounter with an arcade loser.]

Wanna watch a movie?
No. We've seen them all.

Wanna drive the logging roads?
I'm not allowed to take the car off pavement.
[Insert side story about getting stuck while four-wheel-driving 15 km up the Duncan Bay Main.]

Wanna have a beach fire?
The tide's in. Plus it's October.

By now it's close to 10 PM and the stir-crazy finally drives us out of the house. "Let's just go downtown and hang around." At the worst, on those nights, you could go to one of the two open restaurants -- you had your choice between truck-stop Patty Jo's, the all-night pie place where cigarette smoke made the ceiling more theory than certainty, or Boston Pizza, where we'd spend two hours and ten bucks (all together) on bottomless pop. (Waitresses just loved us.)

But this night, no one was thirsty, and anyway no one had any cash for bottomless pop. By now we were impatient and irritated. Feeling at loose ends, we proceeded in a sullen, hormonal motorcade to a parking lot near the Bingo Palace, just behind a 1960s strip mall with a mundane, rain-pooling, gravel-bearing flat roof.

We couldn't go in the Bingo Palace, of course, being too young. And even if we could, a lot of us were Baptists.

We parked in a little knot of pickups and station wagons, and all sat on the hoods of our cars and looked at each other. Just as we were beginning to wonder whether we should just go home, one of us spotted something interesting.

Facing us across the alley was a row of garbage cans and stairwells leading to basement back doors. But at the far right of the nearest shop, the second business from the end, was a little flat, gravelled roof just a few feet lower than the overhang of an even higher rooftop.

I feel like it might have been me who saw it, and made the suggestion. But it could have been anyone - most likely one of the thrill-seeking boys. Of course, in retrospect, I think of myself as a thrill-seeking boy. In any event, someone put it out there.

Hey -- we could easily climb up there and walk on the fact, we could jump from roof to roof and walk along this whole row of shops!

Instantly we were down off the cars, across the alleyway, and giving each other legs-up onto the flat roof. From there it was an easy climb and we were up! We strode along, grinning from ear to ear, laughing - I was exhilarated for the first time since graduation night. Boys started running, of course, and leaping up or down from shop to shop. These roofs were all connected - this was no death-defying feat. But man, it felt amazing.

We walked up to the edge of the roof, overlooking the main shopping street below. We could see over Shoppers' Row, past the Discovery Inn, across the Foreshore to the dark void of ocean - and beyond, to the Quadra Island lighthouse. The traffic at the intersection below, only a few meters lower than we were, looked small, powerless, and totally different than it did at street level in daylight. A few cars honked their horns at us, six teenagers silhouetted along a strip mall rooftop in the darkness and the pattering, invisible rain of a mid-October sky.

Spread out along the entire block, some running, some leaping, some just standing...we were all staring down - not across - at the streets of our childhood: we had gained a new perspective and it was a rush.

Of course, if we HAD been at street level, and not in the back alley, we might have read the signs on the building and remembered what we already knew: that the business at the end of the mall was, in fact, the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce.

Would it have stopped us? Well, it wouldn't have stopped the boys. But the girls might have sat this one out.

As fate would have it, none of us had the logic or foresight to put "Bank Roof" together with "Honking Horns". We were without guile. And being without guile, when the rooftop euphoria began to pall, we simply climbed down and resumed our car-hood seats in the alleyway.

There was a short silence.

"So.......whaddya wanna do now?"

A siren began, far off.

"I dunno. What do YOU want to do?"

The siren got a bit louder.

"I dunno. I might go home."

The siren stopped and a quiet, powerful engine approached slowly.

As one, we turned our heads to look at the entrance to the alley, as a police cruiser came around the corner. It stopped within ten feet or so of the nearest car.

A second car came around the other side of the alley. This one had a floodlight that immediately revealed us all, squinting, in a wash of glaring day.

"Huh," I thought, "They must be looking for someone."

You bet they were.

"Hey, guys," said the officer who emerged from the driver's seat bearing a MagLight that seemed to lay bare all my deepest thoughts, "Have you seen anyone around here climbing on the bank roof?"

Looking back, it must have been priceless to see our faces as his words sank in. You could see us all, frozen in merciless headlights, with the words "THE BANK" dawning in all of our teenaged minds at the exact same instant.

We were good, Christian kids. There was only one option.

"Yeah," I announced into the awful silence, "That was us."

The lights closed in as they moved forward. I wish I could relate word for word what followed in the next minute or two, but it's all a blur of dark-clad authority figures, questions, the digging out of shiny new IDs and the cool crackle of a woman's voice from their radios.

I do remember that they started by asking us if we had any alcohol or drugs. We laughed out loud, but they still checked our pupil dilation and our cars. At least we had the comfort of knowing they wouldn't find so much as a cigarette butt.

As they collected all our drivers' licenses and wrote down everything about us, including whether we still had our childhood teddy bears and how tall our dads were, they asked us the most inane question of all. And anger, at the sheer stupidity of it, brought me out of my fear.

The question was, "Why? Why did you do it?"

All the inaction, the flatness of life, the endless round of familiar streets and bus loop and the arcade and the classroom, the worn VHS, the all suddenly boiled over. "We were bored," I said loudly, an edge of defiance creeping into my voice. "We were really bored and we thought it would be fun."

And it WAS fun, I wanted to add. It was fantastic.

"Fun??" the officer repeated, as if I had said "It's fun to run red-hot wires into my eyeballs."
"Fun?? Surely there are other things you can do for fun."

"What are you, new in town?" I wanted to say, but instead I said "We've done everything."

"Well," he said as he took my license from me (my brand-new interim license, no photo), "What about renting a movie?"

I seriously wanted to punch him.

I settled for saying "We've seen everything."

"Everything?? Have you seen 'Glory'?"

I wanted to punch him again. He had managed to name the only damn movie I hadn't seen.

"No, I haven't seen 'Glory'," I said through clenched teeth.

"You should see it, it's good."

I had had enough of this big, tall, gun-toting police officer (I was still too young to feel the pull of police-officer attraction). I burst out in a frustrated cry, "You can only watch so many movies, y'know! This town has nothing interesting!!"

He didn't say anything for a moment. Then, "I know. There's not much for young people around here." I was completely taken off-guard. Obviously, he wasn't from around here. His was an outsider's perspective.

And a second later I realized that an awful lot of his job must involve this - giving warnings to groups of bored teenagers searching for purpose and settling for distraction. Scaring them away from the dangerous edge of a flat and featureless roof.

With one last glance at my interim driver's license, he handed it back to me. "Oh, by the way," he added, "Have a good birthday, tomorrow."

"Thank you." I took my license and folded it up. Just before they all got back in their cars, he turned back and called "Go find something else to do, guys."

And that's just what we did. Within six months I was dating my first boyfriend, and was packing to move to Victoria, university, and a new job. Two of my partners in near-crime had begun a relationship, that became a beautiful marriage, that is now in its 21st year and fifth child. Another travelled to Africa soon afterwards to live with and help a missionary family.

Next year will be our 25th high school reunion. Almost all of us are still in touch, and we like getting together to talk about old times. The Bank Roof story will be retold next year, and so will the one about the Stuck Truck. (Stuck Truck happened a lot.) And Window Jumping, and the one about Laura's Cat, and the one with the Substitute Teacher's Upside-Down Desk. And the Princess Bride Reenactment Era, the Double-Dutch Skipping Craze, and the one where my sister, finally fed up, Threw a 7-Year Old Bully down an entire 15-foot flight of stairs.

None of us knew how close we were to the end of that time. We were so busy staring down the road forward. We didn't know, didn't care, that in the getting there, everything we knew so intimately would retreat in our rearview mirrors.

Looking back now, I think our stories are all we've got to pass down, in the end - a way towards comradeship and common ground with the next generation. They make it possible to show someone the way things once were - they're photographs of a forest that used to be right where that hospital is now.

You wouldn't remember, we say, smiling. That was before you were born. There weren't as many streets then...all this was wilderness.

And the stories make me smile.

Thanks for reading.


Dave Hingsburger said...

Brilliant story. Just brilliant. You captured that time and place perfectly. You have so much talent that I imagine the keyboard sings as you type.

Valerie said...

Beautifully written, Shan.

Anonymous said...

Oh this made me laugh ... and cringe a little thinking that not much has changed....

Susie Hewer said...

Wonderful story of youth. Made me smile and remember my own xxx

Gwen said...

HAHAAA!!! How did I miss this? I forgot all about this story!