A Discussion on the Generation of Money & a Look at Stealing Purses
The Happy Birds
Byron H. Jones
Instead of writing this poem, I
Would like to sweetly, gently die,
Then lie beneath the soil and weeds,
My fists filled with sunflower seeds.
My mortal life would be the cost,
But a new life would be ensured.
I’d rise some spring after the frost
As buds to one day charm some bird.
My mortal life would be the cost,
But without Monica, all is lost.
I think the happiest day of Che’s life, as I recall, was when we found a bag of twenty dollar bills stuffed unceremoniously in a garbage can on the corner. There was an ostrich beside the garbage for some reason, and it spat and strutted away as we approached. We were both out early that day, it was a Sunday, and we were skipping church, and the sight was a miracle, a sort of substitute shrine for the ones we were avoiding—and, in our opinion, this one was meaningful. We pulled the old bowling bag free and popped it open and looked into the wonderful mystery of hundreds and hundreds of twenty dollar bills: some were rolled in fat rolls, others were free, the ones on the bottom were stacked flat. We pushed our hands in and the joyous depth seemed endless. The vision was hundreds and hundreds of beautiful little pictures stuffed into this old bag.
Che’s mouth traveled outward in both directions, slowly, then both little roads headed north. His eyes burst open like the two suns over the desert in Star Wars. He was motionless with joy, rigid with happiness and expectation and pleasure—life really really is good, after all. Things do work out, they really do!
“Ah’m so happy, Hollywood, mah man,” he said. “Ah never—“ but it was too much. He choked, then sobbed quietly for a minute. We were both in this experience together—and for a precious moment, I felt closer to Che than I have to any other person on earth. It was a religious feeling, not a, shall we say, homoerotic one. But our souls were fused in a way that only people who have shared an intense life experience can understand. We gazed at this vision silently, we held hands.
The money didn’t look exactly right, but it was difficult to say what precisely was wrong. There was Andrew Jackson, there were the rolling words and the scrolls and all that. There was the legend: In God We Trust. The color was a little off, too, a bit more yellow in the mix. We studied the money until we were sure that it was counterfeit.
“Who should we call?” I asked, breaking the trance and suddenly realizing that the money probably wasn’t a gift to us from God. Someone had probably lost it—or was dumping it for another reason.
“What do you mean?”
“Shouldn’t we call the police or something?”
“Hail no,” Che said, still in that special place. “Let’s spend as much as we can before we get caught.”
And that’s just what we did. We spent about sixty dollars on candy and we got into a movie and threw around some twenties there. The man in the box office nearly blew our scheme up. He kept flipping the twenty over and saying, “It just don’t look right.” He accepted it after seeing “In God We Trust.”
Within one day the FBI was at our door. These guys work quick. Tall guys in suits. I remember there was an unshaven patch on one agent’s chin. No one would have noticed, but I was younger then and was looking up.
We acted real scared and surprised that the money wasn’t real. We were kids then, high school sophomores, and I went to a religious school (something my parents told the agents immediately, as if that has anything to do with anything, as if no crime would ever be committed by a religious person), so we seemed authentic—not like the punks we really were. Our story was just that we found it and, golly, we thought it was just some lost money or something. Che didn’t want to hand over the bag, but I simply told the agents where the rest of the money was and that ended that little deal. Che called me an asshole, but I probably saved us twenty years in prison—which, incidentally, might have saved Che’s life. He might have been right about that asshole business.
Che was always impressed by that adventure and periodically tried to pass off counterfeit money that he’d make on a photocopier. It never looked real, but, for some reason only God, fate, and Che will ever know, he never got busted again.
I think the counterfeit money adventure taught Che that there was never any reason to work if you could somehow create the money, or, later, after many trials and errors, steal it from somebody else. I am not sure that this is not a very good lesson. I am not sure that this is not exactly what our lending institutions, premier corporations, and government itself do when they trick you into high interest rate credit card and mortgage scams or simply create money on a machine when things get low—or simply change the laws when they want to steal money or give it to their campaign supporters. Gordon Gecko says in Wall Street that “Greed is good,” and the leading financial philosophers disagreed and said on Op Ed pages throughout the world that this is not how the system works—without explaining how greed and chicanery do not, in fact, drive the system.
Che was right, and I will add a dimension to Gordon Gecko’s creed, I will call it Che’s creed: “Greed and crime is good.”
The difference between Che and me is that he acted on this principle. I don’t, didn’t. I know that the minute the little guy tries to pull some shit, he’s locked up—after, of course, the mandatory beating.
Che knew what the inside of a squad car looked like, but he never knew what the inside of a jail looked like, to his credit.
The other thing that Che didn’t appreciate was the fact that if you commit a crime, you’re fucking somebody up, usually. Any person who accepted our counterfeit twenty dollar bills were screwed if they wanted to pay their bills with that cash. If you rip somebody off to pay off your debt, you still owe the person you ripped off. The way Che saw it was: figure out who can fuck you up the worse and get them taken care of. Screw the other person.
And that was just the way he planned on paying Ray back the two hundred dollars.
Ray and I and Jackson were hanging out at our place a month or so after the Monica debacle. Jackson was clean and sober and ready to retox himself and we’d started slowly with just beer and Uncle Jack. I saw Che heading up the street and watched as he started up the stairs to my apartment. There seemed to be a hundred or so parking tickets beneath the wipers now.
“It’s Che,” I said.
Ray was playing a guitar and he slammed down a sour and loud A minor. “Fuck that parasite. You want me to kill him for you?”
“No,” I said. “Leave him alone.” I had resigned myself to the inevitable and did not blame Che—for some reason. I do now, but I did not then.
Jackson beamed. “Old Che. I wonder how the old prick is doing.”
I promised I would not ask about Monica.
Jackson was beaming with the goodness of heart that only the retoxing addict or the forlorn lover suddenly reclaiming his lost love truly knows. He was wearing a white Guinea T and a tattooed Old Glory waved across each of his biceps. His hair was standing straight up—as if by magic. He threw open the door and wrapped his arms around Che.
“Che!” he said, gushing with goodness. “How have you been? I love you!”
Che mumbled something about hello Jackson and looked at Ray—who, he knew, wanted to kick two hundred dollars worth of his ass. “Howdy, Hollywood.”
He sat on the couch and dropped a handgun into his lap. We all looked at the gun there, a new one, shiny, nickel-plated, seemed to be a .38 revolver. So now we know what Che did with his cut of Tom’s proceeds. We all wondered what the fuck exactly he was planning, but, truth be told, producing the gun was a smart move because he effectively silenced the two voices that he knew were going to raise in protest against him: mine, for stealing Monica and threatening to kill me; Ray’s, for the two hundred. The subject had to be the gun—and then once that was put away, we could get down to business.
“Awl right. Ah just came to tell you that I am going to kill mahself with this gun.”
Our silence, I read, was tacit support for a darn good plan.
Of course, things became more complicated. “Ah am going to make a thousand dollars today, or Ah am going to shoot mahself.”
Jackson slapped Che on the back, then tossed down a shot of J.D. “Great idea! How are you going to do it?”
Che pulled the bottle from the table, then turned it up. I always thought that was a repulsive thing to do—very unhealthy—and that ended the whiskey-drinking portion of my day. “Rob someone, Ah guess.”
Ray winced. “That’s stupid.”
“Comin’ from a nigra, huh?”
“What’s that supposed to mean, prick?”
Che looked down at the gun, then back up. Whenever he was near a gun, he was brave. “Ah respectfully, sir, don’t take nothin’ no nigra says seriously.”
Ray studiously ignored him. “Who walks around with a thousand dollars? A hundred maybe—“ He brushed the gun from Che’s lap and slipped it into his hand, then spun it around, slapped it to a stop, and clicked back the hammer. “Two hundred, maybe.” He pointed the barrel at Che’s head.
Che’s expression turned from anger to fear to bonhomie. He laughed. “Ah know,” he said. “Ah know Ah owe you two hundred. Ah’ll have it for you today. That’s what Ah’m coming here to tell you. Ah can’t walk the streets without ya’ll wanting to kick mah ass, don’t think Ah don’t know it. All ya’ll. Ah wanna get straight with ya’ll.”
Ray popped open the cylinder and knocked out the bullets, then tossed the gun back to Che. “I don’t care how you get the money, I don’t want to know how you get the money. I just want it, and soon.” He shook his head and mouthed word asshole.
Che slipped the gun into his belt. “That wasn’t very nice taking mah gun, Ray boy.”
Ray cut an eye.
Che stared silently at Ray.
Ray stared back across a long heavy silence. Che had the gun, but Ray had the bullets.
“Hey,” Jackson said, “I met this Florida girl in detox I really like, but when we went out, I realized I couldn’t get it up, so I tried a coffee enema and, Jesus, man, I had a hard on all night—it was so embarrassing—and she thought that I was the best fuck she’d ever had, so she went and called her old man and told him that we’re going to fucking get married and what not, so I fucking go get, you know, this fucking tuxedo, and we call around for a priest and get one, but then I start to wonder, why, you know, I couldn’t get it up and I—for the first time—wonder if women aren’t the thing for me, you know what I mean, I wonder if I’m gay or whatever, so I go to the fucking beach and, son of a bitch, there are a bunch of gay guys down there, it’s like a gay Beach Blanket Fucking Bingo and I hang out with them and they’re all dancing and talking and cooking shrimpy-type dishes and shit, and I realize, nah, that ain’t me, man, but the thing is, I like these guys, but it really ain’t my thing—so I go tell Janet, her name’s Janet, I tell Janet that I need my space—isn’t that fucking hysterical! I need my space! That’s what they always tell me! That’s what they always tell me! Fucking doctor down there says all the drugs and booze and shit I been doing’s messed up my Johnson, nothing to do with being queer, but, you know, you fucking wonder, you fucking wonder…”
Che was by the door waiting for Jackson to fucking shut up.
Jackson fell back in the couch and patted his stomach, a look of extreme pleasure was on his face. What a wonderful story, he seemed to be saying.
“That’s beautiful,” Ray said.
After a few minutes, Che opened the door and stepped out. “Follow me,” he said.
Why we did it, I’ll never know, but we all got up and followed him out.
We walked down to the Food Emporium. It was late afternoon and the only customers were older middle-aged women in huge fur coats and big, anachronistic hats. Fur is still a symbol of prestige—it’s rank for petit bourgeois housewives or for people who want to look like them. It represents not only how well taken care of she is, but the type, length, and thickness represent marital longevity, sexual prowess, and political supremacy. Che walked us to a bus stop, a bench, across the street and we all— Ray, Jackson, and I—sat down. Che stood. He asked Ray for the bullets, but Ray wouldn’t hand them over.
“Okay,” he said without much of a fight. “Ya’ll just sit here and watch the front door of the Food Emporium.”
He then disappeared. We watched the blobs of fur and bags waddle in and out of the store—in and out, in and out, in their cabs and out of their cabs, in their cars and out of their cars, up the street and down the street, waddle, waddle, waddle. Bits of snow began to spin around. The predominant sound in the universe was the consistent drone of the smoky engines along the boulevard. We saw the fat old lady’s mouths moving, but we couldn’t hear a word. A young woman in a leather jacket, tight jeans, and stiletto-heeled boots strode into the store. She had a huge purse slung across her back like a knapsack. We all looked at one another. Where the fuck is she from? Ray asked Jackson if he were attracted to her and Jackson said yes, but even though he was getting over his Johnson problem pretty well, he wondered honestly if he could perform if he had to. It was really quite a concern… Ray said, and we all concurred, that she was a fine-looking piece of ass, probably a granddaughter of one of the furry blobs.
We were all pretty bored after a few minutes of this, but we sort of had an unspoken agreement that we would wait until the leather jacket babe leaves, and then we’ll get the fuck out of here. We waited for about ten minutes and then, finally, we saw her approaching the electronic door with two bags of groceries under her arms.
What happened next I will always imagine in slow motion.
Che moves in from the right, from behind a wall, he leans forward and runs to her and grabs her purse. She leans away from him and clutches her groceries. Che tugs once real hard and the purse doesn’t budge. He pulls it once again, really hard, and the bastard pops off the woman’s shoulder. He—the son of a bitch—turns toward us now and crosses the street with this lady’s purse. And he’s already rooting through it. By the time he passes us, he’s throwing things out, cards, keys, change. “Hah, guys,” he says as he runs past us.
We all stare straight ahead and ignore him.
The lady is on her knees in front of the store pointing at Che. She is screaming, “Help, I’ve been robbed! Help! I’ve been robbed! He’s got my purse!”
We sat frozen in a kind of idiotic trance. We all, I believe, shared a sense of culpability, of guilt, a sense that there was—even though there wasn’t—an unholy alliance between us and Che. This was based on the fact that we had all, at one point or another, pulled some scam with the bastard. Leaving would implicate us, but sitting still would also implicate us, since we would all be asked by the police—and we knew they would be coming soon—whether or not we knew Che. If it’s one of the cops who knows us, we will get busted because we’re all known around the block as a crew. Fucking Che. So we sat there.
Jackson was beaming. “Man,” he said. “This is fucking great!”
I thought about running like hell, then thought better about it, then leaned down and picked up one of the items Che had discarded. It was a driver’s license. The woman’s name was Colleen Murphy. An interesting name, I thought. She was all bundled up in that leather jacket so she didn’t look or seem Irish. I had never really thought of an Irish girl as a babe.
“Chick’s Irish,” I said. “ Colleen Murphy.”
“No shit,” Ray said, thoughtfully.
Jackson slapped his hands together. “Fantastic!”
Born 9/10/68, sex: F, eyes: blue, hair: red, height: 5-5, weight: 120, organ donor. I looked at her there across the street. “This is her license,” I announced.
Ray and Jackson leaned over my shoulders.
“That’s her?” Ray said.
“Wow!” Jackson declared.
“Sex F,” Ray said. “I wonder what that means? Frequently?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I wouldn’t be surprised.”
“Nice Measurements,” Jackson said, looking at her there across the street. She had rested her shopping bags on the ground and seemed to be sobbing into her gloves. A small crowd had gathered, one of the fur balls was touching her arm as she cried. The fur ball had tilted her head and was whispering something that was obviously very consoling and relevant.
A taxi driver was standing beside his cab on a cell phone.
“Well, what do we do?” Ray asked.
It was an excellent question. We were at the mercy of the universe. We could not flee. It was obvious to everyone there that we had seen the whole thing--we had, literally, front-row seats—and witnesses were gathering and talking and occasionally someone would point to us. We were definitely part of it now. Every fiber of my body wanted to run, but the better angels of my criminal sensibility had taken over and were whispering to me: “Don’t move… Stay put… Be cool…”
At that moment, as if in response to Ray’s difficult, pointed question, a very beautiful thing happened. A goddamned bus pulled up. For a moment, we were all stunned. Then Ray, Jackson, and I jumped up from the bench and dug into our pockets and hopped aboard. The bus pulled off and lumbered into the traffic.
We were free. I saw two people there in front of the store wave—as if to call us back: “Come back, come back!” I popped open a window and stuck out my arm and flipped them off. “Fuck you, assholes.”
We sat silently for a few blocks, then Ray said, “What is it with that fucking Che?”