by Harmony Button
“A Little More Pirate Now” is part of our “This Word Is” feature. Please see the submissions page for details, and then send us your words!
I’ve always loved a good heist story. It starts with an underdog: usually someone clever and lovable with morals that don’t necessarily adhere to social standards. Sometimes our hero has a dark past, but has worked hard to get back on the straight and narrow. Sometimes this figure, heretofore innocent, has been so vastly wronged that the only avenue for justice is one of criminality. The social system has failed, or has fallen into corruption, and Robin Hoodery is the only choice. These are the honorable thieves, and they are cheeky, courageous and righteous in their cause.
Heist! spry spy, dapper & spiff, lift your lithe blithe lilt, tilt your tryst (our trust), our kisses gilt with gifts of loft & let no miff or fist or this injustice make you biff your swift wrist, your light life: new wished, now lost.
I rarely shop in physical stores any more — too much pressure, what with all the other people and florescent lights. When I make purchases, my goods most often appear via UPS truck. Around Christmas time, UPS is a real life Santa Claus, delivering brown-paper packages to the doorsteps of the people. This Christmas, some thief found a package on my porch, slit the bottom, removed all the stuff inside (Christmas presents that I’d purchased for friends and family — a pair of size 11 men’s slippers, some women’s fleecy tights) — and then filled the box with snow and propped it back up on the doorstep as if it was still untouched and full of Christmas goodness. Now, I’m not an expert in thievery, but it seems to me that if you’re going to lift a package from someone’s doorstep, you probably shouldn’t linger long enough to take stock of the goods inside, fill the box with snow and arrange it pretty-like on the front porch. That’s not just about shifting ownership of goods — that’s a slap in the face. It’s mean, as well as rude. I hope that thief has giant feet. I hope that thief gets toe-cramps and looks ugly in my women’s orange paisley print fleece tights. Maybe the thief thought the snow thing was clever, but in no way did putting snow in the box facilitate his ability to steal my stuff — this thief was not Indiana Jones with a golden head in one hand and a sack of sand in the other. This thief was inefficient, and a little cruel.
I couldn’t help but be personally offended by the theft. As much as I am delighted by the clever thieves of movies who take from the undeserving, I was shocked to think that a real-life thief might think that I was a likely target. I was just another middle class peon, living the lazy suburban life, ordering my cute clothes and Christmas gifts from companies that turn a profit on sweatshop labor. I probably had the money to order another one. I probably didn’t appreciate what I had, to begin with. I was probably an ungrateful bitch. Is that what this thief thought of me? Did my thief take some pleasure in thinking of the moment when I lifted that cardboard box and realized that I had been hoaxed? Did he think that I deservedto be stolen from? I couldn’t help but feel like this was personal — my thief stole my Christmas, leaving snow instead of coal inside my UPS-box-shaped stocking.
Still, this kind of thievery — the interception of new goods upon delivery — is not nearly as offensive as the theft of well-worn items. If thieves will thieve, they should always target the impersonal. Steal some money. Snatch a new pair of shoes. Tell yourself that the insurance will cover it, that it’s a victimless crime. You’re wrong, and it’s still a personal attack, but not as much of one as when you steal — oh, I don’t know — a girl’s beloved sweaterpants after a camping trip.
Sweaterpants: why don’t they make them like they used to? Imagine: it’s like a sweater, but for your pants parts. I know, I know, most women wouldn’t want the bulk and sag of woolly sweaters on their thighs, but when I saw them in the local Goodwill for a dollar ninety-nine, I knew that it was destiny and I made them mine. Oh, sweet sweaterpants! How many nights of wilderness have we spent together, how many snow-sleeps and campfires!
It had been a wonderful week in the Uintas — we hiked in alpine wilderness, swam in mountain lakes, and smacked about a thousand mosquitoes away from our faces. On the way back to civilization, we stopped at a canyon cafe to eat our body weight in brunch. We did some serious damage on the pancakes, but when I rolled back out to the car, belly full of carbohydrates, I felt the sickening crunch of glass underfoot and saw a bunch of bits of blue window chunks all scattered across the pavement. It takes just a minute for the mind to register a missing window: it’s something that you shouldn’t see, anyway, so seeing that you don’t see what you’re not seeing is a little mind-trippy, especially post-pancaking. But it was true: the window was gone, as was my big external frame backpack that I had so cleverly hidden underneath a sleeping back, like a big, bulky name tag that says “Hello! My Name Is: Something Valuable Someone Doesn’t Want You to See!” Well, shit. There went all my camping stuff, my stinky socks, my fire kit, my Thermarest and expensive gear. There went my Leatherman, my anti-snake rope, and my precious sweaterpants.
A week later, I got a phone call from a guy who had found my pack stuffed in a dumpster outside his office building. It still had on old name tag on it with a phone number. When he returned it, I was shocked to see that it was still packed full of stuff. Clearly, the thief was looking for cash or quick money, and was not interested in my new Gortex jacket or favorite Nalgene bottle. And just to make the situation a little more interesting, not only was the pack full of myclothes and gear, but it had several otherclothing items stuffed into it that were not mine: a women’s size medium rain shell; an old red college sweatshirt, etc. In fact, the only thing missing was the least valuable and least easily replaced item: my old sweaterpants.
I’ll never know how it went down: did this thief, in the midst of scrambling for wallets and valuables, pull out my sweaterpants, look at them with horror, and decide to save anyone from ever committing this particular fashion faux pas ever again? Did he burn them in a trash can and warm his bony meth-hands over the blaze? Or is there, somewhere in the Salt Lake valley, a thief who is — perhaps at this very minute — enjoying the cozy warmth of mysweaterpants? That bastard!
And then, there was the question of what to do with my ill-gotten goods. When your stolen backpack comes back to you with someone else’s jacket, do you keep it? It was a nice jacket. There was no identification, no way of tracking down the owner. I put a notice up on CraigsList — “LOST & FOUND: Recovered several items of women’s outerwear. Suspected stolen. Missing sweaterpants. Have you seen my sweaterpants?” — but no one ever contacted me. Eventually, I donated them to a clothing drive for newly arrived immigrants. If anything could redeem the karma of the situation, I figured this was the best shot.Hustle! a bustle of action, a caper cat-burgled from pros, by cons — the best part is, even when you see it coming, you want in.
Like all good tricksters, the word “heist” is difficult to pin down. From what I can tell, “heist” was one of those accidental words that grew from people mispronouncing something else — probably “hoist,” which was another term for a hold-up or robbery. Something funny happened with the shift in vowels: from hoist to heist, the thievery became less stick ’em up robbery and more rollicking caper. Instead of the faces of hardcore crime, heisters were figures of romance and intrigue. In rumor and remembrance, their antics are lauded as playful, illicit, mischievous escapades: Bonnie and Clyde, D.B. Cooper, Captain Jack Sparrow.
I’m not alone in my fascination with the redistribution of money and goods without legal sanction: our culture is obsessed with thievery in all its various forms. In its very darkest form, we feed the fantasy of taking what is not ours in Grand Theft Auto and other violent smash & grab games. Other stories aspire to the Robin Hood variety of justice, where theft is a nonviolent means of evening the odds.
In recent years, there has been a certain development in the world of video games as the super-popular first-person shooter style games are countered by more narrative-driven “first-person thinker” games such as Gone Homeor That Dragon, Cancer. In some ways, these are no more games than a hypertext story, Choose-Your-Own-Adventure, or any other non-linear reading experience would be considered a “game.” This interactive experience is sometimes referred to an “empathy” game, suggesting that the process of discovery from a first-person vantage point promotes greater empathy in the gamer, whose sole purpose in the virtual world is to partake first-hand in the experience of a character. These empathy games seem to have grown out of other first-person non-shooter experiences, games where the aim is to avoid conflict rather than engage in it. Popular titles such as Assassin’s Creed or Splinter Cell, rather than buying into the typical shoot ’em up style of gaming, are “first-person looter” games wherein the player must avoid detection or sneak his way out of a tough situation.
In most first-person shooter games, the violence — the shooting, bombing, chopping, kicking, stabbing, beheading, etc — is “justified” within the world of the game: these are Us vs. Them situations, scenarios where the world must be saved from the invading aliens or the encroaching zombies. Don’t worry, the game reassures you — you are the good guy. Perhaps you have a snappy uniform to go with your military issue rocket-launcher; perhaps to earn metals of honor for your valor in combat.
Ironically, as the brutality of the first-person shooter decreases, the moral complexity of the game-world increases. While shooters must be designated good guys, sneakers and looters can be morally ambiguous. In fact, developing a personal code of ethics is part of the strategy in some of these games, such as the popular stealth game Thief, where the player must navigate a steampunk underworld controlled by extremist groups: the forces of order, disorder, fate or growth. Players must face questions of trust and loyalty, justice and revenge: if an object should not have belonged to someone in the first place, it is technically stealing to take it? Or are you just “relocating” an object to a more appropriate location, somewhere it really belongs? It’s a little remarkable that UPS packages don’t get stolen off of porches more often — a patient, aspiring thief could just follow the big brown truck and snarfle up all the packages off of people’s porches as the truck pulled around the corner.
The stickler in me feels obligated to point out that these are games of stealth and theft; these are not heist games. There was a game under development called Heist (or HEI$T, as it was marketed), but this was an abomination of the word that lacked all the subtly and intrigue of a true heist. The purpose of this game was to become a mob boss and shamelessly ransack as many upstanding businesses as you could before you got caught or killed. What a stupid game. We shall not speak of it again. The difference between a heist and a theft is the difference between dominoes and bowling: the first is a game of meticulous preparation, multiple steps, and various off-shoots of intrigue, while the second involves lobbing a heavy object in the right direction and hoping that it knocks some stuff over. The domino master tips the balance slightly, and a chain reaction of consequences eventually lands the end product directly into the palm of her hand. The expert bowler is really good at consistently hitting little wooden pins and making a bunch of noise. The end result is still the same — goods change hands — but the process is different. An artful theft is a heist.Pirate! Take your pick & fiddle, your short stint or two in the clink, take your swig and whiskey drink & sit here & think us up a story: one or two of us have no new news or noose but time to listen, time to wish & lose.
In German, a heist is a Raubüberfall. This makes me giggle, mostly because it has the word “boob” in it. When I first started looking for origins of “heist,” I stumbled into the German “heist” (heißt), which has nothing to do at all with robbery — the infinitive form of the verb heissenmeans “to be called,” or “to be known as; i.e.” My facility with the German language begins and ends with an online dictionary,but I can’t resist the pun of a managed translation: “heist” heißt Raububerfall — heist is called heist.
The only time I almost stole something from a store was when I was little and a key chain that looked like a feathery cat toy got stuck in my hair. We were half a block away from the store when my mother noticed it dangling from the wild mess of curls that sprouted from my head. I remember being mortified when we walked back in the store and the clerk looked at me as if to say, “her hair? Likely story,” as I handed the key chain over the counter. Sure, I was a pretty weird little kid, but I would never steal. That was just wrong.
That’s not true. I stole, one time. It was from my mother’s wallet. She told me to go in there and get five dollars for allowance, and I realized afterwards that although I’d taken five dollar bills, four of them had been singles and one had been a twenty. It started as an honest mistake, but then, I just… kept it. A year later, I still felt so bad that I took a twenty dollar bill from my savings (I was quite the little miser) and snuck it into my mother’s wallet, to make up for it. A few years after that, I still felt so bad that I replaced the twenty dollars again, just in case I had only thought about doing it the first time, but hadn’t. This time, I put two ten dollar bills back into my mother’s purse, one at a time. It was better to be safe than guilty. But weirdly enough, just righting the wrong wasn’t enough: it was the principle of the thing that rankled. I had lifted money from my mother. Sure, I was five years old and my sense of ethics was still a little doughy, but it was just such a betrayal, such a crack in the hardening crust of my good judgement! I made a practice of sneaking cash into her pockets and wallet, just in little bits — a dollar here, a quarter there — to ease my stupid conscience.
Again: there’s a difference between borrowing and stealing, robbery and thievery. Bullies and robbers are assholes to your face — they wave around a gun or fists and demand all your money; thieves operate by stealth, without the knowledge of the victim. Sometimes, this is an act of misplaced revenge and villainy, but sometimes, just some times, this is kind of romantic. Why else would we say that someone has stolenour hearts? The best heist stories are also love stories — the object in question is inconsequential. Whether it is a diamond, a secret, or just a giant pile of money, the drama of the story is all about the relationships: thief to thief, thief to target, target to heart. In good heist movies, the target always deserves to lose whatever is taken — and how easily we decide justice! Heist movies revert us to toddler-logic: he took it; I take it back. The object of desire is always a symbol of righteousness, power, or happiness or safety. In a good heist movie, we root for the bad guy because he’s better than the good one. In a great heist story, we love the thief for his vulnerability as well as his cunning and pluck. At heart, we all wish we were a little more pirate and a little less Queen’s Armada.
The irony of my love of heists, of course, is that I am rule-follower at heart. I love a good heist because it is so deliciously transgressive, while I, on the other hand, am thoroughly bound by the lines of propriety. I am the driver who stays within the lanes in an empty lot, using her blinker to signal the turn into an appropriate parking spot even if there is not another car to be seen, anywhere. I am the woman at the airport who follows the entire rope-maze even when the entrance to Security is deserted. “Ma’am,” the TSA officer called to me, as I, baggage-laden, tromped my way through every zig and zag of roped-off corridor, “Ma’am, where are you going? There’s no cheese at the end of this maze.”
My favorite heists are often pulled off by team effort: Sneakers,The Italian Job, Ocean’s 11. The cast and crew of characters is nearly formulaic in its predictability — the tech nerd, the muscle, the quirky yet gorgeous female and the good-guy-in-a-tough-place leader — but it is, at heart, a family drama, and even predictable families are fascinating. Second to the team-effort heist is the single-con-gets-help-from-an-unlikely-source story: The Sting, Flawless, Thomas Crown Affair. Oh, don’t roll your eyes at me: that bit with the bowler hats was absolutely brilliant, and I don’t care what you think about Richard Gere or his face. These are the flipside of the Sherlock stories (which, of course, I also love because Sherlock and Watson are also just a little odd, a little outside the auspice and understanding of Scotland Yard). In all of these stories, characters overcome their individual histories and neuroses and, through wit, courage and occasional self-sacrifice, are rewarded for the goodness of their true natures.
On the other hand, I have no patience for a sloppy heist story. If it turns into a series of chase scenes and shoot-outs… (yawn). If I can call the plot twists before they happen — shame on you. I’m stupidly law-abiding, and if I can predict your devious scheme, then perhaps heist stories are not your genre. Give me intrigue, give me deception, give me double-dealing, multi-step thought-traps and cons. Give me something I can’t dream up, myself, not in a million million sleepless nights. The heist movie is the opposite of the horror movie: I can compose terrors by myself, no problem. But I am not a trickster. Bring me the coyote, let him tell his tale of grief and justice, show me all his wily disobedience.
I tried to write a heist story one time. It was called The Sneeze Thief, about an adolescent fairy named Allen whose job was to collect human sneezes before they were sneezed. Like all my fiction, it ended up a love story: a misfit band of rebels found their true heart-homes and saved the world. Pixar would really eat that shit up. But it wasn’t a heist story any more — it lacked the tick-tock sensibility and catchy caper music. I tried again. This was The Pirate & The Gypsy Girl. It started as a tale of intrigue intended to somehow cleverly subvert the cartoon notions about pirates and gypsies that seems to haunt pretty much all the characters in Disney movies from the 1990s: Aladdin, Mulan, Pocahontas, Tarzan. But somehow, once again, the characters up and formed their own dysfunctional family and stopped caring about stealing anything. I was heist-less. All I do is make folks fall in love.Thief! the jist of it is, this isn’t about thrift — it’s a rift of trust and justice, a listing to the starboard side of ethics, sinister but dexterous, and debt — what is it? a paying off of thefts and dues, the banking of the ship into the reef or street smarts / savvy, an embracing of the grief and loneliness of you.
Ultimately, most heist movies are escapism and fantasy, playing out in worlds where, while there can be risk and consequence, everything turns up roses in the end. But then, there are the heist stories that lift your spirits and break your heart, where nothing turns out quite right. Everything starts out playful, witty and lighthearted, and then all the sudden, shit gets real: Three Kings, The Town, The Kill Point — and let’s not forget the tragic heist-gone-awry The Place Beyond The Pines. These are all stories where the heist gets dropped, where instead of grifting and lifting well-earned loot from shady ne’er-do-wells who didn’t deserve it, the characters spend their screen time desperately trying to stay on top of the giant vortex of suck they have created, and, even if there moments of beautiful humanity, things end badly.
Maybe these are not heist movies. Maybe these are hoist movies. The heaviness of the human condition, of relationships and loyalties, families and faith, the desire to better oneself, to strive for a better future, all weigh upon the brightness of the heist, muddying the clarity of the plan, distorting the line between right and wrong. The hoist is a heist without grace; the theft lacks loft; it consists of mostly heavy lifting and a get-away car. But these movies, instead of digressing into shoot ’em ups and car chases, hunker down into the humanity of the thing: they dwell on the disappointment and the tragedy of the heist-gone-awry, like a coming-of-age story for grown-up pirates. These are stories of disillusionment, full of small heartbreaks that crack the sheen of the whole wide world. These are simple stories that refuse to stay tidy, where well-laid plans and bowler hats won’t save you, even if you’re in the right.
Perhaps I love a heist because it offers up a world that is meticulous and, to the mastermind, predictable — a world where each step can be planned ahead of time, where a clever thief can stack the dominoes with such precise calculation that they are guaranteed to fall just right. Perhaps I hope to one day to write myself as heroine in such a heist; perhaps I want someone to steal my heart and give it back; perhaps I, too, want to tick-tock my sense of self into a new location, a place where, once its there, I’ll know it was always meant to be. Perhaps I love these stories because there is no such world of care and precision, where plan and wit pay off so obviously. Perhaps I crave these heist stories because although I do love a good slog through hard work, some times I just so desperately want to win the jackpot, be the jackpot, find the jackpot hidden somewhere in the basement where I’ll never, ever be able to spend it.
Harmony Button is a contributing editor for Paper Tape. She has been nominated for Pushcart and Best of the Web awards, and was awarded the Larry Levis Prize (Academy of American Poets). She attended Middlebury College and University of Utah (MFA). You can find her work in Colorado Review, Southwestern American Lit, Ithaca Lit, BlazeVOX, and other publications. She is currently English Department Chair of the Waterford School in Utah. More of her work can be found at harmonybutton.wordpress.com.