The Person Next to You on A Plane — New Essay by Laura Lampton Scott
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I’ll tell you how they do it.
Andrew and Evan go to a store. Not any store, but one with desirable goods that aren’t locked away: REI, Marc Jacobs. Andrew and Evan know that their eBay buyers want purses and jackets and tents, nothing that requires trying on, like jeans.
Andrew, the charming southern boy, handles the clerks. He understands how to placate them. He asks to see something expensive from the display case. He asks technical questions that require the help of another clerk: is there a longer lasting battery, what does the warranty cover? He bellyaches, charmingly, over his options.
Andrew and Evan look good. They are dressed in high-end clothing, sweaters and slacks. They both wear glasses, which only Andrew needs in order to see. Evan calls his glasses his Clark Kents. They look like clean-cut white boys.
Evan feigns exasperation with Andrew’s persnickety shopping and walks away to browse. He carries shopping bags from other stores that appear full but contain only tissue paper. As Andrew puts on his show, Evan selects merchandise, the items he’s targeted on a previous visit or on the internet, removes security tags with tools he purchased at an arts and craft store, and fills his shopping bags. He hides any excess tissue paper by stuffing it in the sleeves of jackets still hanging on the rack.
If Andrew is running his flirting game, he will try on a pair of pants and ask the store clerk to remove the security tag from his waistband so he can wear the pants out of the store. The clerk gets flustered when reaching into Andrew’s pants and over his boxers to remove the security device. The money Andrew pays for the pants is immaterial considering the tens of thousands of dollars the partners will make by reselling the spoils of a few good jobs.
Andrew and Evan are good at what they do, and they’ve been doing some version of this together for over five years, separately for much longer. They travel the country to steal, rolling shopping carts full of tents and rainproof jackets out of your local outdoor supply store.
As hard as it is for me to imagine living like Andrew and Evan, I’m sure it’s just as hard for them to imagine living like me: cooking soup, living in a cheap basement apartment, settling down (if settling down is indeed what I’m doing). Sometimes I feel I could fall back into a wild life, the life I was living when I first met them: young and crawling across New York City in the search of trouble I’d started at puberty, sleeping with piles of people in strange beds, living off my credit cards, and closing down bars. But I never could do what Andrew and Evan do; fearing repercussions, I stopped stealing when I came of age.
As you might have guessed, Andrew and Evan aren’t their real names.
Andrew is easier to love than Evan. He is the face of their game for good reason. He’s tall and appears docile, even though they are both fighters. He drives a shiny new truck and returns south every year for his family’s reunion. When Andrew became a professional thief, he did it to pay for architecture school.
When they sell the goods online, eventually the retailers ask for proof of purchase. Companies don’t want to serve as a fence for thieves. Sometimes Andrew and Evan politely submit receipts for items they purchased and then returned. When they’re eventually locked out of their resale accounts, they get a cheap new computer, a new IP address, and use public internet connections. They open new accounts using fake identities. Evan handles this part of the work.
Evan is the one most at risk of being caught, the one who leaves the store with the goods and sets up fake accounts. He enjoys his status as a criminal. He cultivates his outlaw persona, sometimes wearing it like a fedora tipped to the side: jaunty, combative, intimidating, charming in his own way. Like Andrew, Evan’s a family guy. He says that his little brother, the artist, got all the talent in the family.
There are lots of ways to get caught doing what they do, and Andrew and Evan have come close. They spend a night in jail and some time in court before getting off. Evan once served six months. They both have states they can no longer visit because of outstanding warrants. Andrew quit architecture school.
They don’t pay taxes, and when I worry about them, I worry that the IRS is looking for them. Do they make up anecdotes from imaginary workplaces for acquaintances and family members? I’ve always been the type to have a job that sounds official, something to fool me into a sense of worth. I envy that Andrew and Evan seem not to succumb to this need for approval, this conformity. They probably do, and I’d rather romanticize the lives of professional thieves than admit we’re all susceptible to the petty day-to-day — rent and bills and food, if not job evaluations. Both Andrew and Evan, like me, are around 30. Do they miss being able to stay in one place, to go without an alias? Andrew’s old friend once told me he felt like he’d lost a friend. I want my friend back, he said.
Andrew moves regularly. The last time he had to flee the state, he lost a girlfriend and their apartment. He has a new girlfriend. He’s stopped talking about returning to school.
Recently, Evan got serious about a girl. Despite his awkwardness, he’s usually covered in beautiful women who want to tell their friends they once had a brief thing with an outlaw. Evan moved to this girl’s city, a place where he’s got a clean record, and they got an apartment together. He drove around the country to turn himself in wherever he was wanted. He served a little time, never over a month, paid fines (with money from his thefts), and did community service.
He was trying to find work. But without regular employment history and in a struggling job market, it was hard. Some of his friends agreed to falsify jobs for his resume.
For Evan, a boss and 20 bucks an hour doesn’t come naturally. He was trying to get a life more like mine, and I want to tell him that sometimes I wish I could run from my friends and work, even my husband, that sometimes I wonder if it’s worth it to follow the rules. When Andrew calls Evan up and says, Let’s work, meet me in the next city, Andrew gets in his truck, and Evan gets on a plane. He buckles his seatbelt, like most passengers, when instructed. I wonder when the outlaw life becomes intolerable. I wonder if he looks around the plane, just like all the men in the suits or just like me, momentarily wishing to be someone else.