How to Plan a Heist
I became friendly with Michelle sophomore year of high school. That was the year she got a black eye when she took on three girls on the school bus after they called her a Japanese bitch. She got suspended. Our religion teacher started calling her Rocky.
Michelle was someone who got stuff done. She saw an efficient way around our perpetual cycle of rolling up our gray plaid uniform skirts, being yelled at by the Library Nun to unroll them, and rolling them back up again: she got her mom to hem her skirt up short. She wore big Aaliyah hoops and was buddies with Christian, the one true punk in our grade who wore a denim jacket with safety-pinned fabric scraps of band logos. Michelle worked as a promoter and gave out flyers and stickers for the first-ever Philly nightlife website. People got pink slips for putting stickers on their lockers, but somehow it never got traced back to her.
I was in a lot of after school clubs and so was Michelle. While we waited in the evenings for the Septa bus from school in the burbs back home to northeast Philly, we had long conversations about the social dynamics of high school. She was in the community service club with me, and senior year we both worked on the Christmas toy drive.
I was president of the service club. We all had to do forty hours of community service to graduate, so everyone in our class came to me to hook them up with a project. I had to sign off on people’s hours and everything. It beefed up my social currency, and I can’t say I didn’t enjoy the power. Generally in high school, nobody bothered with me unless they needed something. People asked me to help them with geometry and to copy my handwritten Spanish homework. They wanted to join my group for English presentations because I liked to turn oral reports into full scale productions with a Whitney Houston mixtape soundtrack and a guaranteed A. Being used seemed better than being ignored completely, so I carried on. You know what I was voted senior year? Most Helpful. Every high school kid’s ambition, being voted Most Helpful.
If I could I would have run the service club on my own and set up an office in the maintenance closet or somewhere. That way kids could come to me in a Godfather style situation and I would swivel around from behind a desk, pull out a big binder, and make them sweat while I decided whether to assign them to the Halloween party at the children’s group home or put them on sandwich making duty for the soup kitchen. We were required, though, to have faculty advisors. So I had to manage Mrs. Dominello from Guidance, and Father Jugenheimer.
Jugenheimer was an angry priest who taught Senior religion. He had a way of gliding along the hallways, his lower body strolling in a casual gait, his upper body in a shoulder hunch and chin-up surveillance. He rolled in and out of classrooms like a real life Snape in clerical black. Jugie did not tolerate our teenage questioning of the Catholic institution that had been telling us what to think for twelve years. He shut down any deeper discussion of spirituality and morality except to reiterate the official Church stance.
“How do we know God is real?” Michelle asked him.
“You’re being inappropriate, Miss Freeman,” he said. He put down his paper cup filled with ice and diet Coke from the cafeteria soda fountain. Jugie went full body when he got angry, and he needed his arms free so he could flail. He had an unintentional friar look due to his receding hairline, and his black hair puffed out on the sides of his reddening face.
“Why do we look at Catholicism as above all other religions?” she pressed.
“ENOUGH, Miss Freeman!” he yelled. His eyes got a particularly possessed look when he was trying to shut someone up.
Meanwhile, I wanted to argue with Jugenheimer about his stance on that year’s George W. versus Gore election and the Church’s single-issue directive to vote Republican. What about poverty, racism, the NRA? I’d gone to the protests at the Republican National Convention that summer. I spent my time reading Howard Zinn, Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day. I wanted to burn it all down, and Jugie, with no economic option except to deliver the sanctioned message, was not there for it.
“That is ENOUGH, Miss Cooney!” he raged every time my hand went up.
I think he was a frustrated film director at heart. He was in charge of the student TV studio that did the morning announcements, and I have to say, it was a tightly run production.
Jugenheimer and Mrs. Dominello weren’t fans of each other. For service club business I communicated between them like a tween messengering the passive aggression of divorced parents. The Christmas toy drive was the biggest operation to wrangle, and they bickered about details and logistics as Mrs. Dominello searched through paper stacks on her chaotic desk for the request lists from local charities. Meanwhile, me and the other club members focused on the marketing campaign. We hit it hard. Michelle helped with making promotional paper trees for every homeroom. We hung banners and posters around the school, and I arranged regular announcements on the student morning news.
We killed it. Students brought in so many toy donations, we far exceeded Mrs. Dominello’s lists. There was a huge overflow of toys stored in the back of the biology lab, stacks of unwrapped inventory growing every day. The tables usually used for dissecting frogs and grasshoppers were covered with shiny Lego sets, Connect Four boxes and plastic doctor kits.
“We have to find another place to donate all the extra toys,” Mrs. Dominello told me, maneuvering herself through the gift piles. Occasionally she took the elevator up to the third floor to see how we were doing with the gift wrapping. You could always hear her approaching with her long lanyard of jingling keys. “We have so much surplus,” she said, picking up a baby doll and glancing at it. “Way more than we need for our lists.” She flung the doll carelessly back on the heap. Her hands were a museum display of class rings in varying gold bulk. Mrs. Dominello had had an extensive education herself and she was damn proud of it.
Jugenheimer spoke from the doorway, where he’d materialized from the TV studio next door. “Well, you’d better sort it out and get wrapping,” he said with the sass of an eleven-year-old telling the other girls on the group project they weren’t pulling their weight. “The delivery is the end of the week.”
“I’m sorting it out!” Mrs. Dominello barked. She looked at me, as if to say, Can you believe this guy? You had to hand it to her. She didn’t take any of his crap. Miss Finnegan, new to teaching bio that year and sweet as the perfectly underbaked cafeteria cookies, had cried after Jugenheimer accosted her in the hallway for not showing his TV studio announcements in her homeroom.
“It doesn’t look like it,” Jugie said, turning and executing a power move by keeping his slide-out completely unhurried.
It seemed like a great problem to have. Before I could figure out where to donate the extra, I saw a spot on that night’s Action News. The Salvation Army in North Philly had a shortage of gifts for kids in need this Christmas and was putting out a call for toy donations. Perfect.
The next day Michelle and I got out of class to wrap toys, and headed to Guidance first to talk to Mrs. Dominello. To get to the inner office you had to get past her nun henchwoman. She was the grumpiest of all of the Sisters. When Jugenheimer assigned us the Flour Baby project (we toted around five-pound bags of flour to understand parental responsibility), she knew points were docked if our babies got kidnapped, so when I was in the office and put mine down on a chair, she stole it just for revenge for being rude to her. The Sisters could be so petty.
We wormed our way past the Guidance Nun’s suspicious glare to Mrs. Dominello’s desk and I updated her on the news report. I said the Salvation Army would be the perfect place to bring all the extras.
“We can’t bring them there,” Mrs. Dominello said. “We’re a Catholic school. They have to go to a Catholic charity.”
“Why?” I said. “What’s the difference?”
“We have them and they need them,” Michelle said. “Why can’t we just bring them there?”
“No,” Mrs. Dominello said fiercely, chopping the air with both hands. “We can’t. Father Jugenheimer would never agree to it. He would totally lose it. We’ll just give extra to the group home.”
Michelle and I walked back out to the hallway, and looked at each other.
“This is bullshit,” Michelle said. “The group home is already getting tons. The Salvation Army needs them!”
It hadn’t been for nothing that I’d gone to those panels on wealth inequality and redistribution at that summer’s convention protests. It hadn’t been for nothing that on Thanksgiving I had listened to the entirety of Arlo Guthrie’s eighteen-minute protest song Alice’s Restaurant. This was clearly a Robin Hood situation.
I leaned in toward Michelle fiercely. “You know what we’re gonna do? We’re gonna steal those extra presents and we’re gonna deliver them ourselves.”
Under the glittery shadow on her lids, her eyes lit up. “Let’s do it!”
Between classes the rest of the day, we worked out a strategy. Like I said, Michelle was someone who got things done. She tapped her friend Mary Kate, who had a Twilight Blue Pearl ’89 Dodge Daytona. She explained the plan for the heist and that we needed a getaway car and driver. Mary Kate was in.
There were a number of other moving pieces. We had to figure out how to get the presents from the third floor lab, on one end of the school, to Mary Kate’s car in the parking lot on the other side of the building, without being noticed.
Michelle was a natural at organizing a covert assembly line, because she was a smoker. The girls who smoked had a prison style system to share cigarettes during the school day. The first smoker would leave class and go to the girls' room, go into the designated stall, and take out a Newport that had been stashed in the toilet paper holder for her. She’d light it, take a puff, and blow the smoke into her baggy navy uniform sweater with the school crest. (You couldn’t blow the smoke up because the Guidance Nun liked to sneak attack the bathrooms for telltale smoke above the stalls.) Then, she’d put out the partly smoked cigarette and either stash it in the toilet paper holder for the next girl in line, or, if she sat near her in class, she’d wrap it in toilet paper and stick it in her shirt pocket, then once back in class deposit it into the girl’s schoolbag. Then that girl would ask to go to the bathroom and the cycle would continue. The shorted cigarettes smelled like wet garbage and the sweaters smelled like an Irish bookies packed with old men watching televised horse races in 1972. The teachers didn’t notice, or chose not to. The point is, it was a very organized system.
The toy smuggling had to be just as tight. After school, Michelle was to go to track practice and then get the car organized, and I was to man the gift wrapping station until we were ready. A bunch of service club members wrapped gifts for an hour, leaving one by one to go home. I waited til just a couple trustworthy senior girls were left and pulled them into a huddle.
“Listen,” I whispered. They leaned in, sensing excitement. I explained the operation and they were immediately on board. We started filling black contractor trash bags with toys as fast as we could. Barbie dolls, soccer balls, Tickle Me Elmo. The key was to take a decent amount, but not so much that it was noticeable. We loaded six bags and lined them up under the green chalkboard near the doorway.
Michelle entered the room in her track uniform. “Mary Kate’s ready when we are,” she said. We all regrouped. I reiterated the plan on my palm like a football play.
Jamie would take a bag of toys from the lab and run it down the long hallway to Jeannie. Jeannie would run the bag down three flights of stairs and hand it to Michelle, who’d be keeping the door propped open. Michelle would load the bag into Mary Kate’s open hatchback, parked right next to the open door with Mary Kate in the driver’s seat and the car running in case we needed to make a quick escape. Then Jeannie would run back upstairs and give me a wave to signal she was ready for the next bag. I was the lookout, and would station myself in the middle of the hallway. After receiving Jeannie’s wave, I would turn back and give the signal to Jamie, waiting inside the bio lab door with the next bag. It had to be done this way because there were no cell phones back then. Michelle had a beeper, but the only pay phone at school was in the cafeteria, so that didn’t do us any good.
I walked up and down the hallway, checking for adults. Timing was critical. Any teacher could come up the stairs or out of a room and want to know the deal with our suspicious black trash bags. Mrs. Dominello was regularly coming up and down on the elevator to check in. I tiptoed to the TV studio for any sign of Jugie. It was locked and quiet.
I stood in the middle of the hallway, watching for Jeannie to give the wave after she returned from downstairs to confirm the car was ready. I was nervous, but excited. This was combining all my favorite things. Telling people what to do. Sneaking around. Sticking it to the man.
Jeannie appeared from the stairwell at the end of the hallway and made a motion with her hand. All of a sudden I realized I shouldn’t have been the lookout. I couldn’t tell if she was making a “good to go” wave or a “Mayday!” gesture. I had just gotten contact lenses that year and had a lot of trouble with them, and even when I got up a half hour early every day to work on sticking them to my eyeballs, two out of five days of the week I ended up going to school with just one contact in. Today was a one-good-eye day.
I covered my fuzzy eye with one hand, squinted and bent my knees like a basketball guard poised to grab a missed foul shot. It was a “good to go” wave. I turned back to Jamie, poking her head out of the lab doorway. “Go go go!”
She ran down the hall, dragging the first enormous bag of toys. Jeannie grabbed it and headed down the stairs. In two minutes, she was back, waving for the next one. Jamie delivered two more bags. I tap-danced nervously in the middle of the hallway. The elevator was sure to ding at any moment with Mrs. Dominello. I had no idea where Jugenheimer was. If he caught us, he was sure to spontaneously combust.
To maximize time Jamie and I ran the last load ourselves. After she disappeared down the stairwell, I picked up the final two bags, did one last check for authority figures, and sprinted down the hall, squinting with my good eye, the sharp edges of toy boxes bumping against my legs through the plastic. I gripped the twisted tops of the bags and held them out and away from me to balance myself as I galloped down three flights, pausing for a millisecond on each landing to tighten my grip and recommit to my purpose. I bounded down the final stairs. Jeannie was holding the door, Jamie was putting her haul in the car, and Michelle was in the passenger seat, ready to be navigator as I heaved the last bag in and slammed the trunk.
“That’s it!” I said. “Bye!” We all waved and Mary Kate was off, cigarette hanging out of her mouth, gunning out of the school parking lot and headed for Broad Street with tires squealing.
Mrs. Dominello wandered back in at some point to find us wrapping gifts. She didn’t notice anything. Mary Kate and Michelle drove down Broad Street until they saw the Salvation Army, right there next to the Divine Lorraine. They dropped off the toys. The staff were glad to get them.
I was satisfied. I had pulled off a heist with one good eye.
Mrs. Dominello is still at our high school, though it’s closing permanently this year; the archdiocesan piggy bank is scraped clean from all those pesky lawsuits. Jugie took a parish position in Wisconsin where he is properly homesteading and making maple syrup.
Michelle runs her own event planning company now. Oh, and I mastered the contact lens situation in good time. I didn’t want you to be worried.