My first job, the kind with assigned hours and a regular paycheck was at a crab restaurant out on Anna Maria Island. I was a dishwasher, and I’d either just turned 15 or was about to. I performed a bit of circular logic explaining that I needed to get the job so that I could afford to buy a scooter, which I obviously needed to have in order to get to the job without having to get a ride from someone else. Thinking back I don’t know how anyone bought that half assed story, but they did and I went to work. The job was a nightmare, and it literally gave me nightmares, but I got paid and saved up and was able to buy the scooter of my dreams. It was a red 180cc Honda Elite and it maxed out around 45mph.
That is all mostly irrelevant, except that to get to this restaurant I had to drive down a very long stretch of single lane road with a speed limit of 55, so inevitably every time I made the journey there would be a line of cars behind me. Sometimes they’d be patient, sometimes they’d honk and scream and try to run me off the road. The latter of those two is kind of important going forward.
Around this same time I was skating a lot (that would be skateboarding, not roller skating) and like a lot of kids my age was a big fan of Vans shoes. I had dabbled in the Airwalks too, but they were embracing the crazy lines and colors of the 80’s a little too much and I always found myself leaning back towards Vans. Anyway, I’d recently bought a new pair of Vans which had fallen apart right away. I don’t mean I’d worn through them, I mean the sole fell off. Faulty glue or something. One of the cool things about Vans was they were known to have a super bad ass replacement policy, so when things started going bad with the shoes I called them up and explained my problem. The customer service guy I spoke with was extremely nice and said they would happily replace the shoes and that I should just take them back to the store where I bought them. This sounded easy enough. Sounded being the key word.
I took the shoes back to the skateshop where I bought them, showed them to the owner and told him about my conversation with Vans and that they told me he’d be happy to give me a replacement pair for free. He didn’t seem so into the idea and told me to get lost. This was not the simple and positive experience I was expecting, so I went back home and called my Vans guy again. I told him that the shop owner had refused to make the exchange. The Vans dude was shocked, and said he’d call the store and explain their policy to the owner and then get back to me. A few hours later the Vans guy called me back and said he’d spoken with the owner, explained their replacement policy to him, and I should go back again and shouldn’t have any more problems. There’s that “should” word again.
The next day I went back, again expecting to slap down my broken shoes and get some slick new ones and again the shop owner wasn’t having it. He said that yes he had spoken to the Vans guy the day before but that hadn’t changed his opinion on the situation at all. He said there was no way in hell he was going to give away a perfectly good pair of shoes that he had paid for and could sell in exchange for a messed up pair he couldn’t sell and had no idea how long Vans would take to replace. Again, he told me to get lost. Again, I went home sans new shoes, pissed off, and called Vans.
The Vans guy was not psyched to hear this info at all and told me he’d get to the bottom of it right away. The next day I heard back from him and he said he’d spoken to the shop owner and it was clear he wasn’t going to budge, which was actually in violation of the policy Vans had with it’s retailers so they were no longer going to sell him shoes. He also said they didn’t like the idea that I, a loyal Vans customer, had had such a bad experience and wanted to make it up to me by giving me 6 free pair of shoes.
I might as well have won the shoe lottery because at 15 years old, I couldn’t even remember owning 6 pairs of shoes in my life. Now I was going to have them all at once?
That certainly made me feel better. I told him my size and the colors I liked and a week later a box showed up with more shoes than I knew what to do with. Literally, I had no idea what to do with so many shoes. The only thing I could think to do was to use them as currency and trade them with friends for other stuff I wanted. The first person I talked to about this was my friend Eric. We used to skate together a lot and I figured he’d have something worth trading for a pair of shoes. I’m not sure which of us suggested it, but we quickly decided that the crossman bb gun pistol he had was an ideal candidate for the trade. Now it should be noted that while no guns are toys, this one kind of was. It was long since broken and couldn’t shoot anything, but it was black metal and looked really cool. In fact, to the untrained eye it might look like a real deal full on handgun.
And by “untrained eye” I mean someone driving a car behind me honking and screaming for me to get off the road. See what I did there?
Looking back this sounds like the stupidest idea in history, but at that point it made perfect sense. If I had that gun I could keep it in my pocket while driving to and from work and when someone threatened me on the road I could pull it out, wave it around, and they they would then cease threatening me and we’d all go about our business unscathed. The idea that this was illegal, or that it might scare someone and make the situation worse because they could wreck their car, hit me, or maybe even pull out their own gun never crossed my mind. I was 15, give me a break.
Anyway, Eric and I decided that was a perfectly reasonable trade and agreed to make the exchange the next day.
Also not the smartest idea in hindsight.
We met up in the morning before classes and made the hand off. I think I gave him a pair of blue corduroy chukkaboots. He gave me the gun. It was super cool. I’d played with it at his house before, but it was somehow much cooler now that it was mine. I put it in my backpack because I couldn’t imagine being separated from it and went off to my first period class, which was gym. In the locker room I was too excited to contain myself and showed it to some people. One of my friends was all “there’s nothing cool about that dude – you are crazy to have that here” or something. Anyway I got self conscious and after gym class decided that carrying it around wasn’t the best of ideas, so I went out to the parking lot and put the gun into the lockable storage panel on my scooter. I went back to class dreaming about how bad ass it was going to be to flash that bad boy out on the open road and teach those tailgaters a lesson!
Again, I was 15. Have I mentioned that?
A little after lunch the on campus police officer came by the math class I was sitting in and asked if he could have a few words with me. The room was instantly filled with “ewww!” and “buuuusssted!!” and everything else 9th graders might think was clever to say when their classmate was being talked to by any kind of authority figure. My teacher excused me and I took a walk with the officer back to his office. I don’t remember what we talked about on that walk, but it was pretty friendly and casual the entire way. He said he just had to check on something with me and I’d be back to class shortly so I wasn’t too worried.
When we got to his office he sat down behind his giant wooden desk which was stacked to the ceiling with all kinds of papers and folders and folders of papers, and I sat in one of the comfy chairs on the other side of it. He kind of chuckled as he spoke, and said:
“This is going to sound pretty silly, but there is a rumor running around campus that you have a machine gun in your car.” His tone changed and he stared right at me. “Now son, there’s no truth to that right?”
I laughed “Of course not!”
He let out a big sigh of relieve and laughed as well. “I figured that was crazy but I have to check into it when I hear things like that.”
I confirmed it was a crazy thought and added “I mean, I have a bb gun in my scooter, but not a machine gun, and I don’t even own a car!”
I kept laughing, the officer didn’t.
“Son, are you pulling my leg?”
This conversation clearly wasn’t going the way he’d hoped it would and I was starting to realize that this had all been a very, very bad idea. I explained the situation to him, told him about the shoes and the long drive to and from work (more hindsight, that bit probably didn’t help my case at all) and tried to point out the humor in that someone had mistaken a broken bb pistol for a machine gun. I think it was lost on him.
We walked out to the parking lot to my scooter and I opened it up and gave him the gun. He treated it like it was an atom bomb. I guess he had to be careful, but I remember clearly thinking he was over reacting because the thing was broken and you couldn’t shoot anything with it even if you’d wanted it to. Back in his office he inspected it and decided that it wasn’t broken at all. I argued with him and said Eric and I had tried for months to get it to work and that if there was any way it would work we would have figured it out. He didn’t care and proceeded as if I had a working gun. He made a few calls and kept telling people a student had a gun on campus. I kept interrupting him to add that it was a bb gun and didn’t work. At least in my mind having a gun on campus and having a broken bb gun on campus were two very different things.
One of the calls he made was to my mother and a few hours later she joined us in the principals office where the whole story was recounted and I was made to answer all kinds of silly questions. The principal actually seemed pretty reasonable and understood there was no harm meant and this had clearly been blown up into a whole other situation. Unfortunately it had been blown up into a whole other situation. By this point everyone in the school knew I was in custody for having a gun on campus. There were even rumors that I’d been seen in handcuffs being thrown into the back of a police car.
The principal explained that because everyone knew about this something had to be done, letting me off the hook would make it seem like anyone could bring a gun to school without issue, but seriously punishing me for something that was basically stupid planning didn’t seem right either. They agreed that I should be suspended for a week and that the gun would be given to my mom to do whatever she thought should be done with it. My mom is deathly afraid of guns so she wasn’t having that and insisted they keep it and have it destroyed. Sitting in the office I had this horrible sinking feeling that I’d just fucked up my entire life, but by the ride home I was more upset about being out a pair of shoes.
I’m sure I was more upset about the whole thing then than I remember now, and I likely got grounded for much longer than the suspension. My mom was famous for super over reacting and often grounded me for like, 2 months for things that would be “no TV for 3 days” for other kids. but I think this actually helped my overall reputation in school because scary jocks who used to ignore me or casually mention they’d be happy to kick my ass if I didn’t get out of their sight now gave me the “what’s up” nod in the hall and I guess people just suddenly thought I was dangerous.
Many years later that friend from gym class confessed to me that he’d been the one to initially turn me in. Some friend right?! I actually wasn’t mad, he was a good guy with good (if misguided) intentions and the following year he broke his arm trying to throw a baseball so I think that was fate getting even for me.
The funny thing is, or the not so funny thing is, that this situation could never happen again. That was a pre-Columbine world and the idea that a kid would show up at school with the intention of killing a bunch of people didn’t really ever cross anyone’s mind. Post-Columbine, that would be the only thing they would consider. Pre-Columbine a kid could make a mistake and get in trouble for it but go on with their life afterward. If this had happened Post-Columbine I would have been expelled, arrested, and likely had to pay for it the rest of my life. Of course post-Columbine I would have liked to think I would have realized what a dumb move it was much earlier on in the process.
* This post is part of a series of serialized posts that would have been chapters in a book I never finished writing. I’m calling it ‘Bits and Pieces’ at the moment. Click here for info about this as well as links to the other stories/chapters.