Not in Kansas Anymore
The orientation wasn’t much and only took one day. It basically consisted of showing us all how to fill out the fake paperwork and get us our fake ID cards identifying us as a “Management Trainee” or participants in the big “Win a Trip to Hawaii Contest!” These were our two choices for lies to dupe the folks with at their front door. We got our photos taken and IDs laminated, a quick assessment of how well we could recite the pitch and which one we’d choose to focus on, and then it was party time.
Party time… heh, I don’t remember much about that party. I’m pretty sure there were girls somewhere. I just know I didn’t end up with any of them.
This whole process (the interview, the orientation and party, and then getting on the road so fast) was done in such a way that put me into a kind of blurry haze. It obscured my vision, confounded and confused my sense of self and what I wanted to do or what I was doing. A haze that stayed with me throughout those early days with George Heaton’s crew. It hung around me constantly, didn’t lift, didn’t leave.
Until I was literally shaken out of it.
First thing in the morning after the party, all us new predators-and-scammers-in-training, split up into assigned crews and hit the road. I didn’t know it at the time but the next big town on our list was Norfolk, Nebraska. We took our time getting there, no doubt George and his minions wanted to make damn sure we got plenty of practice “canvassing” (you know… lying, stealing, scamming) as we also got farther and farther away from home.
I was on Guy’s crew but did not ride in his car at first. Only those more promising to produce had that privilege. I was in Fred’s car. Fred pretended to be vying for his own crew but had plans no one would know of till he made his play, and that didn’t happen till quite a while later. Fred would make his play when he thought he saw an opportunity to take advantage of a crisis situation. When he saw the start of everything that went down in Norfolk.
In the meantime, we hit every small town and countryside home we came across. The crew usually stayed in a motel just outside of town where everyone had to share rooms (and even beds) except for the “captains” (like Guy) and a few of the other drivers (like Fred) who’d earned the luxury of having their own room. First thing in the morning these top dogs would gather at breakfast to map out their strategy.
I suppose I should mention here that this whole time, none of us new recruits had yet to see anything even resembling a paycheck and no such thing was ever spoken of. We ate at Denny’s and small diners near our motel and spent all our time together learning the trade. At one point my head cleared from the blurry haze enough to ask Guy about this and he quickly said “Oh your money is on books” as if that explained it all. “What, do you need some cash? You wanna go out and have a beer or something? Here, (and he gave me a $20 bill) go have a good time”. Captain Guy then flashed me a look that clearly said “Now leave me alone rookie” and walked away.
Guy obviously had better things to do than explain details to underlings such as myself so I never brought it up to him again. Guy was the king of his crew and ordered us around like a General commanding his troupes. After the morning’s planning session we’d all pile into our cars, fan out and steadily sweep through the town. Our well-disciplined crew could hit nearly every house, scooping up as much cash as possible from the town’s unsuspecting and easily duped citizenry.
Then we’d be gone by early afternoon, like a chilly morning breeze.
Of course that breeze wasn’t enough to blow me out of my blurry haze. After each town it was into the back seat of Fred’s car (I think he had an Oldsmobile) where I barely listened to Fred go on and on about all the cool stuff he had done in his life. I think in my haze I heard him mention something about a rock band?
This was a time of cheap motels and the back of Fred’s car. Cheap country diners, small town streets, houses, front doors, small town folk… occasionally selling a book or two, back into Fred’s car. Fred and the others tried to school me on how improve my pitch and boost my sales but I can’t really remember any of those interactions at all. I remember many from the times after I’d decided to escape but in those early days, my blurry haze was everywhere.
And then we got to Norfolk. Norfolk, Nebraska, a nice, medium-sized town with nice middle class folks, a small suburb without a city. Norfolk was the perfect size and type of town for George and his small army of predators and scammers to do what they did best, get in, get everything they could as fast as they could, and then get the hell outta Dodge.
What all the road crews had been doing individually on the way, George’s entire army was about to do together in Norfolk. All the crews gathered at the Super 8 or Motel 6 (or some such place like those) and cooled our heels while George met with his captains, collected his (no doubt very large) portion of the booty so far, and dealt with any pressing issues and problems that inevitably come up when managing such a large group of misfits, miscreants and ne’er-do-wells.
Misfits, miscreants and ne’er-do-wells… yup, I was an over-sized Midwest American version of “Oliver Twist”, Guy was George’s “Artful Dodger” and George was a combination of “Fagin” and “Bill Sikes” all rolled into one.
And just as in Charles Dickens’s story, it was inevitable that George and his gang would run into trouble with the law one day. Not long after we arrived in Norfolk, Guy got arrested, George went to get him out and then George also got himself arrested in the process.
While all this was going on, I was in Fred’s car as usual so I didn’t hear about it until we got back to base.
That’s when Fred made his play. He started talking to me about us going off on our own. I don’t know if he spoke to anyone else about it. I would only find out much later what kind of liar Fred was so I never knew his full play. I only knew the part that had me in it. I only knew the part where he said he wanted me to come with him.
Fred said he was going to get the band back together and that they would be going on tour soon. He said he knew I was a good singer and that I could be a roadie and perhaps eventually be a backup singer. I thought that would be so cool! I thought Fred was cool. And of course there really would be girls this time. Everyone knows that rock bands have girls all over the place. Fred had been talking about his band the whole time I was riding in his car in my blurry haze.
In that haze I hadn’t really heard Fred. I hadn’t been listening, but these new developments were beginning to shake me out of it. Then, what happened… what I saw happen when George and Guy got back from jail, grabbed me by the collar and shook me into the harsh light of what I’d gotten myself into like an angry schoolmarm catching me asleep in class.
What I saw was this. When George and Guy got back from jail, Fred and all the other captains followed the big man into George’s room leaving the rest of us in the motel lounge. I never found out whatever it was Fred had said to George in that room, but Fred must have thought he really had something on George. As soon as they came back into the lounge George suddenly shoved Fred onto the couch next to me and grabbed him by the throat.
“Mother Fucker!!” “After all I’ve done for you, you…”
I can’t remember George’s exact words but there were more… many more expletives. What I remember most clearly though, was how he had Fred pinned to the wall behind the couch next to me with one hand. Fred was not a big man. He was struggling with both his hands and the veins of his neck were bulging as his face turned red. I had never seen a black guy’s face turn red before and spit from George’s mouth sprayed all over it as he shouted all manner of curses.
George was a very big white man from Georgia who right before my eyes looked very much like he was going to kill this black man who I thought was so cool.
I was petrified…
I did nothing…