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Tuesday, 12 October
Smooth Criminal

My junior year in college, I was of course still slinking around the theater department working on my worthless degree, when an interesting opportunity fell into my lap. One of my professors had been contacted by the Oregon State police. Would he, the cops asked, happen to know of any couple of actorlets weird enough to come down to the state police HQ and spend a few hours helping out with Hostage Negotiation tactics? Probably in the hopes that we would be "accidentally" shot in the course of events, my professor sought out me and M. We agreed instantly to the job, particularly when we found out that the cops were coughing up $40 apiece for the whatever it was.

So later M. and I found ourselves driving out to the state police facilities, something I had only previously imagined occurring under some duress. Like most municipal buildings, it was irritatingly annoying in different, nonspecific ways that you couldn't quite nail down: architecturally, it was kind of like a balding man in a cheap suit whistling to himself while jangling his keys in his pocket.

We met with a fellow who explained what was going on. Hostage negotiators, like all of us I suppose, need practice! Troublingly, though, hostages are not a clockwork commodity that one can count on, so to keep the boys on their toes, periodically they get some actors to come in and spend three or so hours improvising hostage scenarios for the negotiators to work on.

He pulled out some papers, one of which outlined the requirements, which were, I thought, quite broadly defined. I was quite free to invent a vivid past for my bad guy, as well as any motive I might have for the "kidnapping," up to and including batshit craziness; similarly, M., the victim, and I were free to invent any relationship that might exist in our predicament, if any. What did need to happen was that (1) in the course of our chats, I was to make at least one completely unreasonable demand, and (2) that eventually M. should begin to exhibit symptoms of Stockholm Syndrome, the famous psychological effect of the victim beginning to sympathize more and more with the captor. The rest was up to us. "You can kill her if you think they're doing a bad job," said the fellow mildly. I cheerfully turned to M. and informed that the moment we got into the room I was going to beat her to death with an ashtray and take her forty bucks.

We went into the room; I was distressed to notice that there were no ashtrays--for did not the stoolies smoke hungrily as they squealed to the coppers? Did I not see this on TV? This place looked more like a conference room anyway, and I took note of a couple open windows, and realized glumly that I would almost certainly be breaking the law with some regularity during my visit to the cophaus.

The fellow pointed to a sturdy-looking phone cradle on the table, with a wire snaking out the door. "This is actually what we toss through windows so we can have a direct line with the captor in live situations." We stared at the veteran phone with new respect for its blocky heroism. Then he gave us the big tip: "I'll also tell you what we obviously don't tell the captors: even when it's on the hook, it's still on and transmitting any conversations or noises it picks up." I stared back at the traitorous phone again, realizing what a lousy criminal I would be. That it would never occur to me to see through such a transparent trick was evidence not only of my fundamental dimness, but also of that widely held bullshit assumption: that cops are the good guys, and good guys don't lie. Not to say that cops aren't good guys. It's just that in fact they do routinely lie as a matter of course, in word and deed.

We had fifteen minutes or so of alone time, M. and I, to come up with a loose story to get things started. Then the phone would ring--pretending here that the negotiators had been notified of a hostage situation, and tossed in the phone--and we'd be underway. (The fellow in charge assured us the phone would be off until that first ring, and I don't think he fucked us on that one. He wanted an honest test of his boys.) So we decided that M. was my old girlfriend; she had kicked me out because I was kind of a flake who, when "off his meds," was semiviolent and unpredictable. We spiced things up by giving her a baby to worry about; it was also in the house.

For my part, I can't remember what name I gave myself--I think it was Earl--but I decided that my troubling mental history would guarantee a spotty and variegated work history, which gave me an idea about an "unreasonable demand." We quickly agreed that M. had kicked out Earl thanks to his deteriorating mental state, which also led to his most recent firing, which had all culminated with the current events, namely Batshit Earl's Gonna Shoot Momma And The Baby.

Presently, the phone rang. I obviously can't remember all (or even much) of the exact language these fellows used, but they were damned smooth. "What do you want?" was a big question at the outset, and I noticed a certain determined avoidance of ever actually saying the word "No." I felt a little weird knowing I was talking to Real Live Cops, but I also thought (1) they wanted some verisimilitude in my demeanor, and (2) I felt a kind of perverse glee in being able to--no, encouraged to--chew on these cops' asses, so I cut lose with torrents of horrid vituperation. "You fucking cops, fucking with me all the time, I oughta blow this bitch's head off RIGHT NOW!" Etc. etc. I felt very macho at the time, but I'm sure that the negotiators were rolling their eyes at each other from the outset and scratching notes to themselves like, "Great, three hours with Baby Mamet."

I ranted at them for a good while, hanging up on them with dire threats and--making some theater for the open line--hissed threats at M. while she wailed and pleaded convincingly. In the interest of keeping things on this side of stupid, we wisely didn't attempt to imitate terrified baby noises. After an illicit smoke--hanging out the window--it was time for Unreasonable Demand. I picked up the phone, and the negotiator boys were alert and attentive. They of course immediately asked me if I was ready to come out; it was always their first question, and always came with steady assurances that their only concern was everyone's safety, including mine. I sported with them a bit, trying to see if I could get them to actually tell me No.

"I think I'll stay put. That okay with you?"

"Whatever you're comfortable with right now, Earl."

"You're lying, aren't you? You'd like to blow my brains out!"

"Earl, I'm not lying to you. We just want everything to stay cool and calm."

"Bullshit! You want my nuts in a vise!"

"Earl, even if that were true, I don't own a tool shed."

I mean, not really, but you get the idea. Anyway, I finally hit them with my demand: that every employer who had ever fired Earl be gathered right there on that very street, and that they loudly shout at Earl how sorry they were that they ever canned his loony ass. If I didn't get these demands met in an hour, then it was curtains for M. and her oddly stoic baby.

The boys were, as ever, not to be flapped, and made cheerful sounds to indicate, Well finally! Something we can work on for our good buddy Earl! Jesus, why didn't you say so before, son? And then they hung up, and M. and I performed another laughable little psychodrama for the negotiators' benefit, where I direly hinted something about shutting up the fucking kid before I shut it up for her (we tacitly assumed that the boys were accepting our invention of the troublesome baby despite its lack of voice). RING RING! Hey, what a coincidence! I picked up the phone. "Say, Earl," said one of the boys, "we're having some trouble with finding all these guys to apologize to you. You think you can help us out with some names?"

This went on and on, and I really started to like these guys. They were on my side! Well, Earl's. And M. really started to come around too: after a couple hours, she was faithfully howling about how EVERYTHING WOULD BE BETTER IF EVERYONE LEFT US ALONE! This after the boys wanted to speak to her to make sure her and the "baby" were all right; I let M. gurgle at them for a while as I hung out the window and smoked, and she sobbed at them to piss off, and they told her, sorry, ma'am, we can't do that (but we're not saying no!), not just yet, and boy, once those fellas come and apologize, this would all be over. I ended that conversation by roughly grabbing the phone away from M. and smacking my own palm to indicate that I was roughing her up a bit. Then I hung up, which prompted a fresh spate of RING RING RING! Which I ignored for a while; M. put her head down by the phone and gasped miserably. RING RING RING! I let the boys dangle for a while before picking up again, which I figured was cool as a kind of "What's going on in there?!" tension-builder, but I now realize probably had the boys scribbling fresh notes: "Does he know this isn't a movie?" "Silence is sure helping us hone our negotiation skills."

Oh, this went on for what felt like ages. Eventually, the boys regretfully (but sternly) told me that they were shit out of luck in finding all these old supervisors to come say they were sorry. I screamed hideous imprecations, and all the while, the boys still managed never to actually come out and say they weren't doing what I wanted. Everything was simply fucked up, Earl, can't you see that?

"You fuckers promised me."

"Now, we said we'd try, Earl. We've been trying. It's difficult, what you're asking."

"You haven't even fucking tried! You've fucked me from the beginning!"

"Earl, we've been talking all this time. If you feel we haven't been straight with you, that's on us, but I want you to know that we've been working for you on this. Nothing that's happened so far is a big deal, Earl, and we want to make sure it stays that way, all right?"

"You guys aren't negotiators! You're ballet dancers from the Bolshoi, aren't you? And one of you is also a circus bear!"

"Earl, it's true I like to dance here and again, and Joe is pretty goddam hairy, but you have to understand that . . . "

Again, I don't remember it all, but you get the idea.

Eventually, after three hours and some change, I decided I'd had enough and the boys had earned their pay. (I was also getting a nice crick in my back from angling myself out the window.) I finally told the boys that I'd seen the light; I didn't want anything bad happening, like myself being riddled with large holes; I wanted to come out. I was given precise instructions on what to do: something about cracking the door, throwing out the gun, lacing my hands on the back of my head, backing out slowly, etc. I agreed to all of this (and they were really putting on the cop mojo for this speech--there were clearly some seriously good ways to get shot if one didn't follow these instructions to the letter). Finally, after getting it all, I hung up.

M. and I stood there, staring at the door. Was that it? I whispered to her: "Am I supposed to follow their directions? Are we also "doing" the arrest?" She didn't know. The guy who gave us the lowdown at the beginning never mentioned this. We kept staring at the door. Finally, I said, "I guess I'll go out."

So I cracked the door open, cautiously and very slowly, and feeling both apprehensive and really dumb, backed out with my hands laced behind my head. I craned my skull around trying to see what the fuck was going on. I saw the orientation cop and what were obviously the two negotiators, looking at me with amused grins.

"We're not doing the arrest part, are we?" I asked, loosening my stance.

"No," said one of the negotiators, for the first time all day.


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Comments

This is the best thing I've read in ages. As the Baroness said to the Duchess, "I laughed so hard, a tear ran down my leg."
A bravura performance! I'd have paid real money to witness this terrific little slice of theater.

Comment number: 004401   Posted by: Theresa on October 12, 2004 06:22 AM from IP: 69.68.203.165

You should put that on your resume. Seriously.

Comment number: 004402   Posted by: Mickey on October 12, 2004 06:58 AM from IP: 66.147.11.241

'Oddly stoic baby' is my new favorite phrase.

Comment number: 004403   Posted by: michelle on October 12, 2004 07:19 AM from IP: 192.138.70.245

You make me miss theatre.

Comment number: 004404   Posted by: joshilyn on October 12, 2004 08:32 AM from IP: 24.98.153.64

Holy crap - that's one of the best things I've read all month. I wish my encounters with police officers where that much fun... or that lucrative.

Comment number: 004405   Posted by: craig on October 12, 2004 09:14 AM from IP: 68.253.107.102

Baby Mamet! Circus bear! I got a crick in my laugh muscle.

Comment number: 004406   Posted by: Grant Barrett on October 12, 2004 09:27 AM from IP: 12.107.204.101

Your surplus of awesome stories never ceases to amaze me.

Comment number: 004407   Posted by: Shawn on October 12, 2004 09:51 AM from IP: 209.233.130.252

Great story! And a great blog, too.

Comment number: 004408   Posted by: Kilgore Trout on October 12, 2004 11:09 AM from IP: 66.93.121.165

Bravo! A fine performance!

Comment number: 004409   Posted by: Morgan on October 12, 2004 11:19 AM from IP: 62.94.18.171

That made me laugh out loud. And, believe me, I haven't had a "laugh out loud" kind of day.

Comment number: 004410   Posted by: el on October 12, 2004 03:39 PM from IP: 131.191.10.9

Thank you so much for the awesome story!

Comment number: 004411   Posted by: Jenny on October 12, 2004 04:13 PM from IP: 24.80.13.191

Thank you for brightening a fucking awful day. :)

Comment number: 004412   Posted by: Kat on October 13, 2004 03:17 AM from IP: 203.79.117.128

Bra- fucking -vo! Brill. I hope those cops took you & M. out for drinks.

Comment number: 004413   Posted by: Auntie Maim on October 13, 2004 06:28 AM from IP: 137.99.86.207

Batshit Earl's Gonna Shoot Momma And The Baby.

That's the single best band name I've heard all year.

Comment number: 004417   Posted by: Vidiot on October 14, 2004 11:48 AM from IP: 64.236.170.4

Naw, more like an album title. Like the band is Batshit Earl, and their third album is called "Batshit Earl's Gonna Shoot Momma and the Baby"

Just imagine the cover art... I'm thinking retro pulp cover style, with Momma half spilling out of a torn red dress.

Comment number: 004422   Posted by: Bob on October 17, 2004 05:14 PM from IP: 138.88.34.26

I'm presently laughing so hard I have to clamp a pillow over my face so as not to wake the neighbors. You have the best stories.

Comment number: 004431   Posted by: CG on October 19, 2004 03:28 AM from IP: 70.19.96.220

ROFL.

Comment number: 004442   Posted by: Spikebot on October 22, 2004 01:35 AM from IP: 210.50.154.134

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