14-نگهبان امنیتی

کتاب: زندگی در چند بخش / فصل 14

زندگی در چند بخش

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14-نگهبان امنیتی

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Security Guard

I was only nineteen, and the LAPD’s minimum age requirement was twenty-one; plus the police department’s pay scale was better if you had a degree. So I enrolled at Valley Junior College as an administration of justice major, a fancy name for police science.

On the side, I got a job as a Protect-All security guard. I worked in a gated community called Bell Canyon, an exclusive area in a ritzier section of the San Fernando Valley. I waved to residents as they passed by the automatic entry gate, and checked in guests and delivery people. I worked the night shift, so there were very few guests and almost no deliveries. In essence, my job was to sit in a roomy, climate-controlled guard booth and get paid to do my homework and sip coffee.

I had a pocket notebook with the Admonition of Rights printed on the front cover. On the back, I scribbled a rating system I’d devised for my security jobs. X was bad—one time only. XXXX meant a great place to work. I gave Bell Canyon an XXX.

And I did my job well—so well, in fact, that I got a visit from my fully uniformed and armed supervisor. He said he was pleased that I was always at my post and never called in sick. He had zero complaints against me, and he was impressed that I’d volunteered to work nights and that I did so without grousing. He wanted to reward me. How did I feel about a promotion? “What about moving out of this dreary place,” he said, waving his hand dismissively at my booth. “How would you like to see some real action? Real criminals. The cops are called in almost every night. And”—he gave a slight pause for emphasis—“you get to carry a gun.”

He smiled at me, excited. I smiled back, uneasy. I looked around. I kind of like it here. I do my homework. I listen to Dodger games on the radio. No one bothers me.

I didn’t want to leave a good thing, but I didn’t want to insult my boss.

“Does the promotion come with a raise?” I asked.

It did. Twenty-five cents an hour. I calculated. That would bring me to a grand total of $4.10. The extra quarter would have been nice, but I didn’t want to carry a gun, and I was incidentally surprised that assuming the immense responsibility of carrying a weapon only earned you twenty-five cents more.

I politely declined, feigning disappointment at the amount of the raise. “Oh, uh, well I suppose there are a couple other posts I can offer you,” he said, taken aback by my crippling lack of ambition.

He assigned me to an event at the Century Plaza Hotel on Avenue of the Stars. I was stationed at the back entrance. All the action was in front. The back was much quieter, more intimate. An occasional limo rolled up and out spilled a publicity-shy celebrity.

Nothing happened, nothing happened. And then suddenly—Alfred Hitchcock. I recognized his portly silhouette immediately. Security personnel whisked Mr. Hitchcock through the back entrance, and the limo doors were taken care of by the driver and valet. I wasn’t sure what my job was even supposed to be. But, hell, it was Alfred Hitchcock. I resolved to politely greet him when he left. An hour after he arrived, people around the back entrance started buzzing, and I sensed that someone was making an exit. Mr. Hitchcock emerged and made his way to the waiting car, and I rushed ahead of him so I could open his door. When I got close, I softly asked, “Did you enjoy your evening, Mr. Hitchcock?” I waited for him to bestow upon me some bit of sage wisdom I’d always cherish.

Lunging for the limo, he turned slightly toward me and said, “AAAAAAAAAAAARGH!” He waved his arms chaotically as if to shoo away a fly. He dove into the backseat. I stood there stupidly for a while. And then I went back to my post.

That was my first brush with a Hollywood legend. Since I was going to be a policeman, I was pretty sure it was going to be my last.

My other reward for being such a great booth guard was a posting in a grocery store called Hughes Market on Highland and Franklin, a transient corner in Hollywood that was rife with crime. I gave Hughes a quadruple X rating in my notebook. My job was to man the two-way mirrors strategically placed high above the store and catch shoplifters.

My mother had always had light fingers. Whenever we’d go into the produce section of a supermarket she would help herself to a piece of bulk candy. She loved those individually wrapped chocolate-covered caramels. Or she’d casually snap off a sprig from a bunch of grapes, popping them into her mouth as she shopped. My mom taught us it was okay to “sample,” that the markets factor samples into the overall cost. When I was a kid, I would always take a caramel. My brother, too—because it wasn’t stealing, it was sampling. We never took big items, and never too many: one was acceptable, three was not. But if, for example, we spotted a bag of Toll House chocolate chips that had already been opened, we’d help ourselves to fistfuls. They couldn’t sell the bag now anyhow! I became so accustomed to the candy samples that whenever I walked into a grocery store, I’d crave something sweet. That Pavlovian response went on for years.

I vividly remembered looking up at those mirrors in stores and wondering if anyone was behind them. Now I finally learned the answer, and the answer was me.

My dark aerie, in an attic high above Hughes, had an L-shaped catwalk. The ceilings were low so I had to crouch, but the view was expansive. The mirrors protruded so I could even observe the meat counter beneath me. Little stools were set up, and I’d sit and wait and watch.

I was good at spotting thieves long before they stole. I was never wrong. It wasn’t that I possessed some preternatural powers of perception. Once you know what to look for, thieves are pretty conspicuous. People who shop are busy: they’re scanning their lists and examining labels, doubling back for that item they forgot. People who steal look around and down aisles furtively. Shoppers move quickly. Thieves have a slower pace. They’re trying to be careful. I learned to detect the telltale signs. The most telling of the tells was when people looked up at the two-way mirror. I wonder if anyone is there. And I was sitting there in the dark whispering: Yes, I’m here!

People stole constantly. They would take anything. Lightbulbs, coffee filters, a whole pineapple. One guy stood in the pet supply aisle and pocketed four or five leashes. Dog leashes? You’re going to risk getting arrested for dog leashes?

By law, a thief had to be outside the store to be caught. If you confronted a guy inside the store, he could point to the cold cuts in his pocket and say, I didn’t grab a basket, so I just put it here for the moment while I was looking for something else.

Oh, I put salami in my pocket all the time!

I had a little microphone at my station behind the mirrors, and when I spotted a thief, I needed to alert the manager. We had a code. At the precise moment the thief was crossing the threshold of the store, I spoke into my microphone, and my voice blared out through on the intercom: Fred, the coffee is on in the front. Or: The coffee is on in the back, Fred. The front or back told Fred where to look for the culprit, front door or back door. The manager then rushed to the relevant door and detained the shoplifter outside the store. I made my way down and said, “I witnessed you stealing such and such,” and then walked back to the manager’s office and waited for the cops to show up.

It was ridiculously easy. Per six-hour shift, I could catch up to ten people. Sometimes I’d have more than one thief in the store at the same time, and I had to decide which one I was going to follow. “You have packages of soup mix in your jacket.”

“No I don’t.”

“Just show us you don’t have them, sir.”

And the guy would say, “All right, all right.” He’d open up his jacket, and what do you know? Soup galore.

There were no big-ticket items at the store, so it was all petty stuff. But you had to detain them and call the police because otherwise they would come back night after night. Once you got caught, you were in the system. If we caught you again, there was a cumulative effect, and that meant an arrest and potentially jail time.

Hughes Market carried huge roasts wrapped in cellophane. They could run up to a foot and a half long. One time I saw this couple in their late teens, grungy, probably runaways, loitering in the meat section. The guy was doing that telltale glance-over-the-shoulder while the girl shoved a giant slab of meat down her pants, down the length of her thigh, and headed toward the back door. The roast was so long she couldn’t bend her knee, so she was limping, dripping a trail of bloody roast juice in her wake. My cue. Fred, the coffee is on in the back. The manager detained them outside, and I went down and confronted her. She got this sheepish look on her face and glanced around as if maybe she were thinking about running and then let out a sigh of concession and pulled the roast out of her pants. I did the paperwork and waited for the police to show.

I was doing my job, and yet I couldn’t help feeling sorry for these two. They had to be hungry.

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