Friendly, affable Bobby Ray looks like a younger version of James Brolin. He’d be welcome in any neighborhood as long as people didn’t know he’d just served ten years in prison for robbing a pharmacy at gunpoint. Bobby is a drug addict.
In prison, he had worked his way up to clerk of the chemical dependency unit, spent several hours a week on the outside working with juvenile offenders, and coordinated the prison’s father education program. His wife and three sons visited him every week, and he was working at being a good dad.
I got to know Bobby’s story when I interviewed him in prison for research I do on crime. Bobby is not his real name.
Bobby has a strong work ethic. “Hustling for drug money is hard work,” he said. “There’s no two ways about it. You hustle hard. It’s a job. You get up in the morning. You’re sick. You get that shot of dope. You go out.
“It’s just like anybody else in offices downtown. Matter of fact it’s over eight hours a day, and you work hard. It’s stressful. You got to go in a store to boost. You got to finagle. You got to manipulate. You got to con. You got to. Some of it feels good. Some of the cons are pretty good, and some other ones just fall apart. You’re scared. Then you do get caught. You get arrested. You got to be in jail. You get sick. Full-time job, man.”
After a pause of several seconds, he continued, “It’s a full time job. It really is.” Bobby chuckled and shook his head. The skin around his eyes crinkled. His face lit up. He has charm. Maybe that is why his wife and children kept in such close touch. Maybe they don’t know what he does when he’s committing crimes.
As part of my work as a professor at a Big Ten University, I interviewed Bobby while he was in prison for the third time. Bobby and the other prison inmates I’ve interviewed are far different from what I had expected.
I thought I could tell if someone were a criminal. Media depictions swing between glamorous action figures or diabolic monsters, but I slowly realized that when you see them on the street, they look little different from you or me, or the next-door neighbor. They have a sense of morality, too, often twisted, but it’s there.
We are kidding ourselves if we think we know what criminals are like. Do we know anything about burglary from the points of view of burglars? What about the views of rapists? Incest perpetrators? Murderers? They may look like you or me, but what is normal and everyday, for them is often galaxies away from our own lives.
Yet, within in each of the men I interviewed I saw glints of humanity that helped me understand how their families and friends could love them and neighbors respect and trust them. Their lives are a thicket of contradictions.
Professing and sometimes even showing love for their families, they can do harm to them, sometimes in the name of love. For many, their crimes are not personal. They wanted something, and they took it. They believe they deserve it. Typically, they construct images of who their victims are and then act on these images.
Some have second thoughts, but they keep committing their crimes. As much as they harm others, they also harm themselves. Sometimes they know this, though they can’t guarantee they wouldn’t do the same acts in the future. Unexpectedly, a number of the men I interviewed had a sense of humor and even a sense of the sadness and tragedy of their behaviors.
The stories that I want to put out are stories that changed my ideas of who criminals are. Criminal behaviors are not what I thought they were. Criminals are not who I thought they were, and the stories they tell show just how complex criminal behaviors are.
Bobby had been hooked on drugs and alcohol for most of his life, sniffing glue by the time he was eleven and moving on to smoking pot, snorting coke, shooting heroin, and popping uppers and downers.
Beer, wine, liqueurs, and hard liquor were all right, too. He spent most of his time on the outside committing crimes to support his addiction and would do anything for his next hit of dope. He exuded confidence that he knew what was going on.
“They got so many different kinds of hustles out there,” he said. “They got everything. Then it changes. Something will come in, and it’s hot. It’s new. Boom. The hustlers will find a new store that just opened up. Oh, God, new stores are easy to steal from.”
Bobby laughed. “You got every junkie in town in that store because the word gets around. It’s weird. When you’re out working you just, bing, bing, you pick the hustlers out. You might not know them but you see them at the dope man’s house. They’re all doing the same thing.”
Bobby thinks he can get a job spotting boosters in stores. Boosters are shoplifters. “I can pick people out,” he said, “if you follow them and watch them, you can. I don’t think I can say by looking, ‘That person’s a thief,’ but I can tell by what he’s doing and how he’s going about things. That’s how you tell he’s going to thieve. That’s how you can tell he’s a thief.”
Boosting and robbing pharmacies weren’t the only ways Bobby copped money for drugs. Burglary was his main job. The sound he dreaded the most was the “scritch scritch” of the home owner unlocking the door. That happened a lot.
“One time he was reaching for the handle of the back door to leave with a bagful of stolen goods. He heard the sound too late. “I fell right into this guy’s chest. He was a great, big, huge man. I scared the shit out of him, and I scared the shit out of me. It kind of shocked him. I looked at him. He looked at me. He said, ‘You bastard.’ I took off running.”
Another time he and his buddy Jeb were in an apartment when they heard the sound. They both hid. A woman walked in. “Where I was hiding I could look around. She didn’t see me. I was seeing the back of her going up to my buddy.
She thought he was her husband or somebody hiding from her. She goes like this.” Bobby mimicked someone walking on tip toes. “She’s sneaking up on my partner. ‘Boo!’ she goes. Jeb jumps up. He’s got gloves on.
The woman goes, ‘Who are you?’ Once she saw it was not her husband or friend or whoever, she must have got good and scared. My buddy was so afraid because she crept up on him and scared the shit out of him because he wasn’t ready for the ‘Boo’ part.
“I’m watching this whole thing. My buddy’s like this with his mouth wide open and his eyes really big. Jeb’s really not a wild type of guy. I mean, we could’ve gone and hit her and held her down and stuff like that. It was just not our style. We usually got out.
‘He stood there. He didn’t know what to say. Then he goes, ‘Hi.’ She goes, ‘What are you doing here?’ He started walking back. ‘Hi.’ He didn’t know what to do. I was by the kitchen door. I whistled. She turned around and saw me. I kind of waved. Then I ran out the door.
She went nuts, started screaming, ‘Help. They’re robbing me.’ We got away. Got the stuff. My buddy dropped the other bag. That’s what had all the silver and stuff.”
While Jeb was jamming his bag full of silver and jewelry, Bobby had been in the kitchen. “I went in the icebox. I saw in the back of the peas there was money. So I looked. Fifties. It was fifties, hundreds. It was a big wad, like that.”
Bobby held his thumb and index finger about five inches apart. “She had it in her freezer.” Bobby had the money when they ran out of the apartment, but he didn’t tell Jeb. “I used to do that to him because I always thought I was a worse addict. I needed money more than he did.”
Bobby said when he breaks into homes, it feels like Christmas. “I get so excited I can’t make it to the toilet. I go right on the floor.”
Oh, that explains why homeowners find these piles in their burglarized homes. It’s not personal at all. Bobby is just doing his job.