Another guy from New York had never done anything wrong, either, but one day, badly in need of money, he decided to rob a bank. Almost randomly, he selected a branch on Lexington Avenue. He went up to a teller and made his demands. She said, "You better turn around." Everyone behind him had a gun trained on him. The branch was beneath what was then the New York City headquarters of the FBI, and all the customers were agents cashing their paychecks.
When the others learned why I was there--for passing $2.5 million of bum checks--they were practically drooling. At least I was put away for being clever.
But I didn't make any friends in prison. I felt no connection to the other inmates. No one I met felt like a defeated soul, a loser, but merely a winner waiting out a temporary setback. They were in a dangerous state of denial. Of all the inmates I met, none was remorseful about the crimes he had committed, and that genuinely bothered me. No one ever said to me, "Gee, I really screwed up my life. I'm going to set things straight." It was very demoralizing to me that in all the time I was in prison, not one of the six hundred inmates ever said that he was going to change. Instead, everyone was planning the next scam. And they were all trying to learn from me. Among inmates, con men are always looked up to as the upper echelon of criminals. Fellow inmates were always pressing me for applicable tips on getting fake IDs and ways to counterfeit checks.
LETTING TIME SERVE ME
I wasn't thinking that way anymore. I had crossed a crucial threshold. Crime no longer seemed romantic or noble, or in any way appealing to me. I had lived a life of incredible intensity. I knew I had made tragic mistakes and I wanted to make amends. So I'd refuse to offer them any advice that would merely perpetuate the treadmill they were on. I'd just brush them off by saying, "Do you just want to come back to the joint again? You know you'll get caught."
Don't misunderstand me, I don't believe prison rehabilitated me, or in any way fostered my moral and spiritual reform. A bright light didn't appear and God didn't speak to me. I simply grew up. I was a teenager when I was forging checks. As I got older, my conscience began to bother me. When I went into a bank at sixteen and wrote a bad check, I'd think, they've got millions of dollars, they won't miss a few hundred or a few thousand. A couple of years later, I would worry that the teller might lose her job. I started to look at things more rationally and as a more mature person. I had tired of a life where everyone you meet believes you to be someone you're not. It's pretty hard to have a serious relationship with a woman when you're lying and using a phony name.
And so, with my changed outlook, I never sat around thinking of my next scam. I had no idea what I would do when I got out, but whether I ended up roping cattle or selling kitchen appliances, the one thing I was certain about was that I would never pull another scam.
There's this whole thing about going to prison and serving time, or going to prison and have time serve you. I wanted time to serve me. I managed to get my GED, and I took some college courses to advance my limited education. Above all else, I dearly wanted to get out and rejoin society while I still had the time to construct a new life. I didn't know what that new life could be, but I was itching to start it.
As a con man, though, I was always given a hard time. My father died, and like all inmates, I expected to be allowed a funeral visit home. But I was denied this routine privilege, because the Bureau of Prisons was afraid that I would escape and embarrass it. All these murderers and violent criminals were allowed funeral visits, but not me.
With my parole rejections, I began to believe that I was going to have to serve every last day of my sentence. I was disturbed and baffled, but in prison you have no rights. Finally, on my third try, after having served three years of my sentence, I was granted parole. When I was asked what city I would like to be paroled in, I said that I didn't really care. I only asked that it not be New York. My mother and brothers were there, and I didn't think that I could handle the family situation just yet. I also thought New York offered far too many enticements for someone just embarking on a legitimate life.
Excerpted from The Art of the Steal by Frank W. AbagnaleCopyright 2001 by Frank W. Abaganale . Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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