A Simpson’s Fraudster


When a nondescript, mousy guest named Tim Heidingsfelder, checked into our hotel, he did not fall prey to the need to draw attention to himself. He knew that cardinal rule of fraud. He had an sizable advantage on most fraudsters though. His characteristics didn’t draw attention, and he wasn’t particularly charismatic. Tim Heidingsfelder had the type of characteristics that most fraudsters could only dream of having, in that he could get lost in just about any sea of faces. No one noticed Tim Heidingsfelder when he checked into our hotel, but the attractive, young women at the front desk didn’t notice him either.

Tim Heidingsfelder probably regarded his unremarkable characteristics as a curse for much of his life. He was never ugly, even during puberty. He never had acne, freckles, or any blemishes on his face, but his bone structure just wasn’t very attractive. He had no chin, no discernible cheekbones, and his eyes were relatively common. As he grew into a man, he found his dating opportunities somewhat limited. They weren’t non-existent, but the rejections he received in high school helped shape the man Tim Heidingsfelder would become. 

When Tim Heidingsfelder decided to commit his first act of fraud, however, he found his unremarkable characteristics ideal. As a fraudster who planned to live the high life and buy the most expensive items he could with other people’s money, he didn’t want people to notice him. He didn’t want people to remember or recall his features. 

Those of us who worked in a hotel never noticed that how it provides the perfect climate for anyone seeking anonymity. Most hotel employees offer every guest a hearty, “Hello!” when they check into their hotel. The better ones might even strike up a casual, fun conversation with the guest, “Hey, you’re from Michigan? Go Blue!” The best hotel employees do whatever they have to do to make that guest feel welcome and special. Yet, if those Michiganders ran into that friendly employee, hours later, even the best hotel employees probably wouldn’t remember them. The average hotel employee sees so many faces in one day that most guests get lost in a sea of faces. Unless guests make themselves known, and this requires some effort on their part, most hotel employees wouldn’t be able to pick them out of a police lineup.

Tim Heidingsfelder wasn’t an outgoing type, but from what I heard, he wasn’t a quiet, loner either. (I only had one interaction with him, as I’ll detail below.) No one noticed Tim Heidingsfelder in the course of that day, and his daily routine allowed him to remain as anonymous as every other guest in our hotel. Throughout his elongated stay, however, Tim Heidingsfelder couldn’t help noticing how attractive the young women working behind the front desk were every time he passed.

It’s all about the money, is the first cardinal rule of fraudsters, and those who attempt to try to catch them. A fraudster needs to keep their crimes small and unremarkable, so they don’t hit the queues of investigatory agents. As most fraud investigators will tell us this might seem relatively easy, but it’s much harder to fight off greed. The second cardinal rule for fraudsters, based in part on the first one, is don’t bring unwanted attention to oneself. For Tim Heidingsfelder, and his unremarkable features, this was the relatively easy rule to manage. The man could slide in and out of just about any room unnoticed. Yet, when a late 40’s/early 50’s man stands face to face with an extremely attractive young woman, and that young woman looks through him, but doesn’t see him, it can cause such a man to do things he wouldn’t otherwise do.

The traveling businessman is the bread and butter of most hotels. Depending on the needs of their business, some businessmen can stay at a hotel 100 days a year. “First of all, you can forget the idea of having a family,” a traveling businessman informed me one day as we discussed the plusses and minuses of his profession. “Why?” he asked, repeating my question. “What kind of child would I raise being on the road an average of 100 days a year. What kind of marriage would I have? The life of a traveling businessman has its perks of course, but those of us who have done it for any length of time know it’s a lonely, sometimes grueling lifestyle.” I witnessed the effects this lifestyle could have on a person secondhand, and I saw them gather at the front desk to have conversations with front desk employees just to have a few normal, non-business conversations in a day. I also noticed most of them centered their focus on the attractive women behind the front desk. It dawned on me, after the traveling businessman told me about the pratfalls of the profession that making an attractive young woman laugh could provide them a respite from their empty, relatively meaningless existence.

Tim Heidingsfelder was not a traveling businessman, but he was apparently as lonely as they were, and this otherwise unmemorable man needed to try to make one of these young women behind the front desk laugh. Based solely on his appearance, we later guessed that Tim Heidingsfelder probably had few opportunities in life to do so.

When he stopped by the front desk for whatever reason he dreamed up, Tim didn’t just stop to say hello, he didn’t just pick up a fax, or engage in the various business-related conversations that occur between hotel employees and guests. Tim Heidingsfelder stopped to chat. He stopped to shoot the stuff with some of these attractive, young women. He stopped to get to know them, so they could know him.

The best looking young employee at the front desk also happened to be the friendliest. Cheri Lee was so attractive and so skilled at engaging in short, friendly conversations with guests that she quickly became a favorite among the hotel’s businessmen and long-term guests. It took some of us naively entering into these conversations, to do our job and add to the guest’s enjoyment, only to be whisked aside by them, to realize they didn’t stop to chat. They stopped to chat with Cheri Lee. After a few of these chats, Tim Heidingsfelder asked the other front desk employees where Cheri was one day. When they told him that she had the day off, he was visibly disappointed.

As with most of the lonely, traveling businessmen who stayed at our hotel, Tim Heidingsfelder found Cheri delightful, and it probably excited him when he made her laugh. He probably didn’t fully acknowledge that the hotel paid her and everyone else on staff, to laugh at guests’ jokes. Some of the guests we talked to on a daily basis were genuinely funny. Some of the times, we laughed politely to fill the void after their punchlines, and some of the times, we laughed because it was good customer service to let guests think they were funny. Cheri had a gift for making all of her laughs sound the same. Tim Heidingsfelder enjoyed this so much that he pursued their professional relationship to its fullest extent. He probably didn’t have designs on her romantically, but after a couple of conversations with Cheri, he did everything he could to leave an impression on her.

“I’m a writer for The Simpsons,” Tim told her. “The Simpsons creators sent me to your city to scout it as a probable location for a future episode.” Was this lie something he dreamed up before he made the hotel reservation? Did he scheme it out beforehand with an algorithm of answers should anyone question him, or did he develop it for the sole purpose of impressing Cheri? How many lies did he think up before he landed on this one? Did he nix some, because they weren’t impressive enough? Did he nix others, because they were too grandiose and subject to fact-checking. We don’t know, but we think he locked in on The Simpsons’, Goldilocks lie, because it didn’t violate any of the imposed or self-imposed cardinal rules. Yet, this seemingly harmless lie would eventually prove to be a depth charge that once detonated would expose all of his plans. 

Tim Heidingsfelder did accomplish his initial and shortsighted goal of impressing Cheri however. When I arrived at work the next day, Cheri was all a twitter about it. “Did you know we have a celebrity in the hotel today?” she said artfully spooling out the scoop she had. “I know you’re a fan of The Simpsons, and I know you’re a writer,” she told me. “Well, we just happen to have a guest who is a both a writer and a writer for that show.”

“Seriously?” I asked.

“His name is Tim Heidingsfelder,” Cheri said. She told me that he was at the hotel on an elongated stay to scout our city as a probable location for a future episode.

“You’re kidding me?” I said. “That is so cool.” I thought about how cool it might be to meet him. I thought about how cool it would be to see our city depicted in the cartoon, and I thought about how cool it would be to talk to a paid writer to learn from his path to success.

When I finally met Tim Heidingsfelder days later, he didn’t look like a writer, but what does a writer look like? Do they all look like James Joyce, professorial and bespectacled with patches on their elbows? Tim Heidingsfelder didn’t look that way, but either did Ernest Hemingway. I was not the least bit suspicious in other words. I talked with Tim Heidingsfelder with a co-worker standing over my shoulder listening. He unsuccessfully hid his laughter while two writer nerds talked craft.

“This is just so cool meeting you,” I said, “and I love what you plan on doing for our fair city.” The man was cordial and apparently as impressed with me as I was with him. Throughout our introductory conversation, I told him that I was a writer and a huge fan of The Simpsons. “As a writer, I always pay attention to the credits that list the writers of the show,” I said proudly, “and I don’t remember ever seeing your name.

“Well,” Tim said. “You probably pay attention to the opening credits. Right? Yeah, I’m what you call an uncredited writer. I have yet to have one of my episodes aired,” he said with some chagrin.

“Shows, like The Simpsons,” he furthered, “have a number of staff writers, and most of us have never had one of our episodes picked up.” That was a great answer, because I read and watched a number of “behind the scenes” and “the making of …” stories about my favorite TV shows. I knew about writers’ rooms and head writers, and it wasn’t much of a leap for me to believe that most writers on staff don’t receive accreditation. I figured that if I really wanted to find his name, I could look at the long list of names that appear at the end of the show. I never did. I was never that interested or suspicious.

While Tim and I talked about the craft of writing, I could tell he wasn’t as into our conversation as I was. I figured that was the natural order of things. I figured he was one of the lucky few that someone paid to write, and I wasn’t. I also figured that by the time I met him, he had been a paid writer for so long that it was no longer special to him. Tim Heidingsfelder gave me no reason, at this point in our conversation, to suspect that he was anything less, or anything more than a writer for The Simpsons.

At one point in our conversation, I feared that I was playing the role of the fan, an annoying, uninformed and pathetic fan. I thought my end of the conversation was mundane, in other words, and I searched for a way to impress this man. I wanted a knockout blow. I wanted some little nugget of information that would prove I wasn’t just a fan to him. I don’t know what I hoped to see this man do, raise an eyebrow, smile an appreciative smile, or what, but I didn’t think my question would gain me anything. I just wanted to make an impression. 

I searched for that knockout blow while asking him other insignificant questions, such as what he thought was the best joke he submitted, and he said, “Oh, there have been so many. It’s hard to pick one.” I asked him what it was like to be in a writing room, and I thought of a couple other nerdy, fanboy questions, but I couldn’t come up with that one big question that would blow him away. After a few more exchanges, hit me. 

What I didn’t know at the time was that I was holding onto a question that would accidentally reveal Tim Heidingsfelder’s harmless lie for what it was and eventually his legacy of fraud. The moment after it dawned on me, I couldn’t wait to ask it, as Tim continued to answer my previous question in a congenial manner. The moment he finished, I launched into what I considered a knockout question that I thought might lead to one of those curious/impressed smiles that allowed him to launch into a discussion of his memories of the years he spent writing next to Conan O’Brien.

“Do you know Conan O’Brien?” I asked him. “Do you know him personally, or have you worked with him in any capacity?”

I don’t remember what he said, or if he decided to leave it blank, but I remember he began backing away to the elevator. That should’ve raised a red flag, but it didn’t. I didn’t think there was anything suspicious about that at the time. He was a guest at our hotel, and he had to take the elevator to get to his room. I thought he was signaling that his interest in our conversation was beginning to wane, or he had to get back to his room for a phone call or what have you. This happened on a daily basis at our hotel. With the benefit of hindsight, I now remember how uncomfortable that question made him. I remember his face turned three sheets of red in the aftermath of that question, but it meant little to nothing to me at the time.

My co-worker, who had been listening to this conversation throughout, noted the uncomfortable silence between Tim and I following that question and he capitalized on the moment to embarrass me.

“Conan O’Brien? He’s a talk show host, on another network,” my co-worker said. “What do you think all Hollywood people know each other?” He began laughing at me. He thoroughly enjoyed the moment. Tim Heidingsfelder joined in on that laughter, in a good-natured way.

“No,” I said looking Tim in the eye, seeking to have him join me in informing my irritant friend of Conan’s early days. “Not many people know this, but Conan used to be a writer for The Simpsons.” This might be common knowledge now, but in the nascent days of Conan’s talk show, it was knowledge only fans of both parties had. 

Unbeknownst to either of us, this innocent question spelled out a cautionary tale for all fraudsters and potential fraudsters. A fraudster might think they’ve worked hard to prepare themselves for every scenario. They might think they’ve built a mental algorithm to prepare for any scenarios that might come their way. They might even sit down and write out an algorithm out to prepare for anything and everything that might expose them. As even the most gifted fraudsters will probably tell anyone who’s interested, a fraudster cannot prepare for every situation. “You just have to learn to roll with the punches, but if there’s one thing you take from our discussion today let it be this, don’t create your own situations to unwind. Don’t create your own spider webs.”  

Tim Heidingsfelder could’ve said something as simple as, “No, Conan O’Brien and I never worked together,” or “No, we never crossed paths.” He could’ve said something simple as, “I don’t know what years he worked on the show, but I never had the opportunity to work with him.” It wouldn’t have taken much to throw me off a trail I wasn’t on in other words. I thought I was in the vulnerable position, trying to impress a man I never met before. If he characterized my question as one coming from a nerdy, fan boy, I would’ve slinked off with my tail between my legs, but he didn’t know enough about The Simpsons, or his lie, to throw me off a trail I wasn’t on. Knowing everything I know now, this would’ve been a perfect place for The Simpson’s character Nelson Muntz to say, “Haw Haw!” as Tim Heidingsfelder all but sprinted to the elevators.

Most fraudsters are smooth talkers, and we think that a late 40’s/early 50’s fraudster should know when to push and when to pull out of a conversation. We think that every fraudster, but particularly a seasoned fraudster should know how important it is to say something, some of the times. Some of the times, we have to fill the blank before others do. Some of the times, it’s just as important to leave the blank alone, to allow the other party, or parties, to fill in the blank for them, as my co-worker did when he attempted to portray me as a Simpson’s nerd who knew more about the show than the actual writer.

Fraudsters learn how to fool people at a very young age. Deceiving the people who know and loved them most is excellent training. Salesmen learn such things in training classes. Trainers tell trainees to try to sell the product to their intimate friends and family first. “Not only are they great potential customers,” trainers say, “but the interaction allows you to work on your sales pitch.” Fraudsters follow the same methodology, as they try to see if they can fool their good friends, their aunt Gladys, or their own mother first. Doing this, is a way to practice the art of deception to see if they have any talent for it.

As a former liar, I often wonder what separates those who lied, stole and deceived in their preteen years and those who continue to do so well into their adult years. Lying, stealing and deceiving those who loved me most almost felt like a rite of passage in my early teen years, but I hated it when they caught me in an act of deception. The embarrassment and shame that followed proved almost physically painful to me. No one trusted me. They called me a liar and a thief, and the only way I found to avoid that was to stop lying and stealing. It sounds so simple, and it is, but some people enjoy deceiving people so much that they keep doing it. Perhaps I’m approaching this from an autobiographical stance, but I believe that the mentality of caring what happens when friends and family catch us in a lie provides something of a dividing line between those who will pursue a life of deception to whatever ends and those who will use whatever abilities they unearth along the way for honest gains.

Everyone who lies, steals, and attempts to deceive people in all the ways they dream up are not going to be good at it in the beginning. They’re going to get caught, and what they do in those moments will define them. Fraudsters don’t want anyone to catch them, of course, and they don’t want to go through the embarrassment and shame of their acts, but if they don’t find a way to deal with the shame, it will impede their progress. It seems to me that a fraudster needs to develop some sort of mechanism that permits them to avoid caring about what their loved ones think of them, and once they clear that hurdle, they will feel free to lie and steal from total strangers. The proficient fraudster will combine that lack of concern with some effort put into covering their trail. No matter how prepared the fraudster is, no matter how smooth they are at fooling their mother, their aunts, and all the men in their life, a situation for which they are unprepared will find them.

Those who discover they have some talent for deception, but find that can’t go on knowing what others might think of them, use whatever talent they have in ways that are more productive. They might use that knowledge or talent to catch other fraudsters and liars for law enforcement, or they might go to work for a fraud department in a fortune 500 company. They might even become magicians, actors, or writers. These three crafts call for a mutually agreed upon level of lying and deception. Those who cannot find a way to channel their gifts productively continue to deceive people, and they find that like a great wine, or a great bottle of scotch, they get better with age.

The man who called himself Tim Heidingsfelder engaged in larger acts of fraud, and he was probably well prepared to defend himself on that front, but he failed to do his homework on his otherwise harmless lie to impress Cheri. Who would? We could say that what a fraudster does in that moment for which they are unprepared defines them, but who would think that a simple lie about writing for The Simpsons to impress a girl might start unraveling a complicated yarn of deception they’ve worked years to build?  

The only thing I knew in the aftermath of my interaction with Tim Heidingsfelder was that the man was not sufficiently impressed with my knowledge of The Simpsons that day in the foyer of the hotel. I didn’t think about it too much, until I began seeing him in the foyer of the hotel. I had numerous opportunities to correct the record, but this man constantly ducked me. I didn’t think he heard me a couple times, and I didn’t think he saw me a couple others. Over time, a troubling pattern began to emerge, until I found his evasion somewhat noteworthy.

“Why does he always do that?” I asked Brian, the front desk manager at the hotel. Just prior to that question, Brian was speaking with Tim Heidingsfelder. The moment Tim spotted me coming to the front desk he moved the elevators.

“Because you’re a nerdy fanboy, and no one wants to talk to nerdy fanboys,” Brian said. That was a great answer, as Brian unknowingly put the onus back on me.

“Ok, but I thought he and I had a great conversation a while back,” I said. “I was beyond polite to the man, and I think he would enjoy talking about how jealous I am of him, but every time I walk into the room, he runs away.”

“Well I know you pretty well,” Brian asked, “and if I saw you coming, I’d walk away too.”

“I’m serious here,” I said.

“You think it’s suspicious?”

“It’s odd,” I said. “That’s all I’m saying. It’s odd.”

“Does everyone have to love you?” Brian said. “Maybe he just doesn’t enjoy talking to you.”

“Fair enough,” I said, “but you know me, I’m not the type who has to be involved in every conversation. As you said, I’m kind of a quiet guy, and when I walked up to this desk tonight, I had no plans of saying anything. I was just going to stand here and let you two talk. If I was rude, or an overbearing person, perhaps I could see it, but this guy jets like I have a communicable disease any time I enter the room?”

Brian did not begin investigating Tim Heidingsfelder that night, but Brian did not view the man with the least bit of suspicion before our conversation, and soon thereafter, he began spotting some unsual dots that he thought might lead to come connections. I might have initiated some suspicion, in other words, but Brian did all of the investigative work. He dotted the I’s and crossed the T’s to find Tim Heidingsfelder’s alleged criminal activity. Brian examined the credit card history on Tim Heidingsfelder’s account history, and he found that Tim Heidingsfelder switched credit cards a number of times. That, in and of itself, was no reason to call in the cavalry. Guests, particularly business travelers, regularly put a number of business cards on their account. At times, and for a variety of reasons, those cards max out. This is particularly the case with extended stays such as Tim Heidingsfelder’s. The company furnishes their business travelers with a number of cards, and some of the times businessmen puts their personal cards on the account and the company reimburses him. Long story short, a guest switching cards in the middle of a stay is no reason to investigate on their account. When Brian analyzed Tim Heidingsfelder’s account, however, he found that a number of the previous credit cards placed on his account were declared stolen.

When I saw Tim Heidingsfelder sitting in Brian’s office, I knew he wasn’t there to discuss his stay at the hotel. His face was three sheets of red again. Brian caught him. Seeing those three sheets of red, I recalled the look Tim gave me after my Conan O’Brien question.

The local police soon followed and frog marched Tim off in handcuffs, and I sensed the script flip from a Simpson’s episode to one of Scooby Doo as I watched the police walk him off in handcuffs. I waited for a “And I would’ve gotten away with it too, if it wasn’t for you, the meddling fanboy” exit, but it never arrived.   

The police later informed us that Tim Heidingsfelder was a pseudonym he used, and they managed to find his real name. They informed us that two other states wanted him on credit card fraud.

How many of us have had the best laid plans, only to fall prey to some human need for interaction, to have someone, somewhere impressed by us? Tim Heidingsfelder probably could’ve engaged in fraudulent activity for years, perhaps decades, if he continued to cross his T’s and dot his I’s, but he fell prey to the desire, some might say need, to have someone notice him for an average of two minutes a day. The line on Tim Heidingsfelder is that he stole tens of thousands of dollars from unsuspecting victims, but that could’ve been nothing more than a good start for the man. He could’ve increased that total exponentially. He could’ve destroyed people, and left true carnage in his wake, if he could’ve just managed to control his need for human contact a little better.   

The Thief’s Mentality: A Preview


The best thief I ever knew accused me of stealing from him so often that I began to question my integrity. I dated a woman who cheated on me so often that I’m still embarrassed that I wasn’t more aware of her infidelities. Her octopus ink involved psychological projection in the form of repetitive accusations of infidelity on my part. Her charges were so effective that I spent most of our relationship defending myself. These are but the greatest hits of compulsive liars who used tactics on me, so often, that I forgot to question their integrity. If their goals were to prevent me from analyzing them, they were successful. The more I thought about it, the more I realized their accusations said more about them, and their worldview, than it ever did me. Some might call this projection, others might call it deflection or obfuscation, but I believe the games these people play fall under a comprehensive, multi-tiered umbrella I call the thief’s mentality.

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Kurt Lee introduced me to the confusing mind of a deceptive person, even though I wasn’t aware of it at the time. The art of deception was such a key component of his personality that he was hypervigilant to the signs and signals of possible transgressions occurring in the minds of those around us. He spent his life so attuned to this frequency that his instincts often led him astray.

Kurt taught me more about how a deceptive person thinks, than any other person I’ve encountered, movie I’ve watched, or book I’ve read on the subject. He would serve as my prototype for those who would exhibit a wide array of similar traits, traits I would only later deem the attributes of the thief’s mentality.

The most interesting aspect about the man, a characteristic that might defy that which I will describe throughout this piece, was his charm. When it served him, Kurt Lee had the propensity to be nice, engaging, and infectious. He was also a funny guy, and a genuinely funny person can disarm us, unless we stick around long enough to learn more about their sensibilities.

Those who knew Kurt Lee, on a superficial level, envied him for the ways in which he openly defied authority figures without guilt. Those who actually spent as much time around Kurt Lee as I did, however, witnessed that for all the charisma a piece of work (POS) displays, they ultimately end up destroying themselves from the inside out.

One afternoon while on a city bus, Kurt decided to play with the crocheted ball on top of the stocking cap of the elderly woman that sat in front of him. My reaction to this spectacle may be one of the things I have to answer for on Judgment Day, because I found his appalling act hysterical.

Hindsight informs me that my youthful attraction to Kurt Lee’s antics may have had something to do with learning about the mores and rules my mother taught me. Why haven’t I ever played with the ball on top of an old woman’s stocking cap? What’s the difference between Kurt Lee and me? Is it about morality, or does it have more to do with common decency? My mother taught me that when a young, healthy male sees an elderly woman, he should smile at her and try to think up something nice to say. My mother taught me to hold the door for her, and she said that I should consider it a privilege to give up my seat to a woman like that on the city bus, if no other seats were available.

Not only did Kurt Lee ignore those typical conventions, he chose to pursue what we could term the exact opposite. He decided to violate the most vulnerable member of our culture’s sense of security by playing with her stocking cap. Of course, it was wrong, but it was also a fascinating exploration of human nature. How would this old woman react? How would a real POS counter that reaction? Why did he do it in the first place? Did he think he would get away with it? Did he even care? I would never know the answer to the latter questions, but my fascination with the answers to the former led me to urge him on with laughter. That was wrong, too, of course, but I now believe my laughter was borne of curiosity. I wanted to learn more about the moral codes by which we all abide. I hoped to learn that by watching another solidify my rationale, with no regard for the consequences of violating them. At the time, I really didn’t have those thoughts, but I couldn’t wait to see how it would end, and I dare say that most of those who are more successful in abiding by the standards their mothers taught them would not have been able to look away either

The vulnerable, elderly woman did eventually turn on Kurt, and she did so with an angry expression. She allowed the first few flicks of the ball atop her stocking cap go, presumably taking a moment to muster up the courage to tell him off, and then she gave him that angry look. Kurt Lee appeared ready to concede to that initial, nonverbal admonition, until he spotted me laughing. Egged on by me, he did it three more times before she reached a point of absolute frustration that led her to say something along the lines of, “Stop it, you young punk!”

To that, Kurt began thrusting his hips forward in his seat, while looking at me, whispering, “She just wants unusual carnal relations!” As a teenager trying to elicit more laughter from another teen, Kurt Lee did not use that term. He selected the most vulgar term he could to describe his extrapolation of her desires.

Had Kurt Lee decided to stick his middle finger up in the face of a healthier, younger adult, it would have been just as difficult to avoid watching. The fact that he chose such a sacred cow of our culture for his rebellion, however, made his actions over-the-top hilarious. In my young, unformed mind, this was a real life equivalent to David Letterman’s man-on-the-street segments, taken up ten notches on the bold-o-meter. I would later learn that Kurt Lee was not the type to make profound statements about our societal conventions. He was more of a doer, and doers just do what they do and leave the messy interpretations of what they do to others. I would also learn, by the manner in which Kurt Lee selected his victims based on their inability to fight back, that Kurt Lee was something of a coward. At the time, though, I found his actions so bold that I couldn’t look away, and I couldn’t stop laughing.

As time wore on, I discovered a wide array of fascinating explorations of human nature, but those paled in comparison to Kurt Lee’s mentality, his philosophy, and what drove him to be so different from everyone I had ever met. To listen to him speak on the topic, there was nothing different about Kurt Lee. He simply had the courage of his convictions. He ascribed to the more conventional line of thought that we were all afraid to be like him, but he also suggested that the rest of us have had this part of our makeup denied by parents and teachers instructing us to act differently for so long that we now believe we are different. The import of his message was that this was not about me, and it was not about him. It’s about human nature and the thief’s mentality.

“If you could get away with it, you would try,” was his answer to any questions posed to him. “You mean to tell me you’ve never stolen anythingEver? All right then, let’s talk about reality.” Kurt Lee was a thief, and like most thieves, he did not defend his position from the position of being a thief. He would substitute an exaggeration of your moral qualms regarding thievery, claiming that any person who has stolen even once is in no position to judge someone who steals on a regular basis.

In short bursts, and on topic, Kurt Lee could lower the most skilled debater to the ground. We called him a master debater, with the innuendo intended, because it was almost impossible to pin him down on specifics. It was a joy to watch. Prolonged exposure, however, opened up all these windows into his soul.

When we asked him how a guy from the sticks could afford the latest, top-of-the-line zipper pants, a pair of sunglasses that would put a fella back two weeks’ pay, and an original, signed copy of the Rolling Stones, Some Girls. He would tell us, but even his most ardent defender had a hard time believing Santa Claus could be that generous.

Kurt Lee stole so often by the time I came to know him that the act of shoplifting lost its thrill. He decided to challenge himself as top athletes, and top news anchors do, by hiring third-party analysts to scrutinize the minutiae of their performance. He asked me to watch him steal baseball cards from the shop owner that we all agreed was in need of a good lesson because the man refused to buy our cards 99 percent of the time. On those rare occasions when he agreed to buy them, his offers were so low they were almost insulting.

I posed a theory about our transactions with this shop owner. I theorized that the intent behind his frequent refusals to buy our cards was to establish his bona fides as a resident expert of value. That way, when he informed us that any of our cards were of value, we were ready to jump at the chance, no matter what amount he offered. “By doing so,” I concluded, “he actually makes us feel more valuable, because we think we finally have something worthy of one of his offers.”

“You’re right,” Kurt Lee said. “Let’s get him.”

I felt validated for coming up with a theory that Kurt Lee accepted, but in hindsight, I think Kurt Lee would’ve used anything I said to motivate me to conspire against the owner.

“One thing,” Kurt Lee said before we entered. “I don’t know if this needs to be said, but I’m going to say it anyway. Don’t watch me, don’t talk to me, and be careful about how often you look at me. Don’t try to avoid looking at me either.” When I laughed at that, a laugh that expressed some confusion, he added, “Just don’t do anything stupid or obvious.”

It was an invitation into a world I had never known, and Kurt Lee’s provisos might have been necessary, because I was as nervous as I was excited. I considered the idea that my foreknowledge of this crime could implicate me as an accessory, but I couldn’t shake the asexual intimacy that Kurt Lee was sharing with me, with this invitation into his world.

Before we entered the shop, Kurt Lee opened his pockets, in the manner a magician might, and he asked me to confirm that he had no cards in his pockets.

Throughout the course of our hour in the shop, I didn’t witness Kurt Lee steal one thing, and I mocked him. “What happened? I thought you were going to steal something,” I said. “I’m beginning to think you’re chicken.”

He allowed me to mock him without saying a word. When I finished, he opened his jacket to show me his inner pockets. What I saw knocked me back a couple steps. I actually took a step back when I witnessed the number of baseball cards that lined his inner pockets. I would’ve been impressed if he displayed one card, and three or four would’ve shocked me, but the sheer number of cards he stole without me noticing one act of thievery, led me to believe that Kurt Lee wasted his abilities on the petty art of shoplifting. I considered telling him to try his hand at being a magician for I thought what I was witnessing were the skills of a maestro of deception. If he could hone in on those skills, I thought the possibilities were endless for Kurt Lee.

Soon after recovering from that awe, I began to wonder how one acquires such a deft hand. As with any acquired skill, trial and error is involved, but nestled within that lies the need to find a utility that permits the thief to proceed uninhibited by shame. A skilled performer in the arts or athletics delights in displaying their ability to the world, in other words, but a thief prefers to operate in the shadows, and they acquire their skill with a modicum of shame attached. Success as a thief, it would seem to those of us on the outside looking in, requires the potential thief to either a defeat of that sense of shame or find a way to manage it.

Shame, some argue, like other unpleasant emotions, becomes more manageable with familiarity. When a father introduces shame to his child, in the brutal assessments a father makes regarding the value of the child, the child becomes familiar with an intimate definition of shame before they are old enough to combat them. When such brutal assessments are then echoed by a mother’s concern that their child can’t do anything right, the combined effort can have a profound effect on a child. When those parents then console the child with a suggestion that while the child may be a bad seed, but they’re no worse than anyone else is, something gestates in the child. The moral relativism spawned from these interactions suggests that the search for the definitions of right and wrong is over, and the sooner the child accepts that, the more honest they will become. Seeing their mother scold a teacher for punishing their child for a transgression only clarifies this confusion a little more. In that relativist scolding, the child hears their mother inform the teacher that the child can do no wrong, and they see her unconditional support firsthand. Over time, the child must acknowledge that their parents will not always be there, so they will need to develop personal defense mechanisms in line with what they’re learned. The child also learns to accept these realities for what they are, for the Lee family has never had the courage necessary to commit suicide.

I hated discounting the level of individual ingenuity on Kurt Lee’s part, but he was simply too good at the various forms of deception for it to have been something he arrived at on his own. Attempting to source it might be a fool’s errand, but I wondered if I were able to sort through Kurt’s his genealogical tree, if I might find sedimentary layers of grievance, envy, frustration, and desperation that worked their way down to him. To those who consider this a bit of a stretch, I ask how much of our lives do we spend rebelling against, and acquiescing to parental influence, and how many of us can say we are entirely free from it?

I was so obsessed with this, at one point, that I bridged a gap between being curious and badgering, something Kurt Lee made apparent in his volatile reaction:

“You think you’re better than me?” Kurt Lee asked, employing the universal get-out-of-judgment free card of moral relativism. This time-honored redirect relies on the lessons taught to us by our mothers, that we are no better than anyone else is, but Kurt Lee’s rant began to spiral out of control when he tried to pivot to what he believed its logical extension.

If no one is better than anyone else is and everyone resides on the cusp of whatever Kurt Lee was, the logical extension required the inclusion of an individual that many perceive to be so harmless it’s almost laughable to suggest otherwise. The individual, in this case, was a kid named Pete Pestroni. If Kurt Lee’s arguments were going to hold water, the idea that Pete Pestroni was a wolf in sheep’s clothing would have to become an agreed upon fact. I’m still not sure why Kurt Lee went down the Pete Pestroni road so often, but I suspect it had something to do with the idea that if Pete was immune, in one form or another, everyone else had to be too. Pete was just too weak, or too scared, to let his wolf run wild, in Kurt Lee’s worldview. We would laugh at the implausibility of Pete Pestroni having a Kurt Lee trapped inside, a thief dying to come out. Our intention was to laugh with Kurt Lee, but he wouldn’t even smile. Some part of him believed that if everyone was a thief, then no one was, at least to the point of separating the thief out for comparative analysis. This was a sacred chapter in Kurt Lee’s personal bible, and an ingredient of the thief’s mentality that took me decades to grasp.

The thief’s mentality is a mindset that involves a redirect of exposing an uncomfortable truth, or a hypocrisy, in others, so that the thief might escape a level of scrutiny that could lead to an uncomfortable level of introspection. An individual with a thief’s mentality may steal, but that person is just as apt to lie and cheat. The thief’s mentality begins as a coping mechanism for dealing with the character flaws that drive the thief to do what they do, but it progresses from those harmless, white lies to a form of deception that requires a generational foundation. 

The thief’s mentality is deflection, by way of subterfuge, a means to explain the carrier’s inability to trust beyond the point that they should be trusted, but some thieves’ outward distrust of others reaches a point of exaggeration that says far more about them than those they accuse. Their cynicism is their objectivity, and others’ faith in humanity is a subjective viewpoint, one that we must bear. We live in a dog-eat-dog, screw-or-be-screwed world in which those who trust anyone outside their own homes are naïve as to the point of hopelessness. If the listener is to have any hope of surviving in such a world, it is incumbent upon them to see past the façades and through the veneer, others present to the truth.

The truth, in Kurt Lee’s worldview, held that TV anchors with fourteen-inch parts, and perfect teeth, ended their days by going home to beat their wives. He didn’t believe that a person could attain wealth by honest means. He insisted that because some states convicted some Catholic priests as pedophiles that meant all Catholic priests were, and he had a particular fascination with infidelity in the White House. “You think JFK and Clinton are different? They’re just the ones that got caught is all.” There was also his contention that little old ladies who complained about having someone toy with the balls on the stocking caps just want to have unusual carnal relations. As with most tenets of a person’s worldview, there was some grain of truth in Kurt Lee’s, but he often had to put forth a great deal of effort to support it.

In most such discussions, Kurt Lee’s audience was immune. “I’m not talking about you,” he would say to the parties concerned, so they would view the subject matter from the perspective of an ally. If we began to view ourselves as an ally, we might join him in convincing our world that he’s not that bad, or the world is as bad as he is. Yet, our agreed upon immunity from his charges begins to fracture in the course of the thief’s logical extensions. When that happens, the thief turns their accusations on us. We may consider ourselves virtuous and moral, but the thief knows everything there is to know about hidden agendas. They maintain a perpetual state of readiness for that day when we break free of the constraints of morality and loyalty to expose our evil, naked underbelly to the world. They have us all figured out, because they know those lies we tell. It’s the thief’s mentality.

Thieves may even believe their exaggerated or false accusations, regardless of all we’ve done to establish ourselves as good, honest people. The validity of their accusation, however, pales in comparison to a thief’s need to keep a subject of their accusations in a perpetual state of trustworthiness. They make this accusation to keep us in check in a manner they know we should keep them in check. The import of that line provides us a key to understanding why an individual with a thief’s mentality would make such a charge against us, and the Pete Pestronis of the world that are so honest it’s laughable to suggest otherwise. Some might call such accusations psychological projection, the inclination one has to either deny or defend their qualities while seeing them in everyone else. Others might say that it’s some sort of deflection or obfuscation on the part of the thief, but I believe it all falls under a comprehensive, multi-tiered umbrella that I call the thief’s mentality. Still others might suggest that Kurt Lee’s accusations were born of theories he had about me, the people around him, and humanity in general. If that is the case, all theory is autobiography.

Whether it was as complex as all that on an unconscious level, or some simple measures Kurt Lee developed over the years to prevent people from calling him a POS, I witnessed some try to turn the table on the accusations by telling Kurt Lee that other people trust them.

Kurt Lee’s response to one particularly defensive combatant was so clever that I thought it beyond his years. Again, I hate to discount individual ingenuity, but it just seemed too clever for Kurt to deliver as quickly as he did when he said:

“So you think if someone trusts you that means that you’re trustworthy?” is how Kurt Lee responded. He said the word trustworthy, as if the word itself was an accusation, but that wasn’t the brilliant part of his response. As brilliance often does, his arrived in that section of an argument when the participants say whatever they can to win, regardless what those words reveal. Kurt Lee suggested, in not so many words, that those who consider themselves a beacon of trustworthiness are suffering from a psychosis of another stripe. The reason I considered this response so perfect, as it pertained to this specific argument, was that it put the onus of being trustworthy on the person who challenged Kurt Lee trustworthiness. It also put any further questions regarding Kurt Lee’s character –or what his inability to trust the people in his life said about him– on the back burner, until the questioner could determine whether the level of his own trustworthiness was a delusion that group thought led them to believe.

With all that Kurt Lee taught me about this fascinating mentality, always fresh in mind, I’ve had a number of otherwise trustworthy friends ask me how to deal with the thief in their life. They fail to understand why their beloved doesn’t trust them in even the most banal arenas of life. These worried friends said things like, “I don’t know what I did to damage our bond of trust, but they call me irredeemable.” My friends are insecure about their trustworthiness, as we all are, yet they wonder what they did to trigger the damning accusations regarding their trustworthiness.

“How do I win him back? How do I regain his trust?” they asked, with sorrow in their hearts.

“I’m sorry to say it’s not about you,” I tell them. “It’s the thief’s mentality.” 

I am sorry to say this, because these concerned friends have consigned themselves to some sort of relationship with the afflicted, one that requires them to spend long hours, days, and years with this person. I have explained the plight of the thief, to the best of my ability, via my personal experiences with Kurt Lee, and it has helped these concerned and confused souls frame the accusations with a name for what their loved one does. The idea that there might be a name for it, also suggests to them that someone has had similar experiences so often that they developed a name for it. Whatever short-term relief they experience in the moment, the idea that their loved one is never going to trust them anymore than they trust themselves dispels it.

The damage that thieves, like Kurt Lee, incur is irreparable. They may not enjoy the lives they’ve created for themselves, and the idea that they can’t even trust the one person in their lives that they could, or should. On the flipside, their accusations do allow them to spread their misery around a little. It lightens their load to transfer some of their toxins to others. It also gives them a little lift to know that we are a little less trusting than we were before we met them. They must find some relief in the belief that they are not such an aberration, but this relief is temporary, as the toxins that have made them what they are as endemic to the biological chemistry as white and red blood cells. Nevertheless, it must please them to know that after our interactions with them, we now view humanity in the same cynical, all-hope-is-lost manner they do.

If it’s true that a mere 2 percent of people are self-aware, then the lack of self-awareness, at least as it pertains to what we are, and what we are to become, is as endemic to the thief’s mentality as it is in every other walk of life. Like the rest of us, thieves do not believe they live on an exaggerated pole of morality. Rather, they believe they reside in the middle, right alongside the rest of us, somewhere on the good side of the fuzzy dividing line. They also know that we’re all tempted to do that one thing that could place us on the other side. What separates them, to their mind, is their lack of fear, coupled with their refusal to conform to the norms our parents and other mentors taught us. They are also keenly aware that we place most of humanity on their side of the fuzzy line because we all have problems trusting those we don’t know well enough to determine whether they will make moral decisions in life. Some take this natural state of skepticism a step further. Some thieves’ exaggerated, outward distrust for those around them says far more about them than about those they condemn and accuse. It’s the thief’s mentality.

 

 

 

 

 

Thief’s Mentality II: Whatever Happened to Kurt Lee


“Who is the greatest thief in history?” is one of the most provocative party questions I’ve ever heard. I didn’t consider it the most provocative I’ve ever heard when it was asked, until the active participants around us contributed to it. Some of the party goers provided specific answers, but most speculated, and their speculation led me to remember the first, true thief I ever met. Some quantified their answers by the amount the thief stole and others qualified their answers by the amount of historical notoriety or infamy a thief achieved. On the latter, I figured that our focus on notoriety, the amount of media coverage, and subsequent historical analysis, leads us to believe that the most successful thief must be the most infamous. That answer also provided an impetus for the most provocative answer I’ve heard to this question. It suggests that too often we intertwine fame, or in this case infamy, with success. Thieves are human, of course, and the natural desire to become famous probably drives most of them, but the overwhelming desire of an accomplished thief should be to avoid unwanted attention of any kind, particularly when it leads to a level of notoriety or infamy that might lead to their incarceration. Thus, my final answer would be that we probably don’t know who the greatest thief of all time is, because they are as unknown to history as they were to law enforcement officials at the time. The reason I consider this theoretical answer perfect, is that I knew a skilled thief, and I saw everything he fell prey to in his formative years.

Law enforcement officials inform us that the crimes that keep them up at night are the random, or seemingly random, crimes that are almost impossible to solve. Law enforcement officials count on a number of factors to help them solve such a crime, but the most prominent ones involve the character flaws inherent in the criminal mind.

Most criminals have never had any real money, for if they found an honest way to make real money, they wouldn’t be thieves. Thus, when they manage to steal a large amount of money, most of them will not invest it in a slow growth, high yield municipal bond. They’ll spend it with the same impulses that drove them to steal in the first place, they’ll spend it to live the life they hoped to achieve with the theft, and they’ll spend it in a manner that draws attention. They have never had any real money, so they do not know what to do with it when they get it. Thieves also know they’re living on borrowed time, so they spend their money as if it will all end tomorrow.

Buying extravagant items leads to extravagant flaunting, and flaunting leads to talk. Their people may not speak directly to law enforcement officials, but talk leads to talk. If the thief displays some restraint in this regard, they are apt to fall prey to another human conceit of wanting to tell those that said that they would never amount to anything in life about their newfound wealth. The natural byproduct of those forced to endure the bragging is jealousy, and jealousy might lead to trusted friends and family making anonymous calls that can change the direction of an investigation. In the event that those with a thief’s mentality are able to avoid the typical pratfalls of criminal success, law enforcement officials will often sit back and wait for greed to take hold.

If a true piece of work (a POS) manages to pull off a $10,000 heist, $10,000 dollars will not satisfy a thief. The nature of the thief’s mentality –as taught to me by Kurt Lee­– is such that they will probably be planning a $20,000 heist in their getaway car. Kurt Lee’s mentality suggested to me that a true POS would have so much wrapped up in that $10,000 theft that they would fall prey to all that listed above, with greed being the most prominent.

I knew Kurt Lee, on a superficial level, for years. He was good friends with my best friend. Kurt Lee and I spoke just about every day for years, but we were never so close that one would characterize us as intimate. It wasn’t until Kurt Lee invited me, and my best friend, to join him at the baseball card shop that I received a window into Kurt Lee’s mentality. As detailed in the first installment of this series, by the time Kurt Lee and I were in the car driving over to the baseball card shop, shoplifting had long since lost its thrill for him. It bored him so much that he asked me if I wanted to watch him steal from that baseball card shop’s owner. I never met a true thief before Kurt Lee, so my reference base was limited, but I imagined that more experienced thieves would suggest that this was the on ramp to a bad road for Kurt Lee.

More experienced thieves might also suggest that the very idea that Kurt Lee was attempting to accentuate the thrill of theft, by having another watch him do it, suggests that Kurt Lee wasn’t motivated by what they might call the philosophical purity of theft. He wasn’t doing it to balance economic equality, in other words, as some more experienced thieves will say to convince themselves that there is nothing wrong with stealing from someone that has so much that they don’t know what to do with it anymore. He wasn’t doing it to put food on a table, or any reasons that a more experienced thief might consider a more noble motivation. Kurt Lee was simply doing it because he wanted the stuff on the shelves, and he enjoyed the thrill of it all. Once that thrill was gone, he needed to supplement it. A casual observer, just learning of Kurt Lee, might also suggest that he asked me to watch to quell some deep seeded need he had for approval or acceptance. I would’ve considered that notion foolish at the time, for the Kurt Lee I knew displayed no visible signs of caring what anyone thought of him, much less me. With the advantage of hindsight, however, I have to consider that possibility.

The young man I knew believed in the spirt of generosity, but the basis of his belief in it was conditional. These words came out of his mouth most often when someone had something of excess that he wanted, yet I witnessed a number of generous acts on his part. I saw him help fellow students in need, and he helped me. Yet, his generosity was more of a quid pro quo than it was a simple act of generosity born of altruism. When he asked others to engage in the spirit of generosity in turn, the initial recipient of his generosity often paid about four times what his generosity cost him. After the first, and only, interaction in this regard, I decided it was better for all concerned that I go hungry rather than ask him to lend me lunch money for a day.

He claimed that his generosity was pure however, and he enjoyed it when others considered him a generous man, which leads me to believe that if the adult Kurt Lee managed to pull off a $10,000 heist, he would begin spreading the wealth around. He might hire the services of a prostitute for a night, he might give some of his newfound largess to a homeless person, or he might generously tip a waitress or a housekeeper, and he would probably do it in a manner that would lead people to talk. He would spread the wealth around just to be a guy that could, for one day in his otherwise miserable existence. He would do it with the hope that his various acts of generosity might say more about him than the criminal act he committed to attain the money. His motivation for sharing would not be truly altruistic, in other words, and he would do it regardless if he considered the idea that these actions might lay some breadcrumbs for law enforcement.

The point is that the theoretical greatest thief in history we talked about at the party, one presumably imbued with the same thief’s mentality as Kurt Lee, wouldn’t fall prey to any of these conceits. The point is that this thief would be such an exception to the rules governing one with a thief’s mentality that he might be able to achieve something historic in the field of criminality.

✽✽✽

Those of us who knew the as of yet unformed, maladjusted, high school-era Kurt Lee wouldn’t need the prophetic words of a skilled thief to know how Kurt Lee would end up. We also didn’t need the list of fatal flaws from law enforcement officials to know that Kurt Lee was susceptible to falling prey to these conceits. As evidence of this, Kurt Lee became the center of attention in high school.

Someone at our school learned about Kurt Lee, and they spread the word. I don’t know what this person said to spread the word, but I have to believe that it had something to do with the idea that for all of Kurt Lee’s humor and charm, he was not a nice guy. ‘Far from it,’ I imagine this person saying to his audience. ‘He’s actually a piece of work (a POS).’ For most of those outside our demographic, I imagine that such a presentation might do some damage to Kurt Lee’s brand, but for us it was a résumé enhancer. If Kurt’s carnival barker told the fellas he found a guy that was dishonest, duplicitous, and something of a POS, but he was actually a pretty nice guy, the air would leave that expanding balloon. Most of us are already friends with nice guys, and our dads and our uncles are nice guys. We want something different, some conniving, unpredictable, POS who shocks us.

Whatever the carnival barker said to describe Kurt Lee clicked, because Kurt Lee ended up becoming something of a celebrity in some quarters. The top athletes at our school were dying to know what he was going to do, or say, next. They found him hilarious. The cool kids even stopped by to get Kurt Lee’s reaction to the latest events of our school. They had never seen anything like him before. He was like a real life Al Bundy in our midst. Those of us who tried to avoid thinking that such people were impressive couldn’t believe the amount of attention Kurt Lee was receiving. Kurt Lee couldn’t believe it either, and more importantly, he couldn’t understand it.

Those of us who witnessed this Kurt Lee effect realized that our peers have an unusual attraction to a true POS with a thief’s mentality, and I don’t make any claims to being immune to this. As the previous entry suggests, I found Kurt Lee hilarious. Some may consider it a bit of a stretch to suggest that the young, unformed male mind wants to witness a bully humiliate and hurt others, but if it happens most young males want to be a witness to it. Those who told Kurt Lee’s stories knew that no one enjoys hearing a story from a guy who can’t stifle his laughter, so they managed to get through their narrative without laughing. It was hard though, because the vicarious thrills one receives from telling such a story can be difficult to maintain.

Kurt Lee opened a wormhole in our understanding of what it took to be an honest man. He was so unabashed in his dishonesty that some of us considered him the most honest guy we knew. He was a genuine article of consistent, and unflinching, dishonesty. When Kurt Lee learned that these aspects of his personality appealed to a wide swath of fellas our age, he exaggerated these characteristics in a way that suggested he didn’t understand their appeal any more than we did. His answer to whatever dilemma plagued him was to try to live up to the caricature that we built for him and exaggerate it.

Kurt Lee became that bully, thief, and POS that every young, unformed male dreamed of being but dared not stretch to the point of violating societal norms. The problem for Kurt Lee was that he needed a subject that would allow him to display his characteristics with consequences. He chose to focus on the mentally challenged and those significantly smaller than him, so they would present no challenge. He openly challenged anyone he considered at the bottom of the food chain to bolster his POS profile for those in attendance.

Kurt Lee was a POS the day I met him, but prior to his brief taste of popularity, he displayed a bit more discretion. I don’t know if he didn’t want to get in trouble, of if he actually had limits, but once he discovered how much the athletes and cool kids loved whatever it was that he was, he was balls out.

The problem with becoming such a character is that, inevitably, an ugly truth will rear its head. Young, unformed males eventually grow bored with a consistent character no matter how consistently offensive and insensitive that individual may be. When that happens, the instinctual response of such a character is to up their game even more, and exaggerate those characteristics that everyone loved fifteen minutes ago, until the character ends up doing it so often, and to such excess, that he ends up revealing his desire to be accepted. This new game face stood in stark contrast to the very characteristics that made Kurt Lee so appealing in the first place, to those in the upper caste system of high school. It also resulted in the implosion I alluded to in the first installment.

This implosion started when something went missing in our school. Kurt Lee plead innocence, on numerous occasions, claiming that he was being unfairly singled out by our school, and he may have been, but Kurt Lee made a name for himself for all the wrong reasons. He may have been such an obvious suspect that he was too obvious, but the school ended up expelling Kurt Lee as a result.

If Kurt Lee permitted me to caution him, prior to this incident, I would’ve informed him that these athletes and cool kids don’t give a crap about you. They may like you in the short-term, as they take what they want from you, in this case entertainment, but once they have expended you as a resource they will leave you out at the curb. They don’t care if you’re an actual POS, or if you’re just playing that character well. They don’t care if a person wants their attention. They won’t pay as much attention to them as they did fifteen minutes ago, once they see through the veneer. This long-term view would not have mattered to Kurt Lee however. He wanted to bask in the glow. When that brief spell ended, it wounded Kurt Lee, and he attempted to up his game even more, until he ended up with an expulsion, and he eventually ended up being incarcerated for another, unrelated matter.

✽✽✽

Decades later, those of us who went to school with Kurt Lee were all standing around a funeral engaged in a ‘What ever happened to’ conversation regarding our old classmates. Kurt Lee’s name eventually came up. Laughter erupted at the mere mention of his name, as we all remembered the awful things he did to people. Someone in our group attempted to quell that laughter by mentioning that he thought Kurt Lee was actually a pretty awful person. No one said a word. That silence, I can only presume, occurred because everyone considered that characterization so obvious. Another spoke about Kurt Lee’s expulsion from our school, and the subsequent incarceration for an unrelated crime. Those who didn’t know about the incarceration laughed when they heard about it, but it wasn’t the bitter schadenfreude that often comes from those that were bullied, ridiculed, and beat up by the guy in high school. The laughter was more of a head-shaking chuckle that suggested they all knew that’s where Kurt Lee would eventually end up. Then the subject changed, and it didn’t change because some of those, at the gathering, harbored ill will towards Kurt Lee, and they wanted to move on in life. The sense that they had already moved past all that was palpable. The subject changed because no one truly cared what happened to Kurt Lee.

If he was a celestial being, witnessing this conversation, with the ghost of Christmas past over his shoulder, he may have offered a number of excuses for why people thought he was so awful. He might inform the ghost of Christmas past that he was just a dumb kid at the time, and he might have said something about how bullying actually prepares kids for the real world in that it strengthens them. Kurt Lee might have experienced a slight twinge of guilt, hearing our accounts of him, but I don’t think so. I think he would’ve enjoyed hearing us talk about him. Seeing how quickly we changed the subject, however, and all that it intoned about how we felt about him long-term, probably would have stung.

The fundamental mistake Kurt Lee made, a mistake that most of us make at that age, is that we don’t understand human nature. We don’t understand how few people truly care about what happens to us, and we fail to grasp that nothing –including internal squabbles, politics, and the desire to be more popular– should keep us from these people. The mistake we make occurs when we seek the approval of others, because we often direct that effort at those who don’t give a crap about us in any kind of comprehensive manner. Kurt Lee made the fundamental mistake of believing that when those cool kids were laughing at the things he did that they were laughing with him. He made the mistake of believing when others are interested in what he had to say about something that they are interested in him, and I can only presume that when these truths became evident, he attempted to double down on those characteristics they enjoyed, it ended up destroying him from the inside out.

As evidence of this, one of the members of this conversation knew some things about the adult, post-high school Kurt Lee. He told a couple of stories about how Kurt Lee began stealing bigger and better things more often.

“He didn’t learn his lessons from high school,” this storyteller informed us. “He grew so bold that one could call some of the things he did stupid.” Some may place whatever it was that drove the adult Kurt Lee to steal more expensive items, at a greater rate, under the umbrella of greed, but I think it goes much deeper than that. I think that expulsion, and the end of the life he once knew, drove him to neglect those mountain lion skills he often displayed by refraining from launching on his prey, until he could determine that there was absolutely no chance of any harm coming to him. The stories I heard, that day at the funeral, of Kurt Lee stealing such conspicuous items were so confusing that I couldn’t help but think they were troubling and obvious cries for help.

Kurt Lee was the best thief I’ve ever known, and he influenced my speculative view on what the greatest thief in the history of man would have to do to get away with it all, with a sound mind and a guilt-free heart. For if this theoretical thief were to fall prey to some of the same things Kurt Lee did, in his formative years, that thief would have to learn the lessons from his formative years well. The Kurt Lee I knew never did, and the fact that he ended up doing time suggests that the adult, post-high school Kurt Lee didn’t either. It suggests that he imploded under the weight of whatever he was when I knew him.