He was of questionable character. That was a widely acknowledged fact. Yet, many would never have suspected that he would pilfer pallets in the darkest hours of the night, from the backs of drugstores, grocery stores, liquor stores being by far his favorite. It was a crime and he was a criminal. But in the dark, he felt free. He was invisible and that gave him a power he never before considered.
Put simply, he liked everything about the pallets—the musty, woody smell; the wide bulkiness; the prickly edges that roughed his hands, hands that were tender from doing tender, important work. Grabbing pallets and throwing them into the back of his brother’s friend’s blue 1999 Ford 150 was as close as he got to hard labor. It was more manly than he had ever felt in his entire life; it was so manly it made him forget about the deep ache below the right side of his belly that would bark whenever people called him gangly or awkward or when he talked too much about his mother.
CHORUS: As I run through the darkness of the night, I feel the wind on my face, I feel my feet firm under my body. I feel shame for the lies I have told those I love, and for the lies I am yet to tell. I shiver not from the cold but from my fear. I am a scared child about to crumble, about to fall. I want to scream, and I want to cry but cannot. I cannot because I do not know what courage is.
Yes, he felt more manly than he ever dreamed possible. Being a large and strong man was a big deal to the pallet thief. He would never, ever in a million years let on that it was, but it was. This made him think of his grandfather and something someone had once said about the man. They called him “a big lug of a guy.” Those words made no sense to him when he first heard them at the age of eight. He thought a lug was something that crawled in the damp grass at night when he would take a blanket and lie in the backyard looking at stars and streetlights and helicopters.
His grandfather was a man of stature in the family. He was tall and broad-shouldered and had no shortage of confidence. Confidence and strength. Those were two things the thief did not share with his grandfather. But they both shared the one thing that the pallet thief found most important in his life – art. That was plenty for the thief, plenty to give him a future and heritage.
The first time he stole a pallet was for an art project. He needed it for an installation that he said, “Represented the plight of the African American as told from the perspective of the disenfranchised and underrepresented who have lost at the expense, not of the American Dream, but of everyone who abides by any of the principles stated in the U.S. Constitution.” He would have gone on to explain more about this particular installation, such as how it also reflected much of his own feelings toward the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, like Medgar Evers and Malcolm X, but he couldn’t afford to appear too radical in front of the many art world benefactors he had to appeal to, or bow to, or yessa himself to.
This installation was a palatable rant on racial inequality. It stood on tall legs and called out to the unenlightened, “I am a proud black man who will kinda show you how to be better people, but I don’t want to step too hard or yell too loud because, ya know.” He liked to repeat this theme through his art a lot. And people loved him for his message, until, one day, they wondered, “Does he have anything else to tell us?”
I met the pallet thief before he was a thief, when he was your average scoundrel. In all fairness, I found him to be quite interesting. He strained to be an intellectual, a title he bestowed upon himself. It was confounding that a self-proclaimed intellectual, someone who so much wanted to be a part of that elite group of thinkers and pontificators would, of all things, find himself not just pulling up behind a 7-11 in Altadena and grabbing a couple pallets, but loving it!
I thought, “Is this what intellectuals do? Does crime now constitute higher thinking?” Then I just figured that he wasn’t an intellectual at all and went my way, leaving him for others to deal with. And others tried and tried. They continued to come and see his pallet-laden installations that continued to scream about inequality and injustice. His message that decried the social disasters of injustice and moral hypocrisy stood atop a network of stolen pallets.
But, as it turned out, it also spoke volumes about the artist—the man—and his claims of truth. A bold and loud homage to principles of people from the past, people he did not know, did not care about, did not connect with morally or ethically.
He used them to make his point. But the artist had become his own piece of unremarkable work. His installation was starting to crumble into a pyre of pallets and unrecognizable shit, of strange pieces of wood and broken pencils and dried tubes of paint, not to mention the unkept promises it rested on.
CHORUS: As I run through the darkness of the night, I feel the wind on my face, I feel my feet firm under my body. I have stopped crying about the lies I have told those I love and the lies I am yet to tell. I shiver only from the cold now. I am no longer a scared child about to fall or scream. I know and have accepted that I am a fraud.
© Copyright 2017 Pat Becker. All rights reserved.
Pat Becker is a former journalist, freelance writer and publicist. She currently spends her time writing short stories and screenplays.