The flood came on gradually. It began with a small damp spot in the carpet in the dining area of our two-bed/two-bath apartment and spread outward. Like many problems, it was easy to ignore at first, and we were busy men, my roommate and I, and figured, y’know, a wet spot – it would run its course.
This was in Milledgeville, Georgia, in the apartments in a small complex near the edge of a town that only housed a college I’d already dropped out of. We paid $500 a month for a ground floor place with a curious layout that did not favor sunlight. A large front room that remained largely barren of furniture for the length of our stay – neither of us owned a couch – and a cramped galley kitchen we generally used to store beer and the microwave. A sliding glass door that stepped out into the parking lot. The place was cheaply built, cheaply maintained and so a damp spot suddenly appearing in the carpet was – though unexpected – certainly not surprising.
The location was practical though; A quick stumble through some parking lot trees and across a cracking blacktop was the mall and my job: Turtles Music.
If you grew up in the South in the 1980s you probably remember the Turtles chain of music stores. They had a customer rewards program that involved tokens and stamps and in certain locations also rented movies. We had one in Conyers when I first moved down to Georgia. I remember that place. This was not that. “My” Turtles was so in name only. The original chain folded in the early 90s or thereabouts and among the various corporate assets they sold was their name and logo, which was snapped up by the folks who also owned Camelot Records and some other places and started buying up the failing Blockbuster Music chain stores around tertiary markets like Milledgeville. Like many things found in shopping malls, we were only a hollow shell of that thing you remember from childhood. A hollow shell full of P Diddy CDs.
Much like it had in its previous life, Turtles was going out of business. I’d spent the past couple years there, humping a cash register and slinging Nappy Roots albums until I was promoted – basically by default – to shift manager. So I’d get up in the morning, leave my sodden apartment, and open the store, dropping off the previous night’s take at the bank and ratcheting open the big metal shutters.
Large red signs hung everywhere proclaiming STORE CLOSING. EVERYTHING MUST GO. ALL SALES ANAL. That last one was my handiwork, made with a box cutter, scotch tape and boredom. I’d also started casually swiping merchandise. Corporate was apparently getting rid of all of its back stock. They’d been sending us crates of stuff. Our store’s inventory data went to hell pretty quickly – it was impossible to look up what we had in the store with any degree of accuracy, so product simply got priced and tossed on the shelf. And it was decent stuff! Indie labels and the like; gems amidst the rubble. During my morning duties, if I happened upon anything that caught my eye, it was just a quick jog home after I’d hit the bank and hey, look, did you know that one of the guys from the Beta Band put out a solo album under the name King Biscuit Time? I do. Because I stole that shit.
My thefts weren’t limited by quality. I took stuff I had never heard of that looked vaguely interesting, and in a few instances, I lifted stuff that looked awful; the jazz soundtrack to a possibly never-filmed biopic of Marilyn Monroe, a last vestige of the “CD Single” featuring a song called “Peanut Butter Jelly Time” and a number of remixes of the song, the Ethel Merman Disco Album.
At home, the carpet was a problem. We wore our shoes indoors. We told the leasing office about the water, and they sent a maintenance guy out to look at it. “Yeah, carpet’s getting wet somehow. We’ll check it out.” The radius widened, and the flood began to take on the hallway.
When the closing was announced, most of the Turtle’s staff bailed, leaving us with a skeleton crew of about four or five. I was working at the counter one afternoon, while my coworker greeted customers, when a former employee stopped by to chat and see how we were holding up. We were, you know… we were fine.
“I’m gonna let you in on a secret,” She said.
We were all ears.
“Okay, so at the beginning of your shift,” she continued, “if you leave the drawer open, when you ring someone up and they’re paying cash, you can scan all their stuff up, get to the last step, and instead of hitting ENTER, you hit PRINT SCREEN. That’ll give them something that looks like a receipt. Pull the drawer open, put the money in, bag their stuff, and when they’re gone, void the transaction and keep a tally of how much their purchase was. At the end of the day before you count the drawer down, that money’s yours.”
The flood crept into my room overnight. My little twin Serta on the floor was the first thing in its path – I didn’t have a box spring or a bed frame or any of that. I woke up one morning and felt wet sheets where my feet hung over the end of the mattress. By that point, the water had overtaken the dining area, the hallway. My room was the far shore. The flood hit the dam of my bedroom wall and could go no further, so it began traveling upward. The legs of my pressboard desk and the plywood CD cabinet – its ill-gotten contents crammed to bursting inside – swelled and grew unstable.
Eventually, maintenance found the source: A leak in the water heater in the upstairs apartment had run through the wall and down to our floor. Encouraging, I suppose, but patently useless information to those of us already living in a rice paddy. The front office was similarly unhelpful. They didn’t have any available units to move us into–the best they could do was replace the carpet, which they’d have to order. Might take a couple weeks.
Fortunately, I’d been stealing money from work. I took some of that down to Home Depot and bought a dehumidifier. I let it run constantly, and I’d periodically empty it into the bathtub.
The money: There was a lot of it. The entire staff at the Turtles Music was engaging in well-orchestrated thievery, following our former co-worker’s instructions to the letter: Till open, take cash, PRINT SCREEN, tally amount, void transaction. Some of us worked in concert – I’d hand them their share at the end of the day before counting down the drawer – others worked alone. But we were all in on it.
I had a system: If I managed to pull in a hundred or more in a shift, that cash went immediately into the bank. Less, and it became pocket change. There was a fair amount of both. I was able to afford nice clothes from malls much larger than the one I worked in. At the same time, obvious needs were being neglected. Even as I was able to take my girlfriend on nice dates to restaurants in Buckhead, my shitbox ‘91 Mercury Sable was still bleeding oil and coolant and overheating, leaving us stranded on Peachtree Street. All the while, I moved as much of my stuff as I could off my bedroom floor, dried my sheets, and waited out the flood.
I should have been hectoring the apartment complex to get the problem fixed faster, to move us into a hotel, threatening legal action. Something. I should have been fighting against the squalor I was living in. But that would have required a sense of agency over my affairs. No, thieves are weak. And each day that I continued to work a dying job, take music and money which no one would miss, and return home to sodden floors and the continuous thirsty rasp of the dehumidifier, the more it became apparent that…that’s just what I did now.
My career as a criminal had a built-in end date: September 30th, 2003. The day the Turtles Music store closed. It was the week after OutKast released Speakerboxx/The Love Below. We’d long-since stopped stocking new releases; I’d driven to Atlanta to buy it. It’s what was playing in store as we packed up the last of the merchandise to ship it out to wherever it was going. You could hear it pounding out of car stereos everywhere you went, pouring out of apartment windows. “Bowtie” in your left ear, “Hey Ya” in your right.
My roommate and I found a new place, a two bed/one bath house on Matheson Street, with a fenced in backyard, and hardwood floors. He split right away, moved in, set up the utilities and took the big bedroom. I stayed behind to ride out the end of the lease. Living alone there, collecting unemployment and coasting on my stolen money, I held out for a couple months before the rent cleaned me out. Then I could move to a new place, find a new job, start fresh – reformed. The flood receded and I was dry again.