The Year Louis Fowler Stole Christmas (And Got Away With It)
9:27 AM EST on December 25, 2017
Every year, I don’t dream of a white Christmas as much as I dream of any Christmas. White, black, whatever…any kind of Christmas would do just fine.
Even though I’ve come close a few times, it seems as though celebrating a “traditional” Christmas just isn’t in the greeting cards for me and, as I quickly approach death, probably never will be. There’s no opening presents, sitting down to a holiday dinner or, perhaps most damning, being surrounded by people who love you, even if it’s just on that one specific day.
Everybody’s got their own thing and there’s no room at the inn for me to be part of it.
This has been the mostly maudlin Dickensian story of my miserable holiday special of a life, from growing up poor and listening to the kids talk about the cool new toys they unwrapped that blessed morning to, almost four decades later, hearing my social circle discuss all of the festive plans they have going on over the next few days of mirth and merriment.
Meanwhile, I’m at home huddled over a spark-sputtering space heater, noshing on cold ranch-style beans out of the can, re-bingeing episodes of This is Us and deciding how many muscle relaxers at one too many and even if it is too many, who would care anyway. Oh, and have you heard the new Morrissey album yet? I have. Many times.
Harp music plays overhead and a snow-flurry wipes the scene clean.
There was one time, however, when I had finally had enough of it. There was one time when I decided that the moderately assembled Fowler family wasn’t going to have another seasonal holiday without some form of the bloatedly Christian celebration that everybody else in the free world got. To celebrate the birth of Jesus, I was going to finally allow the Devil to stamp my hand to get into the party.
Living a few blocks from the old-school Target that has been a longtime staple of N.W. 50th and N. May Ave., many of my more troubled middle-school acquaintances had been, for the better part of the semester, shoplifting from the neighborhood department store blind and without fear, as this we the early 90s and many stores back there had not yet installed cameras or metal detectors, so with enough cunning and enough savior faire, the big red box store was there for the plundering.
I, however, could never get the cojones to do it though, the sheer wrath, if I were to get caught, of my ex-cop parents was nightmare fuel enough to stop me. Almost.
As my pals were stuffing comics and action figures and Sega Genesis games down the front of their pants and deep inside their hoodies, I would start to position myself for a cassette or something musically equivalent when a guilt-forged lump would hit my bladder; I felt as though I was going to urinate myself and, as my legs crisscrossed in urethra-tightening fear, I would quickly put the scoped-out item down and hurry myself out by the side of the building where my supposed brothers-in-arms counted up their collected booty and high-fived each other for another successful heist.
I was the odd man out and it felt like it.
By the time Christmas had rolled around 1993 0r so, my parents delivered their annual speech about not getting “excited” for the holiday because there will be no presents early and, with the exception of Saturday afternoon mass, there would be no real acknowledgment of the day at large. “Go about your business,” we were coldly told. It was an understandably helpless feeling of forced acceptance that, sadly, we were already accustomed to from a young age, learning to roll with the punches and punctures. But not this year, I told myself as a demonic bout of gumption crawled up my spine, strengthening and straightening it. This year, Christmas would be different for the Fowler household.
With all of the stylized planning of a chubby Danny Ocean, I took a few notes on what everyone was either currently into or genuinely coveting, mapping out where in Target they were located, determining the sizes and dimension of said gifts and theorizing how to hustle them out with as little attention as possible. There was no point in calling a crew of seasoned school-chum shoplifters to help as they were on yuletide missions of their own; no matter which way this went, I was on my own.
I had earned about $30 that week shoveling ice and snow off a few driveways in the neighborhood, so, after giving my father $25 as my contribution for groceries, I had a cool fiver to play with and luckily, my mother’s honest gift fell right in that price range: this was the year that giant decorative tins of flavored popcorn—the preternatural trio of butter, caramel and nacho cheese—broke big and miracle of miracles, Target was selling them en masse for $4.99.
Picking out a rather large one with a festive snow-scape of wintry hills and dark forests, I unsealed the lid gingerly as a gust of heavily-dusted popcorn immediately infiltrating the magazine area that acted as my base of operations. The plan was simple: quickly take a nonchalant stroll through each area, find each gift (or suitable enough substitution) and use the popcorn tin, if possible, as the secure means to carry out the entire scam.
The Christmas list, which had already been checked twice, was simple enough: an Amy Grant cassette for my sister, a VHS copy of John Wayne's Chisum for my father, a Tiger Electronics handheld Ninja Gaiden LCD game for my brother and, as an Xmas bonus for myself, the soundtrack to Wayne’s World 2, back when compact discs were still in those clunky 12-inch long-boxes. Future presents gathered, I quietly and calmly began the thieving transition of tradition.
The cassette and VHS tape slid in perfectly enough, but the massive blister wrap that secured the Tiger game was a definite no-go, having to be shoved down the front of my husky blue jeans, belt tightened securely to prevent it from popping up and out. That meant there was no room for the CD I wanted, of course, so, lamentably, I set my album down in their slight grocery section on top of a couple of loaves of bread and gently and geriatcially made my way to the registers, that plastic digging into my gut like a see-through saw-blade. Maybe next year.
As the brazenly cheerful cashier scanned the tin of popcorn, I heard a shift and a thump and for a split-second I’m sure she did too; it was only by God’s grace that she didn’t feel it, opening that tin up wide to double-check that everything was on the level. My fists clenched and my bowels tensed…
As if nothing happened, her smile beamed at me and asked for payment in the form of $5.45, which I gave her exactly as I quickly hustled towards the exit, with the clear-cut goal of making it to at the very least Al’s Bicycles before stopping to take a breath; that was far out of their jurisdiction, right? But I wasn’t even past the row of external shopping carts before I heard a voice say “Excuse me, sir, can you come with?”
This was it. I am screwed. I am fucked.
As I turned around to either face the consequences like a man or drop the popcorn tin and bolt for home like a coward, the newly hired store detective, a young guy more than happy to wield this newfound police-state power, rushed right past me and shook-down a middle-aged guy who couldn’t provide a receipt for the bag of clothes was grabbed and pushed back inside, every-bit the guilty Christmas criminal who couldn’t cut it.
I made it home, past the Mayfair dumpsters and abandoned apartments, sneaking the gifts in through the garage, wrapping them in newspaper and setting them on the breakfast table in the middle of the night. As we ate biscuits and gravy, everyone opened their gifts and, for one Christmas, the first time in a long time, it felt real. It felt like it was supposed to, divinity be damned, all hail the crass commercialism and ethereal materialism that begets true self-esteem!
And what did I get out of all this?
For once in my life, I was a Goddamned hero on the most God-blessed day of the year. Desperate times called for disparate measures. Eventually, my number did come up and I got busted by that same secret shopper for stealing a white pair of dress gloves for marching band and I paid dearly—but for at least one December 25th morning some 20-odd years ago, I stole Christmas and got away with it.
Physically, at least. Spiritually, I know I got some explaining to do when I die. ¡Cómpralo ya!
Give all the toys to the little rich boys. Follow Louis on Twitter at @LouisFowler.
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