By Leo Apilash
When Jim and I first became roommates, by coincidence we also had a number of classes together. We had different majors, I was Mathematics, he was Accounting, but general course requirements created overlaps. One such overlap was an early morning Econ 100 course in one of the large theater-in-the-round classrooms. The course was from 8 to 9:15 a.m. every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and given our rigorous partying schedule it was always a challenge for us to get there on time and fully awake—but we found a loophole.
About a week into the semester we discovered that just down the hall from the Econ 100 classroom was a warren of offices used by various professors and TAs to maintain open office hours. On your way to these offices, about 10 in all, you first entered a common area, a lobby of sorts but with no receptionist. It was relatively sparse and was really meant to serve as a sound buffer between the active hallway with lots of foot traffic and the inner offices where tutoring would take place. The only thing in this lobby was a small billboard on the wall indicating which professors were in which offices, and a bridge table covered with a white, plastic tablecloth that offered fresh coffee and doughnuts to visitors. Next to the box of doughnuts and the stack of Styrofoam cups was a medium sized Tupperware bowl with a sign taped to the back that read, “Please help yourself to coffee and doughnuts. Doughnut 25¢. Coffee 50¢.”
Jim first spotted this offering as we were dragging our way to a Monday morning class. We normally came to the classroom from the other direction and wouldn’t have crossed paths with this hive of offices, but this morning happened to be particularly cold and so we took advantage of the not-well-known underground tunnels that connected our dorm to the classroom center without the need to step outside. It brought us out just on the other side of the professor’s offices, and as we walked past the opening to The Lobby, the sweet smell of glazed doughnuts and freshly brewed coffee grabbed his attention and he stuck his head in to see what was what.
“Dude, check it out, coffee and doughnuts. I’m starved.”
As we approached the table, our eyes grew more and more incredulous at our good fortune. This was just the sort of pick-me-up we needed before our 75 minutes of Econ hell. As I reached for a fresh doughnut Jim caught my sleeve and directed my gaze to the sign.
“You got any money?” I asked him, somewhat rhetorically.
“Now what?” he asked, but without looking at me. His head was quickly swiveling left and right as the question was being asked, scanning the room for any signs of life. When he was sure the coast was clear, he grabbed two doughnuts, handed one to me, and we both hustled out of there toot sweet. Mission accomplished. We pounded down the doughnuts in the five steps between The Lobby and our classroom door, all the while feeling no remorse that we just broke a sacred school commandment: Thou shalt not steal. What’s a few cents, after all.
The following Wednesday we poked our heads into The Lobby again, and just as before, there was no one in sight. This time, as Jim reached for his doughnut I noticed that the Tupperware already had some coins inside, and this was where I made my contribution to our perfect little caper: I tapped the coins that were sitting there loud enough for someone to hear if they happened to walk in on us. This way, they would think that we just dropped in a few coins of our own.
“Brilliant, my man,” mumbled Jim over a mouthful of honey-glazed and coffee.
With our little scheme now perfectly choreographed, it became our pre-Econ 100 ritual. Coffee, doughnut, tap. Coffee, doughnut, tap. Easy-peasy. This went on for about three weeks, sometimes helping ourselves both before and after class if we were feeling especially greedy. Then one Wednesday morning, just as we were making our getaway, a booming voice came at us from the office closest to our right.
“HEY! Wait right there you assholes.” Now we know these rooms are usually populated with professors, and there is no way a professor is going to call us “assholes” unless he knows with absolute certainty that he has something on us. Jim and I froze in our tracks, not out of fear or guilt or anything like that, it was simply because we did not for a minute think it was a big deal. This guy doesn’t know anything. He thinks he’s caught us stealing a doughnut, but my failsafe tap-of-the-loose-change trick has surely saved the day. Except.
Except for the fact that the routine of coffee, doughnut, tap had, to date, been too easy and Jim and I had become complacent. Sloppy, actually. It never occurred to me to check that there was enough change in the bowl to account for our booty. On this particular Wednesday there was 75 cents in the bowl but $1.50 of contraband in our hands. Merde.
“In my office, immediately.” This professor knew he had to get us sequestered quickly, that his aura of intimidation would quickly fade and there would be little he could do if we decided to bolt.
Jim and I obeyed, still believing this incident did not rise above the level of wrist slap.
He got straight to the point, “You guys have been stealing for a while now,” with a slight pause to see if we’d think it was a question rather than a statement, but our poker faces were out in full display, “and now you’re going to pay. This university has a zero-tolerance policy against stealing and you two have been taking doughnuts and coffee without paying for some time.” That’s twice he made vague reference to a time frame. If he knew how long he would say. He didn’t say, ergo he must not know.
“What are your names?”
“Your full names, what are your full names? I’m going to file a formal complaint against the two of you.”
My mind was racing. Had the professor seen the accounting discrepancy that had dawned on me only 30 seconds earlier? Were there cameras out in The Lobby that had been recording us lo these many weeks and I just missed them? All of a sudden this didn’t feel so small and meaningless anymore. Damn you Jim, my mother warned me about troublemakers like you. I never should have listened when you forced me to take that damn doughnut.
“I’m sorry, what exactly are you accusing us of stealing?” Holy cow, Jim had a plan—go Jimbo, go.
“Don’t play dumb, you’ve been helping yourself to doughnuts and coffee without paying. I saw you do that tap thing in the bowl, feigning like you were paying.”
“When did you see us do that tap thing?”
“Just now.” He sat up a little, eyes dilating so fast you could almost hear them. The professor was clearly not a poker player.
“No you didn’t.” Jim said it so matter-of-factly, the professor just sat there, mouth agape. “There was no one in there when we turned to leave. My guess is someone has come to you, wrongly accusing us of stealing, making up that nonsense about tapping, and now you’re trying to strongarm us with some scared-straight nonsense.”
“Do you deny that you’ve been stealing from us?”
“Let me answer that with a question, do you have any evidence that we’ve been stealing from you?” Undoubtedly the professor had seen this scene play out in his mind’s eye numerous ways, none of them unfolding quite like the current reality.
“I’ve got an eyewitness.” The mealy-mouthed mongrel tried to steer things back to a story line he was familiar with, but Jim wasn’t having it. He sensed weakness and applied pressure accordingly.
“Who? Who’s your eyewitness? When did they witness it? What exactly did they witness and what evidence do they have?”
“That’s what I thought—you got nothin’.” Jim stood up, turned to me and said, “Let’s get out of here, Steve.”
I sat motionless for a few beats while I tried to piece it all together. The professor wasn’t the only one feeling out of his depth. Jim had just pulled off a masterclass in bluffing that would have made a riverboat gambler fold trips. And if that display of craftsmanship wasn’t enough, I noticed on our way out the door that Jim was still holding the purloined doughnut, casually bringing it up for what was sure to be a scrumptious bite.