Anton the Thief: a geometry lesson in all the angles


January 02, 1994|By MICHAEL OLESKER

When snow commenced to fall out of last Tuesday morning's grimy sky, Anton the Thief was making his first stop of the day. He arrived on Eastern Avenue with leather coats in the trunk of his car and detectives at one of those big mall department stores wondering where everything went.

"Three hundred," he said, showing off the coat he was wearing now and accepting compliments all around from the leading fashion experts of our time.

"Very nice," said a fellow in a Bart Simpson sweat shirt and a wool cap. "But not for three."

"Three?" said Anton the Thief. "No, no, no. Three is what the store was asking, before I took it. For you, it ain't three."

"How much for me?" he was asked now.

"How many you want?"

"How many coats you think I can wear at one time?"

When last seen, during the heat of a summer afternoon, Anton the Thief was attempting to sell a very good imitation marble statue of St. Francis of Assisi. He explained that he hadn't technically stolen St. Francis, he'd merely kidnapped him and was now offering him for ransom. He sloughed off the notion of any special religious immorality by explaining that the Bible makes no distinctions between stealing saints and stealing anything else, so what was the big deal?

Many agreed. A woman pushing a shopping basket eyed St. Francis and the birds perched atop his shoulder, and declared, "Look at them birds. St. Francis loved them birds, didn't he?"

Everybody deplores the level of thievery in our midst today, until a deal arrives. Anton the Thief says his $300 coats can be had for half, unless you wish to buy in bulk, in which case he could let them go for one-third or one-fourth, depending.

With the arrival of 1994, all are looking for a little jump-start to their finances. A marked-down leather coat here, a lottery game there, a football bet over here. The brand new year arrives with high hopes that legitimate businesses will get better. Until then, everyone attempts to find angles.

As Anton the Thief offers his leather coats along Eastern Avenue last Tuesday morning, the talk naturally turns to the Maryland Lotto jackpot, $21 million. The last time such a figure was reached, the winner, a Mr. David K. Moreland of Anne Arundel County, walked away with an annual gift of $1,050,000, reduced to $764,150 after taxes. This time around, two defense workers from Howard County will split the winnings.

It's the great American dream, especially in a tough time. Hit it big once, and live off the residuals the rest of your life. On Eastern Avenue, a guy with football pools featuring New Year's Day Bowl games tries to interest Anton the Thief in a wager. Anton studies one of the cards for a moment, then puts it in his pocket for later use: one more angle, one more long shot until some kind of stability arrives.

"How did you get the coats?" somebody asks him now.

"Simple psychology," Anton says. "I study human nature. I watch people's habits. You know, they get in there first thing in the morning, they gotta have that cup of coffee. It takes them a little while to get going. By the time they do, I'm gone."

It's strictly department store stuff. Anton says he would never break into someone's house. Such a thing, he says, is stealing. Lifting from a department store is different. He says the stores profit by his labors.

"Of course they do," he says. "If I steal $1,800 worth of these coats, they say I stole six times that much."

"Yeah," somebody says, "but that means the insurance companies have to pay them off. So the insurance companies raise premiums,meaning it costs us."

Anton feigns hurt. "So?" he says. "Ain't I paying insurance, too?"

It's all just business. In Washington, the U.S. Treasury secretary, named Bentsen, looks at the state of the economy and declares it heavenly. Of course, by personal accounting, he is already a millionaire. The executives of credit card companies declare more Christmas buying this season than last. A good sign, they say, of a recovering economy. Perhaps they should hold off such estimations a little longer, to see how many of those credit card bills will actually be paid off.

There is still, of necessity, a thriving underground economy. It's something lifted from a department store, a leather coat or a kidnapped saint, or it's a bet on a football game or playing a three-digit street number.

It's a new year that's arrived, but an old mentality hanging on: Until money loosens up, everybody reaches for an angle.

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