8 Million Stories: Shrink-Wrap Safe

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To live out a dream for nearly all Midwesterners, I packed my clothes, a writer’s notebook (blank) and two cassette tapes— REO Speedwagon’s High Infidelity and their Greatest Hits (hey, it was 1991!)—into an oversized nylon Spalding duffel bag, kissed my parents good-bye and boarded a Greyhound bus from Cleveland to New York. I said to hell with my senior year of college. I felt that New York—like my grandmother’s embrace—would hold open its own fleshy, loving arms for people like me.

I knew that by the week’s end, I’d be another working New Yorker. I would rent a room in the village and learn the subway system. Then Mitch, my older cousin, who lived in the Poconos, drove in to get me. One week in the city hollowed out my savings. In all, I had five job interviews, which amounted to nothing. Arriving on a Greyhound bus earlier in the week and residing at a YMCA were not strong selling points. Adding to my wayfaring look, I hauled my large duffel bag to all the interviews, since the YMCA’s policy was to switch me to a new room each day.

On my last day in New York, Mitch took me to a Mexican joint in the West Village. We sat at a streetside table and drank margaritas. The streets were crowded as New York darkened.

We walked slowly toward the Port Authority parking garage. Halfway there, a tall man put his arm straight out, shouted “stop!” and asked if we wanted to buy a Sony camcorder. He dangled a white Macy’s shopping bag by his side. The man’s hair was close-cropped, and despite the warm summer weather, he was dressed in a heavy plaid button-up shirt—the kind usually worn by Canadian lumberjacks. He was clean-shaven, reminding me of the tidy face of a Methodist preacher I knew back home.

“Nope,” Mitch said.

“How much do you want for it?” I asked.

“Hundred bucks.”

“It’s a scam,” Mitch whispered, leaning in close to me. The man pulled the camera box out of the bag. We eyed it carefully, and I asked if I could hold it. It was still wrapped in the factory shrink-wrap with a price tag of $499.99. The weight felt right, I said, holding it in my palm.

“Can we open it and take a look inside?” Mitch said. The man shook his head; he explained that he’d be crazy to let us open it; the value would plummet. We’d have to put the money up front.

I squeezed the box gently and tapped it a few times. I inspected the shrink-wrap, ran my forefinger along the edge, and detected no seam. It all looked professional.

“How could he get the camera out without tearing it open?” I asked.

“Hundred bucks is a good deal,” the man said. When Mitch asked him how he acquired the merchandise, he told us that some lady left it on the back of her chair at a café where he waited tables. He had waited a week for her to return but she never showed; so he had no choice but to sell it. He was an actor and needed money to pay for his union card, which would get him into the casting calls for the bigger Broadway shows.

He said that he moved here recently from the Midwest.

“Me, too, from Ohio,” I said. He came from Michigan. Neighbors, I thought. He might be the first person I meet in New York.

“How about forty?” Mitch said.

“Seventy-five,” he countered.

We settled on $50, and Mitch and I put in $25 apiece. I thanked the guy and wished him good luck. Perhaps I’d see him someday on Broadway, and we smiled as he took our money and left.

I swung the Macy’s bag as Mitch and I walked to his pickup truck. As we popped out of the Lincoln Tunnel, I had the great idea to film the skyline as it retreated out the truck’s back window. I tore off the shrink-wrap, excited that we’d saved $450. Mitch held up his hand, and I slapped him a high-five. Opening the flap on one end, I pulled out the Styrofoam end piece and removed a crumpled wad of newspaper, like the kind you find pushed down inside a new pair of shoes. Then we found more wadded balls of paper. I held the box with both hands, peered inside, and shook it, waiting for the camera to appear.
I shook harder and a rock taped to the inside ricocheted onto the floor.

“We were hustled, weren’t we?” Mitch asked.

I smoothed out one of the wadded-up newspapers and looked at the date. “Today’s paper,” I said. “He wasn’t from the Midwest.”

I slid open the back window and flung the box into the truck’s bed. I balled up the shrink-wrap tightly, held it on my lap for a moment and watched it wriggle open like a budding flower. “How’d he do it?” I asked. “I mean, it’s shrink-wrap.”

It was my first time in New York City, and I still had so much to learn.

It took more than 10 years for Brian Pennington to finally muster the courage to return to New York City. He lives in Brooklyn. For more info visit www.mediabistro.com/brianpennington.

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