In an earlier post about the Kavanaugh debacle, I introduced a poll with this:
Memory I: As a junior, I engineered an elaborate prank to steal a sofa from two classmates and friends who had swiped a sofa from two other students in their dorm. It almost worked, too: the pay-off was going to be when they visited our suite and saw their sofa there. The plan fell apart, and the original owners even got their sofa back.
Question: Should this episode, which technically involved attempted theft, disqualify me for some positions as an adult and professional?
The polls results:
Several commenters have admitted that their votes were tongue in cheek, so I don’t believe for a minute that there were really 13% of voters who believe that the episode when I was 20 should bar me from being an ethicist, a lawyer, or a SCOTUS judge, and needed to be investigated by the FBI. Just in case, however, I feel I should tell the whole, sordid story about what came to be called “The Great Sofa Caper,” and which is a tale told and retold at every reunion of my room mates.
It was the end of winter, and spring cleaning of sorts at the Harvard dorms. I lived in a suite at Lowell House with five other juniors, and was visiting friends and fellow classmates “Oscar” and “Felix” across the campus in the high rise dorms, Leverett Towers. “Oscar” was a theater friend who looked like a dissipated cross between Omar Shariff and Teddy Roosevelt; “Felix” looked like a pint-size Rodney Dangerfield. Shortly after I entered their abode, Felix said, “Hey, what do you think about the new sofa we swiped?” Indeed, prominently displayed in the main room was what appeared to be a very new, very nice, fully upholstered sofa.
“You swiped it?” I said, and Felix laughed. “No, I was just kidding. Some upperclassmen were changing rooms, and this was left out in the hall for anyone to take. Nice, eh?”
“You swiped it! That’s brand new! Nobody would throw that out. Come on!” I said. Indeed, furniture and other junk was often being left out for communal expropriating in such moves, but this seemed like wilful, contrived ignorance by my friends to me. Nonetheless, Felix and Oscar swore that they would never steal anything, and that the brand new sofa was abandoned property.
I went back to Lowell House deep in thought and ethics conflict, wondering what the right thing to do was. I couldn’t report my friends for what was, even if it was theft in the real world, pretty standard college silliness. Still, I felt this was excessive. Then I hit on my plan. It would be both a good practical joke and a lesson for Felix and Oscar.
I had learned during my visit that Felix, who was local, was spending the weekend back home with his girlfriend. That meant Oscar would be alone, and, as usual, drunk. I arranged to have an actor friend call Oscar late Saturday afternoon, as I listened in. Following my rough script outline, he told him that he and his room mate owned the sofa, and that another resident had seen Oscar and Felix take it. The “owner” was furious, and threatened to report a “grand theft” to university authorities. “You can get kicked out for this, ad maybe tried,” he said. “We’ll press charges, unless you give us our sofa back.”
Boy, he was great. And I never cast him in a show…
Oscar reacted as I knew he would. First he denied everything, then he said they didn’t know the sofa belonged to anybody, then he started blubbering that it wasn’t his idea. My actor escalated his indignation. “I don’t care about any of that! I just want the sofa. Here’s the deal: you leave it at the Yard Gate by the library at 9 pm tonight. Don’t stick around. It better be undamaged, but if it’s there, we’ll let this go. ”
“But I’m alone! My room mate’s away for the weekend! I can’t carry…” Oscar protested.
“Not my problem, asshole,” said the threatening caller. “It better be there.” And he hung up, to my enthusiastic applause.
I knew what Oscar would do. I had just enough time to run up to my room to answer Oscar’s panicked call. “Should I believe this guy, Jack?” he asked, panicked, after recounting the threatening call.
“Oh, I wouldn’t take any chances,” I said. “I told you guys it was stupid to take the sofa. Look, I’ll come over around 8:30 pm, and we can drop off the thing.” Oscar was so grateful I thought he would cry.
Of course, I had arranged for my room mates, all five of them, to be hidden in the bushes by the designated gate and be ready to grab the sofa and get it fast across campus and into our suite. The final act would be when we invited Felix and Oscar over for a beer and they saw our “new sofa.”
Everything went as planned as I helped Oscar get the sofa into the elevator and down to the first floor, and we began carrying it out of the Leverett Towers courtyard. Then, just like in “Mission Impossible,” “The Great Escape” and every heist movies, things started going wrong.
Felix came back, a day early, and ran into Oscar and me, lugging the sofa. We put it down and Oscar started explaining what had happened. Felix was dubious, because he was a devious sort himself. (He went into politics.) Oscar was getting hysterical, talking about being kicked out of school, and how they both know the sofa wasn’t really abandoned, and I pitched in taking his side, pointing out that it was almost 9. Felix became exasperated and finally said, “Fine. Let’s drop off the sofa. But I think someone is playing a trick on us.”
So we all started moving the sofa, but the argument had taken a few crucial minutes too long. For two huge jocks—football players? basketball players?—walked up out of the dark and said, “What the hell are you doing with our sofa?”
Yes, the real owners of the sofa, who had left it briefly in the hall while they moved furniture around only to find it gone, had caught us, and they were pissed.
Oscar and Felix looked like they were going to soil themselves. I quickly said, “What? This is yours? Hey, they just asked me to help them move it, I don’t know anything about this!” and beat a hasty retreat. I tracked down my room mates and told them that the caper was off. Later I learned that the angry sofa owners made my friends carry the sofa up the stairs so it wouldn’t get beat up in the elevator. Oscar complained that he back was sore for a week.
Although my exact plan had been foiled, I was very happy about the way things turned out. The sofa was returned to its rightful owners; Felix and Oscar got their comeuppance, and I got a great story to tell. I also learned the basic Chaos Theory lesson that complicated plans tend to fall apart because of unpredictable factors, and began my long, long exploration of the vicissitudes of moral luck.
So do you really think this should disqualify me for being an ethicist, a lawyer, or a Supreme Court judge?