My Confession, Just In Case The FBI Investigates…

The scene of the crime…

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?


22 thoughts on “My Confession, Just In Case The FBI Investigates…

  1. Silliness but the outcome was moral luck.
    You also created a situation and bailed when confronted; not cool but not unexpected from a 20 year old.

    Nonetheless, it is just horseplay. Say 3 Hail Mary’s and you are forgiven for all eternity.

    • Wait, wait: How did I create a situation? The situation was that X and Y had someone else’s property. The situation I created led to that situation being undone. I bailed on the “two huge angry guys thinking about beating the crap out of the thieves” situation. Who wouldn’t?

      • I knew what I typed would come out sounding wrong. The not cool remark was merely a tongue in cheek response that might come from a 20 year old peer.

        But, wasnt it moral luck that the real owners got it back?

        Jack, I know this was a light hearted story and more fun to write than much of the recent posts. I was trying to be funny but I don’t seem to even get that right anymore.

        • Of course it was moral luck. My point was that the stupid stunt, which was designed only to “get” my friends the thieves (I assume that we would have let them take their stolen sofa back after we got our laugh) ended up with a better outcome than I intended. It would not have increased the harm already done even if it worked perfectly, so I still regard it as a pristine practical joke.

  2. I was going to vote that it would have mattered if you had stolen a GIRL’S sofa, but then again it was Harvard, not Radcliffe, right? In the old days, I mean… the really really old days.

  3. Great story. Reminds me of the white stallion in Dean Vernon Wormer’s office prank going horribly awry. I’ll post my own zany college hi-jinks story asap.

  4. So, my senior year, I lived in an a apartment with a random guy. Neither of us was particularly neat and orderly, nor disgusting messy. Still, on Halloween, I bought a small pumpkin and put it on the dining room table….

    Fast forward to the last week of school, before graduation. We find the pumpkin, desiccated after months of air conditioning, under a pile of papers. We triumphantly marched the pumpkin to the top of the North Parking Garage, and deposited it over the edge.

  5. Ann Althouse has a good take on this issue. She’s not so enthused about the supposed higher bar for people on the Supreme Court. She’s not sure having a bunch of earnest, blemish free nerds is good for staffing the highest court in the land.

    Which reminds me of a partner at the big firm I worked for. He told about being nervous about having to put on his bar application the fact he’d been arrested for drunk and disorderly or something like that and had spent a night in jail. He went to the name partner, who was famous for having won the water litigation against California for Arizona before the Supremes. The famous partner shook his head indicating the then recent law school grad shouldn’t be worried and said, “I’m not sure I’d trust anybody who hasn’t spent at least one night in jail.”

  6. I think Kavanaugh fits right into Ann’s reasoning about stuffy nerds: when faced with Whitehouse’s question about the fart comments in the yearbook, responded something like “If we want to talk about flatulence at age 16 on a yearbook page, I’m game.” That’s probably the closest to “…come at me, bro..” you will get in a setting like this.

  7. Second try to post…

    I believe my answer to the poll was to select one choice: “…should be investigated by the FBI, if I were nominated for SCOTUS.” (poor memory) But of this I am sure: I strove deliberately to respond to the poll with sarcasm. Or “tongue-in-cheek,” if you prefer.

    If the sofa caper had occurred today, however, and you had come to me, an FBI agent, to tell your version of the story, I would have immediately set up surveillance on the sofa in the jocks’ dorm, with all the reasonable suspicion that today’s college jocks deserve. Surely those aspiring future CTE patients would be using the sofa to plot unspeakable crimes against women. Even if no one was caught doing anything but boozing excessively and leaking their urine on that sofa, every one of the jocks in that dorm would be disqualified three decades later for serving on the SCOTUS. The reasoning: the mere fact that the sofa was placed in their dorm is prima facie evidence of their intended hate crimes against women, and is signature significance evidence of bad judgment that no amount of future maturation could cure.

    Damn! It’s early, and I haven’t expunged all my sarcasm yet…

  8. What I’m having a real problem with is the fact that Progressives and the Social Justice Warrior Cult (SJWC) have infected our society so deeply with a common sense and intellect eating social justice virus that there’s even a relative need to be discussing this kind of ridiculousness on a blog that focuses primarily on the ethical and unethical behaviors that surround us in our daily lives.

    That said…

    I understand that we need to focus on pointing out the complete ridiculousness and unethical nature of what Progressives and the Social Justice Warrior Cult are doing and confront them with reality, but the problem is that most Progressives and the Social Justice Warrior Cult prejudiced bigots don’t bother to read or discuss anything that might be a catalyst towards critical thinking. They avoid anything that might shift the Progressive view that anything Republican/Conservative is a nail and they are the hammer pounding it in to submission. What Progressives fail to realize is that as rigid as a conservative nail can be when it is free standing and alone it gets much more rigid the farther it’s pounded into the surrounding societal structure and eventually it becomes one with that structure; Progressives are pounding way too hard and it will eventually bite them.

    By the way; I think I figured out why there is a deafening silence from a lot of my Progressive friends after a lengthy conversation with one of them yesterday. It’s two fold; silent Progressives are in fear of opposing that which they have helped to create and they justify anything that supports the “good fight” even if it makes them uncomfortable. If they see, hear, or read their battle buddies go beyond their rhetorical comfort zone they just clam up and say nothing because the rhetoric is to progress their overall view point (pure ends justify the means) plus they are in literal fear of the public retribution and shunning that will certainly follow if they say something that opposes their battle buddies. They know their place and they aren’t going to rock the boat. They have not seen the light of reality, they’ve just temporarily shifted themself from the front line force to a supporting force ready and willing to jump in at a moments notice.

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