"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
I got my start in my late teens. My mother had a consignment shop/bridal store, which every so often garnered the odd donation of designer clothes. Since this wasn’t exactly the kind of place someone came to buy Tommy Hilfiger jeans or a Ralph Lauren sweater, my mother gave me the pick of the donations. Once in a while, I’d find something that fit me, but most of the time, I was hunting for returnables, clothes I could pass off as having been bought somewhere else.
In those days, J.C. Penney had the loosest return policy. No receipt? No tags? No problem. They gave the item a once-over and found something comparable in quality to gauge the price. Most stores issued a gift card to a customer without any real evidence of purchase; J.C. Penney always gave cash.
This was in the mid-1990s, before you had to show ID, sign a slip of paper and answer a battery of questions from the always skeptical supervisor. It was just you, the cashier — and a question of control. You always had to know who was going to be behind that register. That was the golden rule: know your mark. Know whom you could work over and whom you couldn’t.
This was something I learned from watching my mother, who knew all too well how to root out a good con. Her defining scam was the Christmas special, when, on the day after Christmas, she’d gather up the presents from under the tree and return them to the stores along with the masses — poor Mommy forced to return all of her thoughtful gifts. But unlike most of those people, she’d circle back to the stores (once the shift change had taken effect) and repurchase those same presents for vastly reduced prices. Was this out of necessity? Was it out of some need to display her cunning? Looking back, I suspect my mother had become convinced of some higher moral agenda, in which the weak (the middle class) outfox the strong (the rich). All I know is that we always got what we wanted for Christmas.
My mom sold the consignment shop when I was in my 20s. By then, I’d decided to become a writer, having fallen in love with “The Catcher in the Rye” at the age of 17. A college student lacking the funds to feed my literary appetite (and with a habit of underlining passages that eliminated the public library as an option), I stopped returning clothes — and started returning books.
This scam demanded a little more effort. It required “the pre-con, ” as I called it, when I scoured my local Salvation Army and Goodwill for 75 cent paperbacks with sharp, clean edges and un-blemished pages. I’d buy 15 or 20 at a time and then organize them into semi-thematic groups to sell back to one of the chain bookstores. It was best to keep certain types of books together — self-help with chick lit, biography with history, science fiction with mystery. Trying to return Walter Isaacson’s biography of Einstein with, say, a book from the Harry Potter series could elicit enough suspicion to blow the return. Instead, I kept things simple and precise — three or four books that fit with whatever persona I was trying on that day — and I’d use the store credit to buy the paperbacks I really wanted. I must have pocketed $150 to $200 in books every month for the better part of a year.
My biggest single score came when I discovered a dollar store that sold remainders. I bought a hardcover about Richard Nixon with a list price of $35, walked it to the bookstore and left with a gift card for the full amount. Then I went back to the dollar store and bought all eight remaining copies, returning them sporadically over the next year.
I did have two basic rules: I only conned corporations, never individuals — and I did not shoplift. Shoplifting wasn’t any worse morally; I just thought it was too easy. Instead, I was after a challenge. Sure, it was nice to get a few bucks or a gift card, but the real thrill came from my ability to manipulate, to outwit a large corporation. I wasn’t just stealing; I was striking a blow for the common man against Big Business.
It was around this time that I began telling my friends about my exploits. But instead of being disdainful or horrified, I saw a look of amazement and envy in their eyes, and it fed my desire to try new cons. I discovered the McDonald’s drive-thru could be exploited if you happened to be out with your hungry 6-year old nephew sans wallet and sounded particularly desperate. I discovered that if you called the front desk of a certain five-star hotel and told them that every time you turn on the TV you were assaulted by images of pornography — and your wife is pregnant and she doesn’t want to see this crap, for Chrissakes — they’ll gladly upgrade you to a suite at no extra charge. But what I really learned is that people will believe just about anything you tell them, if you channel the right persona.
I discovered just how susceptible people were to the right persona when, for over a year, I attended my local gym in California without becoming a member. I never knew what I was going to say to the worker at the front desk. This is because when you’re conning someone, you must always give the illusion that your mind is on something else. Affable indifference works well. For the gym, I used athletic focus. Never once did I approach the front desk walking. I was always running, always in the zone, always pumped. I’d have my earphones in, music blaring, and say that I’d just taken a run around the block (interval training); I’d have my basketball shoes in hand and feign anxiety as I approached: Did the game start already? I’d shake my head impatiently and say that I had to feed the parking meter, briefly criticizing the city’s parking regulations, and every time, the worker would sympathize, hand me a towel and tell me to have a good workout.
Yes, it was all about persona, and every encounter enabled me to tweak my persona — a regimen of creation and re-creation, a perpetual self-sharpening: Hi, I bought this book the other day and I got it home and found that there was writing inside! (Of course, beforehand, I’d go hide the remaining copies of said book so the cashier would be forced to give me a store credit); hi, I bought this shirt the other day and the cashier said that it wouldn’t shrink if I washed it, but it shrunk; hi, you know, I’m not really sure, I’m just making this return for my wife … my mother … my sister … my sick grandmother; hi, I got this as a graduation gift … a christening gift … a shower gift … a birthday gift; hi, I forgot my key card upstairs in my room, is it possible to get another one to get into the fitness center?; hi, no, I’m sorry, but I don’t have my receipt; hi, well I would like to speak to the manager, please.
And each one of these gambits required a follow-up if the situation didn’t go as planned:
So this is the kind of product you sell in your store? I don’t think I want to exchange it because it’ll just shrink again; ummm? I think it’ll probably be better if I just get them a store credit, that way they can pick out what they want; my name? Jack O’Brien. But the room may be under my mother’s name — oh, for some reason she kept her maiden name, I don’t know why … yeah, Burblonsky, that’s her; look, I’m not trying to pull one over on you (said with a laugh to underscore the absurdity of the idea), I would like to just return this item and pick out something else; I work hard for my money; THIS IS RIDICULOUS!
Things changed after Minnesota. My wife, Kate, and I were driving back east from California and were on our way to see my friend Lisa in Minneapolis. We rarely saw each other, and I wanted to look nice for the visit. Kate had never met Lisa, so she wanted to look nice, too.
We didn’t look nice. We didn’t smell nice. We needed a shower and, of course, I had a con in mind.
In the first hotel, we hit a snag. We asked to see a room and had fully expected the woman at the desk to give us a key, but she didn’t. She walked us to the room and stood by as we inspected. Kate looked scared.
After making a show of looking around, I asked if breakfast was included. Kate looked at me like I was crazy. It was 1 p.m., and we were due in Minneapolis in two hours.
“OK, it’s perfect,” I said.
The woman led us to the door, and before we left the room I said: “Could my wife stay here? She’s pregnant, and her feet are killing her.”
The woman was sympathetic and as she and I boarded the elevator, I figured Kate would already be in the shower.
When we got to the front desk, I said I’d left my wallet in the car. When I came back inside, I said that my wife had it in her purse, upstairs. This all took about 10 minutes — more than enough time for a person to shower, but when I reached the room, I found Kate sitting on the corner of the bed, terrified.
“I can’t do this,” she said.
I tried to coax her into the bathroom, but she wouldn’t budge.
“I just want to go to the car. Can we go to the car?”
An hour later, I talked Kate into giving the scam another try. I told her we’d chosen the wrong hotel.
“We need a mom-and-pop place,” I said, “a motel.”
Eventually, we found a single-story strip of rooms with the office smack in the middle. We pulled the can-we-take-a-look-at-a-room bit and the painfully friendly woman (very obviously the proprietor) handed us a key before she displayed her trust by dutifully returning her attention to some paperwork. The room was about 50 yards from the office, but we decided to drive. We parked in front, went inside and began to shower. Somewhere in the middle of lathering and rinsing, the phone began to ring. It rang for an excruciating long period of time, long enough for us to get out of the shower, but neither of us answered it.
“Get dressed!” I said.
When we got outside, the proprietor was already halfway to the room and walking with an intensity that said she knew something was up. Kate walked the key over to her, hoping a polite smile and a little courtesy would halt her. It did not, and Kate got into the car just as the woman inserted the key into the lock and entered the room. I threw the car in reverse, and by the time I’d shifted into drive, the woman was back outside yelling and shaking her fists frantically. As we hit the highway, Kate was screaming, “Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God,” her incantation sounding more like a prayer than an alarm. I was compulsively checking my mirrors, convinced that the woman had gotten our plate number.
The fallout from Minnesota was not immediate. It took a few weeks for a creeping hesitation to gain hold in my mind and disrupt the years of denial. But I hadn’t just scared my wife; I had put us in danger. And I had broken my rule of never targeting individuals. It also began to dawn on me that I’d been targeting individuals all along. Sure, they may have been individuals working for large corporations with deep pockets, but they were also people, real people who trusted me, whose paycheck might have been docked if the registers didn’t add up correctly, or if anyone ever caught on. I’d been screwing with these poor people for years, never once considering that my actions could have a direct impact on them. I’m sure I’ve been responsible for more than one firing or demotion, and that is not something I can make right with some twisty moral rationalizing.
Karma is not a principle taught in the Catholic Church. The closest we get to it is the concept of purgatory — that for all the pain we caused on earth, we’ll have to spend some time in a waiting room pondering our transgressions before we’re called up to heaven. And I believe in this, not with a zealot’s humorlessness but with a pragmatic resignation; somehow, some way, you’re gonna pay for what you’ve done.
But the lure of the con is still with me.
It’s been four years since Minnesota, but only days ago, I went to Best Buy to purchase a pair of headphones. The pair I chose were marked $24.99, but when I reached the register, they rang up for $50. I protested, rather mildly, and the cashier told me to bring her the tag. I triumphantly returned a few moments later, and the transaction was completed, the deal was got. But I only partially heard the cashier rue her supervisor’s reaction, because my mind was somewhere else. I was thinking about how effortless it would be to set up this con; a simple matter of a few days, long enough for the store to correct the price of the headphones, and for me to lose my receipt. Hi, I was here the other day and …
Jason Jellick is currently attending culinary school in the Washington, D.C., area. He graduated from Columbia University with an MFA in creative nonfiction. He lives in Maryland with his wife, Kate, and son, Jack.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Have you ever pulled a scam? We want to hear about it. Tell us your story on Open Salon.
Jason Jellick is currently attending culinary school in the Washington D.C. area where he's completing an externship at La Chaumière in Georgetown. He graduated from Columbia University with an MFA in creative nonfiction. He lives in Maryland with his wife Kate and son, Jack.More Jason Jellick.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)