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​Tell Your True Tale: The Paper-Bag Bandit, by Victor Alfaro ~ Non-Fiction

This piece is originally published in Tell Your True Tale, a collection of nonfiction stories from a workshop run by journalist Sam Quinones and the Los Angeles County Library.

[dropcap size=big]M[/dropcap]y friend finally picks me up from the corner. He asks me where I’m going. I tell him I’m going to go rob a bank. He looks at me crazy, says I’m a fool. Anyhow I tell him to take my new 7-year-old son to my Mom’s office and I’ll pick him up as soon as I’m done.

As he is driving down the street, I see a Bank of America.

It’s strange how thoughts come to you out of nowhere. This one in particular came to me while in the shower. It was 2004. I was 31. I was up for several days on meth and drinking heavily for the past month or so. While meditating on the drops of water hitting my head, I decide to go rob a bank and take my son to Tijuana, Mexico to see my biological father - his new grandpa. I had just found out I was the boy’s biological father. His mother and I had been dating again for the past several months. I knew her from the past but only recently we had decided to make sure the boy was mine and we took a DNA test. So now I’m living with them in Los Angeles.

I’ve recently been discharged from parole. This is first time in ten years I am not controlled by the criminal justice system. I no longer have to report to a parole agent. No more monthly drug testing, no mandatory home visits. I take this new freedom as a chance to use drugs uncontrollably and drink like a mad man. Today, my son’s mom is at work while I’m home babysitting.

As I continue to embrace the notion of bank robbery, I get dressed in what I believe to be bank-robber attire: dark grey cowboy boots, blue jeans, pull-over hoodie sweater, dark sunglasses and a burgundy bucket hat. I tell my son to get ready.

“We’re going to see grandpa in TJ.”

He looks at me like a 7-year-old who just learned who his biological father is.

I sit down on my chair and snatch a piece of scratch paper off my desk and write a bank robbery note. At this moment, I really don’t know what’s going on in my head. I don’t have a real plan yet, I just know this has been a boyhood fantasy of mine.

My family is in the audience every day praying to I don’t know how many different saints.

Growing up with my family in the barrio lifestyle of the Pico-Union neighborhood of Los Angeles, I lived a crazy life and knew a lot of criminals. One character they called the Paper-Bag Bandit, who supposedly robbed more banks than Jesse James. I never knew his name. But somehow the bandit became my childhood hero.

As I finish packing, unbeknownst to me, my new son also writes a note, this to his mother saying he is going with dad to TJ to go visit his new grandpa and that he loves her and will see her soon.

Meanwhile, I call a friend and tell him to pick me up at the corner of my apartment. My son and I wait. Then I tell him to sit still as I go to the supermarket to steal juice for him and a bottle of vodka for me. That’s what I do, then I come back and give him his juice and fill my red tumbler with liquor.

My friend picks us both up and drops me off at the corner. He’s shaking his head, still thinking I’m kidding. I go into the bank, which has no security guard. As I’m waiting in line, sipping on my red tumbler, I notice the seven-foot Plexiglas between the tellers and customers. When it’s finally my turn, I walk to the teller, smile at her. She’s maybe 19, 20 years old. I slide the note through the small opening in the Plexiglas, which resembles the one from the liquor store in the ‘hood. She takes a look at it, looks at me, then starts to backstep.

“Hey, where you are going?” I say.

She just looks at me and continues to walk to the back of the bank office.

I ignore this and walk out of the bank not really knowing what’s going on. I see a bus stop where a bus stops. I jump in and head down about half a mile. I remember I have a friend who owns a cell phone shop up the street. I walk toward his store and I see a big Budweiser truck. I decide this will be my getaway truck.

I get into the truck. Inside it looks like a spaceship. I don’t know how to start it. I jump out and walk inside the market where the driver is delivering beer and I ask him to give me the keys to my truck. He looks at me strangely and follows me outside.

He starts to chase me around the truck a couple of times. I make sure not to drop my tumbler of vodka as I run. I don’t know what the hell he’s yelling about. He ends up calling the security guard. I brush it off and walk into my friend’s shop nearby. I see his dad. He asks me what’s going on.

“Not too much, just robbing banks. Do you know of any good ones around here?”

He gives me a curious smile.

Then police officers pull up and they grab me. I’m still trying to hold on to my tumbler. They handcuff me and place me in the squad car. I sit there a long time. I notice more police cars approaching. A cop pulls me out and makes me face another cop car parked down the block with a passenger in the back seat.

“We have a positive ID,” I hear over the walkie-talkie.

[dropcap size=big]N[/dropcap]ow I begin to snap back to reality. I’m escorted to Parker Center -- LAPD headquarters. The FBI is here to interrogate me. An FBI agent shows a couple of photos of me inside the bank and asks if I recognize the person. I say it looks like me but it’s not me. As it happens, they didn’t find my cellphone on me when I was searched. When all the officers leave the room, I manage to call my girlfriend despite being I’m handcuffed to the chair. I tell her to call my mom and get me the hell out of here. My clothes are confiscated as evidence and I’m escorted to a single-man cell.

My family is in the audience every day praying to I don’t know how many different saints.

I’m charged with attempted robbery and attempted grand-theft auto. I make the $25,000 bail and fight my case for about a year. Meanwhile, I’m admitted to a hospital to detox and then check into a rehab where I stay until my trial.

My family hires a talented lawyer, who does an outstanding job. I’d been in the system off and on for about ten years by now and I didn’t want to do any more time. I ask my attorney if he thinks we can beat the case and he assures me we have a strong case. I’m offered four years; if I lose in trial, I’ll be facing seven years. I look at my mom and dad and decide to roll the dice and go to trial for the first time in my criminal career. I take it to the box, as it’s known in the jailbird population.

A year passes. Now I’m in trial. It lasts a week. My family is in the audience every day praying to I don’t know how many different saints. My aunt even steals holy water from the cathedral across the street and splatters it all over the entrance of the courtroom. She sprinkles some on the jurors as they pass by when no one is watching.

My mother, she puts a piece of paper with the District Attorney’s name on it in her high heels. Every time the DA speaks, she grinds her heel into the floor for him to get tongue-tied. She also makes me put the twelve apostles in my shoes. I ask her why even pay for a $20,000 attorney? She tells me to shut up we need all the help we can get with your dumb ass.

My grandma prays her rosary, looking at the ceiling, wondering why she even left Mexico in the first place. My uncle, who’s only ten years older than me, has this thing with staring at people with his piercing hazel eyes. He gleams at them as if he’s getting into their minds. He does this to the D.A. and jury throughout the trial. He also thinks he’s Wonder Woman sometimes.

The jury goes into deliberations and within an hour comes back. One of the longest hours of my life.

My dad is just trying to keep the peace between my family Justice League and the jury. So what does he do? He gets thrown out of the courtroom. He tries to get friendly with some of jurors in the snack bar. For this, the judge bars him from the courtroom for the remainder of the trial after and threatens him with jail time if he does it again. I think my mom is going to go to jail for killing my dad right there and then.

Anyhow, as we proceed with the trial, I sit in the courtroom in a suit and tie, freshly shaven every day, looking as innocent as possible. The D.A. walks in with a huge poster board and easel. He places it in the middle of courtroom. No one can see the contents because it’s covered. As he begins to address the jury and prompt them on what he calls exhibit D, my heart begins to race and my palms get sweaty.

He turns to the audience, then back to the jury and asks the judge for permission to enter exhibit D. The judge grants this wish. He goes over to the poster board and uncovers it. It’s my banknote. Written in big bold black letters. Looks like a kindergartener wrote it. On a torn piece of a brown paper bag that I get from liquor stores when I buy a forty (ounce beer).

“Please give me all of your money,” it reads, “or i will tickle you to death put the money in the paper bag i have a pisol in my pocket. Have a nice day the paper bag bandit.”

Yes, I spelled `pistol’ wrong. The jurors chuckle. I can't make out what kind of noises are coming from the audience. My eyes are glued to the judge. This is the first time anyone, besides my lawyer, the prosecutor and me has seen the note. I didn't even have a paper bag when I robbed the bank. All I had was the big red tumbler full of vodka, and needless to say I had no gun and there is no way I could've tickled anyone through that Plexiglas.

The last day of trial. My attorney and the D.A. make their closing arguments. My mother is looking at me like `What was going on in your head?’ My grandmother and aunt are praying the rosary and my grandmother was asking for interpretations. My uncle is glaring at the jury.

The jury goes into deliberations and within an hour comes back. One of the longest hours of my life.

A juror hands the verdict to the sheriff. “We, the people, find the defendant not guilty.”

I hear the gasps from the audience. My lawyer turns to me to shake my hand. I am in a daze.

“You’re a fortunate man,” the judge says. We pour out of the courtroom and go for burritos on Olvera Street. And that’s the end of my criminal career for another six or seven years.

To order a copy of Tell Your True Tale: Vol 9 go here.

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