Friday, April 2, 2010

Robbing Banks Isn't Big or Clever

Robbing Banks Isn't Big or Clever

(spoiler alert if you're never done it)

By David Whitehouse

Holiday time and I'm watching movies. My girlfriend is here, cooking up some pasta in my open-plan kitchen. She's pretty normal looking. She's not good looking or ugly. You wouldn't notice her on the street. She works at a zoo, giving children guided tours. She gives them talks about seals. The kids stroke guinea pigs with her.

She holds the guinea pigs on her long pleated skirt. Between her breasts there is a snake tattoo.

In her purse she carries a pair of pink fluffy plastic handcuffs, ready to put on anywhere at a moment's notice.

It's Dog Day Afternoon. Al Pacino has just watched himself in The Godfather and now he is robbing a bank. The robbers have no masks or anything. One guy chickens out at the start so the gang is down to two. The bank has hardly any cash and the two hang around fielding personal phone calls to the staff when they should have been getting away. Soon the place is surrounded by cops.

Al, it would appear, is the only winner here.

The guy, the real one who did the, later wrote from prison that the film was a piece of crap. The FBI didn't need to kill his accomplice at the end, like the film made out, he wrote. But of course he loved Al Pacino. I can see his point. Al standing there outside the bank entrance, white flag in hand, with a pretty tidy female bank clerk. There's a massive armed police presence and a huge crowd. The accomplice has the rest of the hostages at gunpoint inside. Al boots the glass door and tells the cops to get back and put their fucking guns down. Attica! Attica! Bring on the prison riots. The crowd goes wild. The blonde bank clerk, tinged with sweat, refuses to go with the police and follows him back inside.

Yeah, you need to be a bit of a showman to pull that off.

-The real robber said this film is a piece of crap, I tell my girlfriend. They didn't really need to kill the accomplice at the end. They had him restrained already. But he loved Al Pacino. The trouble is, robbing banks is 95% perspiration and 5% inspiration. Like anything. Like writing, y'know. Planning, execution, hard work. Gotta have all the ideas yourself, like he said, gotta do everything to keep it moving along. Just like Bukowski. Don't try being a genius if you aren't one. This guy tried to do it on inspiration alone. But you can't just watch The Godfather and wander in there. Doesn't work like that. Doesn't work unless you're a total genius.

-If you're going to be an accomplice, you have to choose your friends very carefully, she said. Can you get me a strainer for the pasta please?

-I mean, no masks? C'mon. How were they ever going to spend the dough with no masks?

I can see the attraction with Bukowski. Unfettered male freedom. A life of debauchery, playing with words just something to do until drinking and the horse races start. It's a hobby, 95% perspiration and 5% inspiration. That kind of hobby. Tricky if you have to go to work already. The same as robbing banks, I guess. Which is also more fun as a hobby. Doing over a bank can hardly be counted as a serious activity. The act is essentially petty: what you want is a quick heist and a long boozy lunch. The guy might have got away with it if he'd played it cool. It would have held drinking time back until early afternoon, at least. But he started to take it too serious, that's the problem. Demanding planes, choppers, this and that.

A letter to the bank manager would have had a better chance. If you told him the zoo needed the dough, to extend the seal aquarium for instance, they might go for it. They'd just write it off if you couldn't pay it back.

A couple of weeks later and you just phone up and ask them for more money.

I pour myself some wine. I ask if she wants some. She says no.

-A stroke of genius could have got him through, though, I tell her. When he was chucking the money around and everyone was scrambling to get it, he should have run into the crowd. He could have got away. He was just a 95% genius. Didn't quite have 100% star quality. That's why Al Pacino had to take over.

Stop trying to act like you're something, the bank manager told Al. Stop showing off and just leave me alone.

-In Asia in the second world war, I tell her, the Japs had to shoot all the animals in the zoos. Korea, Burma, places like that. They knew that no-one could stay there to guard the zoos once they retreated. So they gunned down the big game down so that it wouldn't escape onto the streets. Just like that stupid accomplice in the film.

-Pass the parmesan?

I walk up behind her as she stands at the sink and put my hands on her hips.

-I want to see the look on the lama's face, I said.

-I'll never put the cuffs on in the zoo, she said.

-We could wear masks.

-Stop asking me that.

I get some more wine.

-Typos are worse than fascism, I tell her. You know who said that?

-Why not just do it, she said, if you want to lead the same sort of life as Bukowski. There's nothing to stop you. No-one's relying on you, certainly not me. Chase girls and puke up the side of trees at 9 in the morning if you wish. Stop tucking yourself in to bed with your Bukowski book and your mulled
wine and just do it yourself. If you think it's so very nice to live like that.

-Do you realise that the surrender of comfort required to write a sentence is enormous?

The big bountiful plates of pasta are now visible.

-Another thing, she said. Even if Al Pacino had got away his friend would still have been shot. Are you going to lay the table or what?


David Whitehouse, who is British, works as a journalist in Paris, where he has lived for 14 years. Previously he lived in Japan. He's married with three children and edits the The Lesser Flamingo ezine, which accepts poetry, flash fiction and short stories.


Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Les Urgences

By David Whitehouse

The old man had fallen to the pavement and his wife couldn't get him up. A passing woman, plump and middle-aged, had helped him to his feet and that was how I found the three of them, locked in a tight, immobile huddle in the bright light of a winter's afternoon.

-Are you going to be all right now? I heard the plump woman asking them.

The wrinkles on the face of the old man's wife were fragile like the threads of a spider's web.

-You'll be all right now, won't you? the plump woman said.

The wife's eye, encrusted with flaky skin, was delicate as that of a young doe as it shifted shyly through her wispy brown hair toward me.

-I'm afraid I really couldn't say, she said.

I took the man's arm. He was big and burly with thick white hair. His wife smiled at me and the seed of youth was in her smile.

The plump woman was gone.

-Dad! What are you doing? We're going to be late for the PARTY!

My kid, who I had fetched from school, was using a lamppost to swing himself round and round.

-Go on, the old man said. Don't waste your time. You'll be late.

-Don't worry, I said. We've got lots of time. We're early.

The three of us shuffled forward, the wife holding one of his arms and me the other. It was a hundred meters to his house, he said. But he couldn't keep going and I caught him as he slumped down again. We got him back upright but he could go no further. We were stuck.

-DAD! I don't want to stand here in the COLD!

-I'll call an ambulance, I said.

I pulled out my phone.

-Thank you, the man said.

The call was answered straight away. I told the woman where we were.

-His wife and I tried to get him home, I said. But he can't walk any more. We're stuck.

-Is he inebriated? said the voice on the line.


-Is he in a state of inebriation? Is he drunk?

-No, I said. He's an old man.

-I'm 85 years old, the man said.

-He says he's 85 years old, I said.

-And he's not drunk? the woman said.

-No, I said.

-I'll send an ambulance, she said.

We waited motionless. My child sulked. His wife, elegant in her long black winter's coat, said nothing.

The ambulance arrived, together with a police car. Three young men jumped out of the ambulance. Two blue-uniformed women emerged sluggishly from the car. They wore black boots and carrying long black truncheons. The old man's wife stood aside and looked at me, as if puzzled.

We were in France. I held the man up from behind by slipping my arms under his armpits.

-Good afternoon, sir, said the ambulance driver. We've come to take you to hospital.

-I'm not going to hospital, the old man said. I want to go home. It's a hundred meters down this street.

-If you want to go home, call a taxi, the young man said. I can only take you to hospital.

I was starting to sag under the old man's weight. The five uniforms stood impassive before us.

-I'm a bloody doctor, the old man said. And so is my daughter. I want to call her. Her number is at home.

-It's best to be examined, I said. Then you can call your daughter.

The driver of the ambulance folded his arms.

-Yes, he said finally. You need to be examined.

-Maybe your wife can go and get your daughter's number? I said. While you get in the ambulance.

-Don't ask her, the old man said. She's got Alzheimer's.

At this, the other two young men from the ambulance moved forward and grabbed the old man's arms. The driver, arms still crossed, gave me a small nod. I stepped away. My child, like a wild horse springing out of a box, charged headlong down the street.


It started the next Sunday morning as a dull ache in my testicles and got worse. By the time I stood in my living room, in front of the parents of the new kids at my children's school, it felt like a spoonful of molten lead had been dropped into each one of my balls.

They had come round to discuss how we could share the job of taking our children to school.
Five assorted kids were running wild in the background. The visiting mother was a tall, large-breasted woman and as the pain grew worse, I struggled to keep my chin up to meet her gaze.

-I'm a public relations consultant, she said. So it's very difficult to know exactly where I will be on a particular day . . .

-Stop leaning against the wall, my wife said. Why can't you stand up on your feet?

The husband shook his head and sighed, staggered by the dimensions of the problem. I wanted to cup my balls.

An intense round of negotiations followed. I smiled through gritted teeth. There were numerous complications. Mondays. Tuesdays. Wednesdays. Thursdays. Fridays.

I could feel a fever coming on. After what seemed long enough for the international war crimes trial of a minor African warlord, it was done.

-My balls are hurting, I said to my wife once they had gone.

The emergency doctor came straight around and we grappled briefly in the children's bedroom, my wife having indicated this was where the examination should take place. My temperature was through the roof.

-You should have done straight to hospital, the doctor said. Rather than calling me. If there's torsion in the balls, you have only six hours to save them.

-Six hours? To save my balls?

My balls: six hours.

-When did they start hurting? he asked.

-They've been hurting for . . . a few hours, I said.

The ambulance was soon there and I was bundled into the back. Off we went, red light flashing, into unchartered territory. My amazing years of potency, it seemed, could be drawing to a spectacular end.

When I came back home it was possible that I would be . . . something else.

At the hospital a woman in a white coat pulled me out of the waiting room and took me to the guy that was going to examine me.

Except that there was no guy.

How could there be no guy? She wasn't going to . . . it wasn't possible that . . . oh no.

I looked at her again and three crucial points struck me. In this order.

1. She was wearing knee-high leather boots.
2. She was wearing black pantyhose. It had to be pantyhose, the alternative didn't bear thinking about.
3. A quick glance at her face showed her to be aged between 18 and 70 and free of any major disfiguring marks.

This was an infringement of my human rights. I would write to my health insurance company. I would complain to the association of balls doctors.

No, more than that. I would contact my Member of European Parliament.

I took my trousers off in the changing cubicle. Then I stepped into her office.

I lay down glumly on the couch.

-Please take your penis in your hand, she said.

She was wearing latex gloves. She rubbed a cold liquid on my balls. The she ran a scanning device across them. She studied the results on a big screen in front of her. I could see now that she was about 50, wore glasses and had brown, mousy hair.

Her manner was quick and professional. This was crazy beyond my wildest dreams. My private little world had not been breached. She might as well have been a dentist. It might as well have been my teeth.

-There's no torsion, she told me. You have a minor case of epididymitis. You'll have to take some medicine.

-No torsion, I said. I struggled to absorb the news.

I was still me. I was going to leave here and end this day just as I had started it.

-I just need to do one more test, she said.

She squeezed the skin on one ball between her fingers and I screamed. She squeezed the other ball. I screamed again.

-That's right, she said. Scream! She grinned at me with a toothy leer. Come on, SCREAM! Which one hurts the most?

-Both of them!

-Perfect, she said.

She laughed and I roared in tortured relief.


At home I sagged triumphantly into an armchair. I was exhausted but the medicine was already starting to wash the pain away.

-Dad! Dad!

One of my kids came hobbling up to me.


-My little toe is hurting. I think I need an ambulance!

I called out to my wife.

-He says his toe is hurting.

-Just kidding Dad, he said. And off he ran.

David Whitehouse is married with three children. He works as a journalist in Paris, where he has lived for the last 13 years, after moving from his native Britain. He edits The Lesser Flamingo, a new ezine.