I moved away from home before Christmas when I was 17, taking some clothes, a towel, eating utensils, two dishes,1 and a measuring cup from which to drink2. The cheap, furnished, one-room apartment I found had a worn-out, hideously-green linoleum floor with an eye-torturing pattern;3 I had to stand in the doorway to open the refrigerator4. I had nothing and was nothing. A girlfriend occasionally brought some food. Someone gave me an old radio5. I spent most of a year in the room—which had a bed, a standing wardrobe, and no chairs—6 or in movie theaters, which I broke into and would hide out in until darkness fell. I created another identity for myself7. I feared being outdoors during daylight; there were at least three former associates in the city who would kill me on sight8.
I made furtive trips to the YMCA, where I continued to lift weights and box. One day, across the street, a building was demolished9. In the rubble, I found a solid, plain wooden door, which I hauled back to the apartment, along with two big strap hinges10. Later that week, I found a chest of drawers in a trash pile on the street and appropriated it, too11.By sawing off a third of the door and attaching it with the hinges to the furniture top, I made a drawing board12. I sat on a beat-up bar stool someone had thrown out, even though I couldn’t put my legs under the table13. Bricks elevated the board and a discarded lamp I found on the street illuminated it14. In the isolation of the bleak, little room, I began sharpening my drawing skills. Charles Dickens eat yur heart out!15
Weeks merged into a Kafkaesque mirage of pathetic daydreams & nightmares, where it was difficult to tell where one began & the other ended16. Christmas promised to be particularly desolate. I wanted to get my girlfriend a present, something she least expected: a fur coat17. I found one in a store window priced at $150, which might as well have been $150,00018. I hardly had two nickels to rub together. Some days, all I had to eat was a head of lettuce or a quarter jar of peanut butter19. I drank soda that I cut with tap water to make it last longer. I made tomato soup with ketchup and hot water. Some days, there was nothing20. I needed to look deep into my bag of tricks to survive and score the fur jacket. I found both21.
I borrowed $100 from an acquaintence, which I exchanged at a bank for four new $20s and 20 $1s22. Then, I talked a local printer into giving me a few sheets of blank Strathmore 20-pound bond typing paper (with obvious rag content),23 and began by placing them for a day in a solution of weak coffee to mitigate their brightness24. Meanwhile, the four new $20s were soaked in a saucer of tap water, then split along their edges, lengthwise, with a razor blade25 (each bill is made from three pieces of paper). The result was four fronts and four backs. Four $1 bills were also split26. The coffee treatment gave the bond paper the texture and background color of real greenbacks, and, when they were dry,27 I drew, with pen and India ink, four $20 fronts on one of the sheets28. Matching the minute engraving was difficult and mistakes were not acceptable. It took time and patience, which I had in excess29.
The next step was to paste the four drawn $20 fronts to four real $20 backs30. Then, the four real $20 fronts were pasted to four real $1 backs. Finally, the four real $20 backs were pasted to four $1 fronts31. After they were assembled, I’d wrinkle them, dump them in a bag with some dirt and gravel,32 then put the bag in a laundry clothes dryer to tumble around for 20 minutes33. When the bills were retrieved and straightened, they were almost indistinguishable from the real thing—hand-drawn fronts and backs included34.
That’s when my passing strategy kicked in35.
I took the bogus roll into the busiest department stores during high weekend customer traffic and spotted the youngest cashiers36. I’d buy something for about $25 and offer two drawn $20 with real backs37. I’d get $15 in change, then take the item to customer service for a refund38. The result was $40 in real money. Another pass at a different store netted me $80 authentic39.
Next, I repeated the process with the $20 fronts pasted to $1 backs, being careful to hand the bills to cashiers in face-up position–40 the same way they’re usually stacked in the register41. I counted on them not being turned over in the rush. They weren’t42. Finally, I’d pass the real $20 backs with the $1 fronts back side up to the most harried and inexperienced cashiers,43 those just hired for the Christmas rush44. (Sometimes, l’d buy a $22 item and pay for it with a counterfeit $20, plus two real ones on top.) No bills were ever questioned.45 My $88 investment netted $240 in real cash46 Repaying the $100 loan left me with $140 plus an additional $16–the singles which were not split—for a total of $156,47 just enough to buy the coat and a super-special card for the girl who stood by me during my darkest period48. She loved the coat, the card–and, last but not least, me, too!<<49
A Great Holiday Story from Jim Steranko