Sultry Sins mural in San Francisco

Stealing Sins- Part 2

by Jerry A. Sierra

In full-DeNiro mode, I get a look inside

As I walk to work the next day it seems that it had all just been a near-drunken fantasy and the topic would never come up again.

It would never occur to me to steal a piece of public art… and I’d hate to be the one that deprives drivers on Duboce and Valencia of such a beautiful distraction… but saving it from destruction does sound noble… I could “store” it in my living room in front of that wall with the cracks and the paint bubbles, where it would be safe from the evils of an uncaring world.

In a decade or so I would secretly contact the artists and arrange to return the mural in a cold-war cloak-and-dagger manner… I’d wear a Fedora and a long rain coat, my face disguised with a fake moustache, a visible scar and contact lenses (one blue, one albino, maybe) so they’d never identify me, and I’d have an alibi across town just in case…

And after the recovery, Artweek would do a cover story wondering where it had been and why it was returned in such good condition after all these years… They’d receive an anonymous letter explaining that the mural was removed as an act of “preservation” and stored with critical care, but not stolen… (So that if I ever had to take a lie detector test I could say with conviction that I’m not a thief—at worst, it was just borrowed without permission.)

The muralists would be suspected, sure, but they’d be cleared, as they’d have no real information on the case and probably wouldn’t even remember the mural (painters are usually a hard-drinking/hard-living lot, if you believe movies about them—the more talented the more fraked up the person), but they’d appear on morning talk shows and sales of their work would spike and Steven Soderbergh would come out of retirement to make a bio-pic about the women who made the now recovered mural, with a speculative segment about where the mural was and why… there’d be no downside for them.

But what if someone noticed the mural at my place? How would I hide it from unsafe outsiders? I’d have to device a system whereby it was covered most of the time (that huge Kodak poster rolled up in the closet, maybe) but easily uncovered on demand.

Back in the real world (if you dare call it that) how would we do it? How would Danny Ocean do it?

I take a lunchtime walk to scout the area like DeNiro in The Score… corner target, 4 police approach routes, apartment building across the street looks down on target, corner bar (close at 2 am), corner garage (closed all night), door on the corner of Duboce at Valencia provides easy access to the back side of the mural, 1 small lock...

Standing there in full-DeNiro recon mode, I have to get a look inside that door to see what is behind the mural… how it is attached… Standing in front of the Speakeasy I freeze, unable to move. But the light changes, I cross the street and within a minute I’m speaking Spanish with a worker inside the building.

I explain that I’m looking for a friend that works at a coffee house around here. While he responds that the coffee house closed due to fire damage, I see what I need to see and file it in upper memory.

Back at work, I make a crude drawing of the back of the mural, noting where the crucial detachment points are.

The left side of the mural, with the lettering, is impossible to remove in a hurry, as the panels at the left end are much more braced to what remains of the building’s framework. This would require stronger tools and a noisier effort. But the face area, which is basically covering what had been an entrance way, is easily accessible.

This was just a mind game so far. But if it did turn out that Hector was serious, our target would be the face area.

“We’ll do it at 3 a.m.”

A few nights later I learn Hector is serious about the caper. He stops by with a six-pack and a pizza, and tells me that Chico is looking for a parking spot and will be in momentarily.

“We’ll do it at 3 am,” he says putting a 5-pack in the refrigerator and keeping a beer in his hand. He doesn’t seem to notice the various 3-packs (with plastic harness attached) that almost exclusively populate my refrigerator, which gives me a hint about his possible motivation.

“We drive down Duboce, turn right on Valencia and park on the corner.”

He pauses. Takes a swig. My heart races.

“We get out, start pulling the boards apart carefully…”

In a few minutes the doorbell announces Chico’s arrival, and after introductions they’re surprised to hear about my recon mission.

Suddenly I’m Steve McQueen in The Thomas Crown Affair; “I walk down Clinton Park from Guerrero, Chico walks up Valencia from 14th Street… he opens the door, we start working the boards from the inside… three minutes later YOU pull up in the truck…”

“Why… later?”

“Papa bear goes where I go... in case of Martian invaders, or… zombies.”

“When you park, boards are ready to come out…”

“But why… later?”

“It’s a timing thing… less exposure...”

“A w-h-a-t thing?” Chico doesn’t speak much, but what he says annoys me, so I point him to the cold beer in the refrigerator.

“There’s no reason to arrive separately,” says Hector, “and nobody is going to be watching. We need all three of us in that building because there are three jobs; two inside to remove the panels, the and a third outside to spread the matt and make sure the boards don’t slam on the sidewalk…”

“Three jobs?” Chico opens a beer.

“You carry the tools and one lamp, Chico opens the door, I carry the other lamp and papa bear (tapping where the gun holster usually rests) and as soon as we’re in…”

I interrupt. “I don’t think we need papa bear* with us. I think he should stay in the closet with the tweed suit and the cowboy hat…”

Chico jumps right on top of this. “He may be right… and I hate to say it, with him being a rookie and all…” He looks at me, then back at Hector, “and an inspired one at that. I usually feel better with papa bear along on a job, but in this case…”

Hector lets his head fall to the side gracefully and a gentle, soft smile precedes his response. “Papa bear goes where I go. He doesn’t have to come out, but he’s there in case of Martian invaders, or… zombies.”

We get the drift of the Martian invaders nonsense and don’t want to argue. But if zombies do show up we’ll be glad papa bear came along. At least that’s what the look between Chico and me implies.

Hector continues, “The outside guy (tapping my chest with his gun finger) has to make sure the painting doesn’t fall, and once it’s on the ground, you come back inside for the lamps and the tools. We remove the panels, load the truck and drive to your place. Simple.”

“Don’t you think we should hide the truck for a few days?” I offer.

They laugh, even though I alone have probably solved more movie crimes than they together had seen real crimes. This should count for something.

Still, I must acknowledge their combined experience may provide a realistic perspective.

I raise a waving hand to chest level and shake my head to a slow jazz beat; “We’ve taken the right panel aside without breaking it… it’s about ten feet tall… we’ve removed the lights and the tools… load the truck and we’re Willie Nelson…”

Chico burrows his eyes, but Hector smiles, “on the road again.”

Now I’m on a roll, “and we go to my place, but instead of the front door, where the truck will be exposed to my neighbors, we double park around the side and bring it in through the back door into the utility area… lean it against the wall and you’re out.”

“And leave it there?”

“The following morning you guys come over and while my neighbors are at work, we bring it up the creaky back stairs one piece at a time.”

“How about the street-fart guy upstairs?”

“Street… fart, guy?

“Street art… the photographer upstairs?”

Chico heard it like I did.

Hector looks frustrated and I quickly respond, “He’s out of town.”

The coast now seems clear for our crime of art-love, plus-50-male-bonding and boredom.

We go over the details several times; special tools, the tarp, a license plate for the truck, gloves, subtle face masks in case we’re filmed from a window, wardrobes, shoes… We agreed that leaving the loot downstairs was a good idea. We finish the job in the morning and celebrate.

“The Indian food and beer’s on me,” I volunteer.

“Frakin’ ey…”

It’s a good plan, though it still needs some tweaking.

Before the night is over we agree that never, under any circumstances, will we discuss any of this with anybody that is not here right now.

Being who I am, I confess that somewhere down the line there may be a short story in it for me, and, being who they are, they reply that if I reveal anything that remotely points a questioning finger their way, they’ll kill me.

I’ve been around the block once or twice, and I can tell that they don’t mean it.

- -

Chico’s not quite as tall as Hector, about half way between Hector and me in height, and about half way between our ages. He has a Lou-Diamond-Phillips-thing going, with facial hair (unlike Lou) that never seems to grow or get shaved, and he wears a Giants cap.

On his first visit to my place he discovered my collection of crime movies and film-noir, and that seemed to buy me some credibility with him. The second time I saw him he wore a James Cagney t-shirt, and he greeted us with “top of the world, ma!”

Ironically, Chico tends to dislike sci-fi movies, thinking them childish, which, paradoxically, is what Hector says about crime movies.

It's a good thing I'm not superstitious