THE TIME I WAS A PRIVATE INVESTIGATOR

Expanding on part of this list: TWO TRUTHS AND A LIE For the sake of confidentiality, certain details have been changed.
  1. I’ve had a lot of weird jobs.  I was a Target holiday mascot.  I sold ostomy bags over the phone.  I worked in 5 video stores.
  2. And one time, I was a private investigator.
  3. I wish I could say it was a dream come true.  Having had the experience, it’s not my dream anymore.
  4. I got into investigation like a lot of people: I knew a guy.  My friend Harry and I were talking and he let slip about his new gig: “I’m a P.I. now."
  5. I loved crime novels and crime movies.  I worshipped Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Jim Thompson, John D. MacDonald.
  6. "Are they hiring?” I asked Harry, thirstily.
    At the time I was temping at a tech company, logging temperatures in a server room twice an hour.
  7. Two weeks later Harry called me.  “Were you serious about P.I. work?" I said, absolutely.  His agency was hiring.  Harry invited me to shadow him for a day.  The agency liked me. Harry put in a good word.
    Soon after I was an unlicensed, very junior private investigator.
  8. The tools of the trade, as practiced by my agency, Crow Van Der Berg, were different than the movies.
    I didn’t have an office with my name on the glass.  I didn’t wear a fedora.  I didn’t carry a gun.
  9. There was a base office in a non-descript business park in the deep Western suburbs.  But I only went there to check in, get assignments, charge my gear.  I was on my cell the rest of the time (and we’re talking a no-frills, gray-screen Nokia.  I envy anyone investigating today with smart phones and Slack.)
  10. I was issued a still camera and a DV camcorder, both a couple years out of date, and a 2001 Chevy Express Van in emerald green.
  11. Crow Van Der Berg’s biggest clients were insurance companies.  Which meant I spent my time trying to catch people violating the terms of their workman’s comp.
    So, if we got them on camera when they so much as walked from their front door to the mailbox, that could potentially be enough to invalidate their benefits.
  12. Ideally, we were instructed to get evidence of the malfeasant doing far more strenuous activity: yard work, exercise, swimming, playing softball in a softball league.  But really, any activity would do.
  13. That’s what the cameras were for. The van was for staking out their neighborhood.  I had to leave my house at 4-4:30 AM to get in place, on the subject’s street, black drape tucked into the already-tinted windows, cameras on tripods, and wait.
    Most days, the subject would not leave the house.
  14. With all that waiting in vans, there was no chance to take breaks.  I had to pack a cooler like a day at the beach.
  15. Dear Listers, I’ll give you the opportunity now to skip ahead a couple bullet points so I can even further thread this needle, an essential part of the P.I. lifestyle you'd never think about but is fully real:
    You have to pee in the van.
  16. All this waiting with all these cold beverages during the high heat of summer meant there was no opportunities for a bathroom break.
    Within a few days of beginning as an investigator, the common wisdom filters down: pull some pop bottles out of your recycling, or get a Gatorade every time you fill up gas, and just leave the empty bottles in the back of the van. YOU WILL NEED THEM.
  17. Let me tell you, I avoided it for the longest possible time.  To the point where I broke the rules to drive off to a fast food place or somewhere.  But you can’t really break contact with the subject.
    I further resisted until one day I had been sitting in the van for six hours and I just couldn’t bear it any longer. If you ever need to pee in a strange situation, take a moment.  Because it’s a line in the sand.  I’ll never again be someone who hasn’t peed in a Dasani bottle.  And I’ll never again not be someone who peed in a Dasani bottle AND BEEN SO THANKFUL.
  18. Did you skip those bullets?  I hope so.  I hope if you didn’t, you understand why I had to share that part of it.  The life of an investigator is not glamorous, or thrilling.  You don’t follow mysterious clients and come up with big revelations.
    Femmes Fatales?  Non.
  19. My experience was about personal degradation in the name of saving big corporations some money.
    Sure, there are real insurance cheaters out there.  But there’s a big difference between catching a crook and lying in wait for the smallest mistake of a regular person.
  20. I was, essentially, a professional stalker.
  21. I’ll never forget one assignment.  I had been waiting on a suburban street for a full day.  The regular-person work day was over and people were returning home.  One guy, not my subject, drove into his garage. Then he peered out his front window.
    Then he walked out on to this driveway and looked hard at my van for a good long minute.  I was sitting in the back, the windows tinted and black drape tucked into the window frame, but still.  A skeptical, concerned frown seemed plastered to the guy's face.
  22. My heart pounded so loud I could swear the guy could hear it out there.  Eventually he went back into his house.  After a few minutes I yanked down the black drape and drove out of there.
  23. My bosses had assured us that this investigation technique was fully legal.  “We’re not doing anything wrong.”
    Another bit of wisdom: “It’s natural to think what we’re doing is conspicuous.  But I’ve been at this for two decades and I can tell you: no one notices.  You can be in one place for hours, be somewhere you’re not supposed to be, and people just don’t see you.”  He was right.  Other than the one guy, no one ever took notice of me and my van.  But I felt dirty.
  24. Aside from that, I was still unlicensed.  A concerned citizen could still call the police.  A cool customer could talk the cops down, but I am not cool.
    I was convinced I could have been arrested and my agency couldn’t or maybe wouldn’t help me.
  25. I had put in only three weeks, but I just couldn’t do it anymore.  I shouldn’t play the Alcoholic card all the time, but I had *just* decided to get sober a few months earlier. My usual thin skin was worn down to a science class illustration of the muscular system, emotionally speaking.
    I had made a hasty choice to be in this line of work when I was so vulnerable. I wanted to sit in a cubicle and makes lists of people to whom I owed amends.
  26. I explained all this to my bosses. And they explained some stuff to me.  About the necessity of a little shit detail right off the bat, about testing my mettle.  Harry talked to me too.
    No one has ever tried to keep me from breaking up with them quite like that.
  27. To add to the pile, the green creeper van I drove around in all day?  It was a loaner from the agency.  I was expected to buy my own van sooner rather than later.  My boss fessed up that in most cases they co-signed the loan for their investigators and they’d garnish my wages to an extent to help paying for the vehicle.
    What could possibly go wrong? This was an investment I was unwilling to make.
  28. It wasn’t all paranoia and drudgery.  I had some moments that lived up to my favorite line from Dashiell Hammett: “Down these mean streets a man must walk who is not himself mean.”
  29. That word I used before, malfeasant?  I’m not saying it wasn’t a word or it’s even a good word but I pioneered its use at CVDB.
    Malfeasant, the Person Who Did Something Bad.
  30. We had to turn in reports on each case. Among the investigators, reports were the most dreaded activity, partly for the writing but also because of Clarisse, the agency’s freelancer who logged and checked reports.
    Clarisse was a notorious stickler for grammar and spelling. I was told she would utterly savage my reports with brutal, condescending notes. There was no way to avoid this cruel eventuality. I turned in my first report.  A couple days later I saw Clarisse in the office.  “Good work,” she said, in passing.  This remains my proudest moment as a writer.
  31. In another less original moment I briefly popularized a bit of dialogue cribbed from the Gene Hackman/David Mamet con man movie HEIST.  In that movie, once the mark knows you’re not who you say you are, you’re “burnt” and you have to call off the frammis.
    I barked that baby into my Nokia more than a few times, and while driving, too.  “Had to pull out, I’m burnt!” “I’m burnt on the 8-Fingered Man."
  32. "The 8-Fingered Man” was the most exciting day I had on the job, my unsolved case.  I was installed as usual in a cul-de-sac. My subject had lost two fingers in an industrial accident.  Nothing was happening.
    I was three deep into one of those spreadable cheese and crackers snacks with the red paddle-spoon, when the garage door of the house I’ve been watching opens up. A stocky guy in his mid-30s pulls a bike out onto his driveway.  I zoomed in on his hands with my camcorder. The left had 5 fingers but the right hand was missing the index and middle.  I gulped hard and ducked (the windshield of my otherwise highly-tinted van was not tinted) and waited for the guy to ride past me.
  33. My fear cost me a prime video opportunity.
  34. I yanked down the black drape again (I needed a better system) and turned my Green Creep Boat around as fast as I could and sped off after the 8-Fingered Man.  I looked both ways down the intersection.  He was nowhere.  I remembered there was a park with a bike path off to the right.
    I went right.
  35. The road curved, and there was the guy. I was trying to steer with one hand while running the video camera.  I could see through the viewfinder - that I should not have been looking through to drive - that I was getting some seriously choppy video.
    And it was from behind, so the tell-tale non-fingerful hand was not on the tape.  I drove past him - I am straight speeding in a residential neighborhood here - and pulled into the park.
  36. I U-ed around and parked facing the bike path.  My video camera was heaving with my breath but it was nothing compared to my shaky driving cinematography.  I had the camera straight up in front of my face as he passed the park.
    He looked my way - I was convinced it was a knowing look, but as previously established that could well be simple self-conciousness - and I saw him and he saw me seeing him, silver camera in two hands.  He kept riding.
  37. I called the office manager.  “I’m burnt on the 8-Fingered Man."
  38. That was my last day.  They weren't happy with me - I was bowing out just as things were getting interesting - but I was making the right, boring decision for myself.
  39. I still love the romantic vision of the detective, from The Long Goodbye . . .
  40. . . . and the Maltese Falcon . . .
  41. . . . and I still think Travis McGee is the best fictional character.
  42. But I'm content to watch and read.
    And drive a compact with windows clear as day.