RichardDaub.com, September 2023
“Carl, your friend is on the phone,” his mother called from downstairs.
It was Eric, and it was an odd time for him to call, after 7:00 on a school night—
“Come over now,” he said.
“Now?” Carl asked.
“Yes. Now. It is extremely urgent.”
* * *
Eric was waiting at the door. Up in his room, he handed Carl a postage-paid card torn from a Rolling Stone for the Columbia House Compact Disc Club, offering twelve CDs for a penny, with a bunch of small print about buying one CD at full retail price of $18.99 every 90 days for the next decade—
“My mother signed up for this once,” Carl said, “except it was with records. She couldn’t keep up with the purchases. They repossessed her Volkswagen.”
“Not for real,” Eric said, in hushed tones. “My brother was just here. He said he fills them out with fake names and sends them to his dorm without putting the room number, so the box is left in this little basket near the mailboxes and he just takes it.”
“Whoa,” Carl said. “Now I wish I lived in a dorm.”
“Not necessary,” Eric said.
“The people across the street,” Eric said, pulling open a space between the blinds. “Nobody home all day. Mail and newspaper sitting there until six o’clock, there for the taking.”
“So, a cardboard box full of CDs would be sitting there until six o’clock.”
“Yep. The mail comes while we’re at school. Then it just sits there for hours, and nobody’s paying attention.”
“Just walk right up and take it like you know what you’re doing.”
“Yep. And the homeowner wouldn’t be missing anything because they didn’t order them, nor would they be responsible for the bill, because it would be under a fake name. But they won’t know what the fuck is going on because they never got any CDs in the first place.”
“That’s fucking brilliant,” Carl said.
* * *
They filled out the postage-paid card and mailed it off to Terre Haute, Indiana, using the name “Dole Pineapple”, and sent it to a house they walked by every day after disembarking the school bus. The mail was always there, but, after two weeks, there had been no cardboard boxes. Carl was checking on Saturdays as well, risky because people were home, and saw mail in the box, but nothing else.
* * *
After three weeks, it was beginning to look like a bust.
Then, on a chilly, overcast Thursday afternoon in mid-November, there was a small cardboard box sitting on the step below the mailbox, exactly as they’d pictured it. They slowed, allowing the others who got off at their bus stop to disappear ahead of them, then Carl casually walked up to the house as he did in his newspaper delivery days—he did not fling them like the kid in the Paperboy video game, he dropped his bike in the driveway and brought it up to the house and put it in the mailbox hooks—and, as if it had been left there for him by the homeowners, picked up the box with the blue Columbia House logo and Terre Hautea return address, and did not attempt to conceal it as he walked back down the driveway and remained staring straight ahead, digging the identity of the smooth criminal—
Minutes later in Eric’s room, they tore open the box and a dozen cellophaned jewel cases rained onto the bed, not packaged in the long cardboard sleeves like at the store, where at the Wiz they sold for $14.99 and at Sam Goody for $16.99—
Journey Greatest Hits… Chicago Greatest Hits… The Steve Miller Band Greatest Hits 1974-1978… Best of the Doors double CD… Money for Nothing: The Best of Dire Straits… Best of the Doobie Brothers… Simon & Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits… The Best of Kansas… Eagles Their Greatest 1971-1975… A Decade of Steely Dan… Foreigner Agent Provocateur…
They split the haul, six CDs each. The shipment came with a catalog containing considerably more titles than the magazine ads, though a few things were mysteriously absent, such as the Beatles, Pink Floyd, and the old ABKCO Rolling Stones albums from the ’60s.
An hour later they were at the Bar Harbor branch of the Massapequa Public Library tearing out every “12 CDs for a penny” card from the “Current Periodicals” section, as well as a few “6 CDs for a penny” cards from rival BMG Music Club, also based in Indiana, “The Music Club Capital of the World”.
The next day they scouted the neighborhood on their bicycles, noting which houses had full mailboxes, and monitored them for the next week. Then, with the new catalog, they filled out the cards and, over the next week, dropped them in various mailboxes, 97 cards in all with different phony names and spread among seventeen different addresses.
* * *
Over the next two weeks, they established routes of checking the houses after school, then would meet back at Eric’s, where Carl left his bike in the mornings, riding over there early after slamming a Carnation Instant Breakfast and hanging out for a while before it was time to go to the bus stop, when Eric would play songs and ask Carl if he knew them.
The first shipment had taken three weeks, so it was a surprise when, on a Tuesday afternoon, exactly two weeks and one day after mailing the cards, each returned with a box—
Exile on Main Street… Sticky Fingers… Tattoo You… Who’s Next… Who Are You?… Who By Numbers… all three Boston albums… another Journey Greatest Hits… Darkness on the Edge of Town… Nebraska… The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle… Breakfast in America…
On Wednesday they again each arrived with a box… The Byrds Greatest Hits… The Association’s Greatest Hits… Grand Funk Hits… Foreigner Records… Billy Joel Greatest Hits Volumes I & II… Are You Experienced?… The Best of the Guess Who… CSNY So Far… The Best of Three Dog Night… America’s Greatest Hits… 1984… 2112… 5150… OU812… The Best of Procol Harum… Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty… another Journey Greatest Hits, two Money for Nothings, and a Brothers in Arms—
On Thursday Carl came back with two boxes, Eric with three, each completing their Led Zeppelin collections—
“This is better than any Christmas I ever had,” Carl said, as they ripped them open—
* * *
The following Tuesday, Carl collected nine boxes, so many that he kept dropping them on his way back to Eric’s house. Eric came back with seven, making a grand total of 192 CDs with a retail value of $2,878.08 at The Wiz, $3,262.08 at Sam Goody, and $3,646.08 at Columbia House full price, before sales tax.
After a few months, during which they had cleaned out the back-issue periodicals in both branches of the Massapequa Public Library, they soon had every rock CD from the catalogs, and a lot of fringe stuff, including Dan Fogelberg, John Denver, Seals & Crofts, Sammy Johns, pre-disco Bee Gees, Edison Lighthouse, Bread, and, former Massapequa resident and member of the legendary Biltmore Beach club, Neil Diamond—
They would hastily track through each new CD looking for songs they recognized in the first two seconds, then toss it aside, many never to be listened to again.
They had 17 copies of Journey Greatest Hits, 13 Money for Nothings, and a dozen Best of Kansas.
* * *
There was a new catalog each month with fresh selections, but it quickly got to where they had everything and were starting to order things for laughs, such as Barry Manilow, Air Supply, Randy VanWarmer, Bill Summers & Summers Heat, and the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, which Carl secretly liked—he liked the movie too, which he would never admit to Eric, who took his hatred of sister disco and its flashing trash lamps seriously. He also never told Eric that he wanted the Foreigner Agent Provocateur CD because it had “I Want To Know What Love Is” on it, and the Heart album with “These Dreams”, tracks that made him think of Colleen, the girl he’d had his first serious crush on in seventh grade, who never returned the note he slipped into her locker, #247, asking her out with “YES” and “NO” checkboxes—
Meanwhile, the Beatles, Floyd, and early Stones CDs not available through Columbia House started to look like gold in the bins of the little CD store next to the bagel shop near the high school, which, in addition to selling new CDs, also bought and sold used ones. Like The Wiz, their new CDs cost $14.99, but here they had more obscure and interesting titles, including some bootlegs.
The store was owned by a short guy who looked like “Oates” from “Hall & Oates” with the black curly hair and mustache. He had a really deep smoker’s voice and usually had a Marlboro Light burning in the ashtray on the counter, which really annoyed Eric.
Oates was nice to them the first time they showed up with a backpack containing twenty CDs, including The Very Best of Hall & Oates, Carl and Eric having to bite their tongues when he flipped by that one—
“Not a fan of ‘greatest hits’ albums, but they do sell,” Oates said. “I’ll give you three bucks cash or five in store credit for each.”
They opted for the credit and split it. Carl picked Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, Abbey Road, and a bootleg of a 1972 Pink Floyd show in Sapporo, Japan. Eric went with the Floyd’s Ummagumma 2-disc set, and the Stones’ Hot Rocks 2-disc compilation.
* * *
A week later, Oates wasn’t so friendly when they showed up with another backpack of CDs, including some they’d sold him the week before, since greatest hits sold so well—
“Didn’t I buy this one last time?” he said, tapping the case for The Police’s Every Breath You Take: The Singles, then looked at the basket of used CDs on the counter next to the ashtray and found the same one. “Yep, I did.”
There was an uncomfortable silence. Oates lit a Marlboro Light even though he already had one burning in the ashtray—
“I don’t know where you guys are getting these,” he said, “but something doesn’t seem cool here.”
He declined to buy the CDs. Meanwhile, boxes were coming in daily, so they started scouting the CD store and noted when Oates wasn’t there, at which times there was usually a college student behind the counter.
* * *
They would finally return nearly three weeks after their last visit, on a Friday evening after dinner, when some new wave dude with dyed-black hair shaved around the sides and back, clad in German Army surplus shirt, was behind the counter blasting Depeche Mode on the store stereo. This time they brought only ten CDs—
“Fleetwood Mac… REO Speedwagon…” the guy said, flipping through them, “Lynyrd Skynyrd Gold & Platinum… Toto IV… Asia… dudes, I wouldn’t offer you a nickel for any of this shit. Besides, these aren’t even store-bought CDs. See?”
He pointed to the tiny “CRC” stamped at the very bottom corner of the jewel case insert, which was only noticeable if you were looking for it—
“CRC, Columbia Record Club,” he said. “I know what you guys are doing. Mail fraud’s a pretty serious crime, you know.”
They left with their CRC CDs.
“I’m not going back in there,” Carl said, while they were riding home.
“Fuck that freak. We’ll just try when someone else is there.”
“I don’t like the sound of mail fraud.”
“What the fuck is he going to do? He doesn’t know who we are.”
“I think maybe we should stop with the CDs altogether.”
“Columbia House must have like hundreds of delinquent accounts from this zip code. They must be trying to figure this out.”
“How would they ever know it was us? And what could they even do? Send someone to repo Dole Pineapple’s car?”
“I have like over 2,000 CDs in my room stashed in milk crates, and, for the life of me, I don’t know how my mother or The Dick haven’t said anything. I don’t need another copy of John Williams and the Boston Pops in Space or The Very Best of Loggins & Messina.”
* * *
They did stop for a while. There was no point, until the following August, when the Stones released Steel Wheels, which became a featured selection in the new Columbia House magazine ads—
Carl filled out a card and mailed it. Three weeks later nothing had come, so he mailed a few more, two of them to houses he’d never used. Four weeks later, there was still nothing. Eric reported the same.
“It’s over,” Carl said. “The whole town is blacklisted.”
* * *
In a converted basement storage room at Columbia House headquarters in Terre Haute, Senior Collections Supervisor and former Green Beret Randall Bird, on special assignment, unfiltered Camel burning between nicotine-stained fingers, Styrofoam cup of light-and-sweet coffee on his desk, atop which there was an ashtray, a 13-inch stainless surgical steel survival knife with black micarta handle, and a foot-high dot-matrix printout on white-and-sea green continuous form paper of delinquent accounts in zip code 11758—
He picked up the knife and looked at the freshly sharpened blade—
“One of these days,” he said, “I’m going to cut you into little pieces,” then stabbed the printout with the knife— ▪