Operating a Criminal Enterprise: Lessons from the Fourth Grade

Disclaimer: none of the below constitutes an admission of guilt and nothing herein may be used in any court of law or in any action or proceeding brought by any governmental authority.

I wasn’t born a criminal. No one comes into life with an innate desire to commit crime. Sometimes, you’re presented with opportunities where it makes sense, given the specific risks and your ability to mitigate said risks.

That’s how it started. Am I bad person for it? I don’t know, maybe. I mean, I was in fourth grade, my morality was still in development, I had a lot of maturing to do, and oh, right, I was in fourth grade. I’m not a bad person. But I did some bad things.

ACT I: THE COLD VOID

It was a long, harsh winter. The field and playground at Northside Elementary School were blanketed in snow for what felt like an eternity. The frigid temperature and icy conditions meant a terrible fate for us all: an extended period of indoor recess. As a kid, part of you constantly yearns to run around aimlessly like a madman. It’s torture enough to sit through a day of classes. But no outdoor recess? Checkers, puzzles, and conversation with other fourth graders as the substitute? What do fourth graders even talk about (besides who you have a crush on and how many marshmallows you had in your Lucky Charms that morning)?

It was a few weeks into this arduous time that my parents took me to Toys R Us one weekend and bought me the standard Pokémon card starter pack. To say that I was “hyped” would be to massively understate the passion and exuberance I felt in those moments towards my existence and all of life’s vast potential. I was already opening the car door as we pulled into the driveway to my house. I ran inside so that I could open my starter pack and begin organizing my army of loyal Pokémon. As I was sifting through, tossing useless energy cards to the side, getting a little annoyed at the number of Charmanders…there it was.

My first holographic card: Machamp. I hadn’t quite understood what true beauty meant until then, but it was impossible to ignore. This was my centerpiece, the card I would begin constructing a deck around…at least that’s what I thought.

A week later I’m at lunch and a sixth grader approaches our table, where two friends and I have our Pokémon cards laid out.

“Hey, those are some sweet cards – you guys trading?” The sixth grader asks.  I, for some reason, decide to speak up. “Yeah, what are you looking for?” I respond.

“Got any holos?”

“Sure, I have a Machamp,” I said to him with a proud grin flashing across my face.

“Oh that’s cool, I’ll give you an Arcanine for it. Deal?”

So nonchalant. He wasn’t even impressed and his offer, the Arcanine, wasn’t even a holographic card. I felt disrespected, and it must have shown on my face because he interrupted this cascade of angry thoughts.

“Look, I know the Arcanine isn’t holographic but it’s stats are pretty much the same as the Machamp’s and I was talking to this Japanese dude at the flea market, he does a lot of trading so he knows his stuff…

…he told me that Arcanine was more rare than most holographics and he’d only seen a small handful in his lifetime and that I should hold on to it. But I want to make a fair trade, it’s a little bit better for you but I’m okay with that…what do you say?”

“Ok.”

I had no idea what I had done. I had never traded a card before. My heart was pounding, mind racing, trying to quickly calculate the relevant values associated with this transaction but, to be honest, I was simply convinced that I had been told the truth.

So, I made the deal. About fifteen minutes later I learned from some classmates that I had just made one of the dumbest, most lopsided deals imaginable. I wanted to throw up.

I went home, ran to my room, and cried for hours. I wasn’t prepared to experience true loss like that at such a young age. Finally, I worked up the courage to leave my room. My parents could tell that something had happened. My eyes were puffy, face red, and I generally looked like I had been through hell. If only they knew.

I explained the situation to my dad. He listened to the story in silence and wore an expression matching his calm wisdom and usual levelheadedness. I finished the story and my eyes welled up with tears again.

My dad’s response: “Toughen up. You need to be more street smart.”

The cold, harsh reality of this world hit me in that moment. I would never fall victim to something like that again.

ACT II: BUSINESS IS GOOD

Somehow, I made it through the rest of that week of school and the weekend welcomed me with arms wide open and a chance at redemption. Saturday morning came so I called my neighbor’s house.

“Hello?”

“Hi Ms. L, just calling to see if Alex is home and it’s ok to come over for a playdate?”

“Sandeep, it’s 7 am in the morning… Alex will call you back in a few hours.” Click.

Ok, great – I had a couple of hours to myself to think. I went down to the basement where I would not be disturbed as there was important work to be done. There it was: my binder full of cards, laying there on a table… a faint echo of emptiness springing from the binder that grew louder as I approached. I flipped open to the first page of cards, with the very first slot on the page intentionally kept empty. A reminder. I sat in silence, brooding over my cards, plotting unspeakable acts of evil. But then my little brother woke up and I agreed to watch Saturday morning cartoons with him.

A few hours later I was at Alex’s. I quickly caught him up on the situation. He immediately understood its seriousness along with the depravity of that individual who swindled me and permanently scarred a part of my soul.

A problem, however, was that we were elementary school kids and Alex, therefore, couldn’t find the words of emotional support that I needed. I could’ve used a “hey man, it’s gonna be okay.” But instead he simply offered me some Dunkaroos, which I happily accepted. The sweet sustenance masked my suffering for a few moments, but there was just never quite enough frosting in those packets to completely take away the pain.

The phone rings. It’s my mom – I need to go home for lunch and momentarily stop being a physical and emotional burden on my friend and his family. I tell Alex I’ll be back later. I eat a pb&j, consume another pack of Dunkaroos (my new emotional crutch), watch an episode of Spider-Man, and then go back.

Alex has a surprise for me, he says. We’re in his basement, which can only be described as a chaotic mess, one that took me months of regular visits to adjust to. Now I’m able to identify where the Legos are, the most likely hiding spots for dog toys, and most importantly, the path to this computer.

We approach the desk, which houses Alex’s Gateway PC, and I notice something with a slight shine to it at the edge of the desk. I get a little closer and I momentarily cannot believe my eyes. It’s my Machamp.

No. It can’t be. Can it? “Where…. *sniff* where did you find this,” I ask, clearly emotional.

“Machamp comes with every starter pack… pretty much everyone who buys the starter pack has a Machamp, unless they trade it away. Anyway, I scanned mine, messed around in this program called Photoshop and made you a new one.”

“Oh…”

I pick up the card and realize that while it looks authentic, the feel is off. I learn that Alex used a special type of paper that is a close approximation to the feel of a Pokemon card, but not quite the same thing. This isn’t my Machamp.

But then a thought – no, a fully formed plan – materializes in my head, as if my subconscious had been working on it all along in the background. I have a look of wild excitement on my face as I explain it all to Alex, who is immediately on board. We work late in to the night, until about 6 p.m. when my mom calls and says I have to go home for dinner.

By that point, we are well beyond the idea stage and prepared to execute our plan in school come Monday. A warm light shines faintly through the cold void.

You ever feel like you’re walking around to super cool theme music (but, of course, not like that one scene in Spider-Man 3)? Even when there isn’t any music playing? Yea, me neither. But that’s almost how I felt walking into the cafeteria for Monday’s lunch. I sat down with some fellow fourth graders who were considering some trades. Two Dratinis for a Wartortle? This was bush-league stuff that I surmised could be interrupted, so I took my chance.

“How about I sell you one of my cards?”

Silence. Kids didn’t sell cards. They just made trades in the hopes of accumulating more and more holographics. I could tell they were at a loss for words and were hesitant to react so I simply carried on as if I was saying nothing out of the ordinary.

“Here, check this out.”

“Woah! Look at the stats on this! 150 hp, 120 attack, this card is amazing – and it’s a Charmander?”

“Wait, this feels weird.”

“Yeah, that’s because this is an ancient Charmander, it’s supposed to feel that way. Part of the newly released ancients that are some of the strongest cards out. My cousin lives in the city and got me these special packs from the store around the corner from his apartment. The packs are tough to find, but they always have sweet cards.”

Wow. They looked convinced. Were fourth graders really that dumb, I thought? Well yeah… I’m a fourth grader and I’m that dumb, I realized. I made my first sale for $5 and immediately spent all of it on packs of Linden’s chocolate chip cookies. Business was good.

ACT III: ALL EMPIRES FALL

How did we do it? Simple. We used Alex’s scanner to scan individual Pokémon cards, then we played with the color schemes and altered the stats of cards. Other than those changes, along with the different feel, the cards were virtually identical to their original inspirations. So, we just came up with “clever” variations of some of the cards we had at our disposal: Ancient Charmander, Dark Mewtwo, Metallic Metapod. Alex handled the manufacturing and I took care of distribution.

Somehow, it worked. The amount of Linden’s chocolate chip cookies I ate per day at the peak of our business was obscene. Of course, I needed to invest my illicit gains somewhere, otherwise my mom might find out and I would be grounded. I figured what better return would I get than tons of sugar and empty calories.

I felt powerful. I was no longer the victim I had been and I was revered by all Pokémon lovers. “Where does he get these cards?” They would ask. “I heard his cousin works for Nintendo,” some speculated.  I just remained mysteriously silent throughout most of this… but simultaneously allowed my ego to exponentially inflate itself and generally walked around school like I ran the place (picture Jordan Belfort at his peak in Wolf of Wall Street).

A few days later, I’m back at home watching Dragonball Z, thinking about ways I can achieve flight without any mechanical assistance, when I hear the doorbell ring. My dad goes to answer it. I hear a woman’s voice. It sounds like someone’s mom I know, but I can’t quite place it. She sounds calm, but there is a hint of anger that I can sense. My dad patiently listens to her story, stoic as always. After a few minutes of this, I hear the front door close and my dad calls my name. I run over.

“Where’s the money?” He asks, matter-of-factly.

“What money?” I respond, not knowing what information he has and willing to play dumb.

“You sold [name is omitted to protect this individual’s identity] some fake cards. You’re going to give him his money back tomorrow at school. If you don’t have the money, and I have to give you the money, it’s coming out of one of your Christmas gifts (I was dumb, but no longer believed in Santa).”

Of course, I didn’t have the money. I had invested it all in illiquid assets. But, more importantly, that was the end. My parents now knew, by the next day everyone at school would know, and our business would have to close shop.

The collapse happened so quick and unexpectedly, as is the case with most empires.

But how? I found out a few weeks later, once the pieces of the story got around. Apparently, the kid, who happened to be my neighbor, was spending all of his lunch money on my counterfeit Pokémon cards. He was essentially fasting throughout the day to get his fix (my cards) and couldn’t focus in class. He would go home hungry, tired, moody, and would act out. Eventually his mom found out that he wasn’t eating lunch and, instead, spending all of his money on these cards. She demanded to see them and quickly determined that they were counterfeits.

How?

Well, with the benefit of hindsight, I think that she figured out that the cards were fake because the cards were obviously fake. They didn’t feel ancient… they felt ridiculous. We printed them on a cheap form of cardboard printing paper and we printed the front and back separately, cut them out of the larger piece of paper, and then taped them together. You could see the tape. The counterfeit cards were obvious to anyone with a middle school education. That’s why our target market consisted primarily of fourth graders.

Eventually, my life went back to normal. The kids at school forgot anything ever happened and moved on from Pokémon cards to crazy bones.

Once I was ungrounded, I went and visited Alex. I asked how he had held up in the aftermath of our fall, since I didn’t get a chance to see him in school.

“Oh, my parents don’t even know. I’ve just kept my head down and stayed out of trouble since then.”

My jaw dropped. I had been grounded for two whole weeks and here was Alex, entirely unscathed. Once again, a deep understanding of the situation came to me immediately. Alex put in all that labor and his technical expertise was the foundation of our business.

Meanwhile, I handled distribution. I was the face of the business and the glory was entirely mine for the taking. I was the one people whispered about. I was the guy who maybe had a cousin who worked for Nintendo.

But I was also the fall guy. I had built this empire while searching for a source of power, only to end up, once again, the unsuspecting victim.

 Fin. 

– Sandeep, Reformed Criminal

 

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