CAN’T KNOCK THE HUSTLE - The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo - Amy Schumer

The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo - Amy Schumer (2016)

CAN'T KNOCK THE HUSTLE


I’ve been a hustler my whole life. I know you’re thinking, Check yourself, Amy, you are not Jay Z. But it’s true. You can’t be a comic and make complete strangers laugh without a strong hustle. Mine has always been solid. Since day one. There is evidence of this as early as my first few months of life. Like most newborn babies, I didn’t welcome sleep, and I certainly didn’t want to be left alone in a room to sleep by myself. So I figured out how to trick my mother into sleeping on the floor next to me. I cried like hell and didn’t let up until she was by my side exactly where I wanted her to be. I’m sure my dad wasn’t too keen on this idea, but for months, I kept up this impressive scam, dictating the sleeping arrangements for people who were decades older than me. Suckers!

My hustle has often involved food, because, much like household pets or toddlers, I am food-motivated, which is a handy thing to know about me. I was talking my way into the food I wanted from a very young age. When I was two, I figured out how to break open the kitchen cabinet and eat Cheerios. At six, I lied to my kindhearted grandfather’s face, telling him that my mom had given me permission to have another yogurt when she hadn’t. I let him take the fall for me, and it was never really the same between us. Even now, I still do this. Just last week, when I was leaving Kim’s apartment at one a.m. after a TV night, she caught me sneaking a bag of microwave popcorn from her pantry to take home with me.

When you’re a kid, the hustle is oh so necessary. You have so little control over what you get to do: what you eat, what you wear, where you go, who or what you play with. It’s a nightmare. So I got started pretty young working on my tactics for negotiating with adults. I came on pretty strong at my friends’ houses because their parents weren’t used to my methods and strategies. I’d look them in the eyes, serious as a heart attack, and call them by their first names as a negotiation tactic. “Look, Laura, your beautiful daughter and I are going to follow our cake with a bowl of ice cream now. Would you like to scoop it for us, or should I?” Like Laura, most parents were caught off guard, laughed nervously, and said, “Ha ha ha … My name is Mrs. Booker, Amy.” To which I would reply, “I know your last name, Laura. Now, can you get me a step stool so I can dig around in your freezer for our second dessert?”

Sometimes I’d see that my attempts to close a deal made the adult laugh. And making adults laugh was the most power I could ever have—it made me feel like I was one of them, holding some of the reins they always held, especially with male figures of authority, who always seemed to be throwing the book at me one way or another. Whether it was teachers catching me talking in class or cops catching me with beer in my backpack on the beach, it always felt like my only way to get home free was to make everyone laugh. It always dismantled the power structure within seconds. Being funny was my ultimate hustle! Once when my high school teacher Mr. Simons wouldn’t let me leave class to go to the bathroom (okay, it was actually to walk the halls and meet up with my boyfriend, and Mr. Simons was fully onto me), I said very loudly in front of the whole class: “That’s cool, Mr. Simons. I’ll just stay here, even though I can feel my period blood leaking out of my vagina and about to seep through my pants and onto my chair.” Mr. Simons turned red, everyone else laughed, and I strutted right on out of the classroom.

Besides making large audiences laugh at my jokes, I’d say my biggest hustle in life was shoplifting as a teenager. It’s not something I’m proud of—in fact it was a spectacular failure in the end. But I probably wouldn’t take it back, because even though this is going to sound weird, I learned a lot from executing the old five-finger discount like it was my job. It was all part of my process of honing my instincts, learning how to take what I deserved in life. Don’t get me wrong, I do not condone shoplifting. One of the things I learned from the whole experience was NOT TO SHOPLIFT. And I’m aware that when people give you sage advice to grab life by the balls and take what you deserve, they usually mean you should ask for a hard-earned promotion or carve out a little “me time” for yourself, not rob a well-known department store blind. But when I was a teenager, I took that idea literally.

I started out stealing pieces of candy here and there, nothing too serious. When I hear other people talk about their adventures in shoplifting (it’s pretty common among teenage girls), they usually recount how they stole something like a cheap pair of dangly earrings or a magazine, and they always attach tons of guilt to it. But I didn’t have those feelings because I was targeting the big chain stores. I never took anything from a mom-and-pop shop or an actual person. (To this day, I still hesitate to tell people that I have a record for shoplifting because when something comes up missing I know they’ll suspect me. But never have I ever stolen anything from a person. Except food. From Kim’s kitchen.)

By high school, my friends and I had graduated to stealing bathing suits from stores in the mall because they didn’t have sensors on them and they were easy to take. We’d also steal makeup from drugstores. We didn’t take these things because we were in need of them; we didn’t wear makeup and we rarely went swimming. We took them because stealing makes a teenager feel cool and powerful. Even white girls in the suburbs want to be badasses. And if that meant robbing J.Crew of a gingham one-piece, so be it. I guess you could say I worked my way into being an angsty teen one stolen shimmery grapefruit-flavored lip gloss at a time.

The first time I got caught was when I was fourteen years old and had traveled to Sacramento with my club volleyball team for a tournament. Being in club volleyball meant that when the regular volleyball season at my high school ended, I’d then compete on teams with kids from other schools. Meaning, I never, ever stopped playing volleyball. It certainly shaped my work ethic (and kept a good thirty pounds off me), but it did mean missing a lot of fun weekend shit so that I could sweat it out in a poorly lit gym, eating pasta salad and catching moments of sleep in between games. Even now, I find myself feeling sleepy and craving pasta salad whenever I’m in a large school gymnasium. Or regular gymnasium. Or library. Or home. Or now.

This is how most of my weekends in high school went:

✵ Get picked up on Saturday morning at five a.m. and drive two to five hours to a tournament.

✵ Arrive and suit up to play until you’re eliminated.

✵ Understand that if, God forbid, you make it to the final match, you’ll play for up to twelve hours, then take home a little plastic trophy that you will have to pack and move into every new apartment you find yourself in until you throw it away begrudgingly at the age of twenty-four.

Come to think of it, it’s not unlike film/TV production, except your parents are with you all day and there are no union rules, so you have to play and play until your little knee pads give out or you bleed through. You consume whatever the parents brought to try to one-up each other. Health wasn’t really a thing back then, so we’d eat big chicken-cutlet sandwiches and pasta minutes before having to hurl our bodies back out on the court.

But back to shoplifting in Sacramento. My teammates and I were out exploring the town. We landed in a place called Old Sacramento, which was full of shops selling shitty novelty items for tourists: shot glasses, coffee mugs, T-shirts that said the name of the city and also hilarious phrases like “I’m not gay but my boyfriend is.” I’d already been stealing for a couple months, and I’d built up quite the reputation with my regular friends at my school. But since this was the club volleyball league, these girls didn’t know me as well and didn’t realize what a total badass I was. I couldn’t wait to show them.

I wanted to be popular with the three coolest girls on the team, so I called them over and told them how I’d learned to steal. They were really impressed with how easy I made it sound, and we started racking up the most sought-after items in the stores: tie-dye half shirts that said “Co-ed naked lacrosse,” snow globes, and of course the coveted “1 tequila, 2 tequila, 3 tequila, FLOOR” shot glasses. (Who writes this stuff? Is it Mark Twain himself?)

About six of us were in on the scam to rob Old Sacramento. After it was over, I walked into my hotel room and emptied my treasures onto the bed. I looked at all of the bounty. In retrospect, not one thing would have cost more than $1.99 to purchase. Not on my watch! ’Cause my watch is free!

It just so happened that my mom was chaperoning this particular tournament, and she arrived at the hotel that night. When she got in, she hugged me and told me she had some disturbing news. She seemed really disgusted that some of my teammates had been caught shoplifting and were taken to the police station. I played innocent, partially because I couldn’t bear to disappoint her, but also because I was terrified I’d be caught and my new prize possessions (especially the hat with fake dreads built into it) would have to be returned.

In the morning I saw the three chicks whom I’d gotten into this mess, and I found out they were going to be benched for the tournament. They’d been up all night, crying. They looked at me like, How could you do this to us, Amy? I could see the anger on their faces. They hated me. My whole plan to get them to like me had backfired worse than I could’ve imagined.

In reality, the charge wasn’t even going to show up on their permanent records because they were all minors, but still, they were mad. Honestly, I was a little mad at them, too, for sucking so bad at shoplifting. These fucking rookies, I thought. I should never have taken them under my experienced lawbreaking wing. Then I thought about it some more and remembered the Sisterhood of the Traveling Volleyball Spandex, and I decided that the right thing to do, both for these other gals and for myself, would be to admit that I’d stolen, too. Is there such a thing as a hustler with a conscience?

Predictably, I got benched for the tournament. I stood on the sideline with my knee pads around my ankles, fighting off dirty looks from the girls I’d so desperately wanted approval from. I’d flown all the way to Sacramento from New York to play zero volleyball and get some shitty shot glasses that I wouldn’t be able to fill with anything other than water for another seven years. I guess I got what I deserved. You can’t buy or steal popularity and affection; you have to earn those things the old-fashioned way, not the Old Sacramento way. I think I learned a valuable lesson about teamwork, sisterhood, and friendship that weekend. But unfortunately, I didn’t quite learn not to shoplift yet. For that, I would need a felony on my record.

It all went down at a serious department store. Let’s call it Schloomingdale’s. My stealing had gotten out of hand. This was when my family had slipped from New Money to No Money and we could no longer afford to buy the kinds of nonessential things in life you feel you must have as a teenager. So I employed all my well-honed hustling skills to get what Kim and I “needed.” This was a win-win because Kim got to fulfill her quota of teen rebellion and I got to own a white jumpsuit! We started doing it more and more. And it had the side benefit of making us feel invincible and powerful. I don’t think my stint with stealing expensive clothing is amusing or sympathetic in any way, but it isn’t surprising, either. When you’re a teenage girl, especially one with a broken family and no money, you’re newly and fully aware of just how mind-blowingly little you matter in the world. And even worse, I was just starting to feel myself creeping closer and closer to that angry edge—that place most women arrive at in college or maybe during their first job—where you realize not only do you matter very little right now, but this moment in time is probably the most you will ever matter. It’s all downhill from here. You’re eighteen years old, and this is your last chance to TAKE WHAT YOU CAN GET. I know none of this is an excuse for shoplifting. I really don’t think it’s a cute thing to do, but it’s also not shocking that it made us feel as powerful and invincible as it did.

After doing it several times, we felt we were running a great scam. We’d take two of the same item into the dressing room, and then we’d put one in a bag or under our clothes and the other one out on the rack.

“How’d it go in there?” the salesgirl would ask me.

“Not well,” I’d reply, trying to display the self-hatred most women feel when leaving a dressing room. But really I’d be celebrating what a genius I was for my incredible “take two, steal one” plan. My genius was brutally halted the day my sister and I were put in the back of a cop car.

We were in the Roosevelt Field mall on Long Island—a typical mall, maybe on the fancier side as far as malls go. Over the years a Gucci had appeared, and a Valentino. But that side of the marble halls always seemed especially empty, so Kim and I chose to hang on to the more lively, shittier side. Give me a Hot Topic and an Auntie Anne’s pretzel. That was more our vibe.

So Kim and I were walking past Schloomingdale’s when she said, “We should go in. It’s sooooo easy to take whatever you want from there. Especially underwear!” I should have thought, This is a bad idea. You’ve never scouted this place out, and you don’t want to end up in jail. But instead what I thought was, Oooooh, I need underwear!

So we did it. We really did it. We went on a total bat-shit, no-holds-barred spree. We did not stop at underwear. We took jackets, scarves … What’s this? Dolce & Gabbana has a new perfume? Leopard-print onesies? Don’t mind if I do. Cashmere tops? Seven jeans? Well, I think I deserve to own those! Kim had been eyeing a tank top with a bejeweled dollar sign, and why shouldn’t she have pajama pants with white doily cuffs to go with it? And if she didn’t take that strapless teal bra now, she would never again have a chance to own one. Today was the day! And the pièce de résistance? A leather fedora! We took it all into the dressing room.

I remember squeezing myself into a pair of too-small Guess jeans while I lovingly fondled a Juicy Couture jumpsuit. I’ll save this for special occasions, I thought. We were high from the adrenaline as we manically, meticulously took the tags off each item. I took the perfume out of the box and stashed it in my coat pocket. Good thinking, you brilliant girl, I thought, patting myself on the back. We put all the tags from all the items we were about to be the new proud owners of into the empty perfume box, and we loaded up. We smiled at each other, hugged, took a deep breath, and out the door we went.

We passed a pretty girl with shoulder-length brown hair and dark eyes who’d been lurking in the hallway. She’s cute, I thought, but bad energy. Kim and I walked toward the Bloomingd—whoops, that was a close one—exit that led out into the rest of the mall. We held hands, vibing on the same chemicals in our bloodstreams that are enjoyed by gambling addicts, Formula One racers, and Tom Cruise as we took the plunge past the sensors. They didn’t chime. We’d done it. Success. My heart was racing, but I wasn’t sweating or doing anything that could be a tell (by this time we were pros). What a perfect excursion. To top it all off we had tickets to see our favorite singer, Ani DiFranco, that night. Which of my new outfits would I wear? Definitely gonna debut that leather fedora!

And then …

We were swarmed by five people dressed in civilian clothes. It was the girl from the dressing rooms and a guy I’d smiled at while walking around the store. A whole bunch of plants. It was like the scene in Blow where the waiters all turn out to be working for the DEA. They circled us, yelling, “Stop right there!” But they didn’t touch us. (I later found out that they’re not allowed to lay a hand on you; to this day I still regret not running. Had I known they wouldn’t have been able to touch us if we ran, I would have Forrest Gumped right the hell out of that mall and not looked back until I reached the ocean or Robin Wright.)

They kept us there in that strange holding pattern until the store detectives came out and got us. They walked us back to a little room in the bowels of the store. Picturing that moment now still gives me the worst pit in my stomach. I went into protective big-sister mode with Kim and was worried about how she would handle this, but more than anything, I was embarrassed. We were caught. We couldn’t leave the little room. I couldn’t save my sister. I couldn’t joke my way out of this. We just had to give in.

The five store detectives crowded into the room. They laughed and celebrated their victory and taunted us a little. It was humiliating. Kim was not looking good. She’d always been my cute little partner in crime, but I knew she’d take this harder than I would. She’d recently acquired the tried-and-true yet mildly disturbing family coping mechanism of dealing with stress and anxiety by dissociating. She was dangerously good at it. She’d basically detach from her immediate surroundings and revert to a kind of catatonic state. I could see she was drifting off, and I was losing her. I had to do something.

That’s when my real hustle kicked in. I did the one thing I can almost always do to make things better: I made her laugh. As the detectives laid out our clothing on the floor so they could assess the charge, I came alive. I pointed to a pair of flannel plaid pants Kim had stolen. “Where were you gonna wear those, Kim? Did you join a country club I don’t know about?” I went into insult comedy. I roasted her choices as a thief. I comforted her with cracks about her taste. She laughed. She stayed present in her body.

“Grand larceny!” the pretty brunette exclaimed, and the detectives high-fived one another. My guess was the bigger the charge, the bigger the bonus. The door flung open and a middle-aged guy with a torso bigger than seemed right for his pit bull face walked in. His hair was graying on the sides but not the top. He was radiating smugness like someone who works at the Apple Genius Bar on the day of a product release.

“So, you thought you’d come in here and steal from my store?”

Kim’s eyes were starting to waver, and I could tell she was about to head into a black hole. Before he could get to his next megalomaniacal question I jumped in …

“Well, Mr. Bloomingdale” (the cat’s out of the little brown bag), “it is such an honor to meet you, first of all. Second of all, do you live in the store?”

Kim blurted out a laugh and then stifled herself.

Needless to say, my jokes didn’t save us. I don’t blame Mr. Bloomingdale for not appreciating my sense of humor. We got the maximum charge. We were taken to the mall police station, which is a thing, in the back of an unmarked cop car. The cops who drove us were nice; they blasted Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb,” and I was mostly relieved that Kim wasn’t numb anymore, that I could make her laugh even though we were on our way to the clink. We sat there looking at each other and holding hands. It was the end of November, so one of the cops’ frozen Thanksgiving turkey was resting between us on the seat. At the station, they took our fingerprints and mug shots, then we sat on a bench while they tried calling our mom. No answer. Thank God.

“Well, sir, actually, our dad is more our caretaker.” HUGE LIE. They called our dad and left a message. I explained that he probably wouldn’t call back for hours, and that our mother was kind of an absentee figure in our lives. HUGE LIE.

I felt in that moment that it was up to me to be my own guardian. My parents couldn’t help me. And I also felt an unmistakable sense of resolve that I had to take care of Kim and get her through this. I blurted out to the cops that I had stolen everything. It was all me. They were all my items. The mall cop told us that because Kim was a minor it wouldn’t be a big deal if the charge were on her record. I then took back everything I’d previously stated and tried to pin it all on her.

When it was all said and done, our punishment ended up being community service, but it wasn’t too bad. We even made it to see Ani DiFranco at the Beacon Theatre that night, singing at the top of our lungs, celebrating our freedom. What better way to commemorate our last days as rebels than spending an evening screaming out the lyrics of the singer who was basically every eighteen-year-old white girl’s Joan of Arc? I remember, during her song “Swan Dive,” Kim and I belting out the lyrics “I don’t care if they eat me alive. I’ve got better things to do than survive!” and it felt more exhilarating than wearing all the stolen tube tops in the world.

And in the end, getting caught at Bloomingdale’s really corrected my game. After all, the hustle I’m honing isn’t about shoplifting or lying or winning friends with horrible heists gone wrong. And it’s definitely not about grabbing what belongs to someone else just to make myself feel more powerful. It’s about being my own best advocate and knowing how to take what I deserve in life without bringing anyone else down. It’s about making my sister laugh when we are both in deep shit. Now that I’m all grown up and no longer driving up the price of bad tchotchkes in Old Sacramento, I’ve graduated on to the next-level hustle—making people laugh. It’s something I’m still perfecting: skirting the rules, writing jokes about life’s mountains of bullshit—all to make people smile and feel better. There’s no sleight of hand or trickery involved. It’s hard work—without shortcuts. Making an audience laugh is much more difficult than sneaking out of Bloomingdale’s with a fedora under your shirt that only Ving Rhames can pull off, but it’s still a hustle I just can’t quit.

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