Have you ever made a difference in someone’s life? I did, once. And I still laugh about it.
In high school I sat in the back of the class with this bad boy who stole, fenced, sold dope, copied assignments, everything. He was a gonna-be criminal with a serious work ethic.
Robert Robertson was his name, hustling was his game. It was just what he did: his way forward through life. He even scammed meals off the cafeteria by pretending to be a another Robert Robertson who was eligible for free school lunches but never bothered to eat them.
He cared about grades, too, or he wouldn’t have bothered to copy. I put together a literary magazine for the class we had together, and Robert Robertson contributed a pretty good piece. Months later I discovered that he’d ripped it off from The Reader’s Digest.
Here’s a typical Robert Robertson encounter: I’m standing in the quad on Bike to School Day — it was the ‘70s — and Robert comes swinging up on a ten-speed Schwinn. In a gold leather jacket and gold leather beret.
“I didn’t know you had a bike.”
“I don’t. Some people should remember to lock their locks.”
The ten-speed had a cargo carrier full of fat, new paperbacks with pastel covers: the kind they stocked for housewives at supermarkets.
“Hey, you like to read,” Robert said. “You interested in any of these? Make you a good price.”
“Uh, no thanks.”
“Cool. I’ll find somebody.” And off he went.
Robert Robertson was going places, no question. They all looked like prison to me, though I’m sure he had other plans.
But I liked Robert Robertson; I was shy and smart and awkward, and he was completely honest about his life and never pulled any attitude on me or anybody. That’s not so common in high school. We talked a lot as seatmates.
Despite his many extra-legal activities, Robert Robertson never got busted that I’m aware of. Sometimes his life went bad in other ways, though, and I’d brainstorm with him for solutions. For example: one day Robert Robertson was holding his face in his hands as I sat down.
“I got a girl pregnant. Oh MAAAN!”
“Does she have another boyfriend?”
“But are you sure you’re the father? She could be lying.”
(Hey, I was 18, too, I had no values as of yet.)
“Nah, It’s me. Oh MAAAN!”
“Could you say she led you on?”
“I could say it, but nobody’d believe it.”
“I’m not coming up with anything good, I guess.”
“No, it’s good, good ideas,” he said from behind his hands. “Keep ‘em coming, keep ‘em coming.”
And I advised him when he wrecked a car, and on a few other tight situations. I’m creative. I can always come up with crazy angles. Robert Robertson was always happy to hear them.
One day, Robert Robertson stopped me in the hallway during passing period. He said he’d had a dream the night before. He wanted to tell me about it:
In the dream, he was bidding against me on a bale of marijuana; I was wearing a big purple pimp hat. And every time Robert Robertson bid on the marijuana, I’d turn to him and smile. And outbid him.
“What do you think it means?” he asked. I didn’t know. Not at the time.
Robert Robertson was no dummy. He figured out what his dream was trying to tell him: that the best way to rob and steal and stay out of trouble is to think your way around the law, instead of just breaking it. I was a helpful metaphor.
And Robert Robertson worked his way through college, got a law degree, and is now the shadiest real estate lawyer you ever saw. I told you he had a work ethic.
I knew none of this until a couple of years back; we went our separate ways after high school, and I left town. But one day I was surfing the Internet for stories about the old hometown, Petropolis; and I found one about the mayor there, a guy I used to know. He’d just been burned out of his law office: arson. Petropolis can be a lively place
And another lawyer was burned out of that office, too: Robert Robertson. The Robert Robertson.
I dug into the Petropolis newspaper discussion boards and archives and my, there was a lot said about him. Robert Robertson was a noted landlord; some said, slumlord. Robert Robertson taught popular classes on how to deal with the real estate crash — or “How to walk away from your expensive mortgage and buy another house for less money before your new lender finds out.”
Robert Robertson was quick to bill and slow to pay. Robert Robertson opened his own restaurant — which closed mysteriously one night, and never reopened. Robert Robertson’s employees claimed he made them sign legal documents that just weren’t true.
Robert Robertson ran for superior court judge; his campaign video boasted that he’d worked his way through high school. The nature of that work was not disclosed. And although he has ever and always gone by the first name “Robert,” his campaign billboards all read “Vote for Bob Robertson.” That is the name of a popular politician in a neighboring town.
Given all that, in my opinion it’s only 50-50 that the arsonist was after the mayor — not Robert Robertson.
It’s all just Robert being Robert as he ever was, of course. And he’s still never gone to jail.
Just one thing made me a little sad: Robert Robertson’s naysayers wrote that he likes to throw his weight around at Petropolis’ modest nite spots. “DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM?” he is said to have demanded of the staffs and the customers and the world at large.
Oh Robert, I do know. I’m just afraid that you may have forgotten.
But for better or for worse, with all my schemes and advice: I inspired Robert Robertson to become the successful crooked lawyer that he is today.
And he almost won for superior court judge.