SOMEONE IS HAMMERING on the door with hard knuckles. Or maybe a fist. The back door slams and I hear footsteps hitting the gravel fast. I sit up quickly in my bed to look out the window and catch the back of my father as he disappears into the vacant block behind our house.
The hammering on the door becomes louder. Two policemen enter the house. They grill me as they search my father's bedroom. Once again I am left to lie for my father. I look the police in the eyes and tell them with steely calm that my father has gone on a holiday and I don't know when he will be back. They are rummaging through his underwear drawer. "What's his name?" one of them barks at me. My mind goes blank. I panic and feel the blood pump loudly in my ears. I have been coached by my father to recite his various aliases. I look away and mumble a name, hoping like mad I have chosen the right one. I hold my breath while I wait for their response. They say nothing to me, leaving the door open as they leave. My hands are shaking. I realise that my father will not be going to jail, and I will not be left alone, 15,000 kilometres from my mother. Not this time.
It is 1979 and I am eleven years old. I am living in California with Bruce, my father. I never called him "Dad"; the term just didn't fit him. I would try it occasionally but it felt uncomfortable, like shoes that were too tight. He taught me to call him by his name and as my mother also referred to him as Bruce, I never questioned it. My friends would ask, "Why don't you call your father 'Dad'?" and I would reply without much thought, "He's just not like other dads."
BRUCE HAS TRAVELLED constantly throughout his life, crisscrossing the United States in his old car – a restless man driven by a deep longing, always on the move. But I have never been sure what he is looking for or running from.
He travels the world, too, stopping to visit old friends throughout Europe. They greet him with accepting bemusement and wry smiles, and their looks say: "Here's Bruce again, passing through like the wind. Here today, gone tomorrow. No responsibilities, no job, no wife ..." And they wonder, "Is he happy?"
He camps out in their backyards in his old tent, not wanting to disturb the flow of the house during his brief visits. Known as an eccentric yet helpful guest, Bruce leaves his hosts with gifts procured with his phoney credit cards or he fixes their cars or buys gifts for their kids. And he's gone in the morning without a trace.
Bruce has a brilliant mind. His mother expected he would become a scientist, an engineer or a professor. "He could have done anything with that mind," she would say. "Instead, he just wasted it." Bruce devours literature, science, history, words, numbers, facts, ideas, formulas, often reciting a verse or a piece of obscure information during a conversation involving a seemingly unrelated topic.
While road tripping, Bruce carries a tattered and well-used Beethoven piano concerto music book in his car. He entertains his hosts – and potential lovers – with dark, intense concertos, surprising his appreciative audience with his unexpected talent. Like his demeanour, he plays unflinchingly, with technical proficiency and little emotion.
Bruce's attraction to scamming began at a very young age. He remembers his father changing the date on his monthly rail pass in order to extend its validity period. This impressed him and planted the first criminal seed in his young mind. The memory stayed with Bruce throughout his childhood and adolescence. Although modest in comparison to what would follow, Bruce's scamming began in college. He discovered that by turning the dormitory Coke machines upside down, money spat out like a Las Vegas slot machine. Another favourite scam involved eliminating all traces of university ownership from borrowed library books, then selling them to the unsuspecting local second-hand bookstore. Bruce's scams were soon discovered and he was kicked out of college. His mother cried for days.
It was 1965 and Bruce was 23 years old. He was smart and rebellious, ready for the alternative movement that was rapidly exploding across America. He began experimenting with LSD and that was the beginning of a new outlook on life.
BRUCE WENT TO jail for 60 days when I was four years old. It was the first of many arrests which were to follow. He was charged with possession of marijuana after a surprise bust during a party in our house in Vermont. But Bruce used his jail time constructively and he devised a method to steal cars from car yards (or car dealerships). Once he was released, he was eager to put his plan into action.
I remember the first Volkswagen that arrived at our house. It was shiny and green and I liked the smooth, round fenders and the little round lights that looked like bug eyes.
My mother came to the front door when she heard the car pulling up. I ran out to meet him and scrambled onto his lap in the front seat and grasped the steering wheel with my small hands.. It smelled like plastic. I liked the little buttons and dials on the dashboard.
"Bruce, are you going to tell your daughter that her father's a thief?" My mother yelled from the doorway. She disappeared back into the house, slamming the door behind her.
"What's a thief?" I asked Bruce.
"It's someone who takes something that's not theirs."
"So ... whose car is this?"
"Well, it's ours now. But I took it from a big company that has lots and lots of these cars, and tonnes of money. So it doesn't really matter if I take one of their cars."
WHEN I WAS seven years old my mother and stepfather took me to Australia. They wanted to get as far away from Bruce, the "crazed criminal" as they could. Moving to another hemisphere seemed like a good solution. When Bruce eventually found out where we were living he wrote to my mother reminding her of their divorce agreement – joint custody of me.
"Who's the letter from, Mum?" I asked.
"Your sociopath criminal father," she replied. She sighed as she stuffed the letter back into the envelope. "He wants to see you."
I was not excited. I was nine years old and I had not spent much time with my father. My memory of him was vague. I knew from Mum that he was a "bad" man and that he stole things.
My mother and her new husband wanted to shake Bruce from their lives completely. Unfortunately for them, having me meant that they were irrevocably tied to him. It was decided that I would fly to the United States to visit him, the first of many trips to follow. My mother was concerned about the influence he would have on me and the kind of living environment he would provide. But, despite her concern, she decided she did not want to deprive me of a relationship with my father. Her mother had robbed her of a relationship with her father and she did not want to repeat the painful family legacy.
A packet arrived in the mail several weeks later: inside was an airline ticket with my name on it. I scanned the confusing numbers; I was leaving in two weeks. When we drove to Sydney Airport I had a small suitcase and a carry-on bag packed with colouring books, pencils, fruit and a sweater. I sat in the back seat and cried.
"Oren, don't worry, it will be fine. You'll make lots of new friends. You'll do fun things with your father. He'll take you shopping and you'll get lots of nice things that he'll buy on his credit cards." My mother shot my stepfather, Ajanta, a look and I saw his eyes roll.
"I don't want to go!" I whined.
"Don't be silly, it'll be fun. You get to go on a big jumbo jet. They'll bring you nice food and take care of you. And in a few hours Bruce will be waiting for you at the airport."
I sat in silence for the rest of the journey. My mother and Ajanta chatted together in the front seat and I wondered if they cared that I was leaving. I suspected that they were happy to see me go.
A laminated card that read "Unaccompanied minor" was placed around my neck at the United Airlines check-in counter. My mother gave me a hug and then handed me over to an airline representative who took my hand and led me through the customs hall to the front of the line. She took me to my seat on the plane and left me there to cry alone. I watched the passengers filing past, one by one, hoping to see a familiar face. No one looked back at me. Tears rolled down my cheeks. I began to hiccup as I tried to suppress whiny moans. I wiped my sleeve across my face and turned my head towards the window so no one would see me cry.
THE SUN WAS just rising when we landed in San Francisco. I pressed my nose up against the cold window and looked down into the thick grey fog. I wondered whether my father was waiting down there somewhere for me. I didn't know what to expect. On subsequent trips to visit my father I had a great fear that I would be stopped at immigration and interrogated in an attempt to elicit his whereabouts. By then I knew the consequences of sharing Bruce's family name, a name that was on both the Federal Police and Internal Revenue Service's "Wanted" lists. I would rehearse the story he had told me: "I have come to America to visit my uncle. 'Do I know Bruce Siedler?' 'Yes, he is my father but I have not seen him for years and I don't know where he lives.' " I knew the stakes were high; if I messed up, my father could go to jail and I would be responsible.
A woman in a uniform brought me to the front of the immigration hall. My knees felt shaky and I had a pain in my stomach. My father had told me that customs agents were trained to detect lies through body language so I tried hard to look casual and relaxed as I neared the booth. As I stepped up to another uniformed official, my heart began to race.
"Where are your parents?" He flipped through my passport without looking at me.
He looked up and glanced behind me and then motioned for me to pass with a bored wave of his hand.
I was taken to the baggage claim area and left to wait for my bag. I yanked it off the rotating silver machine and dragged it along the shiny floor, following the adults towards the exit. A man sitting on a stool asked me for my customs form.
"Are you by yourself?" he asked as he studied my card.
"Yes." He looked at me but I did not meet his eyes. He pointed to the exit and I felt relief rush through me.
As the doors slid open into the arrival hall, I searched the sea of faces for my father. Would he remember what I looked like? I wandered through the crowd, looking up at strange faces, and when I could not see him I felt a wave of panic. I pulled my bag through the big glass doors out onto the sidewalk and held back tears as I scanned the street. Bruce was standing near an old red car, looking anxious. He was wearing a checked shirt, crumpled slacks and old, ratty sneakers.
"You made it," he smiled.
"Yeah," I said quietly, not looking at him. "But I thought you'd forgotten to pick me up."
Bruce lifted my bag into the car. "I don't like to waste money on the parking lot."
WE PULLED AWAY from the curb and wound our way out of the airport onto the highway. Shiny new cars overtook us and I wished I were sitting in one of them instead of my father's rusty, noisy car.
"Where are we going?" I asked.
"Oh, we'll go down to Santa Cruz for a few days first. I've got some business to take care of. Then we'll go on a trip to New York to see your grandmother. Then maybe we'll take a drive down the east coast of Mexico."
"How far is Mexico?" I asked.
"Well, if we average 50 miles an hour to the border and drive for eight hours a day, it should take us about three days. Then maybe another five days driving in Mexico. But we'll do plenty of stops along the way, so it might take us ten days."
I looked at my father incredulously. "But it will be boring," I whined.
"Nah, we'll stop at hot springs and visit people. You'll get to see some nice places."
I didn't care about nice places. I wanted a house and friends and a dog.
"Can't we just stay in one place instead?"
"Nope, that would be boring!" Bruce chuckled.
We drove along the narrow, winding road that hugged the Pacific Ocean. Occasionally, Bruce would pull the steering wheel hard to one side to avoid fallen rocks from the steep cliffs above the road. I sat back in my seat and looked at my father. I had forgotten so many things about him: the way he dressed differently from my friends' fathers and the way his beard grew only along his jaw. People said he looked like President Lincoln. I didn't know who he was but I knew he was important. But my father didn't seem important. He didn't have a job and I didn't really know how he made money. I knew he had some money because he often sent me travellers' cheques to pay for my clothes and my violin lessons in Australia. Mum had told me many times that he stole the money. But I didn't know how he stole it or whom he stole it from. I was a little afraid of him. Mum said he was "trouble", but I didn't really know what that meant, either.
"Mum said that you steal money," I blurted.
Bruce glanced at me and took a moment to answer. "I guess you could say that." He kept his eyes on the road, but he was smiling.
"I believe that there are some very terrible things happening in this country and I don't want to be part of these things that the government and companies are doing. So one way I can avoid becoming involved is to not support their evil little empire."
"What kind of bad things?"
"Well, there was an atrocious war recently that went on for many years. Our government was responsible for killing millions of people, little kids, too, just like you. We spent billions of dollars making bombs and guns to kill innocent people. Do you know where the government gets all that money from?"
"No...the president?" I had never thought about where money comes from.
"Well, no, the president can control money, but he needs to get it from somewhere. Everybody who has a job has to give money to the government. The government collects all this money and then decides what to do with it. The people who give the money to the government don't get to say where they want the money to be spent. So then if the government decides to use the money to kill people, some people feel really terrible. So I decided that I would never give any money to the government. Do you understand?" Bruce took his eyes off the road and looked at me.
"Kind of ..." I reply. "But how do you get money?"
"Well, it's a little complicated, and may be hard for you to understand. Do you know what a credit card is?" Bruce reaches across me and takes his wallet out of the glove box. I see a pile of plastic cards, stacked in a tiered row in his large wallet. He takes one out and hands it to me. I look at it and run my fingers over the raised numbers.
"It says 'Robert Carrol', who's he?"
"He's dead," my father replies.
I look straight ahead out the window. My head is spinning. Did he kill someone and steal his credit card? I suddenly think about my mother and I hear her voice, "He's a sociopath". I never understood what that meant. Maybe this is what she meant. Maybe all those cards in his wallet come from dead people. Maybe he killed them, or maybe he robbed them after they died! I am scared. The man sitting next to me is a stranger. I am holding the credit card tightly in my hand, eyes fixed on the road.
Bruce looks over at me. "Oh, I see. You think I killed these people?" he asks, amused. I don't answer.
"Naw, I didn't kill them. I just take their identities after they die natural deaths. I have never even met any of these people," Bruce assures me.
I am relieved to hear my father is not a murderer. "But why do you use their names?" I ask him.
"Because then I can open bank accounts using someone else's name and then I can get lots of different credit cards, which I don't have to pay."
I thought hard about what my father was telling me, trying to put all the pieces of information together. "So, you're kind of like a ... bank robber?"
"Yeah," Bruce chuckles, "I guess you could say that. Except I don't have to use a gun."
LIFE CHANGED FOR me that day two years later when my father ran out the back door, leaving me to face the intimidating wrath of two cops hell-bent on locking up that "scum-parasite-menace-to-society crim" also known as my father. I lost my sense of trust and safety. I realised that he would not always be able to protect me. The tables turned that day; suddenly I had to protect him and this planted a seed in my mind that if I didn't look after myself, no one would.
We were living alone together in Santa Cruz California. Bruce, believing mainstream education 'dulled a child's mind', enrolled me in 'Gault Open', an alternative elementary school focusing on freedom of expression, which included no discipline, no dress code, and by my happy estimations, no real codes of any kind. I was overjoyed; for once, I felt like I belonged.
During my school day, Bruce went about his clandestine activities; creating fake identifications; stealing VW Beetles; setting up fake bank accounts or planning insurance scams. At the end of the day he would always be on time to pick me up from school.
"What'd you do today?" I often asked as we drove home.
"Oh, just the usual ...a little scam involving a big greedy bank."
Fearing my academic abilities were lagging, Bruce took great pleasure in helping me with my education in the evenings. I sat with him at the kitchen table while he created a daily list of vocabulary which he placed in front of my bored face and then asked me to recite their meaning, in much the same way I was tutored to recite his various aliases. Although I was eleven years old, I had only just learned to read. His choice of vocabulary was impossibly advanced with five and six syllable words quite likely unknown to any educated adult. I had no interest; I fidgeted and twitched my legs with irritation under the table, wishing I was outside playing with my friends.
I knew my father was different, that my life was not like my friends' lives. No one else travelled all the time or lived alone with their dad or had no TV or took avocado and alfalfa sprout sandwiches to school or took frequent road trips around Mexico or helped their dad steal cars.
But it was not until I began staying at friends' houses that I realised just how different my life was. Seeing my friends' families behind closed doors gave me a reference point. My friends were normal; they had brothers and sisters, and mums and dads; they stayed in one house; they watched TV together, their dads went to work in the morning; the kids took peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on white bread to school. They wore normal clothes instead of the hand-me-down, ill-fitting thrift-store garb my father favoured.
But at this age, I was not resentful of my father or envious of my friends' lives. I was too young to make such judgements; I just accepted that I was not like everyone else. Feelings of extreme embarrassment, followed by total rejection of my father, would take several more years to manifest.