True Story

. . .

For sale: VCRs and the like


It all happened sometime in the early eighties, a period in which VCR’s were all the rage although still rather pricy. A set  could easily cost  something like 30,000 Belgian francs (appr. €/$ 750) and the price of an empty video cassette was about 200 Belgian francs (€/$ 5)

At the time I worked at General Motors Antwerp, where I repaired forklifts. I was part of a team of about ten men. It goes without saying that with some of them I got on better than with others. One of my best mates was the welder. In his free time he was a wrestler, you know, the guy who hurtles his opponent back and forth in the boxing ring. His stage name was Black Jack Harris, but in normal life he went by the name of Fons. He was a short, muscular guy whose stance filled most of us with awe and he loved joking around. He had a separate work place because he often played with fire, that is, literally speaking. As a result his place was a  kind of refuge where one could go for a quiet chat. Not only the people from our team but also from other departments found their way to his “shack”.

When Fons could bamboozle or fool someone he was over the moon. He just loved to trick people. He wasn’t really a liar because most of the time he did his best – at least more or less – to hint at people that he was joking. As both his personality and his way of playing tricks appealed  to me I liked to be around him. We became very good friends and understood each other without words.  It so happened that there was a member of the cleaning team who visited us a lot. A simple young bloke, a willing victim who was easily fooled. One day, as proud as a peacock, he came to tell us that he had bought a brand new VCR. Pretending to be highly interested we listened to his explanation of all the possibilities his new gadget offered. At a certain moment  Fons winked at me and asked him how much he had paid for the thing. The guy told us quite proudly that he paid  30,000 francs. Fons raised his eyes to heaven and slapped his forehead. “What,” he said. “That much money for a VCR?” Didn’t he know that we too sold VCRs. We told him that we knew someone who could occasionally lay his hands on stuff like that. Naturally without the proper papers because the sets came from the docks and were nothing more than stolen goods.  So he had to swear not to tell anyone about it.  He promised us his lips would be sealed. When he asked us how much we charged  for a VCR we told him, without batting an eyelid, that a very nice VCR could be had from us for 1,500 francs (€ 37.5). He turned pale. That was one twentieth of what he had just paid. We could see him thinking. Yes, for such a low price he was willing to buy a second recorder. That way he would be able to transfer things from one VCR to the other. But when he asked us how much we charged for empty cassettes we pretended to know next to nothing about VCRs. Both Fons and I put on doubtful faces, and I suddenly remembered that there were long video cassettes as well as short ones. A short cassette cost 20 francs (€ 0.50), we told him, but the long ones couldn’t be sold for less than 50 francs (€1.25) a piece. He immediately ordered a box of ten long ones. And a few days later he came to place an order for a VCR. It goes without saying that we couldn’t give him a date of delivery because ships carrying this stuff didn’t moor every day and also because we had to take some precautions. After all, we were dealing with stolen goods. He fully understood and said he didn’t mind having to wait a few days. Once again we told him not to say a word about this to any one for we really didn’t want the police to find out about our shady business. A couple of days later, as we had expected,  he asked us how the delivery was coming on. This could have been the right moment to tell him that we had been having him on, but instead we decided to advise him to be patient a bit longer. He agreed and would come back after a few days. That gave us some time to outline the strategy of our joke. A week later he visited us again. First he wanted to know about the date of delivery but he also added that he wanted to order a second VCR, this time for his mother. For the laughable price of 1,500 francs she wanted one too. We wrote down his order and assured him that he wouldn’t have to wait much longer. And could we also supply a second box of empty cassettes? Yes, of course no problem whatsoever. When he came back a third time and was sent off empty-handed once again we really started to suspect that he was on to our little game. Wrong, he was still convinced that delivery was to take  place “soon”. When he entered our “office” for the fourth time, rather hesitantly, he ordered a third VCR. This time for a friend. But no, unfortunately we couldn’t yet deliver because some problems had arisen But we did write down his third order. After this, Fons and I decided that we would overdo it a bit when he came back for the fifth time, actually overdo it so much that he would come to understand of his own accord that it had all been nothing but a joke. And indeed, next week he did come back. We told him that things had gotten a bit difficult since we suspected that the police were on our track and were probably watching us. His disappointment showed on his face. We asked him if he would be prepared to collect the stuff himself. We would give him the address, but, we added, he would have to wear a hat. What do you mean, he said, a hat? We told him that our supplier lived in a ground-floor apartment and that the man living upstairs from him suspected that something was going on. For that reason he photographed everyone who rang the downstairs bell. But with a hat he would be unrecognisable. Our prospective buyer was visibly frightened. With a trembling voice he asked us if we wouldn’t be willing to go there ourselves. He would be prepared to pay 500 francs more a piece, i.e. 2,000 francs instead of 1,500 per VCR. For reasons of safety however we had to turn him down. No problem, he told us he would wait till the all clear. Next week he turned up again. He was relieved when we told him that the problems were over and that our supplier had moved to an apartment without upstairs neighbours. And what was more, things were looking well. His order had not yet arrived, but we had seen that  a complete video set had been for sale. This set consisted of a VCR, a camera with a portable recorder, a miniature television with which the filmed pictures could be seen immediately, rechargeable batteries (in those days compact cameras were not yet on the market). But the price for such a set amounted to 8,000 francs (€ 200) . However, since he had not ordered such a set, someone else had bought it. He swore and yelled at us: “Why didn’t you buy this for me? I’ve wanted a camera for so long. And so cheap!” He was sad and disappointed. We asked him if he would like us to cancel his order, but he was obstinate. And if we could get him a television set that would be fine too. We told him that a television set was a bit more expensive than a VCR because it came in a greater box and would be more risky: 2,000 francs. No problem at all, he said. Once again we wrote down his order and asked him to come back in a few days time. A week or so later he came to see us again. This time we told him that his order had arrived but that we had not accepted it because the brand of the sets was unknown to us. He asked us which brand it was. We couldn’t remember exactly but Fons said he thought it began with phiphi…. “What?” he shouted, “do you mean Philips.” I replied that he could be right, but that I myself had never heard of this particular brand. “Oh, my God,” he yelled. “Philips is a great brand for video equipment!” He called us morons but promptly added that he would wait a bit longer. On another occasion we told him that the equipment delivered was something called Sony and that we hadn’t bought the sets because they seemed to be toys for children. His reaction was similar to the Philips incident, but still he wouldn’t let go. He said that he was still willing to wait but that next time Phillips or Sony showed up, we should buy. On his next visit we told him the goods had been delivered. He beamed! But we also added that we dared not go ourselves because of some disagreement with the seller and suggested that he’d do it. We tried to convince him that there was nothing to be feared from neighbours with cameras but that he would have to take his identity card. “My identity card? Why?”, he asked. We explained that our seller employed some kind of bookkeeping with regard to the goods he sold and that for this reason he always made photocopies of  the delivery agreement and the customer’s identity card. His spirits sagged. In the meantime he had ordered some more VCRs, cameras and the like, but time and time again we managed to send him off with some or other lame excuse. And still he insisted on actually getting the by now countless items he had ordered.

Now it so happened that all of a sudden my grandmother died. A very sad event which would appear to have nothing to do with the above. But it did mean that I had to go to the funeral and had to take a day off. As a consequence, on the day of the funeral I was able to sleep in, so to speak. You see, that week I had the early shift, which meant that I had to start working at 6 a.m. But as the funeral took place at 11 a.m. I could stay in bed a bit longer. However, at about half past six someone rang the doorbell. Rather annoyed I looked through the window and saw three men standing there. “Police,” one of them shouted. “Please let us in,” one of the others added. Sleepily I went down to open the door. I had no idea whatsoever why plain clothes policemen would want to wake me up at this time of day. When they came in I asked them why they wanted to see me. At first they just looked around a bit and then they said that they were looking for video equipment. It took a while before it dawned on me. But then I made the link between their visit and the joke Fons and I had been playing on the cleaner. I tried to explain to them how the matter stood. Much to my relief they nodded as if they believed me. They told me that a full team of detectives had been searching a gang of VCR thieves for over 24 hours. But so far nothing remotely resembling video equipment had been found. They went on to tell me that in the village where our cleaner lived there were numerous rumours about a large-scale VCR swindle. They had swooped down on our cleaner and forced him to name names. He had told them that he only knew us superficially. Therefore they had taken him to the factory’s personnel department and forced him to pick out a face from the photographic records. After he had pointed at my picture  they had waited there for me until 6 a.m., the hour I would normally have started work. Seeing that I didn’t show up, they had decided to come to my house. I explained to the policemen that all of it was nothing more than a joke which had gotten out of hand. Because of the fact that they hadn’t found anything and probably had also noticed that our friend, the cleaner, wasn’t the brightest of the bunch, they believed me right away. However, they did ask me to accompany them to the office to write down my official statement, which would enable them to close the file. I agreed on the condition that I would be back in time to go to my grandmother’s funeral. No problem at all. I got dressed and rode down to the office with them. As I was passing the waiting room surrounded by the detectives I saw the cleaner sitting there. He had also seen me  and I noticed that he flinched with fear and shame. He seemed to realize that he had grassed on me. I still didn’t feel like putting an end to the game and glanced at him in a way he would think I was furious with him. He flinched even more. In the chief inspector’s office I told the story once again. Eventually the policemen had to laugh about it. They wrote down my statement and after I had signed I was free to go. The cleaner was still waiting in the waiting room. And once again I shot him a flashing look. I could tell that he was frightened, but also a little surprised. He’d probably expected to see me taken to prison in handcuffs. He couldn’t be more wrong. One of the policemen so drove me home so that I was in time to attend my grandmother’s funeral.

It goes without saying that the next day I went back to work as usual where I told my partner about the incident.  We laughed our heads off.  A few days later the cleaner showed up. Very timidly he entered the welding shop. From a distance and ready to run away he said to me: “Jesus, man you’ve been lucky. You must have told a good story to the police.” I sighed and rather edgily I replied that I had indeed been lucky this time but that I would avenge myself on him if he ever tried to betray me again. After having apologized nervously he left in a great hurry. It took ages before he finally realized that the whole thing had been nothing but a joke.


With great great big thanks to Erika peeters for the fantastic translation !