My Short, Happy Life in Crime


I'm standing in Government Center Plaza daring a cop to arrest me. This is what it's come to.

As soon as my friend Jeff and I had seen the cop car parked by the T station, we'd made a beeline for it. In the front seat we'd found a beefy, toothy specimen of law enforcement wearing Terminator shades and exuding an air of “It's too hot and humid today to mess with boneheads.” Undeterred, we'd sidled up to the blue-and-white and begun detailing the many state laws and city ordinances we had broken that day.

First, Massachusetts General Law, Chapter 272, Section 36, which makes it illegal to “reproach Jesus Christ or the Holy Ghost,” and which, for good measure, we had done in front of a church. Then City of Boston Ordinance 16-12.15, which makes it a crime to “play ball . . . in the street,” which we broke with the aid of a Nerf football in Downtown Crossing. Then there was MGL, C.264, 9, which makes it illegal to sing only a portion of “The Star-Spangled Banner” in a public place, and ordinance 16-12.5, which forbids sprinkling cigarette “ashes . . . in the street.” And those were just a few examples.

From behind his sunglasses, the patrolman gives me such a nonreaction that I begin to think he's asleep or possibly dead. Finally, with a sigh, he rouses himself. “Those are blue laws,” he says. “Just old laws that never got taken off the books.”

We ask if he'll arrest us anyway. He says no, then tells us he did once arrest a gangbanger for spitting on the sidewalk (MGL, C.270, 14).

“Would you arrest us if we spit on the sidewalk?” we ask hopefully.

“Nope.”

So, hawking up our best loogies, we're left with only the thrill of knowing that we expectorated in front of a policeman and got away with it.

Secretly, we all want to be criminals. In my case, the exquisite rush that comes with breaking social mores began with the $20 bills that somehow found their way from my mother's purse to my piggy bank. There's a reason why The Sopranos keeps winning Emmys and Winona Ryder keeps making movies: No matter how bad they are, we admire people who have the guts to do what we never could.

It's like that episode of The Brady Bunch in which Bobby idolizes Jesse James and dreams of gunning down Marcia and Jan in a train robbery. But — as Bobby learns from Mr. Brady's inevitable wacky lesson about the pitfalls of armed robbery — in real life, people get hurt and sitcoms get canceled.

With this in mind, a plan is hatched: to go out and commit only the crimes that nobody cares about.

To start, I amass a laundry list of potentially illegal activities. Careful research on several completely unreliable Web sites finds reports of dozens of laws passed down from the time of the Puritans straight to the modern day: You can't eat peanuts in church. You can't put tomatoes in clam chowder. You can't go to bed without taking a bath (but, oddly, you can't take more than two baths a month). You can't have a gorilla in the back seat of a car — a personal favorite. And, as everyone knows who's been subjected to a Duck Tour, it's perfectly legal to graze sheep on Boston Common.

Looking up peanuts, chowder, gorillas, and sheep in the state and city law codes, however, I quickly discover that most of these supposed strictures aren't even covered by the so-called blue laws (though some might argue they do provide all the fixings for a killer party). The several historians and lawyers I call confirm that most of these supposed laws are urban legends — rules that seemingly everyone has heard about but no one can actually find on the books. According to the city archivist, for instance, the widely perceived bathing ordinances hearken back to a fictional 1917 story by H. L. Mencken. And while it really was once legal to graze sheep or cows on the Common, that law was repealed in 1833.

Most of the silly laws floating around are probably archaic local ordinances that have long since expired or state laws that were misinterpreted, says Elizabeth Bouvier, the head of archives at the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. The only way to be sure, however, is to go through the thousands of law books published since Plymouth Colony was founded. Diligent journalist that I am, I head down to the rare-book room at the Boston Public Library. There I'm confronted with row after row of books that smell like my grandfather's sweater drawer and have pages the approximate consistency of wet crepe paper. Despite several hours of research, however, I come up empty on peanuts, chowder, and gorillas.

But I do discover that the Puritans were apparently the originators of modern sadomasochism. Back then, it seems, if you spat on the sidewalk, you would have been whipped, dunked, hanged, and forced to stand in the stocks — not necessarily in that order. The first few laws listed in 1647 are consistent, if nothing else. Having false gods: death. Witchcraft: death. Conspiracy: death. Murder: death. Poisoning, kidnapping, sodomy, bestiality: death. Talking back to your parents after you turn 16: death (and you thought your teenage years were angst-ridden!).

In 1692, a banner year for jurisprudence, laws were passed against “unnecessary and unseasonable” walking in the streets on Sundays, being French, and using witchcraft to “entertain, employ, feed, or reward any evil and wicked spirit.” Just in case anyone was still having fun, the civic fathers in 1711 made it illegal to sing, dance, fiddle, pipe, or use a musical instrument at night. In 1787, a law was passed to jail pipers, fiddlers, runaways, and “stubborn . . . children.” The part about stubborn children wasn't deleted until 1973. A warning to any of you who refused to go down for your nap in the early '70s: You're lucky you aren't sharing a cell with Robert Downey Jr.

Most of these Colonial prohibitions have long since disappeared. Only a handful of anachronistic laws are still on the books, and they aren't the easily breakable kind. There's MGL, C.272, 86, which still makes it illegal to keep a mule on the second story of a building unless, of course, there are two exits. MGL, C.272, 80D makes it illegal to sell rabbits, ducks, or chickens that have been dyed a different color. I consider spray-painting Mack, Nack, and Ouack fire-engine red and putting them up for sale on eBay, but then I start worrying about what laws the winning bidder might break when he buys the little ducklings.

City of Boston Ordinance 16-15.3 makes it illegal to drive a horse-drawn carriage through the snow or ice with fewer than three bells attached, a law that seems way more trouble to break than it's worth. Not to mention, it's August. Forward-thinking ordinance 16-42.5 makes it illegal to harass someone in public with a laser beam, which, in the year 2080, is going to come in handy. Today, not so much.

So all I'm left with are some relatively tame opportunities to be a harmless criminal. But I'm ready to raise a little hell. Some of the laws still on the books I already violate every day, like that one against reproaching Jesus Christ or the Holy Ghost, which I break every time my computer crashes. Or MGL, C.272, 29, which makes it illegal to “possess obscene matter,” a law I break whenever my computer doesn't crash.

My best bet for lawlessness seems to center around Boston Common. We now know you can't graze sheep there anymore. But, according to city ordinances, you can't do much of anything else there, either. Specifically, Ordinance 16-19.1, which says you can't “walk, stand, or sit on the grass” or “stand, lie, or sleep on a bench” without a special proclamation from the mayor. Ordinance 16-19.4 goes even further, making it illegal to “annoy another person . . . utter profane, threatening, abusive, obscene, or indecent language . . . be under the influence of intoxicating liquor . . . have possession of an instrument of gambling . . . handle, take, or remove any turf, flower, plant, bush, tree, rock . . . [or] throw a stone or other missile.”

So on a summer Sunday afternoon, my friend Jeff and I head toward Boston Common, looking to do our best impression of Scarface. Unfortunately, we get a little sidetracked. First, we stop off at the 21st Amendment for a whiskey (or two or four) to make sure we're under the influence of intoxicating liquor before we reach the former sheep pasture. Then, on our way down the hill, we're distracted by an unbalanced fellow who is eager to tell us about the laws he's broken, which involve heroin, ecstasy, PCP, and other interesting pharmaceuticals. Before we can ask him if he's ever ridden in a car with a gorilla in the back seat, we lose him in the crowd.

At Downtown Crossing, we acquire the illicit Nerf football at a CVS, then have our run-in with Boston's Finest. But that's not the end of our crime spree. Buoyed by our sidewalk-spitting success, we redouble our efforts to reach the Common. First we pop into the Kinsale, just to make sure that our buzz hasn't worn off. There we treat a small American flag “contemptuously” (MGL, C.264, 5) by using it as a coaster for a couple more whiskeys. We are in turn treated contemptuously by the bartender. We also make some small talk with Jim from Salisbury, who offers that he once hitched a Port-A-Potty to the back of a pickup truck and dragged it down the street — which, if it isn't against the law, definitely should be.

Finally, we reach the Common, where Jeff annoys a 21-year-old girl from Malden, I handle a stone and throw it at the sausage vendor, and we take turns standing and lying on the benches. Unlike the cop, the park ranger we talk to tells us that we're definitely criminals and that he can call the Boston P. D. if he sees us so much as break a branch off a tree. But as he takes out his radio to prove he's serious, his hand is visibly shaking. I can only imagine the mortal fear that's coursing through his veins as he tries to stare down two vicious criminals on the verge of handling, taking, or — worse yet — removing turf and bushes.

It's at that moment that I realize Mr. Brady was right. There really is no such thing as a victimless crime. Even breaking the smallest, most insignificant law causes grief to someone, be it a bartender or a park ranger. Not to mention that gorilla. So I decide to hang up my law-breaking towel and just go home. I'll settle for the vicarious thrill of watching The Sopranos.

But if I ever see anyone spitting on the sidewalk, I'm making a citizen's arrest.