If the Obama’s want to go out for a theatre date or to the ballet or to hear Yo-Yo Ma There is a place that has a special presidential box for them to sit in the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington D.C. plush seats soaring ceilings all that stuff but when my cousin Dan Weiss worked there in the one nine hundred seventy S.
He spent a lot of time in the basement he was a smart idealistic kid still in college the basement is where the stock room was for the gift shops upstairs when I started I was basically a stock clerk stock the gift shops each day was merchandise and I ran up and down the stairs all day long up and down up and down up and down that’s a skill that was in demand at the gift shops because the gift shops were staffed by volunteers a lot of them retired three hundred volunteers all of our salespeople were well intentioned volunteers many of them simply wanted to be in the Kennedy Center to support the mission so these are retired people who love the theater love opera or love you know symphonies That’s right I would suspect in my experience that not a single one of them had had a retail job before they took this job the gift shops they were to were run kind of like lemonade stands they sold T.
shirts books commemorative spoons but no cash registers no receipts just a little cash box the volunteers would come in whenever their schedules allowed the Kennedy Center had just opened and at the beginning everything seemed sort of charming There were a lot of rules for instance when Dan found a stray cat meowing and hungry he kept it in the stock room with all the merchandise.
Kind of famous he lived down there and had a parade of visitors Leonard Bernstein wanted to pet him and Miss kale Baryshnikov. The gift shops I should explain were not a small operation they sold four hundred thousand dollars worth of stuff a year and while no one like to talk about it in these lovely gift shops in this lovely building where the National Symphony played something was seriously wrong the good.
Shopped operation was clearly. Underperforming there wasn’t very much money making it to the bank given all the merchandise that we were selling and no one really understood why that was happening the nice man running the gift shop at the time got fired and Dan suddenly got a big promotion at age twenty one he became a manager of gift shops at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts his new job figure out where the money was disappearing to then didn’t have any business training he’d majored in art history and psychology aside from a stint in high school at an ice cream parlor This was his first real job his first time seeing how business worked but he’s a pretty driven guy and if you give him a task he’s going to sink his teeth that the first thing he did was a bit of math so I tried to figure that out how much money we’re losing how much merchant I swear we’re losing and in the in the retail sales business they use the term quote shrinkage and that is the percentage of overall sales that you might be losing some house merchandise Cash who knows and it was almost forty percent when I took the job initially that means that forty cents on every dollar that was supposed to go into the bank was what we weren’t sure where it was going but it wasn’t going into the bank and what’s what’s a typical number out there in the world for small businesses back in the day when I did this work in the one nine hundred seventy S.
a big shrinkage number at Macy’s or some other store might be probably three percent.Were you present and we were we were big time we were forty percent. Somewhere there had to be a thief Dan ran through the entire gift shop operation methodically obsessive Lee and began to suspect one guy a younger guy in his twenty’s one of the other paid employees who helped run the place the guy’s job was to transfer the money from the cash box to the safe it closing time Dan’s next.
Well if you’re the manager of a gift shop stealing from the cash box is kind of a strange sized problem to have you don’t call the F.B.I. do you call the security guards you call the police turns out if you work at the Kennedy Center there is someone special you call I had to engage the United States Park Police Detective agents who oversaw the Kennedy Center special investigative arm of the United States Park Service who knew they had one I didn’t until that began the park service assigned Dan a detective his name was loveless and I thought what a great name for a detective he was actually quite charming detective loveless had actually seen a lot this time and he was amused by the idea of a thief at a place known for opera musicals and ballet but he gave the job his full attention told Dan if you want to catch this guy we’re going to have to plan out a sting operation so after work one day detective loveless picked up Dan in an unmarked car and drove to a secret location where his favorite place to meet which was I suppose if you’re a policeman the secret place but it didn’t seem so to me so you picked me up on the street in Washington and drive over Memorial Bridge and at the traffic circle on the other side of Memorial Bridge right in front of Arlington Cemetery which is on highway you would drive up the curb and park his car right there smack on the grass in the middle of the traffic circle on Memorial Bridge and we would spend twenty minutes or a half an hour sitting there probably seen by twenty five thousand people who drove by you know our secret place but I guess he assumed if you’re right now in the middle of everything nobody notices you.
One Friday night they set the trap Dan walks his nonchalantly as possible into the Kennedy Center gift shop says hi to the volunteers like nothing’s up at all and puts some marked bills into the cash box then he walks outside to rejoin detective loveless who’s chosen the most cliched spot for The Stakeout in the bushes for high.
In the bushes on the other side of the road and peer across into the gift shop with binoculars I should tell you it was February and cold it may have been the coldest day in the history of Washington and there we were outside shivering in the bushes and he’s looking through the binoculars and he would tell me somebody is coming to the gift shop let me take you to take a look at this tell me who this is who is this is this our guy is this or guy and he would hand me the binoculars and I would look and I say no that’s not our guy that’s an eighty five year old woman who’s selling spoons to a customer and he said all right just checking and that’s how it would go every time someone went near the gift shop he would pass me the binoculars.
And then at just about the exact time the staff member showed up to close up the cash register he got very excited he said he’s here he’s here let’s go intercept the guy on the way to his car and find yes marked bills in his pocket they put the guy in handcuffs and arrest him and so you might think Case closed right but the amount of money they found on the thief it wasn’t that much sixty dollars just sixty bucks in fact when the case goes before a judge the judge basically throws it out all of which meant the problem Dan faced was much bigger remember the amount of revenue they were missing each year was over one hundred fifty thousand dollars Dando had another plan of attack a much more ordinary one paper work if the gift shop had been run like a lemonade stand now he wants it to run like a lemonade factory than sets up an inventory system he posts price lists in the gift shop has cost this much T.
shirts this much tells the retirees volunteering in the gift shops when you sell something write it down in other words he basically reinvents on his own what any normal retail business would call recordkeeping. And lo and behold the leaking stops mysterious losses that forty percent shrinkage began to steadily shrink he got in Macy’s territory down to single digits at the gift shop and was a hero.
But his victory meant something kind of unsettling it meant the problem had been a thief it was lots of In fact as best as Dan could figure in that sea of three hundred volunteers those elderly art lovers a bunch of them were taking stuff from the paid staff who works in other parts of the building they were grabbing stuff to people would walk by and pet the cat and see merchandise and pick it up because it was just stuff on a table that people thought it was OK and people were just grabbing T.
shirts some of been making cash mostly small amounts like a cab fare home after all they just worked three hours for free it’s just a few dollars what’s the harm but still they put their hands in the cash box took some bills out and put the money in their pockets that’s stealing they were all stealing there were retired volunteers there taking money out of the cash there were some volunteers who were taking money there were some young employees who were taking money there were lots of people who were taking merchandise at every level people were all stealing from this wonderful uplifting organization because they could because it was easy and it was available if this population these people well meaning community minded classical music fans if some of them were stealing him and anyone would for Dan that was a sad thing and I guess that’s the lesson I learned in one thousand nine hundred nine we are going to take things from each other if we have a chance.
I never understood that it didn’t feel OK to me then it doesn’t to feel OK to me now and it wasn’t a terrifically optimistic lesson. That many people need there to be controls around them for them to do the right thing and if there aren’t any controls around them or any supervision they may not do the right thing.
Fresh out of college working in a place where fancy people dress up every night Dan discovered that not so nice truth that we all know but prefer not to think about that we set up security cameras or but locks on doors we had paperwork and passwords and those things aren’t there just for criminals they’re there as the saying goes to keep honest people honest.
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