I once worked with a man who told me all people have three lives: our public life, the mask we wear in public; our private lives, what we keep just for our loved ones; and our secret lives, what we keep just for ourselves. He told me this, and then asked me what my secret life was, and I laughed in his face. As if I'd tell him that.
But I'll tell you: In my secret life I'm a criminal.
I wasn't always a criminal, and I certainly wasn't raised to be one. I remember once, as a teenager, I was in the K-Mart toy section and I saw an opened Megatron toy. I owned Megatron, but I'd lost one of his parts and I missed it a great deal. (Actually, I say "lost" but I'm sure one of my cousins took it. They were always taking my things.)
So there I was, at the K-Mart, confronted with a dilemma: Someone had robbed from me, and now I had a chance to restore what had been taken. To do so, however, I had to rob from someone else. Would I? I did not. It somehow didn't seem right. No one would have known - the package was already opened - but I couldn't bring myself to do it.
Years later I was living in San Francisco, making more money than I'd ever imagined and stealing like a crack junkie with ten kids to feed. Somewhere between Megatron and the Dot Com boom something had happened. Some switch had flipped. Somehow, journeying across the internet, I'd let scales cover my eyes and lost touch with the difference between right and wrong.
You can call this my confession if you want. My name is Russ, and I'm an internet criminal. This is my story. It's a story of hope, loss and, perhaps, redemption. But mainly it's a story about taking things that didn't belong to me and behaving in ways that would make my mother blush. This confession starts in 1996, in an AOL chat room with a woman named Tanya.
I'd made a few friends in the chat rooms before Tanya, but they weren't real. Not in the way my sticky carpet, holes in my ceiling or the giant, whistling canyon that was my bank account were real. They were like people you'd see looking down from the roof of a 40-story building. I knew, intellectually, they all had lives, families, jobs and hopes and dreams, but if I'd fired my gun in the air, like one of El Guapo's banditos at a wedding, and one of them fell dead, I would have a hard time feeling responsible. And then came Tanya.