Nothing else was working, so Calvin Adams decided to become a bank robber.
But he wasn't naive. He assumed robbing a bank wasn't for amateurs. Slick moves and professional technique must be required. He consulted a guy who had done it before. Secrets were passed, lore was transmitted -- the dark art was handed down to a new generation.
"The seriousness of what I was doing started to hit me," says a now-imprisoned Calvin Adams, who robbed 17 area banks last year.
(Ricky Carioti - The Washington Post)
It was a short lesson. Adams remembers it clearly:
"You just, like, go in there, and give them the note. And they going to give you the money. It's as simple as that."
The scribble that orders the teller to fork over the cash: a robber's withdrawal slip.
Like the Bible says, ask and you shall receive. No submachine gun necessary, no Richard Nixon mask.
"To me, that didn't sound like a whole lot to do," Adams says.
Thus was born one of the region's most prolific bank robbers. During a seven-week spree last year, Adams visited 19 banks in Maryland, Virginia and Washington and stole $38,432 from 17 of them.
One week he robbed the same bank twice, plus two others. One morning he robbed two different banks, 25 minutes apart.
He didn't carry a gun.
"Basically because the way everything would go, I knew there wasn't no need for one," he says.
His demand note went through drafts before he got it right.
One of the first banks Adams tried to rob was a SunTrust in Fort Washington, on Jan. 28, 2003. He handed the teller a note that said simply: "Give me all the money out the register."
The teller seemed unimpressed. She appeared to doubt he was serious. She stalled.
"So I left," Adams says.
"I said, 'Damn, why she do that? This ain't how it supposed to go,' you know what I'm saying? So this time I'm going to change it and give it like a ghetto twist. See how this turns out."
The next day he went into a Chevy Chase Bank in Bowie. His note said, "Give me all the bills out your register or some bodies are going to start dropping!!!"
The teller handed over $1,750.
"It was like, 'Okay, he's serious,' " Adams says. "It was like, now I'm making my mark."
He had stepped through the looking glass into one of those strange ambiguous lineages of American culture -- have we made up our minds yet about Jesse James, Pretty Boy Floyd or Willie ("That's where the money is") Sutton? Have we seen enough noir thrillers involving soft-fingered safecrackers using stethoscopes to hear the tumblers, savvy heist-meisters tunneling in from the sewer, mask-wearing machine-gunners mowing down half of Los Angeles?
Adams might seem a disappointing scion of the legacy -- Jesse James writes a note, Hollywood yawns -- except for one thing: He's real. He is the modern American bank robber.
This high school dropout, who says he was stoned to calm his nerves while he robbed, made it look easy. For a while.
Bandits on the Run
This summer Washington feels beset by bank robbers.
Nine men were just indicted in six robberies since January that netted $361,000. The perpetrators wore body armor and carried assault weapons to "take over" entire banks in Washington and Prince George's County before fleeing in vehicles they quickly torched.