Fiction: The One Who Got Away (With It)

Jim Knipfel, Noogie’s Time to Shine (Virgin Books, 2007)

Anyone who’s ever used a stand-alone ATM machine at the local bodega has probably wondered at some point if it was bolted to the floor. This was likely followed by the fleeting thought that, with the help of a friend or two, it wouldn’t be all that hard to hoist the sucker into the back of a waiting van. The people who run around all day restocking the machines with bricks of twenties are tortured by a more prosaic and ultimately much more tempting fantasy: What if I just scraped off a couple of bills, here and there, for my own private use? How long would it take for anyone to notice, if they ever noticed at all?

These two questions in the mind of a Jersey City ATM filler-upper led to the epic true crime story novelized in Noogie’s Time to Shine, the fifth and latest book by bestselling Brooklyn author Jim Knipfel. As Knipfel’s former editor at New York Press, I wasn’t surprised when I heard he was taking on a $5 million heist and getaway tale. You see, Jim was the author of the New York Press’ now defunct weekly crime blotter column. Every week, he squeezed every ounce of comic potential out of the city’s crime stories to create the city’s best crime column; one which, as often as not, was sympathetic to the criminals (at least the smart ones). For Knipfel fans, it was easy to detect the same dark humor and inimitable voice in the anonymous blotter that made his “Slackjaw” column such a beloved Press staple for a decade. (The column now runs at electronpress.com)

Ned “Noogie” Krapczack is a classic Knipfel character—a shlubby film junkie who lives in Jersey City with his irascible mother and a cat named Dillinger. For years Noogie restocked ATM machines in and around New York City for PiggyBank Inc. without ever thinking twice about the cash he drove around and handled like so many peanuts. He amused himself chatting with bored immigrant corner-store proprietors who call him “lard-ass” to his face in their native tongue. They aren’t alone in dissing Noogie; even his mother calls him a “big dummy” and worse.

But Noogie isn’t so dumb, after all. One day it occurs to him to peel off a few bills, just to see what happens. But nothing happens, so he peels off a few more. And a few more; and a few more. Only when he’s filled an entire closet with 350 pounds of twenties totaling some $4.8 million does an accountant for PiggyBank notice the discrepancies popping up on Noogie’s route. A company call to Noogie’s home leads to his snap decision to throw the bags of money and his cat (plus litter box) into his van and get moving.

He heads south, imagining himself as a modern day Steve McQueen in The Getaway, only his Ali McGraw is a Siamese cat. He tries to conform to his idea of a Hollywood hero on the lam in a series of hysterical Take the Money and Run-style robberies. But despite the execution of a masterful drip-by-drip cash heist, it’s clear Noogie isn’t cut out for a life of crime. In his first robbery attempt, he holds up a liquor store at gunpoint—and then asks the proprietor to ring up the bill and pay before leaving. Later, the millionaire Noogie holds up a roadside pie-stand for the grand sum of $13 (plus one cherry pie).

The hero and his cat end up in Florida, renting an extra room in one of those awful carpeted condo complexes. Noogie isn’t there long before he dies under suspicious circumstances, leading local authorities to match his identity with the man the feds are after. The book then shifts gears and becomes a true crime story, with two FBI agents from Jersey teaming up with a local investigator to figure out exactly what happened to Noogie—and his money.

The investigation soon centers on Noogie’s Florida roommate. Did he murder the mysterious slob from Jersey for his money? Where is the money? And where’s the cat? Following the pieces as they fall into place, Tetris-like, is a true crime treat, but readers are likely to miss Noogie when he’s gone. It’s hard not to like the loser hero at the center of this quintessentially 21st-century crime caper. Not just because he’s a finely wrought comic character, but because he brazenly took on a fat, lazy and slightly evil target and got away with it. As one of the FBI agents assigned to Noogie’s case admits, that doesn’t happen too often in this life.

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