Saturday, May 17, 2014

To Hatch a Thief

Like most of the kids in my neighborhood, I was not destined for fancy summer vacations. I knew perhaps a couple of kids whose parents would rent a cabin on a lake in the hinterlands. No one in my ken journeyed to exotic islands or cruised on luxury liners.

Once in a while, the four Hollerans would venture on a day trip to Gotham via the New Haven Railroad. This was a huge treat, usually involving museums.

However, we did have one mega-outing a year. All the way to Shamokin, Pennsylvania. Yes, this is where I live now. THAT is another installment of MayDaysEssays, so we hope.

Back in the day, before I-80 was built, it was a good six-hour drive, including at least one pit stop. We would bunk at the home of my great-aunt and -uncle, Helen and Joe Kurtz. They had a warren of rooms above a retail store that sold one thing: beer.

Owning a beer distributorship in the Coal Region was similar to copping the air franchise. There seemed to be a bar on every corner. This, of course, did not interest my brother and me. Most of the four or five days spent in Shamokin included trips to Knoebel's Grove, some ten miles distant.

The gig there was a huge swimming pool, surrounded by an amusement park. I will not digress into what a magical place this was for us. Disneyland? Piffle. Knoebel's was our Mecca in Pennsy.

The crux of this epigram occurred when I was about eleven. Part of our traditional trek was a Saturday-morning excursion to downtown Shamokin—Independence Street, to be exact. Contrary to today, the main drag bustled and hustled in the 60s, what with department stores, ice cream shops, a music store, even farmers selling their wares curbside.

This particular year, we stopped at W. T. Grant's, a five-and-dime-ish store crammed with a gallimaufry of goods. Casual clothing, bobby pins, soap, kitchenware ... and sporting goods. This department was located in the store's basement.

I was old enough to poke around by myself. I'd usually buy a record or some sort of souvenir. I was always a fan of those squeeze-to-open change purses. I think I had a good dozen at home. But they smelled best when new, y'know. I made sure nobody saw me sniff a nice blue one.

Then I saw my goal. A new basketball—which I didn't need. What I could use was the inflation gizmo that was taped to the sphere. Back home, down at The Field, we'd always be looking for one. Kids would have pumps galore, but no way to resurrect a flaccid football or basketball. This would be just the trick.


Back in Connecticut, I had always been too afraid to steal. Anything. Not even penny candy kids would pilfer from Nick's or United Cigars. I could cite some high moral ground here, or fear of the nuns' wrath. No, I was chicken, pure and simple.

Once I went on a foray up to Topp's on Villa Avenue. This was a Wal-Mart precursor: cheap stuff of all sorts, minus groceries. Topp's was an early adopter of the big-box model: everything from utilitarian clothing to bikes to toys to hardware. People would flock there, more for the novelty than anything else.

Some of my friends viewed Topp's in another light; it was an excellent place to steal. Especially 45s. For the GenXYZ crowd, these were single tunes—two sides, for use on a machine called a record player. Popular at parties, they were. Each disc listed for a buck, which stores like Topp's would mark down to 75 cents. There were stacked in their sleeves right out in the open—long before blister packs embedded with space-age sensors that would set off klaxons unless deactivated.

As I left the store with Stevie Simonson that day, he waited until we were out of the parking lot to unzip his windbreaker and show me the eight records he had stolen. I was shocked. He was a bigger kid than I; perhaps I looked up to him. I wanted to tell him how wrong this was, but, once again, chickened out. I walked back to Black Rock, try to stem my feeling of wretched revulsion.


But at Grant's I wanted that needle. It was affixed to the basketball with a small strip of oddly soiled white trainer's tape. How much could it be worth? A dime? I scanned the entire department, looking for just the needle. No luck. Hey, who was gonna miss a needle from a basketball? I remember being taunted at a store once for not stealing something. Now was my time to step up. Chicken? Me? No way.

Trying to appear casual, I easily removed the tape and needle, palming them handily. I was on my way up the stairs when a Grant staffer stood in my way.

My height but twice as wide as me. A flimsy smock with the WTG logo. Hair in a net (something which, to this day, skeeves me out). A fleshy wen on the side of the nose, accessorized by a single angry hair. I think she was a woman.

"What's in your hand there, mister?"

Snagged. I meekly returned it to her. I shrugged silently. I was sure my face was American LaFrance red.

She wagged a cronelike finger at me. "Y'know, we've got a cop right upstairs. I think we'd better go see him."

I pictured myself cuffed and dragged to the station house. A mug shot. Fingerprinted. My life was ruined. They probably had a special juvie prison here just for out-of-state miscreants. Bread and water. For how long? I'd miss my drum lessons. And seventh grade. Worse than incarceration, what would my father do?

I wheedled, "Look, I'm from Connecticut and on vacation. I don't know where my parents are. I didn't mean to take it. I'm sorry."

Holding the needle in her knurled, knobby fist, she wagged her hand at me. I shrunk back.

"Get outta this store and go back wherever ya come from. I knew you wasn't from here. That's why I got suspicious."

Off the hook, I raced out of the store. I needed air. I ducked into an alley to catch my breath. Yes, I had narrowly escaped a life as a salve to the penal system. I scurried across the street to Tharp's to get a milk shake. Gathering my wits about me, I searched in my pockets for a quarter.

That's when I found the change purse, with its beaded chain and price tag attached.

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