My short-lived life of crime can be traced back to Ben Franklin. No, I am not referring to that Ben Franklin, inventor, statesman, printer, and author of Poor Richard’s Almanac witticisms or aphorisms like—“A stitch in time or crime saves nine or doing time or something like that.”
What I am referring to though is the Ben Franklin Dime Store in Oglesby, Illinois where as a young, rambunctious lad of nine, I got my first taste of what could have been a life of crime had I not been caught red-handed—literally, because what I was trying to steal from Ben Franklin were some penny candies known as “red-hot dollars.”
What is it that possesses a young boy or girl to be tempted by that age-old iniquitous enterprise of shoplifting? Is it the thrill of just getting away with something, in this case stealing something from someone right out from under his or her noses—even if what he or she steals is of no importance, like some candy or a pen? Or perhaps it’s testing the waters to see if one can actually steal something without getting caught before moving on to big-ticket items? Then again, maybe it comes right down to outright stealing with no moral dilemma because one wants or desires something that one cannot afford.
Then there’s the dare. Yes, the dare—when someone you know dares you to steal. It could be for any number of reasons, but usually it was the result of peer pressure and gaining acceptance with the circle of friends you ran with. I know, some circle of friends if you have to prove yourself by shoplifting.
As for me, it was a combination of the first one and perhaps a little bit of a dare (some kids at school had already gotten away shoplifting and had quickly elevated their popularity). I just wanted to see if I could get away with it and perhaps later, boast and brag with my friends that I had indeed stuck it to the man, in this case sticking it to old Ben Franklin by pilfering what every nine-year-old boy or girl cannot live without: candy.
When I walked into, no scratch that when I swaggered in the Ben Franklin store one day after school, the die had already been cast for my date with shoplifting destiny. The plan was simple: I would—as I usually did on my way home from school—stop off at Ben Franklin and buy a dime or quarter’s worth of candy. Back in 1967 a dime or quarter was worth much more than it is today and a dime could get you a candy bar or a small bag of penny candy, which was usually two or three for a penny. What I intended to do, as not to draw suspicion to the crime I was going to commit was that while I was filling a small paper bag with the penny candy—Red Hot Dollars, Smarties, Jolly Rancher Watermelon Candy, Red Hot Tamales, and Root Beer Barrels—I would also be surreptitiously slipping equal amounts of candy into my pants pockets.
It would be the perfect crime. I would be literally stealing candy right out from under their noses—as easy as stealing candy from a baby. There was no way I would or could get caught. Of course, timing was everything and I had to make sure that when I did enter the store it was not crowded and that the two or three clerks who normally staffed the store during the day were busy with a customer or in the back where they could not see me (the candy section was located at the front of the store).
After having cased the store plenty of times with all those after school candy runs, and a few model-airplane runs, I knew that my window of opportunity was a narrow one considering the after-school traffic from two grade schools—one public and one Catholic. My best chance was to hightail it to the store when school let out, quickly commit my crime before it was overrun with kids. Of course, having a few kids in the store at the same time was another distraction that could work in my favor—so I didn’t want to hightail it too fast.
Now if you are wondering if anyone in my family sat me down and instructed me in the ways of the world—in particular “Thou Shalt Not Steal”— I have to feign ignorance. I’m sure they did and I’m sure I listened and nodded and got scared when I was told that if I did and did not repent that I could end up in “H-E-Double Hockey Sticks.” Maybe I had heard about it in Sunday School or perhaps it was brought up in an episode of Davy and Goliath or maybe Captain Kangaroo, Bazooka Joe, Gumby talked about it, but on that day whatever moral fiber I was supposed to have had or should have had was not going to stand in my way of achieving my objective.
Sure enough, when I got to Ben Franklin that store was practically empty. The clerks were not in the front and there were a few customers in the back, including a few kids from school who were in the toy section. I quickly, but silently grabbed a small paper bag—didn’t want to make any noise to call attention to my presence at the front of the store—and began to fill it up with some penny candy. Then, I looked around to make sure no one was watching and began to slip some candy into my pockets, first my back pocket and then my front.
I noticed I had goose bumps and with each piece of candy I slipped into my pockets, my heart pumped faster and faster. Even though I might have been full of bravado, I was still a little nervous about getting caught and quickly looked around again to make sure I was still alone.
Had I looked up at one of two large round mirrors in the corners, I would have noticed that I was indeed, being watched by the head clerk. Later, I would find out that she had been watching me as soon as I had started to fill up that paper sack with candy.
When I had twenty-cent’s worth of candy and just as much in my pockets I went to the check out and waited for one of the clerks. My heart was still beating fast but as far as I knew, the dangerous part was over. I had not been caught. I was going to pay for my candy (I would leave this small detail out when I told friends later) and be on my way.
I poured out the contents of the bag on the counter and the clerk, the same one who had been watching me, counted the pieces of candy. There were 40 pieces, 20 cents. She put them back in the paper bag but did not ring up the sale on the very old cash register.
“How about the candy in your pockets?” she asked looking down at me.
“Ex..ex…excuse me,” I stammered. “Ca…ca…candy?”
“In your pockets,” she said calmly. “The candy you put in your pockets.”
“Oh…oh…ooooh, that candy,” I said sheepishly and thinking as fast as my nine-year-old mind would allow me. “I forgot about that candy. I didn’t have enough room in the bag and I….”
Now at this point I knew I was in big trouble. I mean, I was caught red-handed with the goods in my pockets. There was one of two things she could have done: called my mom or called the police. I hadn’t planned on a third.
“Just put them on the counter and we’ll see how much you have,” she said. “I know those bags are a little small. Next time you should take a larger one.”
I took out all the candy I had slipped into my pockets. It came to another 20 cents and she rang up the sale.
“I am sorry,” I said still thinking that I was going to either get one heck of a spanking from my mom or hauled off by the police to the hoosegow.
“Do you have the twenty more cents?” she asked.
I nodded and nervously took out two dimes from my pocket, my hands shaking as I handed them to her. She took the dimes, put them in the drawer and then put the additional candy into the bag.
“Thank you,” she said as she handed me the bag. “Now, don’t eat all the candy at once or you will get a belly ache.”
“I won’t,” I said and hurried out the store before she changed her mind.
Well, she never changed her mind and when I went back to the store again she was just as nice to me as ever—as if the little shoplifting incident had never even happened and I was most grateful for that.
Sadly, I wish I could say that incident cured me of shoplifting, but it didn’t. A few years later, when I was in the seventh grade I was at it again, this time as the result of a dare.
Catty corner from Washington Grade School was Balconie’s Tavern but it was also a hangout for kids with a small candy counter, a freezer filled with ice cream, comic books and assorted school supplies—all of which were in the front away from the bar in the back. It was quite popular with kids given its location near the grade school as well as being across the street from Oglesby’s public library.
I was still trying to impress my classmates and gain acceptance, which by the seventh grade had become more important than it had been for me a few years before. Obviously the 1967 candy caper was not enough (after all, no one had been to observe my five-finger discount) and my classmates were looking to raise the ante by daring me to shoplift again.
This time they would be watching me.
Fortunately, I had come up with the idea for this latest shoplifting caper. There was a magazine rack in Balconie’s (near another rack of comic books and a book rack) that sold these soft porn magazines—not Playboy, but some biker magazines with a few photos of bare-chested buxom blondes on the back of motorcycles. I figured my classmates would love to have a couple of those magazines and I knew exactly how to “steal” them.
Once a week I would bring my gym clothes home from school rolled up in a towel. My plan was, when the owner of Balconie’s was not looking I would unroll the towel and slide in a magazine or two and then roll up the towel again. There was no way anyone would know. My classmates thought it was a brilliant plan. Glenn Brown wished he had come up with it. Bradley Davis said it was a real winner.
I would need a distraction and that’s when my classmates came in. While they were buying some candy or something I would slip behind another glass counter that contained school supplies and pretend to be looking at some books and magazines, and then at the right precise time—when the owner turned to put the money in the register—I would quickly unroll the towel, slip in a magazine or two, roll it back up and walk back out. As cover and not to draw any suspicion, I would buy a comic book.
“You sure you know what to do,” I explained to my classmates outside Balconies, “You buy something while I slip behind the counter and then I will steal the magazines.”
“Don’t worry,” said Glenn. “We know what to do.”
I went in first, went behind the counter and pretended to look at some comic books when Glenn and Bradley came in. They went to the candy counter as planned and bought some candy. However, at the last minute I got cold feet. I hadn’t thought my plan through carefully enough because the magazine rack was near a large plate glass window and anyone walking by outside who happened to look in could see me “stealing” the magazines. I couldn’t go through with it.
I slowly walked back out from behind the counter wondering how I was going to tell Glenn and Bradley that I had chickened out when the owner stopped me.
“What have you got inside the towel?” he asked.
“Nothing,” I said thankful that I hadn’t gone through with the shoplifting after all, but still feeling a little nervous just the same.
“Let me see,” he demanded. “Unroll it.”
“Humph,” he muttered, surprised that the only thing inside were my stinky gym clothes, socks and jockstrap. “Do you want anything?”
I shook my head, rolled the towel back up and left.
When I walked back outside, Glenn and Bradley were nowhere to be found. Maybe they had seen the owner making me unroll the towel and ran away or maybe they had even ratted me out and were now laughing their heads off somewhere (they did see me unrolling the towel and got out of there as fast they could). It wouldn’t have made any difference either way. I almost got caught again. That’s what finally cured me of shoplifting.