When my Dad came back from seeing me for the first time in the hospital nursery, my mom asked what he thought. His response was, “He looks like Edgar G. Robinson.” True fact. My mom said that it wasn’t what a new mother wanted to hear. But today, we all agree, that I did, and that my dad saw something there. There’s been some affinity alright. I always liked Edgar G. Robinson better than J. Edgar Hoover. Hands down.
As a kid I always rooted for the villain. They always looked cooler, dressed better, and probably got laid more than the heroes. I used to watch re-run episodes of Roy Rogers, with my buddy Dean. I would be secretly rooting against Roy. Not like I wanted him to get shot or anything, but maybe disarmed and tied up to a Saguaro cactus for Dale to rescue. I’ve never told anyone this. Maybe I should have saved it for my fifth step, but hey, too fucking late now. It’s typed on the screen. For all to see.
Coyote versus Roadrunner, same thing. I wanted Acme’s products to work as intended. Just once. I pretty much liked Batman, but still wanted the big magnifying glass to burn through the rope and drop his ass into the pool of sharks. The way I saw it, he wouldn’t be in that jam if he had slept with Catwoman and joined her criminal enterprise. You turn that stuff down (especially the Julie Newmar version) and you don’t expect to be looking back on it and bumming hard? I didn’t know back then that he was gay, and what the whole Robin, his young ward thing meant. Now it all makes sense, but back then I thought there was something seriously wrong with him.
I’d watch old gangster films mesmerized. I so wanted to have a scarred and cratered face, so I could poke a toothpick out of it. I’d wear a black fedora and say things like, “It’s time to take a ride, Greasy Mike,” while keeping one hand menacingly in my pocket. I wanted to shoot pool, grab loot, chase leg, break leg, take shots, dodge shots, skip town, make bail, shake down, rough up, take down, and come up,
I wanted to shoot up a rival’s speak-easy with a Tommy gun from a screeching car, even though I didn’t know what a speak-easy was. While other kids wanted to hit a home run to win the World Series, I wanted to make wise-cracks about the detective’s girlfriend while enduring a rubber truncheon interrogation.
My moral compass tended to point South. Even way back then.
On on a flight back to California from New York, they played the movie, Dillinger. It was the original, with Warren Oates. I was so impressed, I decided I wanted to get serious about becoming a criminal. I actually took an oath.
Years later, I found an entry in a little notebook I made days after I saw the film. It said “Today I dedicate myself to a life of crime.” It was signed, in cursive, to prove I really meant it. “Oh shit,” I thought, “How binding an oath is this? Can The Masters of Fate hold a nine-year-old to this kind of document?”
Let me tell you, they sure the fuck can.
The first thing I remember stealing was a balsa wood glider. I loved those things, but they were always breaking on me. I was never given an allowance and had to pay for my good times off the grandparent’s birthday dole. Try stretching $30 dollars to last all year, even in 1970 dollars. It could be done, but things were tight. Never enough for candy, comics, soda, and toy guns. Never enough to keep up the lifestyle. Stealing seemed like a solution.
I carefully scoped the TG& Y and saw where all the clerks were. I was looking intently at a bag of plastic soldiers I was holding, when I pretended to drop them. I ducked down, pulled the glider off the rack and slid it up the sleeve of my jacket, picked up the bag of plastic soldiers and continued to act like I was debating the purchase. Really going for an Oscar, the ponder, the tsk-tsk, the shrug of the shoulders, the aw-shucks of the fist, and then a very obvious putting them back.
So fucking slick. I walked out holding my mom’s hand with the glider up the same sleeve. I was covered solid. The walk out the store was a total rush. Not getting my 15 cents, goddamn TG & Y. Who’s the sucker now?
The glider quickly broke, but I wasn’t pissed this time. No big deal. I’ll just pop on down to the five and dime and pick up another one, with my five-finger discount. Ha-ha. Get it? Five finger discount? Because I’m taking it with my hand, for free.
Getting stuff for free really is the best, isn’t it? I understand these corporations hiding money all over the place from the tax man. It must be like stealing a glider times 1.2 billion. It’s got a be a rush, and if it is, let me tell you there’s a good chance it’s going to be habit-forming. Especially if you’ve gotten away with it before. I know after I hijacked my first balsa wood plane, I resented having to pay 15 cents for one ever again, even when I had enough money.
So I get it. I understand the corporate mind-set. Like I said, my moral compass always dipped South.
My first arrest was in 8th grade. I had been shoplifting for a while, but just as a hobbyist. A cap gun, some Odd Rod stickers and bubble gum, the little plastic hot dog rings in that used to come in between Oscar Meyer wieners. Just small time stuff. One day, after reading a biography of Lucky Luciano from the Camarillo Public Library. I decided to expand my empire. In junior high some friends were already making money from boosting beef jerky and cinnamon toothpicks then selling them to the other school kids. Okay, they had that market cornered, and I didn’t have the firepower to muscle in on their racket.
I had to find something else the kids wanted and were willing to pay retail for. Cigarettes, beer, nudie magazines and racy paperbacks like The Happy Hooker and The Sensuous Women, rolling papers, No-Doz, condoms, huffing solvents, knives, chewing tobacco, road flares and corncob pipes to smoke Commercial-grade dirt weed. I would open up a one-stop juvenile delinquency shop.
I got together a crew. I recruited some buddies from my M.G.M. English class. My friends Danny and Jimmy were also mentally-gifted bad boys, each a criminal genius in his own right. It didn’t need any arm-twisting. There were no bosses. Each man was an equal partner in The Corporation. Capital would be divided accordingly. We would skulk through Newbury’s, Sav-on Drugs, Builder’s Emporium, and Lucky’s grocery stores for inventory. We were all working together the day the heat came down.
We had made a pretty good haul that afternoon, and we could have called it quits, but I had to make one more pass at the dirty magazines they kept in the rack behind the cashier’s counter. The store employees were watching by then. I got collared by a skinny assistant manager. He grabbed me by the jacket and the Playboy magazine came flying out. It landed open on the sidewalk, on a pictorial section that made it clear to every bystander just what kind of magazine this little boy was trying to steal.
I remember looking down and seeing a huge pair of airbrushed boobs. Holy Toledo. Get a load of those.
I didn’t stay transfixed for too long as I was now engaged in wrestling away from some flunky assistant manager. I started swinging. He was trying to drag me down to the ground but I kept punching. I was getting some clear shots into his ribs, windmilling desperately like a cornered tier snitch, but they weren’t having enough effect. I should’ve taken P.E. more seriously.
I looked up at Danny and Jimmy who were on their bikes looking on in shock. “Help me!” I called to them. They were backing up, shaking their heads. They looked apologetic. They rode off. I never blamed them. I was a goner. A bigger guy, the actual manager came out, and they dragged me into the store and into a back room. They shook down all the swag on me.
And what telling swag it was. This wasn’t some little boy trying to steal a balsa wood glider. This was a pusher and a porn peddler. By God, he’s a …a…walking one-stop juvenile delinquency shop! They called the cops. My friend Tom’s dad walked by and saw me sitting on the floor behind the counter, sized it up the situation and shook his head. That felt bad. The interesting fact is that his son, my friend Tom, would become a lawyer and help me beat my first felony rap many years later. Ah, the tapestry of life!
Both managers kept me in the back room until the cops came. A cop finally showed up. After blubbering like a little bitch, I managed to pull myself together for the hand-cuffed perp walk to the police car. I was sort of hoping that a girl like Michele Ripley would see it. She’d see me and know what a tough hood I was, someone she knew better than to get involved with, but just couldn’t help herself. Because I was all hard, and stuff, and had seen it all.
She’d beat her Keds across the parking lot and beg the cop to let me go.
“Kid,” I’d tell her, “Trust me, you don’t want to get mixed up with the likes of me.”
“But I think with enough of my wholesome love, I could turn you around!”
“See, that’s just it,” I’d break it to her,”Wholesome love is a great start, but it’s just a start, see? I think you catch my drift.”
The cop would lower my head into the car. I’d stop and turn at her.
“Look Tootsie Pop, go back to your Honor Roll, Flag Team and toy horse collection. There’s no future here.”
The cop would close the door, and I’d see a tear forming in her eye.
“I could learn to be naughty!” she’d shout as the squad car pulled out of the parking lot.
I’d nod. Sure sure, kid. That’s what they all say.
My mom and dad were totally pissed when they had to pick me up from the police station.
I thought I’d lay low for a while until things cooled off, but I quickly got busted for smoking a lid of ‘mirsh in a corn cob pipe with Danny in the drainage ditch by my house. For my fairly strict Lithuanian immigrant parents this was crisis of unimaginable proportions. What will our community think of us? What kind of parents could raise such a hooligan? Such a larcenous villian…and now a drug addict!
The belt came out of the closet. I could hear the buckle clink down the hall, then my bedroom door opened. It was time for my ass cheeks to ride the lightning.
After that, I was put on a really short leash with my folks. Lithuanian lock-down is serious. My American friends didn’t understand. My parents lived in D.P. camps during the war. They knew how set up a detention camp. Under their close supervision, and the persuasive influence of my father’s belt, I reformed a bit. Compass went magnetic North for a while. Goofus went Gallant. My grades got better. I became a pretty good kid who went back to playing with gliders, but now and then, soaking them in gasoline. If I was going to do anything bad again, I would just make sure to never get caught.
Then I started high school and began my journey of adolescent angst. I discovered the magic of mixing alcohol with weed, and the occasional pills discovered in medicine cabinets. Somehow, just the right mix removed all traces of angst, fear, pain and self-hatred. Took me to The Zone.
Trying to stay in The Zone required certain lifestyle adaptations and a host of new acquaintances, wayward pilgrims also seeking The Zone. The ever elusive, if not mythical, Zone. The needle spun straight down, and stayed that way for a long time.
My last perp walk was filmed by a news crew. I had made the big time, and it looked like I was going to go away for a nice bit of it, too. I hoped Michele Ripley didn’t see it on TV. That would have sucked. I had pulled myself together for the walk out of the apartment, but I had just finished crying. Like a baby.