The thief who never was

Like every other lost soul on God’s Green Earth, I’m on Facebook. And like every other lost soul on Facebook, I spend too much time there, checking out the swill posted by the too-many groups I belong to.

One of last week’s postings from a group that’s about The Good Ole Days asked. “When you were a kid, what could you buy for a quarter? “A bunch of answers followed.

I knew that question had been posted, and answered, by peeps at least 20 years younger than me. And ya wanna know how I knew? Simple, because of my answer, which was, “Who had a quarter?”

That was not hyperbole on my part.

When I was a tyke a quarter was big money. So big, there was only one thing I needed it for — the Saturday matinee at the Pontiac Theater. Otherwise, I could support my vices with a nickel, or even a few pennies.

Actually, I had only one vice — candy. Because this was decades before the nutrition gurus, diet mafia and wellness experts came to power, candy wasn’t thought of as a vice. Instead, it was an integral part of our diet.

Sure, everyone knew candy wasn’t food, and no one thought it was good for you. But it was accepted as a part of childhood, like bruises (to both body and ego), scrapes, pocket knife mishaps, and youthful stupidity in general.

Plus, frankly, if adults had wanted to stop kids from eating candy, they would’ve had a Herculean chore ahead of them. Penny candy (literally a penny a piece) was everywhere … as were pennies to the enterprising ragamuffin. The most readily accessible source of moolah? Bottle returns.

When I first started scrounging bottles, they had a five cent deposit, a lordly fee. Imagine this: Snag one bottle and I could have either a Charm lollipop, a box of Chocolate Babies (which, FYI, contained no chocolate), a Fudgsicle, or my weapon of choice — a Sugar Daddy.

Later on, deposits dropped to three cents, but that was fine too. Bottles were easy enough to find and even if I found only one, I could still keep from jonesin’. Three cents could score three pieces of Fleer Double Bubble, three Atomic Fireballs or root beer barrels, or a Tootsie Pop. Any of those would’ve keep me afloat on a sweet sucrose sea for at least an hour.

Plus, back then I had hope in my heart: If I had a lean day, I figured good times lay ahead. And they almost always were. So a day on restricted rations (say getting’ by with only one bar of Bonomo’s Turkish Taffy) would be followed by maybe a Nutty Buddy or two boxes of Red Devils.

Given my ongoing cash flow problem and the erratic nature of bottle hustling, I was the sugar freak equivalent of a dirt farmer: I barely scraped by, day after day, and The Big Score always eluded me.

The orange-golden dream

And what, pray tell, was the Big Score?

Parking meters, that’s what!

Back in my Gilded Youth, parking meters occupied My Home Town. They also occupied a whole lot of my thoughts.

Now, don’t get the wrong idea. I didn’t think of breaking into parking meters. That was an act of brazen (and stupid) criminality that never crossed my mind. Nope, my criminality was of a more subtle sort.

Of course, parking meters had to be emptied. I don’t know how often it was done, and though the details are now fuzzy, I’ll never forgot seeing it done. A cop did it, and if memory serves me correctly, he used a big canvas bag in a wheelbarrow. He’d unlock the meter and the coins would gush out in a torrent. It was a multi-sensory mind-blower. There was the sound of hundreds of coins clinking into each other, there was the sight of that orange-gold shower, and of course the there was the promise of Wealth Unlimited.

Or maybe more accurately, the hope of some stray coinage.

The meters held mostly pennies and some nickels and dimes, and almost inevitably a couple of them would miss the cop’s bag and fall in the street. And therin lay my Big Score. Or at least my hopes of it.

I figured I’d somehow trail the cop (unknown to him, of course) and at some point, after he’d opened the meter but before all the coins were in the bag, I’d make my move. Maybe I’d be casual, just kinda stroll by, drop my slingshot and lean over and pick it up … along with a coin or two or three. Or I’d be dramatic — fake a seizure, thrash about in the gutter, babbling and gagging and, unbeknownst to the constable, snatching coins galore. Or maybe I’d just rely on my physical prowess –sprint in in a blinding flash and grab the mazuma before the cop even noticed it.

Second, third and fourth thoughts

Of course none of those things happened. In fact, they didn’t even come close to happening since they were abandoned in thought long before they might’ve been attempted in reality.

There were some very good reasons for this.

First, the cops weren’t the least bit oblivious of either their chore or its value in hard currency. And why would they be? Minimum wage then was 75 cents an hour; the cops may’ve making $40 a week. A dime, while a fortune to me, wasn’t inconsiderable to them. So they never missed any coin that fell in the street (and believe me, I checked).

Second, deep in my little heart of hearts, I knew that when it came to thievery, or any other form of lawlessness, I just didn’t have it. Not only didn’t I have the chutzpah to break the law, I also knew I’d be lousy at it. The cops are fond of saying they catch only the dumb criminals, and even though I hadn’t heard that expression then, I knew if I became any kind of criminal, it’d be a dumb, caught, one.

Finally, there was my family. I knew, if a kid got busted for trying to rip off the meter bonanza, a lot of their parents would’ve understood it as “boys will be boys,” or “he’s going through a phase,” or that it was just a fluke of childhood foolishness. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any parents like that.

If I’d gotten busted, even for a one-penny snag, my parents would’ve considered it an act of consummate shame that reflected directly on them and their good name. Of course, the town never had a pillory. But had the cops called my folks to tell them I was being held at the station for parking meter delinquency, they probably would’ve had one built immediately. And after that, they would’ve supplied the rotten fruit and vegetables to be thrown at me by an outraged citizenry.

So my life of crime, sparked by the cops and coins of my childhood, ended before it began. I knew there was no such thing as easy money,. I also knew that as a criminal I’d be a complete failure.

And while that may have prevented me from a successful career as a faith healer, psychic or politician, on the whole I think I did all right by it.


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