I was only twelve or thirteen at the time, still riding the third bike of my life (fifth if you count the tricycle and Big Wheel), a big red Diamondback; and driving was still a mystery to me, save for the 5 second trips around our cul-de-sac when I “had” to pull the cars around after I washed them. I had a lot of friends back in those days, as almost everyone does, not having yet culled back the “acquaintances” to leave the “true friends” as we often do in later life. Some were better than others, of course, and I mean that literally and figuratively.

One of the not as good ones, I suppose was Jerry. He was fun to be with, though. Small guy, blond hair, funny as hell…and a kleptomaniac. Wherever he went, it didn’t matter where, he’d come out with his pockets or his jacket or his fanny pack full of stuff. Usually candy, sometimes water balloons, often lighters and candles. He never seemed nervous about it, which is probably what made him so good at it; and, as long as we hung out it remained a staple of his existence.

And therein lies the pressure. Jerry was cool. I wanted to be cool, too.

There was a small liquor store a few blocks from my house. I’d usually stop there either on the way somewhere, or coming back from it, to get a drink or some SweetTarts, or whatever I could afford with what was left of my video game and pizza money. I’d been hanging out with Jerry that day, reaping the benefits of his guilefulness, and feeling sheepish for never contributing. Now was the time for action.

I walked around the tiny store at least a half a dozen times, sweating bullets almost literally, and feigning interest in god knows whatever I was looking at. On my third lap through the candy aisle, I finally squatted down and perused the selection. I picked up a handful of blow-pops and considered them carefully, mugging for the imagined cameras and eyes that I thought might be on me, as I mimed disinterest in grotesquely exaggerated expressions before putting them all back…except one that I thought I palmed well and slipped into my pocket as I stood.

Then, in what is in retrospect a textbook example of bad thievery I walked briskly to the door. Somehow, I thought my excessive loitering, and then quick exit, would not be incongruous in the eyes of the liquor clerk. I breached the door and made it into the sunshine. Everything was going to be OK. I had made it and it wasn’t that bad after all.

“Sir, what do you have in your jacket?”

gulp

“Sir, please come in the store and show me what you have in your jacket.”

“I..I..it’s just a…I can pay..I didn’t mean to..I..can…”

One three-month ban, a call to my parents, a terrifying ride home later, and my career as a shop-lifter had ended. My parents gave me the worst punishment that I can imagine: no punishment at all. Their simple disappointment in me was more effective than years of groundings.

So, for you kids out there, take heed: stealing is wrong and crime doesn’ t pay…and remember, take things from your friends instead, they won’t press charges.

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