When I was Twelve, I liked to Steal

by Richard Passov

Stealing gave me currency with the older kids who hung in front of the apartments on weekend nights. Anything I got from our local supermarket was of value, especially cough syrup with codeine and flasks of rum or vodka.

One of the older boys, who was soon to die in a train accident, showed me how to tie the end of a sleeve on my windbreaker. When I flipped the jacket over my shoulder the tied sleeve rested unnoticed against my back. He also showed me which bottles of cough syrup to slip into the sleeve.

One night, my sleeve full of cough syrup, I exited the store near closing time. Just outside two men stood in front of me.

 A third man approached. “We’ve been watching you,” he said. I knew the mirrors high up at the back of the store were windows. “We’re just going to call your parents.”

He wore a long sleeve white shirt and dark, ill fitted slacks held up by a belt. A pack of cigarettes pressed against his front pocket. I looked only as far as the two red stripes visible under thin cloth: Taryetons, which I remembered my father smoking.

“I’m the store manager. We’re just gonna take you upstairs and call your parents.”

We backtracked through the store, through vinyl slats that hung next to the cold cabinets, into a storage space then up a stairway that led to a long hallway. We walked past the fake mirrors to an office. The manager took the seat behind a desk. The other two stood away from me but stayed in the room.

The manager asked for my name, where I lived and what school I attended, all while writing in a small pad with a half-pencil.

When he was done writing he looked up. “We’ve been watching you.”

I refused eye contact.

“Give me your phone number? Either that or I call the police.”

He cradled the phone on his shoulder and put his forefinger in the opening of the next-to-last hole.

“Hello, is this Mrs. Passov?… I’m calling from the Von’s down on Riverside. We have your son.”

He told my mother that I had been shoplifting and asked her to come and get me.

After he put the phone down he turned back to me. “We’re just gonna wait here,” he said.

The picture frames on his desk faced him. Rolls of register tape rested near a large binder with ruled paper. “It’s ok guys. I got this. Let’s finish closing.”

The two men left. While the manager added numbers from register tapes and wrote in his binder, I imagined my mother walking to the grocery store in the dark.

______________________________________________________

After I had lost track of time, a voice came over a loud speaker: “The kid’s father’s here.”

The store manager rose from his chair. He seemed surprised. “I’m just gonna’ get your dad.”

I was also surprised. I didn’t know my father was out of prison.

I heard two heavy footsteps and two less heavy, as if they were skipping. Then I heard the store manager. “We get kids like this all the time,” he was saying to my father.  “It’s not that big a’ deal. Usually they just need talking to.”

My father walked in front of the manager, across the office. “Get up,” he said.

He grabbed my arm at the wrist, hard enough that I put my hand on his. “It’s ok,” the store manager said. He looked worried.

On the way to our apartment my father took his time before breaking the silence. “Richard,” he said. “I thought I could count on you.”

Trying not to slide on the vinyl front seat, I looked up from an ashtray overflowing with cigarette butts to his glasses framed in black plastic. I didn’t know he wore glasses.

We stopped in front of my apartment. “Get out,” my father said.

______________________________________________________

My father didn’t spend that first night at our apartment. My mother spent it on the couch, anxiously huddling in her robe, her need to know as naked as mine. Somewhere in that night, she lost her powers as a mother. From that day forward we took care of our selves, but not of each other.

In the morning, my mother told me I wouldn’t be going to school. “Get dressed, something nice and stay inside until you hear from your father.”

Around ten, the phone rang. My mother answered, hung up, then sent me down the stairs. After a few minutes of waiting in the alley, a green Malibu coupe approached. “Get in,” my father said. I walked around the back of the car because I was afraid to walk around the front.

 “Where are we going?” I asked after I closed the car door.

“Did I ask you to ask a question?”

We drove down the alley out to the main road toward the entrance to the Ventura Freeway, east to the Pasadena Freeway, which I knew. Before my father left for prison we circled the LA basin as he filled phone booth after phone booth with cigarette ash and quarters.

On the Pasadena freeway we passed the large black cylindrical covers that looked as though they were lost submarines. Each displayed a whimsical cat face, in white paint, somehow part of the water flow into the dry cement valley of the LA River.

We got off the freeway in the heart of old downtown and drove toward the city hall tower. In a building that hung inside an exoskeleton of painted metal, we walked through a wide lobby of white marble to an elevator.

On the fourth floor someone walked us down a long hallway to a waiting area in front of two large wooden panels. A moment later the panels opened to reveal a table with high backed chairs in a room with a wall of windows.

“Richard,” my father said then motioned with his head for me to enter the room.

A man stood at the far end of the table. Tall, he wore a dark suit, white shirt and maroon tie. Except for a manila folder there was nothing else in the room. “Sit down,” he said.

“Do you know who I am?”

“No…”

“What did your father tell you?”

“He didn’t say anything.” I searched inside of me for something to project, but found nothing.

“My name is John Daley,” he said. “I’m a Special Agent with the Secret Service.”

He reached into his coat, showed me his badge, put it back, took the folder from the table, let it rest open in his hand and flipped a page, as if he were reading.

“You’ve been in trouble before, haven’t you?”

I wanted to see what he was looking at.

“Do you understand what can happen here?”

I didn’t understand, got scared and could see he knew that. “…Not really,” I said.

“Do you know where you’re going to end up?”

I kept my eyes from looking up.

“Do you go by Rick or Dick?”

“Rick,” I said.

“OK, Rick, here’s what’s going to happen. You are going to end up in a detention center. Do you know what that is?”

I heard the broken timbre in his thoughts. My fear subsided.

“And after that …” He hesitated, walked toward the window, turned back, rested the folder, put his hands on the table and leaned toward me. There was something hard about what he was trying to do.

“Do you play sports?” he asked.

“…I wrestle.”

“In school?”

“We don’t have wrestling at my school.”

“Are you on a team…?”

“No.”

He was quiet as he searched for more thoughts. “OK. Well…Look,” he said, “I don’t need to tell you what’s going to happen if you keep doing what you’re doing.”

But he did need tell me. Before I’d listen to this man I decided he’d have to tell me something about my father.

I looked up. “How do you know my father?” I asked.

He took his weight off the table and turned back toward the windows.

Facing me again, “Your father,” he said, then fell into his thoughts, “…doesn’t plan … as if there’s no tomorrow …”

His face broke; a smile signaling our meeting was no longer about the person I would become. It was about how the Secret Service Agent knew as much as I did.

Back in the car my father’s shoulders were down. He had a big smile and wasn’t smoking. “So,” he said, “did you learn something?”

______________________________________________________

To ask that Special Agent about my father, I entered the present.  After that day, for five years, I ran from the present.

Five years in the life of a child – stretched over adventure, mayhem and crime. Yet during those years, somehow the Los Angeles public schools gave me an education.

Yes, I had a gym teacher who challenged me to a fist fight. “Let’s go right now!” he said in the middle of gym class. But I had other teachers.  Mr. Cooney who once pushed me so tight against my locker I could see the fine cut work from his days as a professional boxer.  “These are my halls,” he said in warm breath. Though he had a funny way of showing it, I understood the message:  As long as he was in the halls, school was going to be a safe place for kids.

A civics teacher (Mrs. Czar) so elegant her mere presence forced me to imagine other worlds. A math teacher (Mr. Patton) who, though I failed, was gentle in leading me to see what I could do. A science teacher, never without a sport coat and tie, who as stern as he looked, was even sillier. Within those public schools, adults patiently modeled other worlds.

I once listened to a lecture on the importance of agency then laughed until my sides split. What saved me was kindness from strangers. Kindness that flowed from the wholeness of the lives around me. A kindness I still look for; a kindness I fear might be vanishing.

I hope I feel this way because I’m old.

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