When I was about 7 or so and growing up in Brooklyn in the mid-60s, I had a neighbor named Andy who lived down the block and who was about 10 months older than me. At that age, 10 months made a huge difference. It was almost a year. So, to Andy, I was just a "kid".
Despite the age gap, we were in the same class at school, we had the same friends and we played the same sports, so I was around him alot. We even shared the same tastes in music, but I was better at learning how to play guitar and singing, so he put up with me tagging along. Most of the time.
Now, Andy wasn't exactly what you'd call a good guy. In fact, the very first time we met a year or so earlier (my family had just moved onto the block he was born on, making me a "noob") he lured me into his front yard to play with his friends, locked the gate and, at his secret signal, he and all the other kids jumped me. I should have known better than to hang around with him after that, but, hey, I was just a dumb kid, right? What did I know?
Over the next few years I ignored the inauspicious start to our "friendship" and we hung out together more frequently. Mostly out of happenstance. He was just there and so was I. Plus, his father was a cop, so most of the neighborhood toughs steered clear. That was a huge advantage. Even then, Bay Ridge, Brooklyn could be a rough patch of ground.
For whatever reason (maybe it was acquired, maybe it was genetic?) Andy always had a larcenous heart. In fact, he simply loved to be dishonest. It somehow gave him a thrill. So, it wasn't too surprising, when, one day, he ran up to me breathlessly and exclaimed, "I know how to get free candy!"
Naturally, I was intrigued. FREE candy?
It wasn't anywhere near Halloween, so how could this be? I begged him to let me in on the secret, but he suddenly became reluctant. "You're too honest" he sneered. "It wouldn't work for you." Of course, that only made me more insistent and I practically begged him to share his scheme with me. Finally, he broke down and laid out the score.
"All ya gotta do" he whispered in a conspiratorial tone out of the corner of his mouth, "is wear a big jacket in the A&P and stuff your pockets with Hershey bars." He waited a moment to let that snippet sink in. "Then you take just one to the counter and pay for it like normal. That way, they think you're being straight."
He conveyed this momentous information in a manner that made him seem like a big time crime boss or something. I couldn't help but be impressed. And, hey, we're talking about candy here. Until I started noticing girls a few years later, baseball, the Beatles and chocolate were all I could think of at the time.
I was dumbstruck. "That's all?" I asked. "That sounds too easy. You're a liar!" I exclaimed. That was too much for his big ego and he shot back with a snarl, "Oh yeah? I'll show ya. C'mon."
It was only then I noticed he was wearing his older brother's jacket, which was two sizes too big.
Hand-me-downs were a given in big, blue collar families like ours, so wearing oversized clothes wasn't unusual, explaining why I hadn't taken note of his jacket before. In those days, only rich kids had their own clothes, and, for them, wearing an older sibling's outgrown outfit was strictly anathema. We definitely weren't rich kids.
So, we scampered off to the A&P supermarket a few blocks away and I watched from the entrance as he worked his scam. "You stay here," he said, "and give out a whistle if you see Big Red."
Now, Big Red was the store manager. He was a huge, burly, middle-aged guy with a bulbous, red nose gained from too many late night hours imbibing his favorite brew. But, that wasn't why he got the nickname. It was because of the shock of thick, red hair on his head, which was always combed up into a Duck's Ass haircut, a bygone of (even by then) a forgotten era. The good thing about it was, you could spot him a block away. At the moment, Big Red was nowhere in sight, so I watched eagerly as Andy made his run.
I guess he was naturally adept enough at stealing stuff, because I couldn't spot him loading up his bottomless pockets as he zeroed in on the candy racks. Then, he plucked a giant, dime bar of Hershey's chocolate from the shelf and made his way breezily to the check-out counter.
When it was his turn, he plopped down his 10 cents, coolly eschewed a paper bag offered by the cashier and made his way towards me with a big, cocky grin on his face. So far, so good.
Outside, we scurried a few doors down and ducked into an alley. When he was sure that no cops were on his tail (including his own Pop) he unloaded the bounty of candy from his bulging pockets before my dazzled eyes.
There had to be two, three bucks of loot altogether. And not just Hershey bars. There was a big box of Mike & Ike's, a bag of kisses, and a whole assortment of sweets normally way out of range of our 25-cents a week allowance budget. We'd hit the Mother Lode. Or, at least Andy had. He made it clear he wasn't going to share his ill-gotten booty with me. I'd have to swipe my own.
The only problem was, I wasn't wearing my older brother's jacket. The one I had on was about to be handed down to my own kid brother. It was obvious my pockets weren't going to be big enough. No matter. I had to give it a try. The thought of having all that delicious free candy was just too tempting. We went back to the A&P and Andy assured me he would keep his eye out for Big Red and whistle if he spotted him. So, I shakily entered the store.
Nervously, I ambled the aisles like an amateur at first, lingering by the bread rack and eying some plump tomatoes in the veggie department. I wasn't a stranger to the market and one of the older cashier ladies had even remarked to me once that it was "so nice to see a young man helping his mom with the grocery shopping" as I ran some routine, weekly errands for my mother. In truth, I was a pretty good kid and the thought of actually stealing something instead of paying for it had never entered my mind. Until Andy laid out his unbeatable scheme just a few moments before.
Finally, I got up my nerve and perused the candy racks. I furtively slipped some favorite treats into my woefully tight pockets, made sure to grab the big Hershey bar and made my way to the cashier closest to the front entrance.
It was then I got my first big shock. Reliable old Andy was nowhere to be found. True to form, I realized, yet again, that Andy did not have my back.
But, it was too late to chicken out now. I plunked down my dime, grabbed the Hershey bar off the belt and bolted for the door. And, making it out to the street, suddenly I was scott free. I had actually gotten away with it!
Out on the sidewalk, I was so excited, I didn't bother to look around and wonder where my "buddy" had made off to. I started back to the alley, figuring Andy would be waiting there for me. Probably to cretinously cadge some of my hard-earned plunder, despite his unwillingness to share his own.
That's when I heard a deep voice from behind me, growling "Hey, kid. You gonna pay for that candy?"
I turned and instinctively withered in my oversized hand-me-down boots. Jackets weren't the only item of clothing being recycled in my big Irish brood. There before me stood Big Red. His nose, his ruddy skin and even (it looked like) his hair were redder than I had ever noticed before. His face was in a snarl as he tersely said again, "You gotta pay for that candy kid."
Somehow, I mustered up the courage to timidly reply, "I did pay for it" and held up the big Hershey bar as if to prove I was an honest, cash paying customer.
"Not that candy," Big Red huffed. He grabbed me by the collar and started unloading my stuffed pockets. "I'm talking about this candy." All my sweet loot spilled out onto the grimy sidewalk. "Well?" said Big Red, still holding me by the scruff of my neck.
"Oh, that candy!" I lamely stammered. "I, I, I... I bought those before. You musta been in the back." Clearly, Andy's influence had rubbed off on me in other ways I hadn't been aware of. Where was I coming up with that line? Still, it didn't work on Big Red. He'd heard it all before.
"So, you're just another dirty rotten thief, huh?" said Big Red. "Too bad. I know your father. He's a good man. What's he gonna do when he finds out his son is a crook?" He let go of my coat and stood looming over me, a Red Avenging Angel of absolute justice. I couldn't help myself as I began to blubber. After all, I was only 10.
"I'm sorry Mr. Big Red" I sobbed. "I didn't mean to steal, I swear. Please don't tell my dad!"
Big Red picked up the scattered candy and stuck it all in his A&P apron pockets. Then, to my horror, he snatched away my legally purchased giant Hershey bar as well. "But I paid for that one!" I squealed. "Tough luck, kid. That's what you get for being a thief." He stowed the chocolate bar in his cavernous apron pouch and said, even more menacingly, "Now beat it, before I call your old man. And don't ever come back here again!"
I hung my head in shame and humiliation and turned to go home when I suddenly felt his deeply calloused hand grab my neck again. "Let this be a lesson to ya, you dirty crook." And, without another word, he wound up and gave me a hard, steel-toe booted kick square in my skinny little ass, lifting me right off my feet. It hurt like hell, but I ran off right away to lick my wounds. He didn't need to tell me twice.
Andy, of course, had witnessed the sorry scene, peeking out from the alley a few doors down the avenue. When I got there he was on the ground, writhing in devilish laughter. "You got caught, ya dope!" he hooted. "I saw the whole thing!" He stood up and hissed venomously, "you'll never be as smart as me!" He contemptuously turned on his heel and walked off. I didn't stop him. After he'd gone about a block, I turned for home myself. Sore-assed and limping the whole way.
For the next 10 years or so I lived on the same block as Andy, and we still hung around with the same friends, went to the same schools and chased after the same girls. Not much had really changed and I all but forgot about my short-lived career as a bumbling candy crook.
After high school I knocked around at a few lousy, low-paying jobs in the city and it was in this phase of my life that I found out there are plenty of rackets in just about every line of work and play. And, all of them promise much sweeter rewards than a pocket full of chocolate.
But, every time I've been tempted to give in to living a dishonest life (which has, unfortunately, been more times than I can count) I think about Big Red.
Sure, I could have done better for myself in all the long decades since that day. But, I've always been able to lay my head down since and get a good night's sleep, free from worry about who's coming up behind me to catch me in the act.
And, to this day, whenever I entertain the notion that cheating, lying and stealing won't hurt anyone, I swear I can feel a big, steel-toed boot hitting me square in the seat of my pants.
Thanks Big Red...
About the Creator
I am a Freelance Writer living in Riverside California who writes on a wide variety of topics including News, Politics, Popular Culture, Science, Music, Fiction, Poetry and Art.
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