Between the Lines / The great newsroom caper
Updated 6:18 am, Tuesday, June 14, 2011
My friend Tom and I must have been about 11 or 12 years old when we planned the great caper at Jim's Newsroom.
The idea was simple. We were going to steal a Playboy magazine and bring it to our hideaway in the woods. All that was required were two boys, two bicycles and some kind of diversion. I was to distract Jim by buying a Charleston Chew, a nougat candy bar guaranteed to pull out your fillings. Tom, being taller, would reach up to the high part of the magazine rack, swipe the glossy magazine and slip it under his shirt. The perfect sting!
Jim's Newsroom was a busy little store on north Main Street in Bridgeport, just down the hill from our house in Lake Forest. Jim was bald, crotchety and wore a straw hat. He didn't like kids very much and with good reason. Kids will steal a candy store blind if given half a chance. The neighborhood boys would hang around gawking at the girlie magazines until Jim or his wife shooed them away with a shrill hiss. Jim also carried ice cold sodas -- glass bottles of orange, cherry, root beer and cola. The soda alone was worth the bike ride down there on a hot day. If you didn't have a lot of money in your pocket, you could at least get fireballs for a penny.
I don't know exactly when I went over to the dark side. I can't say I was even very interested in girls at that point. No, it was the sheer excitement of the forbidden that attracted me. By today's raunchy standards, those early 1960s magazine photos were pretty tame. Still, the voluptuousness of the female figure was a revelation to me. I just couldn't believe that women had such treasures hidden under their clothing. I was brought up in a good Irish-Catholic home. Not only didn't we talk about sex, we didn't even think about it.
Of course, I was guilty in advance for what we were about to do. Adolescent lust had driven Tom and me to theft, and I wondered if even worse things were in store for us. I had watched enough Bowery Boys shorts on TV to know that good kids can go bad and end up in the electric chair. Yet, somehow, it all seemed worth the risk. Our plan was solid. I was even beginning to feel a kind of giddy pride at the thought of carrying this off. One summer day we coasted down Frenchtown Road hill and then pedaled a short way up Main Street. We were just a couple of goofy, all-American kids with crew cuts.
When we dropped our bikes on the sidewalk in front of Jim's, my heart began to pound. I started to have second thoughts as we entered the newsroom, a dim, narrow space not much bigger than a closet. The magazine rack was along the left wall and the counter was in back. If I stood just in Jim's line of sight, he might not notice what Tom was up to. My conscience kicked in as I selected a candy bar and walked over to the register. Jim took a drag of his cigarette and let the smoke stream out his nostrils. His wife was sweeping the wooden floor with her back to me.
The words of the Ten Commandments and the Baltimore Catechism echoed in my ears. I imagined my teacher, Sister Mary, weeping at my transgression. Then there was the shocked and mortified look on the faces of my mother and father. Despite their best efforts, they had raised a degenerate and a criminal. The flames of hell seemed to lick at my sneakers and the hair on my arms stood straight up. How could I have sunk to such depths of evil? "Ten cents," Jim said as he swatted at a pesky fly. I hoped that Tom had forgotten all about our big idea and left the store by now.
I felt an arm reach over my shoulder as I turned away with my candy. It was the arm of a grownup. The man put a copy of Playboy magazine on the glass counter as nonchalantly as if it was the evening paper. Jim said the price and they exchanged small talk about baseball and the weather. The man rolled up the magazine and walked out of the store to his car. Only then did I realize that it was our neighbor, Mr. Stewart.
I was stunned. I innocently thought only boys were capable of impure thoughts and the thrill that a dirty magazine could bring. It never occurred to me that adults were drawn to the same thing. Mr. Stewart was a good husband, a church-going man and the father of one of my best friends. He didn't seem to be ashamed about buying Playboy, and God didn't strike him dead in the doorway. I was confused. Perhaps there was some great conspiracy of sin among adults that children were only distantly aware of. Or maybe there was no such thing as sin. People behaved in certain ways because they could.
So often when I thought I understood something about myself and the world during my boyhood, a momentary incident would occur to change everything. I knew my own thoughts weren't sophisticated enough yet to wrap my mind around what had just happened.
The next thing I heard was Jim shouting, "Get the hell out of here, you little thief!" Tom was racing out the door and grabbing for his bike. I tore after him and we pedaled away for our lives. Jim didn't even bother to chase us. He just stood in the doorway. I guess it was too hot for him to pursue petty criminals that day.
Tom had taken not one, but three magazines! We made a clean getaway to our fort by the Merritt Parkway where three streams met near a huge bolder. Nobody could see us there and now we were safe. We gloated about our triumph, but I was troubled by what I had done and unsettled at seeing Mr. Stewart. There was so much I had yet to learn about life, and I was beginning to realize there might be things I might never understand.
Barry Wallace's "Between the Lines" appears each Wednesday.