Monday, March 21, 2011

My Criminal Past

There is something about being 7 years old that makes you feel like you can get away with anything.

Logic, evidence, eye witnesses … none of these matter in the case against you. But I'm getting ahead of myself a little here.

In my Southwest Philadelphia neighborhood, I was one of the good little boys. There was that one time I jumped out of the bushes to attack the kid who had beaten me up the day before, but that was considered just part of the mean streets in the world of the urban single-digit-age set.

I had gotten noticed in the neighborhood a year or two earlier when I had taken to standing on our street corner in my new Superman costume – hands on hips, with bright red cape flowing in the wind. I can still remember that as a feeling of total joy that no drug or personal accomplishment could ever come close to matching.

But it seemed to make the adults a little nervous. More than one approached my parents saying that they just knew I was going to run into traffic one day, confident that I could stop anything from a two-ton Edsel to an 18-wheeler as long as I was wearing the suit. When mom and dad brought this to my attention, I really only could think of one response:

“I'm not a complete idiot.”

But it turns out that maybe I was.

In 1961 our main source of amusement on Reedland Street was flipping baseball cards. One boy (it was a completely gender exclusive activity) would flip his card, and the other boy could call “match” or “unmatch” and flip his own. It was a face up/face down situation, and if you called it right you got both cards.

It was pretty intense and, as much as 7-year-olds can, we focused on the rhythms of the game. You could get on a “match” roll and call that five times in a row, then toss in an “unmatch” given your vague knowledge of the laws of averages, then back to your lucky “match” run. It went along fast, and cards could be won or lost before either player knew for sure who was winning.

And that's where my plan came in.

I could sense that every opponent concentrated on the game at hand, rather than his stash of cards. It occurred to me that I could very easily take three-to-five cards from the top of his pile, all the while pretending to hone in on the flipping. So I did just that.

It was an enormous success, too.

In almost no time my collection of cards had nearly doubled, although no one could remember me having a great run of luck. The secret was to spread out the crime. No one person lost so many cards that he questioned how his pile had dwindled to such an extent.

You're probably thinking that I may well be a criminal genius, having concocted such a sophisticated ruse at such an early age. If you were to label me “The Mozart of Misdeeds” or a “Prodigy of Pilferage” I couldn't really argue with you.

But like the criminal enterprises of my predecessors Al Capone and John Dillinger, it all came crashing down.

My slight of hand had gotten so routine that I failed to pay attention to the dangers of parental supervision. One of my victim's dads caught me in the act. He didn't confront me, but he told my mom. She told dad. They couldn't believe that I would do anything like that.

So I denied it.

That resulted in a huge neighborhood summit, where despite adult witness testimony I continued to deny it. Even under the pressure of an entire block of grown-ups and their children scowling at me day and night, I still managed to create what I imagined to be reasonable doubt through the power of denial. Just the same, my cards were confiscated and I was banned from baseball cards for one full year.

I'm not really sure if I ever came clean on the Great Card Caper – until now, I guess.

The whole episode did cure me of my wayward ways. It takes a lot of energy to engage in nefarious activities. And so I come to you today an upstanding citizen. Partly due to morality lessons learned over the decades, partly due to a sense of fairness that comes with maturity and partly due to a third consideration:

A life of crime is just too much trouble.

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