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Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Daddy Was a Thief

by Perry Glasser

We are not talking about armed robbery or breaking and entering. Not even pickpocketing. Daddy was no crook. You’d risk a punch in the snoot for even suggesting such an idea. Honest, square-dealing, he was no cheat, either, not even at gin-rummy, the card game he played at low stakes with cronies or his children for the sheer fun of the banter.
“What’s the name of this game?”
“That’s what I’ve got,” he’d say and lay down his cards, laughing.
My father, Dave, considered smash-and-grab guys to be lowlifes; he thought of himself as law-abiding. Unless you count his years as an old man, unsteady on his feet from several toe amputations when he might sneak a mini-Mary Jane or cherry-flavored hard candy from the acrylic bulk sale candy bins at the food market, he never so much as shoplifted.
My mother would scold him, but he’d dismiss her nagging. “They expect a certain amount of the stuff to disappear. Like grapes.”
“That’s not the point,” Muriel would say with exasperation, pushing their cart into the next aisle while Dave inspected the caramels.
His behavior was partly denial, but it was more defiance. A diabetic whose wearying last years were little more than dragging his failing body from one physician to the next, Dad preferred to believe that purloined candy had no effect on his blood sugar. His logic was persuasive; if no one saw him eat, how could the candy be counted against him? The podiatrist, the endocrinologist, the internist, the ophthalmologist, and the vascular surgeon—what they did not know could not harm Dave.
The disease eventually killed him, despite the nutritionist who had prescribed an Exchange Diet, a scheme by which people might control the glucose levels in their blood by attending to the carbs that they ate. Dad understood the instructions to mean you could exchange a body part for hard candy, a deal he did not think was all that bad. The sawbones did their work until his heart failed under anesthesia, yet another case where the operation was a success, but the patient died.
This final event of his life also proved his post-eighty-years philosophy: You have to die of something. A worldview worthy of Lucretius, his resignation was a counterpoint to more than a decade of imposed rules he hated, rules compounded by a regimen of ever-changing pills whose names he never troubled to learn but identified by color and shape. Maybe other men ingested medications; Dad took pink for blood pressure and several shades of blue for everything else.
The body that betrayed him had been his ally most of his life. My father was an articulate man who had enjoyed three semesters of a college education on his football scholarship to William and Mary, quite a turn of events for a Jewboy from the Bronx in 1933. After he left school and worked at odd jobs requiring muscles and not much else, Dad settled on being a housepainter. He hauled drop cloths and ladders, not to mention five-gallon buckets of paint, brushes, sawhorses, rollers and God alone knows what else. In a day when colors were mixed on the spot from pigments whirled by hand into white paint, his eye could match any hint of color in a rug or upholstery. He started his own company, but he was a better craftsman than businessman; rapid expansion in the post-war boom led to bankruptcy in the mid-1950s. His greatest regret was being unable to pay the workmen whom he considered his pals.
Later, Dad maintained an upscale clientele on Park Avenue and the wealthier suburbs north of New York City. Decorators adored his precision and neatness; he charmed client housewives. While painting never could make him rich, most years Dad was able to support a wife and three children in our two-bedroom apartment on the sixth floor of a building on Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn, a tonier address than most. When money became scarce, Mom returned to the workforce. I was the youngest, so they looped a hemp cord stringed through a door key around my ten-year-old neck so I could walk home and let myself into the apartment after school.
I am still neurotic about not losing my keys, patting my pants or coat pockets repeatedly. I inspect the floor near my seat before exiting a movie theater. There is no telling what may be inadvertently lost in the dark. It is simply prudent.
As a similar matter of prudence, Dad’s clients locked their liquor cabinets. It was not as though he’d earned their distrust, but everyone knew painters were notorious drunkards. Fact was, no one ever saw Dad touch a drop other than at bar mitzvahs, weddings, and, later in life, at the Irish wakes that marked the passing of his childhood friends. I never saw him drunk, though on a few occasions I did see him merry and bright-eyed with wine. I am sure that clients also placed their silverware and jewelry under lock and key, just in case the soft spoken, well-mannered man in white overalls had sticky fingers.
Their precautions were misdirected.
Dad’s palms itched, but only at the sight of their books and records.

I was mall-shopping with my daughter, Jessica, when some doo-dad in a technology-computer outlet made it into my pocket. The store chain is long gone, bankrupt, either by the collapse of the earliest technology boom or by desperadoes like myself who while passing a workbench littered with wires and screws and circuitry palmed a $.79 adapter plug before a furtive run to the parking lot.
Such items were unmarked; they were probably not even for sale. But that did not prevent a security guard from emerging from behind some one-way glass to pursue me to the car. He was a skinny guy, all red goatee and sunken blue eyes, jeans hanging on his hips like unfurled sails.
My daughter—maybe she was fourteen—looked on while I explained I had had every intention of buying the item, but since it had no wrapper and no price-tag, I’d assumed it was junk and put it in my pocket to keep my hands free and then simply forgot to check at the cashier. Even as I spoke the lie, I realized how lame it sounded. My daughter, Jessica, always my ally, never engaged in adolescent histrionics. No eye-rolling, no deep sighs. She’d come into my custody when she was eight, and we were partners in most things, in this case, partners in crime. I think I could have risked smuggling a valise filled with heroin through airport customs, and even if Jessica would have looked bright-eyed and forthright as a Girl Scout selling peanut butter cookies.
I offered to pay for the doo-dad then and there, but since it lacked any price-tag, the security guard could not tell me its cost. I asked if he was sure it was the store’s property: after all, it had been on a table with a litter of other parts. Maybe another customer had abandoned it. But he was not having any of my excuses. I suppose he had heard them all before. I was fairly sure he could not legally stop me in the parking lot, much less ask me to empty my pockets, but the niceties of law seemed irrelevant on the sunny afternoon.
I handed over the doo-dad. The rent-a-cop sternly told me that he had a photo of me that would be posted in the security office. If I ever showed up in the store again, he would personally make certain the police would be summoned. I imagined a darkened booth festooned with Polaroid pictures of ruthless shoplifters taped to the walls, all of us crazed and desperate wives and husbands, all of whom were steps away from the slammer, all of whom would be incarcerated after a police car came bearing down on us in a Code Three lights and sirens scream.
In our car, Jessica stifled her giggles. “A photo?” she said, and lost control. She laughed harder. She was not humiliated. This was just another day with her father the lunatic. I asked her not to share this story with her friends, and she informed me there was no chance of that.
I smiled and said, “We’re entitled.”
Even as I said so, I remembered Dad and his loot.

The one time I asked, he said, “They’ll never miss it.” He slapped his forehead in mock amazement. “You have no idea how many books and records this guy has.”
Maybe I was fifteen. The first album at issue was a Seraphim recording of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony by Herbert Von Karajen conducting the Berlin Philharmoniker. The brown cardboard of the album cover was worn and frayed, so it must have been frequently handled. I thought the German spelling interesting, and I did not think hard about my father’s rationalization that the collector in the freshly painted apartment would hardly care. I still have the recording. The other recording he presented to me was a collection of arias sung by Maria Callas. At least I’d heard of Beethoven, but I was sure opera was awful. I still have that album, too.
Dad’s taste was not elevated: the albums had been randomly chosen. They were monaural at a time when our Magnavox fake walnut stereo cabinet featured a control knob for Volume and another for Balance, state of the art for stereophonic sound. Our family had begun to accrue vinyl records that had been specially made for that dawn of new acoustics, multiple track recordings. They were mostly big band music with absurd sound effects that popped and cracked and hurled sound from left to right like the ball in table tennis. Sound engineers could make that happen. Dad loved that stuff.
 “You never saw so many records,” he told me. “A whole bookcase of them; floor to ceiling. We spent half the day moving them so we could paint the shelves. When they are dry, tomorrow, we have to put the records back. How could they notice?”
Over a few years, in this way, I also obtained some hardcover books, often with dustcovers and a few in slipcases. Those might be illustrated; color plates were preserved under tissue paper. Most books were postwar classics. I remember Marjorie Morningstar and All the King’s Men. Unlike the records, they are long gone, but for all I know they were first editions. I still have a slender, numbered volume signed by Rebecca West. I believe the stolid outsized Atlas and Gazetteer that stood in our apartment’s built-in wall shelves came from the same source. The maps were colorful; the paper heavy.
Dad had no personal interest in these things. I am sure he could never have afforded to buy them; I am equally sure he acutely felt the gap between what he liked and what he was supposed to like. Though he lacked the financial means and personal passion to inject high culture into my young life, he stole it for me.

I wish I could write that I stole for my daughter, but that would not be true. I am not the Jean Valjean of the computer age. No one ever required a computer conversion plug to survive.
I also wish I could write this was the one and only time I shoplifted, but that would not be true, either. My crimes were always petty, pocketing an object I could afford, the money in my wallet.
It was about validation, the thrill of getting away with something. Everyone had so much; I had so little, and there were always hands in my pockets seeking to relieve me of what little I had. Braces for the kid? School clothes? Summer camp? Stealing was how I defied the circumstances that made me an itinerant professor and single parent. Morality is an abstraction. I was motivated by self-righteousness entitlement.
 Gaze, Universe, I steal with impunity, for I am destined to win.

In 2012, Perry Glasser was named a Fellow of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in Creative Nonfiction. Riverton Noir, a novel, won the Gival Press Novel Award in 2011. He has published three collections of short fiction, as well as a collection of short memoirs entitled Metamemoirs (2012). Glasser lives in Haverhill, Massachusetts where he drinks staggering amounts of coffee while working on a young adult novel.

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