My Life of Crime
"My Life of Crime" was first published last year in the anthology Guys Write for Guys Read. The book was edited by my old friend Jon Scieszka and all proceeds go to support his admirable project to encourage boys' literacy, Guys Read. Check out the Guys Read website and buy a copy of the book.
When I was ten years old I was involved in organized crime. Not the Mafia. Nothing like that. We didn’t kill anyone or break any legs. It was a shoplifting ring.
It was a local operation, in my neighborhood, in Brooklyn, New York. I lived in a solidly middle-class neighborhood–not a high-crime neighborhood at all. The residents were mostly Jewish and Catholic (Irish and Italian), but back then, in the mid-sixties, the Jews and the Catholics in my neighborhood didn’t mix too much, so I hung out with a mostly Jewish crowd.
Many of us had already been shoplifting from the local candy stores and supermarkets, and at one point a bunch of us decided to band together, to combine forces, figuring there was strength, and efficiency, in numbers. Some of the kids felt we needed a ringleader, but others, myself included, felt that it should be one for all and all for one. The majority were in the ringleader camp, but when it came time for a vote nobody could agree on a leader. So it was decided that a ringleader would be recruited from outside the group, and that the candidate must have particularly strong credentials.
To many of the kids that meant only one person–the notorious Butch Goldstein, Jewish thug. Butch was fourteen and his résumé was impressive: he had beaten up numerous kids, talked back to grownups for years, killed the pets of several of his enemies, and stolen more than the rest of us put together. I neither liked nor trusted Butch and I felt that to make him ringleader would be a dangerous move, but apparently most of the others believed there was indeed honor among thieves.
Well, Butch certainly got us organized. No longer would there be haphazard shoplifting; now we'd have teams, and shifts. Butch called the shots. He told us what to steal, and how much of it. He gave us pointers on technique. Two or three kids would go into Janoff's candy store, or Fred and Rudy's, and while one kid acted as a decoy, ordering a malted or an egg cream to occupy the attention of the man behind the counter, the others would carefully slide packs of gum, boxes of Jujubes and Dots and Junior Mints into their pockets. We had several large cartons to store the candy in, hidden in the basement of the apartment building I lived in. The idea, so Butch told us, was that we'd collect the stuff for a month or two, and then it would be doled out equally. That way, he said, it would be really special when we finally split up the booty–we could have a big party. It sounded like a good idea, but several days before the candy was to be divvied up, a couple of the kids went to the basement to deposit their take for the day and discovered that the cartons were missing. They called a meeting, rank and file, without Butch. We all agreed that Butch and only Butch could be responsible for such a dastardly deed, but when we confronted him he played dumb. He said the candy must have been stolen by some Catholic kids who had gotten wind of our shoplifting ring.
This betrayal cured most of us of our criminal inclinations, and the shoplifting ring broke up. I think most of us have gone on to lead pretty honest, law-abiding lives.
As for Butch, the last I heard he was arrested somewhere in Texas for passing bad checks. I must confess that I have changed his name here because I'm still afraid of him, nearly forty years later.