Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Peer Pressure

Gerry lived on Marshfield Avenue and his house was across the alley from ours. He was one of my few buddies not gleaned from school, church, or scouts, because he attended St. Andrews Catholic School a few doors away at the corner of Addison and Paulina, whereas my other friends and I attended Hamilton Elementary, the local public school.

Gerry had lots of neat toys and things. He lived with his mom and grandmother, his father having died some years before. Gerry and his mom lived on the ground floor, at alley level, and I always thought that must be a bit weird, having cars and people right outside your windows so much of the time. His grandmother lived on the upper floor, and as I recall, she owned the building.

Gerry was a year or two older than I was and oh-so-much more streetwise. Perhaps that was part of his allure. That and all the neat stuff he owned. For example, he had a new bike, one with three speeds and handlebar mounted hand brakes, much nicer that my hand-me-down bike from cousin Norman which had one speed and coaster brakes.

Gerry also had some great Lionel trains and accessories. I had one locomotive and a few freight cars and a caboose, which at Christmas time would run around an oval Dad mounted on a board and sitting under the Christmas tree (photo below.) With only two switches, all I could do was send the train on a slightly longer outside loop, and later, with another switch or two received as Christmas presents, I constructed short sidings. It was a pretty neat setup, I thought -- until I saw Gerry’s! He had a whole section of a spare room for a permanent layout, sporting several locomotives and tons of freight cars. He also had the expensive and ultra-cool passenger train set -- a streamliner -- complete with three engines, one facing forward, one center unit, and one facing backward, all pulling a large number of lighted passenger cars. He also had crossing gates, various train stations, and what seemed like a ton of houses and other “city” amenities.

Oh yeah – he also had all the neat operating cars for his freight train. I had a boxcar or two, a dairy car, a flat car with barrels and logs Dad had fashioned in his basement workshop, a crew workers car, a caboose, a bumper car that reversed direction when it hit something, and when I got the operating boom car with two cranes to put derailed cars back on the tracks, I thought I was hot stuff. But Gerry had the operating log dumping car with the platform which loaded logs onto the car, and the dairy car with its platform where milk barrels vibrated up an incline into the car, then through the car and back down the other incline to the loading platform, and the cattle car with platform where the cows loaded themselves onto the train from the corral. Besides the bumper car, he also had a trolley that reversed direction. And he had the crane car with operating boom and hook which we used to put cars back on the tracks after one of our many manufactured spectacular crashes. We played with those cars for hours!

Gerry also introduced me to his friends from his school – older kids also and far more daring than the guys I usually played with. I recall one summer when a new warehouse or factory was being constructed a few blocks from our houses. When the forms had been placed for the footings and foundation walls, we would explore the “caves” created by the forms, crawling around on hands and knees several feet below ground level, up and over and around forms, rarely seeing the sky from our underground labyrinth. Our daring escapades frightened and exhilarated me, especially when chased by some security guard or construction worker.

Another of Gerry’s pastime brainstorms was collecting leaves in the fall – from the catalpa and oak trees in front of my house and the varied color maple trees up and down the block -- and putting them in paper bags from the two local department stores on Lincoln Avenue – Wieboldt’s and Goldblatt’s – and then walking into those stores with our loaded bags. We’d go into the pay phone booths and leave a bag in each, and while walking home, construct elaborate stories about harried shoppers pausing to make a call, who upon discovering the closed bag left behind by some other equally harried shopper would surreptitiously carry their illicitly acquired extra “gifts” home, only to arrive and discover disappointedly that a bag of leaves was all they had acquired! What delicious and juvenile fun we had!

Then one day, Gerry announced his latest and most audacious plan. We would go down the block to the grocery store on the corner and each shoplift some item. I was aghast at this thought! I had been raised with weekly church services and Sunday School attendance and certainly knew that stealing was wrong, but my first hardcore experience with peer pressure was not one I could stand up against, so with much trepidation and fear, I accompanied him to the store, where I picked out a candy bar or two to pay for and stuck a can of shaving cream inside my coat. Knowing I was going to get caught but still unable to stop myself, I followed Gerry to the checkout counter where I was personally known by the owner’s wife, and we each paid for our “purchases” and left with both our purchased and non-purchased items.

What a relief! I had made it outside. We ran down the block to the alley by our houses and I quickly sprayed the shaving foam onto the St. Andrews gymnasium wall and discarded the empty can into a nearby garbage can, anxious to be rid of the incriminating evidence. I was a nervous wreck but couldn’t let Gerry know, of course. I made some lame excuse that I had to go home and did so, going to my room and pretending to be engrossed in some long-forgotten activity, while my insides churned with fear that the doorbell would soon ring and Mrs. Store Owner would announce to my Mom and the world at-large that a master criminal resided within this apartment.

Hours later, uncaught and un-condemned, and realizing I had probably successfully accomplished the dastardly crime, I was overcome with relief -- which quickly gave way to overwhelming self-loathing for what I had done. I knew it was wrong. I had been raised better than that action showed. Gerry and I never discussed this event, never replicated it, and I never heard him brag about it to friends, so perhaps he, too, felt ashamed of our transgression. I thought of paying secretly or outwardly for the can of shaving cream, but I did not have that vast a sum of money at my disposal. I would like to report to you that I confessed my transgression to my parents and somehow made amends for my wrongdoing, but I didn’t. However, I did promise myself to never permit myself to be placed in such a compromising position again, and to this day I can report that I have never stolen another thing in my life.

And I guess, in retrospect, the fact that I have kept that secret promise is some small evidence of a lesson well learned.

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