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Russell Frank: Little Jack Horner's Got Nothin' on Me

by on November 04, 2011 6:51 AM

What a good boy am I!

I didn't realize I was so good until I read a couple of reminiscences about shoplifting in a recent issue of the New Yorker. One was by the filmmaker Miranda July; the other, by musician and writer Patti Smith. They're terrific pieces, especially Smith's, which is about her swiping, of all things, an encyclopedia. July tells us that everyone she knew shoplifted when she was young and broke.

This prompted me to ask some friends if they had shoplifted.

"Today?" one of them replied. He was joking. I think.

There were about a dozen of us crowded around two tables at Chopstick Express. Eight fessed up to at least one sticky fingers episode in their misspent youth. The booty included comic books, cigarettes, cassette tapes and girlie magazines. Only one person got caught: the pilferer of a pair of sneakers.

Is shoplifting a rite of passage, a way for us to test our courage and defy authority? If so, why hadn't I gone through it?

It would be nice to think I've always had this reliable moral compass that would not let me stray from the path of righteousness. What may be closer to the truth, though, is that I didn't have the guts. Both Smith and July describe the terrible moment when The Man put the arm on them. July was so scared she peed. Smith promised to confess when she got home, but as soon as she saw her mother, she threw up.

Never mind breaking a commandment; getting caught was exactly what I couldn't bear the thought of.

Seen in that light, obeying the law appears as more of a character flaw than breaking it. This is not to say, shopkeepers, that I regret not having shoplifted then or am endorsing ritual theft now. I just wonder: Why was I such a weenie? And am I one still?

Certainly I have not lived a blameless life. I can, for example, recall (though I'd rather not) plenty of times when I have been lazy and selfish and dishonest during my 50-plus years on planet Earth. But property crimes?

Here, pathetically, is the only caper I can come up with: I was around 10 years old and visiting my friend Billy, who lived down the street. He left me alone in his bedroom. I spied with my little green eye some baseball cards I coveted.

So I pocketed them. I wish I could remember which players they were and how many I took. What I do remember is rationalizing the theft: Billy wasn't nearly the baseball fan I was. Therefore, I would appreciate the cards more than he.

The ones I took may even have been "doubles" – duplicates – in which case, I was even more "justified" in taking them. He would still have a Ron Santo or Johnny Callison or whoever card; he just wouldn't have two of them.

Quite the criminal, eh? It's possible I've suppressed all memory of more dastardly deeds. But let's assume I haven't. What made me such a goody-goody? It certainly wasn't fear of my parents.

I was the baby of the family and the only son – the apple of everyone's eye. My dad was as mild-mannered as they come. My mom thought I could do no wrong. I never worried about getting beaten or spanked or even yelled at. Which makes this memory all the more puzzling:

I dropped a glass milk bottle on our back patio and begged my mom not to tell my dad. Mom was surprised I was so upset. She assured me Daddy wouldn't be mad. So what was I worried about?

I posed this question to a friend, who suggested that far from terrorizing me, my parents made so much of how "special" I was that I couldn't bear to disappoint them. That would account for my horror of doing anything wrong.

Nice as it is not to have a rap sheet or a guilty conscience, this business of being a lifelong mensch is very much at odds with the derring-do, the true grit, the machismo expected of guys in our culture. What saves me from a self-image as a total milquetoast is recalling my hitchhiking adventures.

During my college years in New York, I was sweet on a girl in Colorado. What else could a poor boy do but stand by the side of the road and stick his thumb out? It took some guts, but I didn't think of it as particularly heroic until years later, when I regaled my nephews with tales of thumbing my way across country. I could tell they were impressed. They didn't see their uncle as a wimpy academic. I was a swashbuckling road warrior – though not one who would ever swipe a Snickers bar while the gas station attendant was looking the other way.

Got a shoplifting story? Or a hitchhiking story? I'd love to hear it.

A collection of Russell Frank's columns, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for won first place for commentary in the 2019 Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter Best in Journalism contest. The winning columns: The Women’s March: Notes from New York, It’s Time to Change the Script and Mixed Messages at Bellefonte High. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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