Tastes of Larceny
My life has often been touched by larceny. Theft and larceny are close cousins, but larceny does not include the threat of force and yet robbery might. For as long as I remember, I have been touched by larceny.
My allowance was $.50 a week. It came from my dad on Saturdays when I went to work with him. We would usually have lunch at the drugstore luncheonette on the corner. My dad would have a newspaper for us and we would read. We didn’t live together and so this was a way for him to keep track of me.
We usually started and stopped with the sports section. I was eight years old. My dad loved sports and I worshipped my dad. I know it was winter because it was basketball season. The Knicks were playing the Celtics and I confused the two teams. My dad gave me a lesson in larceny that deprived me of $.25. He did not give it back.
The Celtics were an historic team, it was midway in the Bill Russell era. The Knicks were a dreadful team. I didn’t have it straight but still wanted to bet and so my dad took my quarter. He did not return it for a very long time, but he talked to me about how not knowing made a person ripe for plucking. It was the first lesson in larceny that I remember.
My mom and I were shopping at an Acme Food market. They did not call them Supermarkets then. I drooled when she ordered one pound of sliced roast beef. My eyes widened when she took it from our cart and slipped it into her purse. I was nervous at checkout, she was calm. At home she told me that I must never tell anyone, and then we had roast beef sandwiches that tasted so very sweet.
I suppose that people who live hand to mouth respect acts of larceny. I suppose that perhaps one needs to teach a son how it is to live in the world into which he was born. But larceny has a longer shelf life. There is a thrill that comes with larceny that survives the act of even the need.
My dad did teach me that hustling was a form of larceny, and because of that there needed to be elements of secrecy. It was sort of like a magician’s code. What was important was that you never let the other person know that you were committing the larceny of hustling on them.
It wasn’t where I found my first sense of solitude, but it was an addition. I enjoyed the advantage of hustling. Sometimes I knew that I was better at whatever the game was and just elongated things in order to maximize profit. It was a lesson from my dad. Larceny required patience and intuition.
It is akin to creative expression. There always seems to be a bit of larceny in people who have decided to live artistic lives. I’m not sure what that relationship is, but I know it is there.
After working as a pin boy and as a stock-boy at an old style, corner candy and soda fountain shop, my mom got me a job where she was working. I was a stock boy for Ripley Clothes. They were at one time a large chain that included Howard Clothes and on the west coast, Newman Brothers Clothes. My mom had become a credit manager, and the boss liked that I got my mom to work some mornings and home every evening. So when I turned fourteen, he gave me a job. He taught me how to fold pants and how to box a newly purchased suit.
My mom taught me those threads of larceny. Back then, layaways were common. Customers would place a deposit that reserved pieces of clothing, but sometimes those customers never came back. The deposits just sat on the books and the clothing just sat on storage racks. If the customer returned, the deposit would be refunded and the clothing returned to the active inventory of the store. It was an easy scam. It just required the cooperation of the stock-boy and the person who worked the register.
The return of the deposit leavers was fictionalized and we pocketed the money. In return, the store got more active inventory. It was really almost an acceptable scam and no one took much notice unless a customer actually did return and question what had become of the layaway. This was rare but often tense. I fell back on what my dad taught me about never letting your mark know that it had been manipulated. Money was returned.
We never got caught but I think people knew. It was then that I learned that larceny can be part of an unspoken agreement between all those involved. The exception would be the customer whose deposit was absconded with. But that is not an essential priority. If the customer came back and demanded, that person was reimbursed. It made choosing the customers wisely an essential component. My mom was in charge of that.
It’s a strange feeling to be the victim of a form of larceny. There was this kid named Dennis. Smallish, blonde, tough as nails kid who kept everyone and everything at a distance. We used to ride around at night. My first car was this black and silver ’57 Chevy. It was a hot car. Dennis wanted to drive and I wanted to be accepted by these new kids. He was a leader and so I always said yes. We would ride and talk and he would do some crazy things with the car. But invariably he would drop himself off at his house with about 1/8th of a tank of gas left. I noticed it but didn’t mention it because I wanted the acceptance.
I think that happens to a lot of victims of larceny. They are looking for something else and accept the larceny as part of the bargain that they are seeking. Maybe that says more about the broader nature of certain kinds of interactions, pseudo relationships, than it says about larceny. However, larceny is an element recognized by most if not all.
When I was seventeen I was sent one of the new BankAmerica credit cards. That day I went and bought my first stereo. Of course I never paid the bill. I told them that I was just seventeen and not responsible. My exploit was not met with approval; it was more a tacit acceptance. I took it and played my stereo. Larceny comes in a variety of patterns.
When we left Newark, my mom bought this two family house in Glen Ridge. It was on a one block, one way street that also housed the Fire Department, Police Department and a one man, old school A&P. We knew that the A&P clerk made a salary and that the company was looking to shut operations like this one down. We also knew that his cake deliveries came at night and were left in front of the only door.
My mom would send me out to steal for the thrill of it. The police department was two doors away. It required stealth and confidence. It required knowing when it was not the right time. Sometimes, I would come back empty handed and say, “Too many people around.” But when I came home with the spoils of our larceny, everything seemed much sweeter.
By the time that I moved out on my own, larceny was woven into me. If I saw an advantage to be had and it was not directly at the expense of another person, I would take it. Sometime I took it even when it was at the expense of someone else. I’d like to tell myself that only some of that was conscious but how unconscious are you allowed to be while perpetrating larceny?
I worked for this finance company and then I didn’t and then I was given an offer to commit larceny with them. I had to become a licensed insurance agent. Every loan required life and health insurance. The cap on the amount was $1,000. The net was $944 because of the need for insurance.
Now the company did not really need an agent, but it did not affect the cost and so the company was allowed to have one. It was a corporate wink with larceny. It never drew suspicion. I was offered the “job” as long as I would become an agent and kick back 50% to the company. It basically netted me a wage on which I could scratch out a living while I finished college.
I passed the test within a week. I received regular payments and my agent’s number was applied to multiple accounts that I never saw or really knew existed. If there was a claim, I was not involved. The claimant dealt directly with the insurance company. It was the easiest money that I’d ever made and then it came crashing down.
The guy who ran the company started making fraudulent loans. My number was still attached to each one and although I did not think about it at the time, legal responsibilities applied. I was, of course, immediately fired from a job where I had never spent one day. I managed to avoid further legal entanglements, but I learned that larceny requires husbandry. It can’t really just be left alone.
I’m still uncertain of the connection between larceny and creativity. There is a certain sleight of hand to creativity. Perhaps it is the uncertain direction of a melody, or an odd blending of color and light, or an unexpected image.
What gets apprehended is attention. The relationship is liquid. What is given and taken is uncertain and temporary. Perhaps that is part of the larceny of true magic.
Does a trickster engage in larceny? Does a writer, a musician, or an artist, or any combination of those, engage in larceny? Does that mean that there may be a hierarchy to larceny running from base to fine?
Larceny is deemed crooked. It is considered ill-formed, unless it is practiced on the grandest stage. Even then the solitude of larceny continues to exist. Creative people are sometimes like a congregation of larcenists. Maybe larceny is just not the right word. Maybe I have expanded the definition beyond its intent and lost clarity.
It seems clear to me that larceny is not of itself a negative thing requiring a positive balance. It may be have both embedded in it.
Dan Aykroyd said, “People love gentle larceny.” I think that he is right.
One of my early heroes was John Kenneth Galbraith. I was so young that I think it had something to do with Kenneth being part of his name. In my mind, I felt closer to him. He wrote, “The man who is admired for the ingenuity of his larceny is almost always rediscovering some earlier form of fraud.”
Perhaps fraud is too strong. Perhaps we all need to understand the larcenies upon which we have constructed our foundations.