Stealing…nothing more than stealing…

The headline of this post is a goof on the title of an easy listening hit from the 70s by Morris Albert. I’ll always remember the song because of my good friend Rob and his mother. One sunny afternoon we were in the driveway of his house farting around with the sound system of his car. If memory serves me it was a Monte Carlo. We were doing something with the 8-track player. Either putting in a new one or modifying the old one. Either way, we had done some rewiring and needed to test the unit. Rob borrowed one of his mother’s 8-tracks, with the promise that we would take good care of it. We must have wired the thing in backwards, because a few seconds after we jammed the 8-track in, the player had spewed around fifty feet of tape onto the floormats. The tape that wasn’t in a pile on the floor was kinked up inside the 8-track player.

Rob’s mother had never been my biggest fan up to that point, and I don’t think I ever rose any higher on her chart. Part of the problem was that when the player chewed up his mom’s Morris Albert tape, both Rob and I laughed our ass off. I’m certain that I laughed a lot louder and longer than Rob, which must have attracted his mother’s attention.

Rob and I remained close friends into early adulthood. I moved to the east coast to pursue a writing career and he went on to risk life and limb as a member of the state police.

I don’t know if Rob and I had met and known each other in high school, I really don’t recall, but I do know that we didn’t get to become best buds until we started working together.

I firmly believe that all teenagers should get jobs. That’s the real focus of this posting, so just stay with me for a while.

While attending Sunnybrook Grade School (after transferring from Edgar Allen Poe Grade School) I was befriended by a likable fellow named George T. Haynes. The ‘T’ stood for Trent, which he sometimes went by. Depending on what day it was, he was either George or Trent. Teachers and authority figures generally referred to him as George, so most of us settled on Trent. Trent was the closest thing to a celebrity we had in school. His father was Homer, from the country-themed musical comedy duo Homer and Jethro. Way back when, they were sort of the musical equivalent to Jeff Foxworthy. Trent’s father had died a few years before I got to know him in the sixth grade. I had never heard of Homer and Jethro, but was impressed by the sheer number of record albums they had produced and that a bunch of country music celebrities had come to town for his funeral.

Trent and his sister Tracy had inherited their father’s musical genes. I knew that Tracy could sing and play the drums, just like Karen Carpenter, who I had a bit of crush on at the time (Karen Carpenter, that is, not Trent’s sister). But Trent blew me away with his ability to sit down at the piano, or pick up a guitar or banjo, and plunk out any song he wanted. At the time I don’t think he could read sheet music, but if he heard a song once he could knock out a passable rendition with little or no effort. (The only skill I inherited from my father was the ability to lift heavy things.)

I think it was Trent who got me involved with the Sunnybrook choir. That whole experience was mostly a waste of time. We learned a handful of goofy songs, but then spent the rest of the class talking about girls, practicing Monty Python bits, and watching the 8th graders lock the 6th graders into the musical instrument lockers. Trent and I became closer friends in high school, when we were members of the Thornton Fractional South high school concert choir. That was around the time I found out that Trent had a job working as an usher at the Lans Theater.

The Lans was an unremarkable small theater located in the unremarkable small town of Lansing, Illinois. The building was a brick affair, built in the late 40s or early 50s, I believe. There were two mini storefronts built into each side of the main entrance. One of the storefronts was a barbershop and the other served as the theater office.

One day I’ll write a long post, or perhaps an entire book focusing on all the friends I made at the Lans and the times we had. Some of the memories I have of the place are bittersweet, but nearly all are fond.

I was an usher, which meant I tore tickets, swept popcorn off the carpets, hauled boxes of candy and bags of popcorn kernels, kept the soda machine full of cups and syrup, and refilled the butter dispenser at the concession stand. (The type of ‘topping’ that we served on our popcorn was a lot different than the butter flavored motor oil they use today. Besides the cost factor, the reason theaters don’t use real butter on their popcorn is the soggy factor. Butter has a high water content, which the popcorn absorbs and makes a mess. Our topping was a mixture of real butter and flavored oil. It was shipped to us in an inert, semi-solid form that came in two-gallon plastic jugs. To change the consistency from 70% solid to a liquid that you could pour, meant that you had to float the jugs in a bucket of hot water in a sink in the janitor’s closet. If the butter in the counter dispenser was getting low it was up to the ushers to keep a jug in hot water.)

If you broke it down by the clock, we probably only worked fifteen minutes of every hour. What we did with the rest of the time was determined by the location of the manager. If she was out walking around the theater, then the ushers were at our ticket stand or pushing a broom. If she was taking one of her frequent naps in the office, then we were either hanging around the cashier’s booth or talking to the girls at the concession stand.

Some of us ushers, certainly present company included, never dated much in high school (I know, hard to believe) and weren’t exactly social butterflies. But working at the Lans meant getting to spend countless hours chatting up a variety of pretty girls. We often did a fair amount of activities together as a group, away from work.) It was great, because there wasn’t any really obvious ‘coming on’ threat wafting off of us. We were just a bunch of guys and girls ‘doing time’ together for three or four bucks an hour. (Of course, boys being boys, and young men being young men, we were always secretly in ‘coming on’ mode. We just tried our best to hide the desperation.)

What did ushers and candy girls (the name given to the girls that worked behind the concession stand) spend their time talking about while on the job? Lots of stuff. School. Music. Movies. Money. How we all needed more money. How little we were paid for doing so much. How unfair it was for us to have so little money.

This path of conversation always took us to a bad place. Stealing. Besides grabbing a handful of cash out of the money drawer and running away with it, there weren’t a lot of ways to steal money at a movie theater. But we knew of a few ways.

One way that we never used (at least not that I’m aware of) was to double sell a ticket. This involved the ticket cashier. Simply put, when the patron buys a ticket he enters the theater and hands the ticket to the usher. The usher simply takes the ticket and gives the patron nothing, or he pretends to tear the ticket and hands the patron an old discarded ticket stub. The usher can then bring the untorn ticket to the cashier, who can sell it again. The two then split the proceeds. As far as I know we never did this, mainly because the ticket cashiers were a slightly different type of employee than the rest of us. Perhaps because they were alone in their cage for most of the day, whereas there were usually a couple of candy girls behind the concession counter at a time, circled by a few ushers, and crime is easier to go along with when there’s a crowd involved.

The bookkeeping for the ticket office was pretty simple. The cashier was given a set amount of numbered tickets and a small starting bank. At the end of her shift she turned in her remaining tickets and her final bank. Subtract the number of missing tickets by the cost of the tickets, minus her starting bank, and you have the amount that she should have. Unless you’re reselling tickets, there’s very little room for a fudge factor.

The concession stand was different, though. We weren’t a big enough theater to sell drinks behind the counter. We had a machine that you could drop a quarter into and get a paper cup filled with ice, then a squirt of syrup, then soda water. It tasted sort of like real soda. (Much of my free time was spent perfecting a method of spinning a penny into the coin slot at the precise angle and speed to fool the machine into thinking it was really getting a quarter. This skill has gotten me exactly nowhere in life.) The sale of popcorn wasn’t tracked by how many bags of kernels and tubs of butter we used, rather by how many physical tubs and buckets were sold. At the start of their shift the candy girls had to inventory how many popcorn containers they had, plus how many boxes of candy were in stock. At the end of their shift they did another count. It was a pretty simple process and tough for us to make a profit from. But we had our ways.

One way made us some cash, the other made us fat and rotted our teeth.

I’m sure that over the years there have always been nutcases who have tampered with food and put it on store shelves for someone to buy and choke on. But before the public became so aware of tampering and the food companies responded with superior packaging, things were pretty loosey goosey. Long story short, if you wanted a box of Junior Mints you couldn’t just take a box and eat it. There would be one short on the inventory sheet. But, if you put a tiny bit of effort in you could get yourself the equivalent of a full box of Junior Mints by simply opening every box in a case and taking a few mints out of each box. Who would miss a couple of pieces from their box? And if they did miss them, they would blame it on the candy company. Certainly not us.

The other way to steal from the concession stand, and the way to make real green folding cash, is a bit disgusting. If you vomit easily you might want to skip the rest of this. Someone, it certainly wasn’t me, came up with a variation of reselling tickets.

Between movie showings during the day and night, it was up to the ushers to go up and down the aisles to scoop up the bigger trash before the next crowd came in. Bigger trash included napkins, drink cups, and popcorn buckets. (Do you see what’s coming?) So if all parties were willing, ushers would quickly wipe out the popcorn buckets and pass them to the candy girls, who would put fresh popcorn in them and sell them to unsuspecting patrons. They always made sure to put a lot of extra butter in these buckets to disguise the stain that was sometimes on the bottom. A large bucket of popcorn went for two bucks back then, so that meant a dollar for the usher and a dollar for the candy girl.

I know. I deserve every bad thing that has happened to me since then. I was naughty. This is how plagues get started. Bad Fred. Evil Fred. One day when the doctor tells me that the burning I feel with I pee is due to cancer of the penis I’ll know that the karma police have caught up with me. Bad, bad Fred.

I want to quickly point out that not everyone who ushered or worked as a candy girl at the Lans participated in these illegal and immoral shenanigans. That simply wasn’t the case. There were plenty of employees who didn’t want to be involved, and turned a blind eye while the rest of us dug our way to hell, or at the very least, to a future life of crime.

There was one last way to eek a few ill-gotten bucks out of the Lans, and I think I was the only one who did it. Again, as is often the case, I could be wrong.

The last show of the day usually started at ten p.m.. By ten minutes after ten the cashier had closed up shop and was in the office doing the final accounting with the manager. While this was going on the candy girls were cleaning out the popcorn machine and doing their inventory. As soon as the cashier was done in the office one of the candy girls would pop in with her inventory sheet and money. The other would be cleaning up and locking away all the candy. If there was one thing they were efficient at it was the shutting down process. They had it down to a science. By ten-thirty the cashier and candy girls were gone for the night and the manager was jangling her keys, telling me she was hitting the road. (She was good friends with the projectionist up in the booth, and they had a longtime agreement that he would supervise the final lock up after the last show, with whichever usher was on duty.)

So there I am sitting at the ticket stand, more or less in charge. The captain had given me control of the ship. (The only time you saw the projectionist out of his booth was when he was coming in to work, leaving work, or had come down on a popcorn run. The rest of the time he lived up in his booth. I’m pretty sure he even had his own bathroom up there. He had to spend most of his time up there. These days the movie projectors are built so the entire film is on one giant spool or reel. Back then a movie came on four or five reels and the projection booths had dual projectors. When one reel ran out on projector A the projectionist had to fire up projector B without missing a beat. It really was a science and a vanishing art form.)

Every once in a while people would rush into the lobby, ignoring the fact that I had turned the marquee lights off and the box office was dark and empty. I would tell them that the movie had already started, and they would walk away dejected. That was most times. But sometimes I would tell people that the movie had already started, that they had missed the first half hour, but they wouldn’t care. After a while I began to buckle. I let them go in and watch the end of the film. My reasoning was that the film was playing anyway, and it would continue to run regardless of how many people there were in the theater, so why not?

After a while I figured out that a lot of the stragglers were coming from the corner bar that was down at the end of the block. Maybe they closed early during the week, and after last call what could be better than watching the last hour of Young Frankenstein? Even though the box office was closed, people started insisting that I take admission money. We were a second run movie house (sometimes third and fourth) at best, so our admission price was a dollar and a quarter for kids and two bucks for adults. So here comes Mr. & Mrs. Half-in-the-bag, and they stuff four dollars into my hand. Who was I to argue? On an average night I’d sell three or four late tickets. Some nights it was seven or eight. As some of you may know, found (or stolen) money tends to burn a hole in your pocket, so my ill-gotten gains immediately went towards supporting my comic book habit.

“This is your captain speaking. Many of you have expressed concern that this blog posting has gone of its rails and is careening around unchecked. Please be aware that we are currently circling back to the original point that the writer was trying to make.”

Aside from the occasional kiss, I don’t steal. I pay my taxes, tip my waiter or waitress twenty-five percent, and if the cashier at the grocery store gives me the wrong change I always return the overage. I make a conscious choice to do these things because I think that down deep inside maybe I am dishonest. If a big bag of money fell out of the back of an armored car and I was the only one who saw it, I’d have to give some hard thought to which path to take. The armored car company has insurance for things like that, right? Certainly the banks do. So they spread the loss out across all their clients and everyone just has to pay a few extra pennies. I’d give up a few pennies if it meant that someone could get a big bag of cash. Wouldn’t you?

I once had a conversation with a fellow I worked for. I didn’t realize that I was falling into a trap. He asked me what I would do if I found a wallet on the street with five bucks in it and the owner’s I.D.. I replied that I would try to call the person or just mail the wallet back. He asked if I would keep the five bucks. Certainly not, I responded. The dollar amount escalated and my answer stayed the same until he hit the hundred-dollar mark. I told him that I wouldn’t just mail it, that I would try to call the person or write them a letter to meet face-to-face. He guessed that my reasoning for this was that I would expect a reward for my good deed—it being such a large amount. The questioning continued until we reached the hundred thousand dollar mark. It had gone from being a wallet to a zippered money pouch. Would I consider keeping the money? My brain churned for a while. I began to reason that most normal people don’t walk around with that much cash. It was too strange. The only type of people with that kind of cash on them are drug dealers, or jewel thieves, or someone up to no good. It might even be stolen money or mob money. I could turn it over to the police, my boss countered. I was in the city of Chicago at the time, and the stories of corrupt cops was the stuff of legends. I expressed my doubts of the money finding its rightful owner once in the police coffers. At that point we confirmed that if I found a hundred thousand dollars in a bag on the city street I would more than likely keep it. He shook his head and told me that I couldn’t do that. He continued on that it didn’t matter if it was one dollar or a million dollars. If the money doesn’t belong to you it’s not yours. I guess I failed the test. I didn’t get fired. I had worked for him for months before and continued on for months afterward. I never stole a penny from him. If you don’t count the occasional late lunch or leaving a few minutes early every now and then. I guess he would have counted them. I guess I did steal from him after all.

In a few weeks my daughter officially becomes a teenager. (although all the trappings have been in place for months now) When she gets older I really want her to get a summer or after school job. It’s a good experience in a lot of ways. I remain friends today with a few people I worked and played with back then, and as I mentioned before, I try to live my life by some of the lessons I learned then. I don’t think a person really knows if they’re honest or corrupt unless they’re placed in a position of trust that will allow their true colors to shine through.

Do I think that a teenager who swipes a candy bar or a few bucks out of the till is destined for a life of crime? Probably not. But I think that a teenager who gives in to temptation needs to be aware of their weaknesses and urges.

Earning a few elicit bucks at the Lans Theater when I was sixteen didn’t turn me into a bank robber, but at the same time it kept me from pursuing a career as something like a bank teller. I know that even if I never stole a single penny, my daydreams would be filled with figuring out how a person could rip off the bank, if they were dishonest enough to do such a thing. How could you be around all that cash and not think about it? Thank goodness for ATMs, because every time I have to go inside the bank to make a deposit, I find myself sizing up the joint. Hey, I know every episode of Mission: IMPOSSIBLE and MacGyver by heart. Give me a stick of chewing gum, an electric hair dryer, a Russian gymnast, and an egg beater, and I can clean out any vault!

Well, I can dream, can’t I? Which is what I do for a living. I don’t have a job where I handle money; I handle words. And you can’t steal words. Well, technically you can, but that’s plagiarism, which is about a hundred times worse than robbing a bank. Or stealing a man’s horse.

I would never plagiarize. It’s a horrible crime that causes liver damage and leaves a bad taste in your mouth. But if I did accidentally commit it, I hope I would be forgiven. It’s like I always say, to err is human; to forgive divine.

Wait…did I steal that? Damn!

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