Barely Juvenile, Hardly Delinquent

Barely Juvenile, Hardly Delinquent

When you’re an adult in a kid’s body you see things differently. So when our gang of little rascals got caught doorbell ditching, I knew I wasn’t on a highway to hell – maybe a highway to hijinks, but certainly not the road to ruin. And not to sound too streetwise, but while some say that being brought home in a police squad car at the age of 11 may have been a precursor to a life of crime, to me it was the smallest of small potatoes. Bogart in Casablanca had it right in another context when he pointed out that these problems, “don’t amount to a hill of beans.” Potatoes, beans…it’s all food for thought.

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And as I air this cleanest of dirty laundry, I knew back in 1972 I was far, far removed from ever being churned, put through the wringer and then hung out to dry by the criminal justice system. And not to sound cleanlier than thou, I knew I’d not be taken to the cleaners by the authorities. Nope, I’d just be a little agitated. But by virtue of this “wrong of passage” (as opposed to a “rite of passage”), I’d get to be the coolest “bad boy” in Mr. Campbell’s 6th Grade class for a couple of weeks. Since I was 11 at the time of the “incident” allow me to kidsplain the story to you.   

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I understood limits – how far to push against something before it snapped back at you. Even as an 11-year-old stripling I was mightily aware of boundary lines and the importance of staying within them. Life was like a giant coloring book that way and I was savvy enough to stay inside the lines so my life wouldn’t become messy. In advertising my “brush with the law” to my schoolmates I was hoping for a measure of street cred to give the 11-year-old Hardiman brand a whiff of danger and a quantum of Bondian cachet (so much for kidsplainin’).

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Yes, at the tender age of 11 in 1972 I was trying to create a buzz in the pre-social media influencer age. Maybe I could have it all at 11. I could be clever, tall, handsome and dangerous. That was the calculus anyway, even if this ego-driven fantasy was built on a sandcastle of collapsing truths. I wanted to be a bad ass, but in the easy, non-confrontational way – to be regarded as a bad ass, not by fighting or stealing, but by reputation so I wouldn’t have to do the heavy lifting required to be an actual bad ass.

  

Some Background (My Self-confessed Early Rap Sheet)

I’m back to kidsplaining this story now so you’ll have to pardon its rickety organization and clunky presentation. That’s what we kids do – even big kids who give themselves literary license to meander in their reminiscences of stories past. Well, at least I’ll paint this story inside the lines so it won’t look messy. Rest assured however, I’ll eventually get to the main part of our tale where me, Frankie Ventresca, Pasquale “Patsy” Barricella and Paulie Baker got caught doorbell ditching after night gym and consequently brought home in a police cruiser. But first some background to this event so you may appreciate the flavor of this barely juvenile and hardly delinquent caper.

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My criminal gland never secreted much in the way of malice: some flagrant jaywalking, copious stepping on sidewalk cracks to break your mother’s back and maybe the stealing of gum from Carl’s Drug store on James Street. I got away with it all. And there I was, 8-year-old David chewing my favorite Wrigley’s Fruit Stripe gum that I had earned through my own enterprising shoplifting. And this was only 4th grade.

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It’s funny how the memory mechanism works. Another more moving memory of that day’s events was seeing a publication in the teenage interest section of Carl’s Drug Store’s magazine rack. It had a picture of the Beatles and a tagline which read “The Patented Harmonies of Lennon and McCartney.” Why it means so much to me now is that, back then, it meant that the Beatles were still together – a vibrant band actively writing and creating music that would be the backdrop to my early life. And later life. Alright my whole life. But right then, at that moment at 8 years old in 1969, Abbey Road hadn’t been released yet. The world did not yet know the sublimity of Come Together, Let It Be or Here Comes the Sun. This wistful nostalgia gets to me more than you’ll ever know.

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That gum heist occurred the same day school friend Rod Fick and I found an unopened 16 oz. (not the usual 12 oz.) can of Budweiser beer in a plain brown bag (is there any other kind?) behind the James Street Bowling Alley adjacent to Carl’s Drugs. How could such affirming good fortune find me on one crisp spring day. Major, major scores: gum and now beer – chew and brew. Well, wasn’t I the anointed one? As if the NY Jets improbably winning the ’69 Super Bowl over the vaunted 15-1 Baltimore Colts (thanks Broadway Joe) wasn’t enough, now there was gum….and beer. Everything was coming up David! I was getting away with so much in my very small Davidcentric world. This good fortune tended to reinforce the idea that maybe I was the anointed one. Such childish delusions of divine grandeur bubbled up: the Dalai David, Deacon Dave or Rabbi David Hardimanowitz? Was I all that?

 

Maybe Not So Self-Centered After All

Dwelling here on Earth (where else would I be), I’ve often felt I was more a monitoring observer than a willing participant – more a conscript than a volunteer. In my blinkered and guard railed world, life was more of a game to be played than a life to be lived. If earth was a university, I was just auditing classes and not taking them for an actual grade – a grade that might become part of my permanent record. Of course all this cutesy psychobabble is just self-deception because when I’m cut off in traffic or see the loving face of a dog or a disabled little girl reaching for a can of soup at a grocery store, then I’m completely a participant and can’t get out of my own way in feeling the poignancy of the human condition. Fortunately the pervasive banality of life keeps me from constantly being embroiled in the fraught, fever pitch of compassion. I’m sure you also feel this too; though probably in different words.  

 

A Head Screwed on Mostly Straight for the Times

Our society has moved on from heliocentrism, typewriters and Oldsmobiles. And we’re also moving on in this story – from 4th grade all the way to 6th.

My acts of benign dishonor were scarcely those of a hardened criminal – or even a softened criminal, but more of a melted mischief maker. It was all low risk stuff featuring highly excusable acts amounting to tiny specks of infamy. It’s fortunate I wasn’t living in Dickensian England with my preconceptions of criminal justice. Back then stealing a sausage roll could result in being drawn and quartered (after being sketched and halved?). Now that’s an exaggeration for comedic effect (hopefully), but a hungry street urchin caught stealing could result in him being branded or sent to the poorhouse to sleep on hay with a variety of vermin while he worked off his debt by using his head as a swab to remove creosote from the chimney walls of Lords and Dukes. Thank God for the Enlightenment; and natural gas.     

 

Night Gym. Get this. It’s Gym, But at Night. Crazy Man

More specifically and finally more to the point, as part of a program to give kids something to do on a frozen December night besides watching Bonanza or just sitting around being grateful for indoor plumbing, city father’s (and probably city mother’s too) decided it would be beneficial to the youth of Eastwood to open the gym of our elementary schools a couple of nights a week (Tues. and Thurs.) for recreational purposes. It was popularly known as Night Gym and provided us kids a dodge ball venue in the gym of the same school we’d already spent 7 hours at that day.

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It was usually overseen by a long haired, gap-year kind of Parks and Recreation dude, and our very own school janitor, Frank “Fresh off the Boat from Italy” D’Onofrio. He was there to score a little overtime, assist with lock up and prevent us kids from roaming the darkened halls with impunity. By his crisp, clean clothing and attentive demeanor one could tell that Frank had the utmost respect and appreciation for his job – probably better than anything he could have aspired to in post-war Italy. Over my many years in elementary school I’d befriended Frank and reveled in the fact that I could call an adult at school by his first name.

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Frank was always there if someone threw up in the lunch room or the teacher needed one of those ungainly, institutional B&W TVs rolled into the classroom so we could all watch an Apollo program space shot. Once he even gave me and some chums a surreptitious tour of the school’s gargantuan boiler room – an outrageously cavernous underground space with 2 cylindrical boilers the size of submarines giving one the impression of something out of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Frank was a good, selfless guy with a great work ethic and I note him here because if he taught me anything it was to practice quiet gratitude for all you had.

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Night Gym appealed greatly to our gang – gang in the sense of a bunch of impressionable kids and not an ungodly group of nefarious gangbangers. At school that frigid Tuesday, February 8, 1972 we adventurous 6th graders took a major decision in our situation room – a room located near the radiator in the 2nd floor boys bathroom. We resolved to go to Night Gym that evening at 6:30. This decision came after a studious discussion at the highest levels consisting of nothing more than, “Night gym? I’m goin’. You goin’” asked Patsy?  

“Yeah, I’m goin’. So you goin’ too,” seconded Frankie?

“Yup,” Paul affirmed.

“K. My house. 6 o’clock” I summed up for everyone.

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And with those few terse grunts our quartet had achieved a consensus. So that evening Frankie Ventresca, Patsy Barricella and Paulie Baker met up at my house (since it was closest to the school) and we walked back to the place we had just left at 3:20. I still remember the eerie crunch of crystalline snow crackling beneath our gym sneakers as we strode down Sunnycrest Rd. past the familiar homes of the Cornichone’s, the Kuss’s and the Galuppi’s.

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Feeling Kit-Carson-sure of our place while trailblazing the geography of Eastwood, we reentered our school for the second time that day. We ingressed the hardwood floor of our 1930’s era, museum-like gymnasium/auditorium featuring metal-grated skylights, big and stupid medicine balls, racks of wooden chin up bars lining one side and a big elevated stage at one end with a thick, velvety curtain, behind which we would change into our whities for Mr. Galeazzi’s gym class. But this was less structured night gym – gym outside of our gym teacher Mr. Galeazzi’s instructional classes.

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As mentioned, night gym was run under the watchful eyes of janitor Frank and the “adult” supervision of 21-yr-old college dropout or gap year student Dave Puglia. Once the dodge balls were dispensed, we kennel of kids commenced to throwing, evading and catching dodge balls for over an hour.

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One catch we hadn’t anticipated was being caught by the cops after mouthing off about our doorbell ditching exploits at Mel’s Superette Market on Stafford Ave a half block from the school. It wasn’t stupidity that  got us caught, rather it was pride – the pride of braggadocio. As it turned out we could dodge balls, but not the long arm of the law.

 

Mel-ly Wonka’s Candy Factory

Mel’s welcoming candy store and superette, one of many proprietor run neighborhood stores that dotted Eastwood’s residential area, was long an afterschool go-to for hundreds of elementary school kids. It was only a short walk from the school and was run by owner, proprietor and ex-Marine Mel Sayer. Mel wore a charming paper hat that gave the place a special aura. He was honoring us with his uniform. Mel knew some kids might be shy or even larcenous so he had all the candies arranged behind him and away from the busy and squishy little hands of his elfin customers. Each candy was in its own bin with a letter in front of it so timid 6 year-olds could just point and say, “K please” or “JJ Mr. Man.” I now realize this method also reduced product pilfering. I mean they weren’t going to walk off with a carton of milk but they might walk off with 1, 2 or even 3 Musketeers. Mel’s deep baritone tended to scare kids or at least make them think they were dealing with the Great Oz.

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It was a real old-fashioned set-up. Like many self-reliant immigrants Mel lived in the back with his business in the front. He and his wife Gladys made a pretty penny keeping us kids in cavities. And he made it all one penny at a time.

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After a fun and vigorous evening of night gym it was unquestioned that we would patronize Mel’s where we sought the carbohydratic satisfaction of Charleston Chews, Almond Joys and unlabeled grape gum balls. Grape gum balls that wouldn’t be approved by the FDA these days because, when chewed, they produced a scary dark substance blacker than squid ink. The memories of that mysterious dark liquid is still etched in my mind…and in my teeth.

 

The Foul Event

It went down like this. Me, Frankie, Patsy and Paulie had finished up at night gym and were walking to Mel’s for some well-earned candy. This was something we had done a thousand times before. But unlike the other thousand times we did this, there’d be a gun-toting 6’2” police officer trailing us at our six o’clock as we left.

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308 Sunnycrest.  It was in the wrong place at the wrong time that night. Then again, so were we.

Adjacent to the school was a tidy little home just sitting there minding its own business and providing more than adequate shelter for the retired couple that lived inside. One could almost hear the introverted modest house saying, “I’m-just-a-middle-class-house-who-never-did-nothing-to-no-one.” Well we gentle ruffians decided it was high time to rattle the eaves of 308 Sunnycrest Drive by simultaneously ringing its doorbell, knocking on its picture window and shrieking a couple of rebel yells before fleeing to the sugary sanctuary of nearby Mel-ly Wonka’s Candy Factory.

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That’s Mel’s up in the distance on the right where we ran to after rattling the eaves of 308 Sunnycrest, whose white picket fence can be seen on the left.

We band of outlaw banditos executed our sabotaging mission with flawless juvenile aplomb – like a well-oiled miniature version of Hogan’s Heroes. We celebrated our success with such unbridled joy we couldn’t stop blabbing about its methodical perfection while we were inside the store, not realizing that the homeowner, whose house we had just targeted, was also in the store shopping. She and her favorite grocer Mel overheard us implicate ourselves in this minimally foul affair. They were onto our shenanigans and we didn’t even know it. Then they got the drop on us.

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And as we made our sugary

A “modernized” Mel’s as it appears today. It’s now the Stafford Market run by a Middle Eastern family that lives there.

purchases and navigated the sole, narrow artery to exit the store, Mel and “Mrs. 308 Sunnycrest Ave” blocked our egress.  We didn’t bother to run for it or aggravate the event by shoving our way through because former marine Mel Sayer knew each of us from years of visiting his store. Within minutes a black and white Syracuse Police car was out front to escort our barely juvenile and hardly delinquent asses home. After seeing police cars driving around the Eastwood area my entire young life, it seemed unimaginable and briefly chilling that this police car was here for me. This was the opposite of an aha moment. It was an “Oh, no!” moment.  

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As Patsy and I accepted our fate, we became blasé about being caught, but Frankie and Paulie were quaking in their sneakers. They were crying those “oh, sh*t,” tears that stream from your face without any of the boo-hoos. It’s like they were pissing they’re pants through their eyes. You see, they would’ve been punished mightily for this tomfoolery. Patsy and me, not so much. Patsy’s dad was the neighborhood bookie and knew what it meant to be on the other side of the law. So Patsy and I decided to take one for the team and managed to plea bargain Officer Friendly (a very nice Syracuse cop) down to just taking the 2 of us home – think of it as a wea culpa.

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In truth the cop probably didn’t want to take 4 kids home and talk to each of their parents about their child’s mild waywardness. He had reports to write and donuts to eat. So we spared Frankie and Paulie. Two were plenty. I mean was our Officer Friendly a cabbie or a Bobbie. Not such a bad deal for me and Patsy. We were going to be chauffeured home in heated comfort on a cold February night. Innocent Frankie and Paulie had to walk. Well, at least we could feel our parents’ tax dollars at work.   

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And so wordlessly Patsy and I climbed unceremoniously into the back of the police car – no handcuffs, no locked doors, no gently guiding hand on the head so we didn’t hit our noggins on the roof getting in and no light show atop the 1972 Ford LTD Police Package cop car. As our paddy wagon/personal chauffeur pulled out of Mel’s parking lot, the gravity of the situation hit me like a ton of very soft feathers. This was a big deal – the cop car that is. I couldn’t fathom how stripped down this Police Package Ford was: no carpet, no ashtrays, no nothing. Just vinyl bench seats and hubcaps. Someone watching the scene might wonder if this was a gateway crime for these 2 rebel lads getting mixed up with the law. And they’d be right. It did lead to me taking extra ketchup and sugar packets for my own personal use.  

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Even though I lived closer and should’ve been the first stop, Patsy asked me if we could go to his house first so my somewhat sensible presence might somehow dampen the wrath of his parents. I was a regular Father Flanagan in dolling out absolution that night; first Frankie and Paulie, and now Patsy. When Mr. & Mrs. Barricella (Mary and Nicky) saw that level-headed David had been in on this mischief, they probably thought it couldn’t have been that significant if the Hardiman boy had been involved in it. And they’d be right. We wuz just some kids looking for a little harmless fun after adrenalizing our mojo by playing dodge ball.  

 

A Real Surprise for Mom

With Patsy “incarcerated” at home on Clover Ridge Drive and me in-“car”-cerated in the back of a barebones Ford Police Car, I found myself unusually composed. Although I did wonder if Officer Friendly had somehow known about the “case of the purloined gum” at Carl’s Drugs 2 years ago. “How could he,” I fretted? But what if he did? It might increase the charges from simple “doorbell ditching” to “aggravated doorbell ditching with an enhancement of picture window battery.”

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I quickly flushed all those anxious thoughts away and prepared to be driven home. And in a strange turnabout, it became incumbent on me, the offender, to offer driving directions to my chauffeur/jailerman. He needed my help and I was all too happy to assist in those pre-GPS days. As he backed out of the Barricella’s driveway, 11 year-old, doorbell ditching mastermind David Hardiman began issuing commanding tones from the back seat, instructing Officer Friendly with directions to my house:

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“You should make a left on Clover Ridge then proceed along Caleb Avenue. It forks up here and you can either take Sunnycrest or stay on Caleb. It’s 6 of 1, half a dozen of the other officer. I prefer Sunnycrest myself because there are fewer stop signs,” I explained with the cool exactitude of an air traffic controller (which I’d later become) and not some felonious rabble consigned to a life of turnstile imprisonment.

Every moment was more and more reminiscent of a Dali painting – each of us playing our part in a very surreal way.

“Umm, OK.” stammered the somewhat flummoxed police officer, recognizing my maturity, relative intelligence and the farcical aspect of this entire affair. I should’ve just asked him to let me out on the corner and he probably would’ve complied, but even I wanted to see how this story played out, so on to 524 South Edwards we proceeded.

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This was the first time a cop car had been parked in my driveway, and it wouldn’t be the last, because a few years later my mom dated a Syracuse cop – a motorcycle cop. As I had a thousand times before, I walked in through the familiar garage door and into the den. But unlike the other thousand times I did this, there was a gun-toting 6’2” police officer trailing me at my six o’clock. I could hear my mother in the kitchen eating a late dinner. There was a full length dividing wall between the den and the kitchen. I walked around the wall and sheepishly offered a, “Hi mom.”

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She looked up and said, “Hi David. How was Night G…”

Before she could finish her sentence, Officer Friendly hove into view from behind that same wall. His starched uniformed presence was now fully absorbed by my mother. I remember her dropping her fork and standing up, expecting the worst. When this Dr. Phil of police officers calmly explained the situation to my fretting mother, she quickly grew reassured and sat back down as normalcy was restored. Happily there were no body chalk lines involved in this most piddling of indiscretions and the officer’s soothing and warm demeanor defused any worries my mom might have had about my future. She thanked him for “watching out for me,” and the officer soon departed without writing me a ticket, a summons or anything else that might become part of my permanent record. I don’t think he even knew about the gum – or if he did he kept it to himself.  

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Mom had plenty of other problems to worry about and the notion that her precocious son was doomed to a life of crime was not one of them. The entire tempest had blown over by 9 o’clock. In fact, I told this story recently at a family gathering and mom didn’t even remember it. The time a sleepwalking little David peed down the laundry chute she remembered (and often reminds people in public). But my being brought home by the police was completely blotted from her memories.

 

No Bang for the Buck

The next day at school I’d hoped the word got around to Dawn DeFuria, Theresa Dudley and Diane LaBella that Hardiman had been picked-up by the cops last night and somehow lived to tell about it. Maybe now they’d want to know what made this “rebel without a cause” tick. But my nefarious achievement was eclipsed by the fact that the cafeteria was serving its once-a-year pizza for lunch. That seemed to be more worthy of celebration than my having stared hard time in the eye and watched it blink. The Hardiman boomlet was over before it even began. So I swallowed my pride along with some really bad pizza that day and got back to my baseball cards, Hot Wheels and just being a kid.   

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How could I not respect this kind of admirable community policing? I was definitely not a rebel in the making. I was more of a Good Samaritan in the making. I fought authority and authority co-opted me.

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I’m not proud of my brush with the law, but I’m not ashamed of it either. And from 50 years out I’ve probably committed more incidental wickedness in burning up tanks of gas or eating unsustainably caught fish, than in any amount of unwanted doorbell ringing. It’s a mad, mad, incomprehensible world out there. What else would you expect from a little terrestrial planet of 8 billion people orbiting in a Milky Way Galaxy of 100 billion stars that’s 100,000 light years across? And all this enormity exists in a vast universe of perhaps 8 trillion galaxies.

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I know. You were told there wouldn’t be math. Well it’s not math. It’s just statistics. Astronomers describe the embryonic state of affairs in the cosmos by declaring, “it appears our universe is still rather young and a little reckless.”

I see it somewhat differently. I would say our universe is barely juvenile and hardly delinquent. As above, so below.

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