Why would I reveal a perfectly executed petit larceny committed at the tender age of 12 while working the portable hot dog stand at our end of year elementary school celebration? Because I want to redeem myself for my wretchedness. I’m not confessing so much to exorcise my demons, as I am taking the advice of the band Heart, who encouraged us to “♫Even it up, even it up, even it up♫.”
It is often said that justice delayed is justice denied. And that may be the case in this instance. But what choice do I have in correcting something 43 years after the fact? I’m just trying to restore things to their original equilibrium and this self-correcting expose is as good a starting point as any. Perhaps my bite-sized, youthful indiscretion can be remedied with the same ease in which it was committed. I sure hope so. When it comes to appeasing the exacting justice of the Lord of Karma I hedge my bets. For example, I donate to a couple of food banks and I’ve always made a point to tip 20% even when the service was only 15% worthy. In this particular case I’m attempting to “unscrew” something I so blithely screwed-up in the first place.
So in that unique way humans have of pretending to know exactly what they’re doing when actually they’re really just flailing around hoping something good comes of their efforts; I’m going to clumsily right the smallest of wrongs. And I’m going to explain the whole process to both entertain and enlighten you. In this way I won’t so much “straighten up and fly right” as I will “get less crooked and fly righter.”
For those of you who don’t know me, my name is David Hardiman and I grew up in Syracuse, NY. For those of you who do know me, I’m surprised you’re still reading. Anyway, as you can tell, it’s not always easy being me. I’m a middle aged man (if I live to be 110) and as I’ve gotten older I desire to make amends for all the bad things I’ve done for 2 reasons: It’s the right thing to do and the statute of limitations has run out on them. It may be an illusion that 43 years after the fact I can balance some kind of cosmic ledger managed by accounting angels who’ve got nothing better to do than keep track of who’s been naughty or nice, but it’s an illusion I’m willing to suffer.
I know this much: my struggle to unwind this long ago petty affront is all about intent. I no longer want to be saddled with the karma of a few ignorant events from that small portion of my youth that was misspent. In other words I was too dumb to pay it forward so now I’m trying to pay it backwards. I hope to chip away at some of the indiscretions that may have stunted my development so I may move on, unfettered by some long ago youthful indiscretion blocking my path.
Most things in life we can’t control. Things like hair loss, losing one’s hair loss and going bald come to mind. But where comb overs fall short and toupees are too obvious, there are other areas where perhaps I can make the world right. This is my carpe diem moment. And in this instance I’m trying to preemptively inoculate myself against the lasting effects of the predictable results of imperfect behavior. And to do so, my strategy involves the short reach of human limitation in picking my low-hanging indiscretions. So instead of reaching for the stars, I’ll grab for the low-hanging fruit in the hope that by working on the micro, I’ll heal the macro.
That’s the premise anyway. The details are to follow and that’s where we usually find the Devil.
A Little Back Story
As a child I attended Huntington Elementary School in Syracuse, NY for 7 long years. I’d hoped for shorter years, but the time-space continuum is yet another thing I cannot control. At the end of every school year there was a celebration of sorts in the cheerily transformed school parking lot and its adjacent fields. As if the end of the interminable school year wasn’t reward enough, we got a party to boot. This PTO sponsored Fair only made the whole day an orgy of good tidings. It was like, “Here’s your ice cream little David. Would you like some chocolate and nuts on it too?” Jesus – a good thing gone better. Not that I was one of those “No more teachers, No more books” malcontents. I had no hostility toward school, I was just glad to get out. I wanted my time to be my own. Still do. I’m probably preaching to the choir here.
What a glorious day in the making it was. A balmy half-day of school with ZERO school work and a very serious party to follow (a 6th grader’s version of going clubbing). It was Wednesday June 20th 1973. Nixon was in the White House, but not for long. Paul McCartney was #1 on the charts again with “My Love” and All in the Family was the #1 TV show. Closer to home, rumors from my nether regions indicated the development of a pubic hair.
On this happy day, my classmates and I played games, returned our text books and cleaned out our desks (which still had a cylindrical space in them reserved for ink wells). The entire student population ratcheted-up the giddy factor to DEFCON 5 as we prepared to launch our limitless adolescent energy on an unsuspecting summer. It was a good time to be middle class in Syracuse, NY. All this and a party to boot. Pretty sweet. This was the culmination of 7 years of schooling all in the same building (K-6). I didn’t really grasp that I wouldn’t be returning to this familiar institution I’d mastered so completely and where I considered myself, if not Lord of the Manor, then certainly one of its Kingsh*ts. Junior high school would be another story.
But for now I’m here to tell you of my unexpected fall from grace and my belated attempt at salvation in 2 parts: Confession and Redemption.
Being one of the more prominent (I was tall) and mature (I discussed Vito Corleone as the epitome of an antihero) students, my 6th grade teacher Miss Visconti asked if I’d like to participate in the end of year Fair by assisting our ever-solicitous lunch ladies in the portable hot dog stand. I was expected to sell hot dogs, fill conical soda cups (soda was still a little exotic in the early 70’s and was doled out preciously) and vend snacks like Fritos Corn Chips (one flavor only) and Lay’s Potato Chips (“no one can eat just one”). It was an offer I couldn’t refuse. It was an honor to crack open a brand new paper hat and enter the world of food service where I’d mix with full-fledged adults while selling to my peers. So cool to be placed in this position of trust. It was so grown up. I was actually privy to conversations where teachers referred to themselves by their first names. Their first names! “Mildred, where should I tape these balloons?” “Oh, Gladys, you ask me that every year.” My God, this was Mrs. Bushey and Mrs. Renaud talking just like regular people. What kind of magic kingdom had I entered?
Most of the students bought tickets to the fair which were used as a scrip for everything from the Fishing Booth to the Dunk Tank to the Hot Dog stand. However the use of these tickets wasn’t mandatory and some students used hard cold cash. And here is where the story of my fall from grace and crawl back to redemption begins.
It is no wonder the rickety little food cart I manned generated steady business. Hot dogs, soda and chips were at the apex of the adolescent food pyramid and this was lunch time. The balloon-festooned cart occupied by myself, Mrs. York (Jeff’s mom) and Miss Bradkee (retired lunch lady emeritus) was surrounded and stormed by ravenous little children with skinny outstretched arms hoping for the fatty, empty calories the grown-ups would bestow upon their growling little tummies. I was perched in the catbird’s seat, looking out upon a sea of famished faces and choosing my favored ones while pretending others didn’t exist. What a bad King I’d make. My favored ones were anyone paying cash.
When I saw all that money waving at me it activated my larcenous doppelgänger. Seeing all those dollar signs caused me to see dollar signs – it was redundant and seductive. Without any prompting on my part, a series of failsafe criminal mechanisms began to present themselves. For example, I immediately recognized there was no inventory system accounting for any of the items sold or, more importantly, the cash that purchased it. I surmised the cash box operated entirely on the honor system and I dishonored myself and others by pocketing the cash crossing my palms. I was no longer a privileged food service trainee in a paper hat. I’d become a cash-seeking grifter. How could I have sunk so low? I don’t know. Ask my doppelganger. I didn’t know I even had a dark side but there it was; getting something for nothing. Or so it seemed.
Dutiful Cynthia McKinley who’d been waiting in line for 5 minutes and may have been in the throes of insulin shock was bypassed when little Dawn DeFuria, who’d just arrived at the back of the hoard, was summoned forward because she waved a dollar bill before my opportunistic eyes.
“Step right up Dawnie. What’ll ya have?” I beckoned like an oleaginous carnival barker.
“Hey Dave. Can you believe we’re graduating from grade school and about to enter junior high school? This will be our last time here after 7 years? When I started here I was a little girl and now look at me, I just bought my first Kotex yesterday.” she reminisced.
“That’s great Dawn. A little less chat, a little more cash. Er, ah, I mean may I get you a hot dog and how would you like to pay for that?” I stammered, clearly in thrall of the loot seductively waved before me while being dismissive of her heartfelt “we will never pass this way again” sentimentality.
The transaction went thusly: Dawn gave me “$1 for a meal deal that cost 45¢. I returned her 55¢ and without anyone noticing I stealthily slipped the dollar bill into my jeans pocket. Perfect perfidy. Who knew? Just me. Oh this was too easy. It was like taking money from a 12 year old. In fact it was taking money from a 12 year old; and 7 year olds, and 9 year olds and cheating the PTO to boot. By the end of the fair I’d stolen about $11 in cold, hard cash. Quite a haul for a “prominent and mature student” in an era when Twinkies and baseball cards cost 25¢ a pack. By now I wasn’t even a sympathetic antihero; I’d become a deceitful villain.
And then it was over. Teachers tearfully hugged students, booths were struck, parents picked-up exuberant children and the tawdry scene of my financial malfeasance (the hot dog stand) was towed away. Now it was my turn to quit the scene of some of my greatest triumphs; and, as of late, my greatest treachery. And I did so with all the fashionable alienation a 12 year old could muster. I turned my back on a school I would never attend again and walked home with a dirty little secret in my pants, in addition to the $11.
Redemption (Yes, Please)
Now I don’t know what real redemption is (again with the flailing) or if my indiscretion even registered with the Lords of Kama as something redeemable. And it’s not like I think about this event every day or carry it around like a cross, I do however know it counted somehow, someplace in the cosmic ledger.
So recently when this incident passed before my consciousness, instead of letting its contours rise and crash like the usual wave, I arrested the thought at its lowest trough and dredged it up for a good barnacle scrubbing. I would attempt to rectify this unresolved situation with what I thought the perfect stratagem. I would call my first alma mater and offer a check of $100 to the Huntington PTO in exchange for them removing my guilt. It wasn’t a watertight scheme. But it contained all the elements of a resolution…from the perspective of a 5 year old playing in a sandbox. As I exhaustively and all too eagerly explained the long sordid story of my malfeasance to PTO President Cheryl D’Onofrio, she interrupted me in the middle of my rambling mea culpa and said something I’ll never forget; “That’s great Dave. Less chat more cash.”
We laughed. It had all come full circle and I was relieved of both my adolescent sin and my adult $100. Thank you Huntington PTO. Without you I’m nothing but a vile villain. But with you I’ve been restored to sympathetic antihero status. I’m so glad I made them an offer they couldn’t refuse.
In some ways my act of contrition was akin to the medieval practice of buying an indulgence from the Catholic Church – I paid for something you can’t really buy, and they pretended to give me something they couldn’t really give. Others may feel my contrition was nothing more than an ass-backwards form of blackmail whereby I paid someone money so the truth would be told. Now I don’t know if this ham-handed attempt at paying my debt to society (or at least to the Huntington PTO) absolves me of anything. I do know that perception is 9/10ths of actuality. And this feeling comes from the Heart when I say I hope I’ve: ♫Evened it up, evened it up, evened it up♫.