The phrase is seasonal, applying to children in particular, but after digging deeper I discovered the words described some of my year-round behaviors, and not just as a youngster. “Naughty” originally meant “not a whit” then eventually evolved to disobedient. “Nice,” surprisingly, meant stupid (one of my least favorite words) or ignorant. In my efforts to discover what makes me tick I’ve embarrassingly found that all four definitions have applied to me—a “gift” I’d often like to leave wrapped and unopened under the tree.
The following two short tales involving mischief, mistakes and misdemeanors fall under the category “Roger, what were you thinking?”
I wasn’t, in either instance.
The first story takes place years ago on a sunny Saturday in December when I met up with three seven-year-old buddies at the horse trough by five corners—the intersection of Farragut Avenue, Broadway, Main Street, and Chauncey Lane—in our hometown, Hastings-on-Hudson. Three inches of snow had fallen during the night making for great sledding and snowball fights, and boys-will-be-boys horseplay. After careening down a few nearby hills we became restless for new adventure, stashed our sleds, crossed five corners and with mischief in mind headed down Main Street into the center of town.
We teased, jostled and threw snowballs at each other until we reached the five and dime store where our shared hunger for candy had us remove our gloves and search for the monies that would satisfy our cravings—we didn’t have a penny among us. Bruce, Billy or Johnny may have suggested it, but I think it was my idea to try our hand at shoplifting. The owner, a stern, unfriendly and old bespectacled grump of a man rarely came out from behind the check-out counter. We mimicked him before and after making our frequent purchases.
I recall displaying a false bravado as I swaggered down the candy aisle while my friends hung around the Christmas decorations near the front counter. I filled my coat pockets with boxes of Good ‘n Plenty and packages of Juicy Fruit gum then headed back to the front of the store only to discover that my friends had left and the owner, glasses perched on the bridge of his nose, was blocking the exit.
“What have you got in your pockets?” he asked.
“Nothing,” I replied.
“They look pretty full to me,” he responded. “Why don’t you empty your pockets here,” he said as he tapped his finger on the countertop. By this time all swagger was gone, and I sheepishly obeyed his command. He reached behind the counter, retrieved then slammed the phone book down in front of me. “What’s your name?” he asked. I tried to pronounce it but hesitated as terror tightened its grip on me. “Speak up!” he shouted.
I stammered and identified myself as he licked his thumb and began paging through the directory. I could barely stand while he rustled through the book to the M’s, and then he shut the book and stared at me—a quaking, terrified squirt of a kid. He didn’t waver and I didn’t move. Finally, after what seemed forever, he picked up several of the packages of gum and boxes of candy, held them in front of me and said, “Merry Christmas, share these with your friends, and remember what happened here today—now, leave my store.”
The next time I walked into his store I was a senior in high school, and I was certain he recognized me even though he never said a word. I remember the feeling of being caught, the guilt, and the shame I experienced standing in the shopkeeper’s presence. Some life lessons, however, require repetition (at least for me they do), and though I broke rules, told untruths and committed acts of mischief and made mistakes I wasn’t tempted to shoplift until years later when a graduate school classmate dared me to do so.
My wife and I lived in a small guest house in La Canada, California, and had invited friends over for a Christmas party—a celebratory night of music, food ‘n drink, and excellent weed. She was a high school teacher and I was pursuing a doctorate in psychology. Aren’t those two good reasons for me to mind my “P’s and Q’s”? Apparently not because when we consumed the last of the Galliano we were using to make Harvey Wallbangers a classmate and I drove to the nearby Ralph’s Supermarket where I accepted his dare to shoplift a tall, gallon bottle of Galliano. It was close to midnight on a rainy December Saturday night and I’d grabbed the first available coat, a black trench coat, from our small closet—a fortuitous choice if I was to successfully pull off the heist of the liqueur—which, to my shame, I did.
The last of the guests left in the early morning hours, and did so without consuming more alcohol, choosing instead to satisfy their munchies by devouring all the festive Christmas cookies arrayed on the kitchen counter.
The 36” high, attractive bottle of Galliano remained upright and centurion-like in a corner of our tiny living room, a shopkeeper presence and reminder of a little boy’s thievery that for three weeks wouldn’t leave me be. Finally, guilt-ridden and feeling shame, I returned to the market on Christmas Eve, bottle unopened and openly displayed as I walked over to Glen, the assistant manager and an acquaintance, and revealed my crime as well as my earlier shoplifting event. He smiled, accepted the bottle and my story, and then wished me a Merry Christmas.
“Do I owe you anything?” I asked.
“No, I think you’ve paid your dues, enjoy the holidays.”
In the years since, as in the ones before, I’ve been mischievous, made mistakes, and committed regrettable acts. Advent has been a celebratory time of year for me, a reflective period when reluctant accountability is mixed with hope for new beginnings, and the gift of grace is not only present in the Christmas story, but in the recollections of forgiveness from an aging shopkeeper, an assistant store manager, and others who’ve made my “bumpy” journey less jarring.
Merry Christmas, and thank you.