My First Scam Miles in Jr High May 14, 2020 3:14:22 GMT
Post by miles on May 14, 2020 3:14:22 GMT
My First Scam
From a superficial perspective, I was a good kid in elementary school, polite, got good grades and generally fit in. Arriving at Jr. High was a scary dip in the big pool. Endless pale green halls of lockers, loud echoes of yelling kids, most everyone a stranger, moving in a chaotic flood to the next period class.. I continued my focus on studies and attempted high test scores. On the social front, adjustments would have to be made. The best survival strategy was being anonymous, to not draw attention to myself, by wearing uncool or colorful clothing, for instance. I learned the skill of gracefully avoiding a tormentor, by weaving through the crowded halls and disappearing. I stuck with a small number of old friends, and looked for new ones. I was elected president of my home class, and projected positivity
It was but a disguise. Underneath my bland exterior beat the heart of a petty criminal, waiting for an opportunity to bend the system to my advantage. My grandparents gave me a meager allowance at this time, a dollar or so a week. Approaching age 14, I came upon a scam to improve my situation, a transgression involving a meager diversion of funds. My own form of teenage rebellion.
Unlike my Elementary school days, I no longer brought a daily bag lunch. Every morning , 3 quarters were waiting for me on the kitchen counter, to eat in the cafeteria. I went to there for a few weeks and got one of their standard meals such as burgers, gross pasta and canned fruit. I found a chair and ate forlornly in the mayhem of the crowded lunch room. Thankfully there was another option.
I discovered a food cart in the schoolyard, where you spent the remainder of the lunch period. They sold cookies, milk and snacks. When I saw the price list, opportunity had knocked, and a scam was born. The cookies were a thing a of wonder, warm, hefty and fragrant . oatmeal, shortbread, and peanut butter became favorites, each had a satisfying crunch. The vendor handed you a massive slab of goodness in a piece of wax paper. You really did need a milk to polish off one of those toothsome suckers. The milk-cookie combo set you back 15 cents. When boredom set in, I sometimes substituted a bag of peanuts.
Bypassing the repugnant cafeteria offerings and relying on food cart cookies, I could pocket up to 60 cents a day. Crime paid, it seemed, I was easily tripling my spending money. The quarters accumulated in an old metal bank, buried in a sock drawer, my clandestine stash.
Now you may wonder what drove a good boy to theft, motivate an honest boy to deceitful acts and lies of omission? A compulsion, some sort of addiction or disorder? Did I take my pocket full of quarters to the Haight Ashbury and score some acid? Did I buy second hand Playboy Magazines, from a schoolmate? Did I pig out on ice cream sundays? No, I had a worse habit, I had become a music collector.
The beneficiary of my purloined lunch money was a 50s era mini-mall shopping center, located within a bike ride from home. It was originally a government/union membership store, Government Employees Together, known as G.E.T. On opposite sides of the street parking ran block long structures containing smaller, interconnected departments. I haunted the downstairs record section of the store, pouring over the inventory, looking for a candidate on which to spend my illicit funds.
I had a small collection of LP’s and singles. Originally comedy albums prevailed, Alan Sherman, Bill Cosby, The Smothers Brothers, and The Chipmunks. The Beatles invaded my collection in 1965 with Rubber Soul, followed by The Monkees, The Association and The Jefferson Airplane. These were mainstream records found at any kid’s house. My musical obsession was a more obscure folk singer named Phil Ochs.
In late 1967 I’d heard a single of his on AM radio—it was San Francisco after all—and that was it. Outside of Small Circle of Friends was savage and hilarious, a complete repudiation of America’s hypocrisy and its apathy to injustice and cruelty. A woman is murdered in a park, traffic accident victims lie abandoned by fellow motorists, ghetto children are plagued by rats and racist cops. This was not your ordinary pop song. The upbeat tempo and delivery undercut the brutality of the lyrics. It was the line “Smoking marijuana is more fun than drinking beer,” that probably kept this catchy protest song from becoming a top 40 hit. Or was it Phil’s history as a hard left political acctivist/artist that squashed his best shot at pop stardom? Meanwhile, the ubiquitous Dylan, having left his political material behind, was well represented on AM radio.
No matter, Phil Had me with one listen, I bought the album, Pleasures of the Harbor, and played it through. It was extremely dense and literate, most songs 6 minutes or longer with elaborate orchestrations. His voice was an acquired taste, nasal and with vibrato, but the ambition and power of his songs prevailed, and then you started to like his voice. Playing the Pleasures album religiously every day after school became my ritual, every nuance was memorized, the appropriate mood of each song observed. A couple pieces were caustic commentaries, similar to Circle of Friends. Others painted scenes and characters with tenderness and empathy. Pleasures of the Harbor, the title song, is a miniature film, as is the wise, omniscient panorama unwinding in The Flower Lady. The Crucifixion was the most unnerving of all, an experimental musical epic complete with bizarre electronic sounds, depicting the “cycle of sacrifice" that snared both Jesus and JFK.
There were other Phil Ochs records looking back at me from the bins, from his earlier protest singer period. I bought those too. The next summer brought his Tape From California, which I played every bit as much as its predecessor. His take on war was a major influence on me. Vietnam was in the spotlight, but more generally he exposed the puppet masters behind the scenes, turning the slaughter into cash. Phil’s exposes of lawful injustice, overt racism, and the oppression of the poor and working classes, fed my growing radicalization. He brought an outspoken Marxist perspective to contemporary events with melody and humor, following a long tradition of folksingers like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. My musical hero was quickly turning me into a commie.
My record buying had a pattern. Attracted to a particular song of biting social criticism, I would covet the album it appeared on, and prey it would be in the G.E.T. bins. Then, count up my quarters until the fateful day I would bring it home and open the shrink wrap.
It took 1 hearing of Arlo Guthrie’s Alice’s Restaurant on the radio, to make it a must have. I was elated, bringing it home on my bike at sunset, in the basket on my handlebars. My attempt to read the liner notes as I rode was almost disastrous.
Country Joe and Fish’s anti-Vietnam anthem, I Feel Like i’m Fixing to Die delighted me with its gallows humor. When I could take in the album as a whole, I realized there was much more there, something spiritual, personally validating, a universal consciousness. Like with Phil Ochs, the catchy political ditties faded in comparison to the wonder in the depths. That was the joy of music, thinking you know what you’re getting and having the doors of your mind flung open.
At some point, I didn’t need to pinch quarters anymore. My allowance increased, and I picked up a few bucks cutting lawns in the neighborhood. All scams are destined to be abandoned, or discovered. I graduated from Jr High and left San Francisco to live in Las Vegas with my father. No more furtive cookie lunches, or sock drawers swimming with quarters. For the move, I had to give away most of my possessions, but my precious stack of records made the cut. After all that, I was definitely keeping them.