The Time I Shoplifted from Speedway Drugs

The side of the retail space that once housed Speedway Drugs; it’s now a Duane Reade and medical center. That door near the center of the picture is about where the old Speedway Drugs side door—that I used for exiting after grabbing stuff—used to be. (Photo by Jack Szwergold; Taken November 24, 2018)

It was another boring day in 1975 or 1976 and I — as a kid — was doing what I normally did on such a day: Play around with neighborhood kids on our block with occasional breaks to do something else.

And on this particular day I was playing in front of Speedway Drugs which was right next to my building on Ocean Parkway. It was a bright and sunny day and the air was filled with the smell of freshly cut grass in front of my building thanks to Johnny and his hand operated lawn mower.

At some point — when I got bored doing whatever I was doing — I decided to go into Speedway Drugs to take a break and browse the toy rack.

I walked inside and waved to Jack the pharmacist behind the counter. He was a nice guy and I was personally proud to have the same name as someone as important as the pharmacist at the local corner drug store. It’s like I was a part of a special little “Jack” club.

Then I headed straight to the toy aisle and checked out what I could see on that rack. They always had a decent selection of cheap — but fun — rack toy stuff. And today, I spotted something right up my alley: Some plastic Civil War toy soldiers. One pack of Union soldiers and another pack of Confederate soldiers.

Now I wasn’t some kind of Civil War nut as a kid, but I learned about it on a basic level in elementary school and these figures looked cool. Unlike those classic, ubiquitous green toy soldier army men, these soldiers were made up multiple pieces of differently colored plastic and seemed to have more thought put into them. Some parts of them were flesh colored, others were navy blue or light grey with some parts dark green or dark brown. And damn, did I want them! But they were like $2.99 per pack and I had nothing saved up in my allowance to cover that kind of purchase. And besides, if I got a set of Union soldiers I would need to get another set of Confederate soldiers, right? So that’s like a $6 investment right there.

So I walked back to the front of the store, looked over the selection of items available in the vending machines near the store’s entrance and dejectedly walked back out into the afternoon sun empty-handed.

When I walked outside I ran into some random neighborhood kid. Honestly don’t remember who, but he asked me what I got from the store. I mean, if you went into a store it was to get something right?

“Nothing,” I said. “Why?” he asked. “I don’t have enough money,” I said. “So what?” he responded as he turned his head and looked down the block.

I looked to where he was looking and then we both walked a bit down the block next to the side of Speedway and he pointed to the side door.

“So what?” I said.

“You never went in to the store that way?” he asked and I shook my head “No…”

“Look, you can go into the store in the front and then shove stuff under your shirt and leave this way,” he said looking at me with this “You know what I mean?” look on his face.

I knew what he meant. But that was stealing and that was wrong so I asked, “But that’s stealing?” and he responded, “So what?” with an ambivalent shrug.

We were both kids and I guess this was my childhood introduction to shoplifting. So I asked, “What if we get caught? I don’t want to get in trouble.

“Don’t worry!” he said. “Let’s just do it,” he added.

So with that we both walked into the store to do the deed.

While I was a little tense and my palms were sweaty, he seemed cool; I guess that’s because he did this before.

We walked up to the toy rack and I showed him the Civil War figures. “They look cool!” he said. Then he moved around from one side of me to another and said, “You first.” I looked at him, looked at Jack the pharmacist behind the counter — who was not looking at us — and then looked at the toys.

I pulled out the front of my t-shirt and shoved one pack of Civil War soldiers under my shirt while trying to hold it inconspicuously as if it wasn’t right there shoved under my shirt. He went ahead and grabbed another set and did the same thing.

We both then carefully — and inconspicuously — walked to the side door. I opened the door, went outside and he followed close behind. The afternoon sun was bright and almost blinding. And as the door swung closed, without missing a beat, we ran straight up the block towards my building and leapt over the small brick wall, down the slight alley — where they made oil deliveries — and into the building lobby.

A safe distance away from the store, I pulled out the pack of soldiers I had under my shirt and he pulled the pack he had and gave it to me.

“Wow!” I said, “We did it!” I added. “See!” he said, “No problem!” he added.

I gave him a high five and he went back outside to play with other kids. I felt like I owed him something for the effort, but he seemed like a pro at this kinda kid shoplifting stuff so he just smiled and didn’t say much more or ask for anything. He was simply sharing some knowledge he had with me and not much else.

I buzzed the buzzer and my dad let me in. I was so in the moment after that shoplifting escapade I completely forgot that I had those packs of toys in my hand as my dad opened the apartment door and I headed inside.

“What are those?” my dad asked. “Where did you get them?” he added. I stood there and paused for a second and said, “I got them from some friends,” I said. “I traded some stuff for them,” I quickly added.

He looked at me and accepted what I said at face value but was clearly not that convinced. But at least he didn’t take them away from me and that was what was important.

I headed into my room, opened up the packages and played with those toys. Like most rack toys, they weren’t the greatest toys in the world, but they were definitely really cool to look at. Before you knew it I had some improvised Civil War action happening on my floor.

Later that evening, my dad came into my room to give me dinner and asked me about those toys again, “Friends gave those to you?” he asked. And I said, “Yes! I traded stuff for them.” And he again accepted what I said but still seemed skeptical.

I got up of of the floor to go and eat but also made sure to put the soldiers out on my desk and put them on display with some of the other stuff I had on my desk. Honestly, they were nicer to look at than play with.

The next day I woke up and it was a seemingly normal day. My dad was up earlier than me and was out shopping and I was putzing around my room doing not much of anything as per usual.

I played around with those Civil War figures some more when I started to get bored and decided I should just go outside and do something else.

So I ran downstairs, met up with some neighborhood kids and played around with them for a while.

Then my dad showed up and said he wanted to talk to me.

“Where did you get those toys?” he said a bit more sternly than the other times he asked the same question. To which I said what I said before, “I got them from a friend.”

He looked at me exasperatedly and said we needed to go upstairs. So upstairs we went.

When we got upstairs he went into my room with me, and told me to take a few of the Civil War toys downstairs with me. He wasn’t exactly angry but he wasn’t exactly happy either.

So I took a few of the toys, and he said we needed to go downstairs. My mom shouted, “What’s happening?” and my dad responded to her in Yiddish or Polish as we walked out of the apartment.

All the way downstairs my dad looked at me weirdly. “Where are we going?” I asked. “To Speedway,” he said. “We need to talk to Jack.” he added.

Now I started to understand what was happening.

I should say something like the walk to the corner felt like an eternity or nonsense like that. It didn’t. It was actually a nice day and it was around dusk and the sky was nice to look at and calm. The ocean breeze still in the air and it was an overall chill night.

But then when I took my first steps inside of Speedway, I started to feel tense and a bit nervous and disoriented. My hands started to sweat as I held onto my plastic Civil War soldiers in my jacket pockets.

Jack the pharmacist was behind the counter and greeted my dad with a smile. But he — and some other woman behind the counter — soon put on a shameful scowl as he looked down towards me.

“Jack,” my dad said to me, “Show Jack the toys you have.”

And nervously I pulled a few Civil War soldiers and related junk out of my pocket and held them up so Jack the pharmacist could see them.

“Yeah,” Jack the pharmacist said. “Those are the ones that he took,” he added.

My dad then leaned down and looked me in the face and said with a thick, deliberate accent, “Why did you do this?”

I looked at him, looked around me, then looked down and just felt like crying, but didn’t. I just turned my head up, looked at my dad and said, “I don’t know.”

He looked at me, shook me a bit by one of my shoulders and said, “Don’t do this again, right?” And I quietly and slowly nodded and said, “Okay…” as he stood up and asked Jack the pharmacist how much he owed him for the toys.

Jack said something like, “No… Don’t worry…” but my dad insisted that he take some money so I saw a few dollar bills pass from my dad’s hands to the counter.

Jack the pharmacist took the money and then looked at me and said, “Don’t steal!” and I nodded silently in agreement. Shortly after that, my dad and I were outside on the street walking back home.

When we got to the front of our building, my dad stayed downstairs to gossip with some of the other folks who were just hanging around out in front of the building as they always did. I said goodbye to him and headed back upstairs to play around with the Civil War soldiers on my desk before heading to bed for the night.

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Jack Szwergold

Jack Szwergold

An acute perception does not make you crazy. However, sometimes it drives you crazy.