The first thing I ever did to indicate the direction I was heading resulted from letting my kid sister, Kate, annoy me. I was 3.3 at the time and tiny for my age; she was a martinet of 2 and already bigger and brighter than me.
We lived in a drafty 19th century farmhouse on the brick street of a south side neighborhood in a small midwestern town back then, where her crib sat in my parents bedroom, being used one night to corral us while company visited.
It was late. We were lying back-to-back. I was weary and wanting to sleep. She was incessantly demanding that I “Get out! Get out! Get out! Get out!” of her bed until I got fed up and gave her a reason to bellyache.
I peed on her.
That was my crime.
As punishment, every person Kate introduced me to from that night onward included the preamble, “This is my sister, Margie. When we were kids she peed on me,” invariably prompting the retelling of our toddler turf war.
The last time she introduced me was to her late shift hospice nurse in May of 2015. It’s allowed her to maintain the upper hand on my heart, forevermore.
When I was not quite five I crossed a busy street in the middle of the block after being warned never to do so.
That was my crime.
As punishment I was, first, hit by a taxicab, and then vilified by my kindergarten teacher, Miss Beech, for losing the school’s celebrated green-and-white stick figure safety flag awarded to the most accident-free district. I spent all of kindergarten, first, and much of second grade shunned.
The alienation ended when we moved from our neighborhood into the school district that was presented the prestigious safety flag after my mishap.
In junior high school my best friend was Beverly Brown. During the summer of 1959 we’d frequent the Bloomfield Elementary School playground where all the neighborhood kids hung out.
One day I discovered the basement door to the school was left open. Upon further exploration, I found I could easily walk through the door of the humongous furnace, and crawl through the boiler tunnels leading to classrooms located on the first and second floors.
Inspired, I became an entrepreneur as The Bloomfield Boiler Guide charging a quarter per tour, commencing with a Cokes & Chips Party in the furnace chamber while whistling to Mitch Miller’s The River Kwai blaring repetitively on Bev’s Stromburg Carlson portable record player.
That was my crime.
At the end of the first tour we were, one-by-one, greeted by police officers as we gaily emerged from the furnace and transported by patrol cars, sirens screaming all the way to the joint where we were sentenced to sit on hard benches behind bars until parents arrived to spring us.
That was my punishment.
Bev’s were there within minutes. Mine never came.
After six hours, a change in shift occurred and I was released to walk home feeling my claim to chain gang fame crumble.
At age 14, I forged my parents signatures to wangle a coveted 40 hour a week job working 5 hour weeknights and 15 hour Saturdays as the record department sales and inventory control clerk at Hopkins, the most popular electronics store in town.
The Hopkins family consisted of the Magooish father, Robert, Sr., who was obsessed with soybeans, and two feuding brothers, Motorola Bob and Prince John, the latter being a local disc jockey who depended on me to choose the best of the latest released demo records arriving daily in the mail for playing on his prime time show. All three men were members of the Kiwanis Club which placed a freestanding, glass globe, stainless steel Ford Gumball machine at the entrance to my music department.
Ford gumballs came in pristine white, cadmium yellow, royal blue, Pepto pink, and verdant green, each with a fiend thirsty flavor cementing a brisk business as the best penny chews of the 50s and 60s.
Back then, 45 RPM records were a buck plus one cent tax the dollar, so Magoo kept plenty of pennies on the top of the cash register to pay the tax for any customer short of change.
As it so happened, I was addicted to Ford gumballs.
That was my crime.
I used the freebie pennies and a few from the till to treat my multi-record buying customers to a free gumball without thinking to inform the trio.
Many miles and decades later I learned the missing cents — sometimes as many as 20 a day — were wreaking havoc each evening when Motorola cashed out the register and came up short against the receipts. He swore Prince was stealing change to keep the books from ever balancing. The discourse turned so beastly between accusations and denials that one day Prince packed up and moved his family to Texas.
My punishment was in learning I was the trigger, much too late.
Not that Motorola would have admitted any error, and not that Prince would have accepted any apology, and not that Magoo cared beyond the ticker tape apparatus (next to the gumball machine) operating 24/7/365 tracking the soy bean market.
As a corporate executive in New York City for the designer line of the largest provider of leisurewear in the nation, I’d occasionally gift a sample pair of pajamas, ‘borrowed’ from the showroom for delivery to a very wealthy friend who pestered me for a freebie each time she planned a new paramour sleepover.
That was my crime.
One day I was served with a subpoena to appear in court to testify as “the other women” in a high profile NYC divorce proceeding.
It seems the wife of my friend’s lover had discovered her husband’s affair and promised not to divorce him as long as he told her the name of his mistress. Unbeknownst to me, my friend suggested her lover give the wife my name instead of hers, thereby allowing them to continue the affair without consequence.
Hubby complied, never suspecting his wife would use the confession as proof of his infidelity, backfiring on all three of them once I was deposed.
That wasn’t my punishment.
That was my cure.
Life is a silver lining for those of us willing to scrape the surface of adversity.
At five, I may not have grasped the words, but I already knew how oppression is forged from the indignation of adults. Being alienated taught me to observe more, listen closely, talk less, read well, recognize the treachery of language, and understand that bullying won’t be curtailed from the child up until it’s eradicated from the parent, down. Oh, and by the way, it doesn’t take getting hit in the head by a taxi cab to learn that.
As for those in uniform, it’s true, I still challenge authority. But I never again broke into another school (unless you count the times I didn’t get caught), and I make every effort to shake the hand of all police officers I encounter, thanking them for their service while trying not to whistle The River Kwai as I work the crowd.
Meanwhile, the mere mention of gumballs requires I battle temptations to buy a vintage Ford machine on eBay as a tribute to Motorola, Prince and Magoo who taught me the invaluable skills that eventually landed me a job in Manhattan where I sang New York, New York with gusto after turning the head of Ol’ Blue Eyes when we passed as strangers in the night outside the 21 Club.
Which takes me to the brink of divorce court with one of the most interesting and exciting bad influences I ever had the endless pleasure of knowing — and leaves me within the aura of my sister, Kate, who remained my loyal partner in crime and laughter for the balance of her life.
Sleep sweet my peep.
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Copyright Marguerite Quantaine © 2017
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Marguerite Quantaine is an essayist and author.
Her novel, Imogene’s Eloise : Inspired by a true-love story
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