Jangchup Phelgyal (right)
For a whole year — beginning in 1959 — I stole from my father and I never got caught. I was 14 years old, a freshman at Saint Augustine’s High School on Nutmeg Street in North Park, and I was a sugar junkie.
My addiction kicked in the day I bought a Baby Ruth candy bar on my way to school. Suddenly, with the first bite, all the travail I knew to expect — freshman hazing, the likelihood of a pop quiz in algebra, an examination of one of Shakespeare’s plays — melted away as the tasty mix of dark chocolate, smooth caramel, and roasted peanuts filled my mouth. Of course, I’d eaten plenty of candy bars, but that day I experienced sugar’s power to blot out the worrisome and gladden the heart. No matter that the hit was brief, I was hooked. My freshman class photo for the school yearbook, The Augustinian, shows a goofy kid with a blissful smile. I was sucking on a cherry-red Lifesaver.
I fed my addiction not just with Baby Ruths and Lifesavers, but Tootsie Rolls and Abba-Zabbas (a mix of creamy taffy and peanut butter), Red Hots (chewy cinnamon nuggets that lightly zinged the tongue), Mars Bars, and Three Musketeers, golden Twinkies and chocolate Hostess cupcakes (with a cream squiggle down the middle), foot-long licorice, jawbreakers, red-and-yellow sour balls, Milk Duds, Necco wafers, and M&M’s. Any four of these, in combination, soon were a minimum daily requirement. In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare writes that philosophy is “adversity’s sweet milk.” He was wrong. Adversity’s sweet milk is anything sweet.
Each night, I’d slather on Clearasil ointment, lay my chalked head on the pillow, and soon drift off dreaming of the sweets I’d devour the next day. My sugar jones was high maintenance, however, which brings me to my father:
He’d retired from the Navy the year before and was now working nights as a janitor, cleaning buildings for the county. Returning home after midnight, he’d drink cold buttermilk on his way to his bedroom, where, before falling into bed next to my mother, he’d empty his pockets and count out the change that he laid on the bureau with his wallet. The next morning, she would be busy in the kitchen preparing breakfast and making lunches for my brothers while I brought him his coffee and the newspaper.
Bleary eyed, my father would sit up and check the headlines while I ducked into the walk-in closet to brush my hair. With the door half closed, I’d bang around, making myself sound busy while listening for him to turn the page. Only when I heard that rustle would I lay the brush down and go to work.
From the pile of change on top of the bureau I’d slide out a quarter or two, several dimes, some nickels. No 50-cent pieces (too easy to notice their absence), nor pennies (not worth the hassle). On my way out, my father often would look over his paper and tell me to stand straight and stop slouching. Careful to make sure the pile of coins looked untouched, I never got caught. Maintaining the appearance of things was my modus operandi. I thought I was pretty slick.
My crime spree ended when I turned 15 and got a job bagging groceries at the M&S market at 12th Street and Broadway. Soon sugar was replaced by nicotine, and cigarettes — decades later — went by way of cold turkey.
Years passed, and one day last year, after he’d dressed, I watched my father grab up his change from the bureau, carefully count it, then drop it into his pocket.
“When did you start counting your change in the morning?”
“All my life,” he said, slipping his wallet into his back pocket. “When I go to bed and when I get up. You never know if maybe it grew overnight.” He laughed.
“Then,” I said, “you must have known when I was taking money from you.”
“When was that?” His face was a blank.
“When I was in high school.”
“You expect me to remember so far back?” His eyes grew large. “How much did you take?” At 85, he regards much of the past with wonder.
“Never more than a dollar a day, but that was a lot of money then. You used to say the only thing worse than a liar was a thief, so I was scared thinking what you’d do if you ever caught me.”
“Well, I didn’t, did I? What I do remember is telling you to stand up straight. I remember that. You were always slouching around like you were hiding or afraid to be seen. Things work out fine,” he said, “if you learn to stand up straight.”