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Jack Stratton. New Yorker, writer, foodie, poly, skeptic, dandy, daddy, switch.
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My Criminal Youth

At thirteen I would stand on a corner at midnight and watch for cars, cops, anyone. Two whistles, one high one low and then I’d calmly walk away, knowing my friends were whispering “drop” and leaving what ever they were doing.

It was usually stealing car stereos, mirrors, what ever was worth something or what was on a list given to us by a large Italian gentleman who owned the local mechanic shop. Sometimes it was stealing the whole car. Sometimes it was things I was never privy to.

There was a certain crack, when a flathead screwdriver was shoved into the space between a driver’s side window and pulled. I’m sure it woke people up, but it was remarkably satisfying.

Duct tape over the window would not only dull the sound, but keep the glass from shattering all over the floor. Tinted windows were the best, because usually the glass would stay as one fractured sheet you could peel back, plus people who had very tinted windows always had expensive sound systems.

The science of it was the thing everyone talked about. Where the best cars were, how to do things fast and quiet, where to sell things. It was a game and I was standing behind the players watching their fingers fly.

The holist of holies was a pocketbook or briefcase left in a car. Everything else would be forgotten if that was seen. Pop and grab and run run run. Mike once got a laptop like that, back when no-one we’d ever met had a laptop.

To my knowledge it was always stealing things. No one had a gun, that I know of, and all anyone wanted was money and the thrill of stealing things.

I never got caught. I was mostly just the lookout. They gave me $10 or some beer or just got to hang out with the older kids, 17, 18, some of them in their 20s. Mike was probably 32 then, he was the ringleader. I’d call him Fagin, but he was actually an idiot, not particularly charming and not particularly brave. He drove an IROC-Z 40 and he’d been in the army and he carried a flask of vile rum that smelled like something you’d use to degrease a carburetor.

By fifteen I was hanging out with kids my own age. I was starting to fit into high school. I was a geek, with an secret. By fifteen the midnight corners and hiding in alleys was becoming far more frightening than exhilarating. It was then that I saw my “friends” getting caught and getting more than slaps on the wrists.

Juvi hall turned into Rikers, then the people I knew went away for a few months or a year, afterwords getting tied into complicated work release, halfway house, rehab. That or the capable ones found out it was easier to sell pot, coke, whatever.

I saw the 18 year olds turn into 22 year olds and I saw their clothes and skin grow shabbier. I can only guess what most of them were on. I saw Mike around when I graduated and he had sores on his lips, red red eyes, piss stained jeans, fingerless gloves, and a limp. He lived in his car. He patted me on the back and said that I was smart not to hang around him.

It was probably the only real moment where the person I became spoke to someone who knew the kid I was.

By then I was completely separate from that life. I’d only see that crew if I stayed near home, which I never did, if I could help it. When I could I moved to the city and left those dirty little streets for good.

It’s funny now that I see people around me find their childhood friends on Facebook. The majority of the people I knew before I was 15 are dead, in prison, or don’t know how to use a computer.