Today, Judge Judy was eviscerating a teenager who was lying about breaking the window of a pizza shop. She called him a fool, and accused his mother of raising him without a shred of moral inclination. “You shouldn’t be standing up for him!” she told the mother. “You should be making him take responsibility for his actions!”
Suddenly I’m five, maybe six years old again, and I’m sitting on my bedroom floor in Takoma Park, Maryland. I had saved up my allowance and bought a Colorforms set.
I had loved the Howdy Doody Show, and was devastated when in 1960 it was canceled and replaced by a perky ventriloquist. I was fully prepared to hate this interloper, but the Shari Lewis Show stole my heart. After that, my Saturday mornings—and the days leading up to them—revolved around Shari and dear Lamb Chop and Charlie Horse. And my Shari Lewis Show Colorforms set was one of my prized possessions.
Alas, my allowance would only allow the purchase of the Basic set. It had most of the important characters and images, but the Deluxe set was twice as large.
The best toystore in the world, and conveniently within walking distance, was Juvenile Sales Co., rival of the burgeoning Toys “R” Us (which actually began a couple of towns over). Chockablock with fascinating toys, it wasn’t as vast and spacious and bright as Toys “R” Us, but it was much more fun. But even caves filled with gold must have a dragon hanging around somewhere, and Juvenile Sales’s dragon was a rather grumpy fellow, prematurely old and stooped, named Robert Roberts.
I didn’t mind Mr. Roberts, frankly. He didn’t like rowdy kids, and neither did I. I wanted to sit quietly contemplating the uses of Silly Putty or magic sets or the wondrous Wham-O SuperBall. Other kids liked to run through the store and push over the bicycles and pull hula hoops off their display rack and generally make noise. Mr. Roberts always put a stop to that.
Every Saturday afternoon I walked up to Juvenile Sales Co., and for many weeks I looked longingly at the Deluxe Shari Lewis Show Colorforms set, wishing I had enough money. And one day, I did the unthinkable. I unwrapped the set and looked inside.
I was dazzled by the array of those colorful little vinyl cutouts: other puppet characters, and children, and houses, and fences, and scenery, and a wagon, and a dog, and the sun.
Oh, that sun! It smiled at me with a beatific smile. It called my name.
And I stole it.
I shook as I pocketed the Shari Lewis Colorforms sun. I felt guilty that the poor kid who would buy that set probably wouldn’t look inside, and never would the sun shine for him or her. I furtively left the store and quickly walked home.
I played with that Colorforms sun for hours. It rose over Lamb Chop in the morning, and set behind Shari in the evening.
After play, I would carefully replace the vinyl pieces back in their outlines on the storage board. Of course there was no outline for the sun, so it always covered one or two of the other pieces. And one day, not long after I purloined said sun, my mother noticed it. I thought she just “knew,” since she knew everything, but I think now she just saw that there was an extra piece. She asked me about it.
I trembled. I seriously thought of lying. But I told the truth.
I had barely confessed my crime when she hoisted me up by the back of my shirt, and started walking me to the car.
“Wha . . . what . . . where are we going?” I said, terrified.
“We are going to the toy store. And you are going to tell the manager what you did!”
“No, I can’t!” Now I was really upset. I was sure I was going to die of fear and shame.
Next thing I know, I’m sniffling in front of Mr. Robert Roberts, shivering and telling all. I apologized profusely. Mom apologized on my behalf as well, and offered to pay for the Deluxe set which I had opened.
“Would you let him play with it?” Mr. Roberts asked.
“Oh no,” said my mother, looking down at me. “It will go right in the trash!”
I burst into tears.
“Ah,” Mr. Roberts said. “Do you happen to have the missing piece?”
My hand shook as I handed it to him.
“Thank you, young man,” he said. Then, to my mother, “I think I’ll be able to sell it, now that it’s complete again. Thank you.”
As we turned to go, he said, “Young man, do you believe you’ve learned your lesson?”
“Oh, yes sir!” I said, nodding faster than a bobblehead doll. “I’m never going to steal anything ever again!”
“I was just about to institute a policy that would bar young people under the age of nine unless accompanied by a parent or guardian. But I want you to know,” he said, looking at me, “that you are always welcome to come here by yourself. We need honest, good-hearted children like you.”
I didn’t feel particularly honest or good-hearted, but I did feel relieved, and grateful my mother insisted I face the music.
And I must have learned my lesson pretty well. I mean, I’ve never appeared in front of Judge Judy, have I?