“A Matter of Trust”

A few years ago, I stopped at a little convenience store. My then-teenage daughter wondered why.
“Because I like stores that are little and convenient,” I said.

She shot back. “Well then you must also like stores that are little—and expensive. “

Before I could reply, she quickly threw another punch: “And as long as people like you will pay those high prices, I guess that makes it very convenient for the guy that owns that little convenience store.”
I tried a weak counterpunch. “I’m willing to pay more for service,” I said.

She came back with a vicious upper cut: “Right,” she said. “The clerk rings you up for FIVE DOLLARS on your small bunch of bananas and then tells you to have a ‘nice day.’
Now THAT is service!”

She had me.

But first of all, I should point out that that particular store doesn’t even sell bananas—or any other fresh foods—unless hot dogs and Twinkies are considered such.

Secondly, the guy who runs the store NEVER says, “Have a nice day.” In fact, he doesn’t say anything at all. He never even looks up. I just make my purchase and walk on. I might be making off with loads of other merchandise under my coat. He wouldn’t notice.

But “Mean Old Man” Jarvis was a whole different guy. He would have noticed—and if he caught a shoplifter, they were dead meat—especially if the shoplifter was stealing dead meat.

Jarvis ran a little grocery store about four blocks from the house I grew up in—and when any kid in our neighborhood wanted some gum or candy, “Mean Old Man” Jarvis’s store was the place to go, like it or not.
We called him “Mean Old Man” because he was elderly—perhaps nearly 40. But also because he was sour as curdled milk—and hated kids the way a mare hates a horse fly.

Jarvis scowled anytime a youngster would enter the store—and watched each one like a dyspeptic hawk. If he caught anyone shoplifting, he’d call the police—hoping the young thief would soon be headed for a long stretch in the penitentiary.

Jarvis deliberately stacked the deck against kid customers to discourage them from coming in at all. For example, he’d take bubble gum that would normally sell for a penny a piece, and painstakingly scotch-tape ten of them together so that kids had to buy the bunch—or none at all. That may have been fiscally pragmatic for Jarvis, and not truly cruel—but there was no way a kid was going to call him “Fiscally Pragmatic Man” Jarvis.

As a result, some of the neighborhood kids—one in particular—would occasionally take the “Five Finger Discount.” It convinced Jarvis that ALL of us were robbing him daily.
But there was really only one primary culprit: Bobby Belcher.

The neighborhood’s artful dodger was a local legend for his skills at petty larceny—and being the primary thorn in “Mean Old Man” Jarvis’s side.

I recently looked Belcher up in the index of an old high school yearbook: BELCHER, ROBERT: Future Criminals of America Club 10,11,12.

Belcher made off with loads of stuff from Jarvis’s store over the years—and Jarvis knew it. He could just never catch him at it. To make matters worse, Belcher would leave some sort of calling card behind to make Jarvis even more flummoxed.

For example, if Belcher swiped one of Jarvis’s self-created ten-packs of bubblegum, he’d mockingly leave the crumpled scotch-tape behind. It was like Zorro leaving the mark of the Z—and it made Jarvis bug-eyed with fury.

I lost track of Belcher over the years, but have often wondered about him. Did he grow up to become a car thief? A grave robber? A congressman?

Someone told me they’d heard he had become a parish priest. Father Belcher? If true, I hope someone’s keeping close tabs on the collection basket.

There are some who think that people today are less trustworthy than in the past. It would be hard to prove, but I’ll wager that the percentage of dishonest types hasn’t changed a great deal since people first started walking the earth.

But my daughter thinks that’s not particularly good news.

“If a person believes that Adam and Eve were supposedly the only two people on earth at the start,” she says, “and then Eve went and sneaked a bite of the forbidden apple—that means that 50% of people can’t be trusted.”

Hmm. So that’s why that little convenience store doesn’t sell fruit.