The Value of Junk
April 9, 2020 – Arlington, Washington
What follows is the revision of a story I wrote many years ago. The events are true—they took place in 1969 when I was eighteen years old. It was a vastly different world back then—no cell phones to get out of trouble.
The Value of Junk (1969)
The first lesson I learned when I was thrust into the working world was that sometimes you have to compromise in order to make a buck. Though I’d sworn never to work as a store clerk or a waitress, I needed the money to support myself in college, so I caved in and took a job as a salesperson in the heart of South Philadelphia’s Italian Market. It was a colorful neighborhood, a hive of activity. Storeowners and sidewalk vendors hawked their wares in heavily accented English – remnants of Italian mixed with a strong South Philly drawl. The street where I worked was crammed with businesses—a butcher shop, a bakery, a restaurant, fruit and vegetable stands.
In the midst of all this quaintness stood an eyesore named “Cousins’ Gems and Junk.” Though it would have been a stretch to call anything a gem, there was plenty of junk, and it was crammed into every corner of the tiny store. Plaster reproductions of Michelangelo’s David lined a shelf that sat above an assortment of cheap Timex watches. The counter was adorned with racks full of colorful plastic earrings and the cabinet below was stocked with incense and rolling papers.
During the week when customers were few, I passed the time chatting with my co-worker and recording inventory. Sometimes the owner of the record store next door would stop by to visit. His hunched shoulders and shuffling gait betrayed his eighty-odd years, and his gregarious personality made for some interesting conversations.
Every day when school let out, we were besieged by groups of teenagers, mostly girls. They swarmed around the counter looking at earrings and trinkets while trying to distract us long enough to escape with a few pairs. Once they left the store, they’d stand on the opposite side of the street waving their stolen loot, knowing full well we could do nothing unless we caught them in the act. What they didn’t know was that I really didn’t care what they took. The earrings were overpriced, and we could just claim ignorance to our boss.
When I started work, the cousins who owned the store had made it clear, “No refunds for anything”. We could only exchange things, junk for junk. It was commonplace to see irate customers come in, so I wasn’t surprised when one lazy weekday afternoon a young, surly-looking man ambled in. He looked to be in his late teens or early twenties—thin, clean-shaven with a cast on one hand. Standing in front of the counter, good hand in pocket, he asked,
“Would you like to see my knife?” OK, I thought, naively. So he’s a local neighborhood kid who wants to show me his new blade.
“Sure,” I replied.
With that he withdrew his hand, exhibiting a buck knife with a blade about six inches long.
“Open the cash register,” he demanded.
OK, so maybe this wasn’t just a disgruntled customer. But I couldn’t believe that someone would have the audacity to rob a store in broad daylight.
My first impulse was to reach for the buzzer under the counter. When pressed, it would alert the owner of the record store next door. But I quickly reconsidered. Not only would the old man have to get here, which would take some time, but he’d have to realize that something was wrong and be able to get back to his store quickly enough to call the police. I didn’t want to place him in danger, so I decided the easiest thing to do was to comply with the robber’s demands. I’d hand over whatever he wanted. My co-worker stood there, immobilized, wondering how I was going to handle this.
I opened the cash register and gave him what little cash we had, but it was obvious he wanted more. With a crazed look in his eyes, he waved his knife-hand at the display of watches on the wall behind me. I couldn’t understand why he’d want any of those cheap things, but I thought I’d better comply. He need something to put them in, so I handed him one of our more popular items, a brightly-colored vinyl shopping bag. Grabbing a handful of watches, I stuffed them into the plastic bag until no more would fit, thinking to myself this guy had to be out of his mind. Did he really think that nobody would notice the gaudy orange and green flowered shopping bag overflowing with watches?
The intruder looked around for a few minutes, making sure he hadn’t missed anything of value. Then a look of panic clouded his face. He had his treasures, now what? He couldn’t just leave the store and let us call the police, so he ripped the phone out of the wall.
“Is there a room in the back of the store?”, he asked, looking for a place to put us.
I nodded, and he herded us back to the small bathroom, closing the door behind us. As fast as he’d closed it, the door re-opened.
“The fucking lock doesn’t work.” He looked at us accusingly, shuffling from one foot to another like he was stepping on hot coals.
“Oh yeah, I’d forgotten about that. It’s broken.” It was true, I had forgotten, and I needed to think fast. His panic was contagious.
“Why don’t you lock us in the store. I’ll give you the key. It’s under the cash register.”
He agreed, then left, clutching the plastic bag to his chest with his good hand while trying to look like just another customer leaving the store, a customer with a strange fetish for cheap watches. I glanced over at my friend. Her eyes mirrored mine—a combination of fear and incredulity. We waited for about five minutes, long enough to make sure the robber was some distance away. Then I reached below the counter and pressed the buzzer to alert the owner of the record store.
After what seemed an eternity, I saw the old man’s face staring through the glass door. He looked sleepy and bewildered.
“We’re locked in. Can you please get your spare key and let us out?” I didn’t want to panic him with the full story, but I hoped he’d recognized the urgency in my voice.
He smiled and nodded, turned abruptly and left. Why was he smiling? Had he heard a word I’d spoken through the thick glass of the door? Did he think I was just making small talk? Just as I thought he’d never return, I saw his face again, peering through the glass, key clutched in hand.
By the time we called the police, the robber was long gone. Two weeks later I picked his face out of a photo montage. He was a local man, a heroin addict. At the court hearing several months later, he was sentenced to time in a drug rehab program. Years later, I wondered why we hadn’t tried to disarm the guy. With one hand in a cast, he would surely have been no match for two able-bodied females. I guess it was for the same reason that I smiled and shrugged while watching those girls flaunt their stolen jewelry. It was only junk.