Noe Valley Voice April 2002

Florence's Family Album: The Five and Dime Crime

Reminiscences by Florence Holub

A few weeks ago, I was rummaging through my drawers of treasured keepsakes when a glittering item caught my eye. As I picked up the small gold ring, a flood of memories took me back to the early 1920s, when my family moved to California. Upon our arrival, we were astounded by the wealth of merchandise on display in the many retail stores in San Francisco. Back on our potato farm in Idaho, our only glimpse of worldly goods had come from the pages of a mail-order catalog.

In the '20s and '30s, even in thriving San Francisco, a job was hard to find, and wages were low. Still, my father, who was a trained woodworker, found a job as a carpenter, earning a dollar a day for his family of five. My mother shopped carefully, providing us with all the necessities, but allowing her children no frivolities.

We often shopped at one of the huge five-and-10-cent stores located on Market or Mission Street. (This was before 24th Street had its share of small variety stores, like Meyer's and Glen Five and Ten.) The dime store giants in the '20s were the Kress, Newberry, and Woolworth chain stores. By the end of the 1990s, all three had left the city.

But in those days, the stores were young, growing enterprises full of vitality. They were joyful places to visit, crowded with eager shoppers and excited children. The girls behind the counter, appropriately enough, were all young, pretty, and smiling -- and happy to have a job. A lady played popular songs on the piano from morning until closing time. Behind her on the wall were racks of sheet music, suggesting that all you needed to do was purchase and practice and you too could play the piano as well as she. The music reflected the times, of course. Some of it was sad, like "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" or "Cottage for Sale," but there were happy songs too, like "I Found a Million-Dollar Baby in the Five and Ten Cent Store."

Newberry's -- where glitter and glamour could always be had for less than a dime -- was my favorite place. There were so many tempting things on display, and the trinkets were so inexpensive, my brothers and I wanted everything we saw. More often than not, however, our parents refused our requests.

There is one day that stands out in my memory, mostly because of the frustration and embarrassment I suffered. My father had just said no to my 8-year-old brother, and my mother was saying "Not today" to my little brother, when I spotted the most amazing ring a 6-year-old had ever laid eyes upon. I thought about asking my parents to buy me the ring, but knew from my brothers' experience that the attempt would be futile. The ring looked so beautiful there -- with its shiny "gold" band (it was brass) set with a red (glass) stone -- that I couldn't resist slipping it onto my finger. I got so busy looking around the store that I neglected to take it off and return it to its place on the counter. Instead, I slipped the hand with the ring into my pocket and wore it home.

It was late that night when my mother noticed the red and gold sparkle on my finger, and after a few pointed questions, the truth came out: I had stolen the ring. My mother then kindly but firmly told me that in the morning we would go back to the store, where I would return the ring and apologize to the manager.

Such a confession loomed so humiliatingly before me that I walked slowly to the rear of our Chattanooga Street flat and stood on the back porch, gazing gloomily over the tangled weeds in the backyard. For a short time I considered jumping off the porch to end it all (actually, it was only a few feet down!). Instead, I removed the by-now hated ring from my finger and threw it as far as I could, out into the overgrowth and out of my life.

Witnessing the event from the kitchen, my mother decided I had suffered enough. The next day, she made no mention of my punishment. Nor did she bring up the incident again. She was confident that any trace of thievery in my nature had been crushed forever.

A few years later, our neighbor's 8-year-old nephew Mac, who lived in Florida, was visiting his hard-working, law-abiding aunt and uncle in San Francisco. During the day, Mac was free to explore the the city's neighborhoods.

One day, he decided to visit a grocery store on Monterey Boulevard, with many desirable items on display. While loitering near the candy counter, he spotted a pack of chewing gum -- mouthwatering and within reach. He wanted it badly, so he slipped his hand over the gum and moved it off the counter into his pants pocket. Then he sauntered toward the door to make his exit.

Suddenly, he felt the hand of the store manager collaring him from behind. A police officer arrived, Mac was searched, and the incriminating chewing gum was held up before Mac's woeful face. In a faltering voice he uttered his defense: "It must have fallen into my pocket."

The officer didn't buy that, and escorted him home to relate the criminal act to his aunt. When his stevedore uncle came home from work, Mac received a stern appraisal of his behavior, which I'm sure he remembered for the rest of his life.

He soon went back to Florida, perhaps with a permanent aversion to chewing gum.

As for me and my early criminal tendencies, my mother's plan was to keep me under observation. After a couple of years had passed under her watchful eye and there were no further signs of sticky fingers, she decided to give me a present -- a ring like the one I had coveted at Newberry's. On my eighth birthday, I received a January birthstone, a deep-red garnet, set in an ornate band of gold. It was beautiful and I was pleased, but at the same time it brought back my terrible shame. The memory was so strong, I only wore the ring on special occasions, then finally not at all.

What is interesting is that for most of my adult life I have remained reluctant to wear rings, except for my wedding band, of course. So, when I came across my garnet in the drawer last month, I thought: After 77 years of good behavior, certainly I should be able to wear this ring without any lingering guilt. Unfortunately, I will never be able to put it to the test, because the tiny ring will not fit over the old joints of even my little finger!

Ah well, the ring taught me a vital lesson. There's a song -- I can't exactly recall who sang it -- that sums it up nicely: "You can't always get what you want. But if you try sometimes you might get what you need."