By Michael C. Keith
Television can have dire effects on the young mind.
– George Gerbner
In 1954, me and my best friend, Carlos Munoz, would go down to Bailey’s Appliance Store on Foster Street and stand in front of its display window and watch television. My dad said they did it to bait people passing by.
“Folks see it and get hypnotized. So they go in, and once they do, the salesman goes to work. Those sets cost more than I make in two months.”
Neither Carlos’s family or mine could afford a set, so this was the only way we could watch television. Our favorite show was Dragnet. It was on NBC Thursday nights at 9 PM. My Mom wasn’t thrilled with my being out so late, but she finally gave in after I kept pestering her.
“You make sure you’re back here right after that show, Peter, or I’ll have your father come after you,” warned my Mom.
“Yeah, and I’ll bring a big bat to slug you with, buddy,” said my Dad, with a complicit wink.
“It’s not funny, Herb. Fourteen-year-olds shouldn’t be out on the street that late.”
Carlos’ parents didn’t care how late he was out, because they treated him like he hardly existed. The times I was at his house they acted like they couldn’t be bothered with us. There were always empty liquor bottles all over the place, too. I think the Munozes were drunk most of the time.
“They’re okay. They don’t bother me, so I can do what I want,” replied Carlos, when I commented about his parent’s seeming not to care.
All that fall, we stood in front of Bailey’s and watched the ebony tabletop Admiral receiver. Before Dragnet was a show called Justice, about lawyers. It was okay, but not as good as Dragnet. When we got to Bailey’s really early, we’d catch part of You Bet Your Life, with Groucho Marks. I thought he was hysterical, but Carlos wasn’t impressed.
“He’s got those stupid eyebrows that he moves up and down every time he thinks he’s being funny. Maybe gringos like him, but I don’t. You guys laugh at dumb stuff.”
“And you guys just don’t know what’s funny.”
When I could, I got to Bailey’s to watch the whole Groucho program. Carlos usually appeared toward the end of Justice and didn’t want to hear anything about the show before it. Just to irritate him, I’d repeat the jokes I’d just heard.
“Not funny, man. Shut up! Joe Friday is coming on. He should arrest that Goucho fool.”
“Groucho,” I’d answer, knowing that Carlos was just playing dumb to get back at me.
When Dragnet was over, we’d head back home talking about it on the way. Carlos thought that Joe Friday was a pretty smart cop, but not smart enough to catch him if he were a criminal.
“He’d never get me if I did something. Those guys he catches are dumb. Like the one tonight. He left evidence all over the crime scene. Big stupido.”
My parents weren’t keen on me hanging out with Carlos. They thought he was trouble. They knew about his parents, and didn’t have anything good to say about them. Apparently they heard that Carlos’ parents had passed some bad checks at the market and spent a lot of time in the local bars.
Apples don’t fall far from the tree, was my Mom’s comment after meeting Carlos. But I liked him and did the best I could to stick up for him.
“He’s funny and really smart. Doesn’t do bad things. He’s a good guy. You should give him a chance.”
“Yeah, well, just watch yourself when you’re with him, Peter. Don’t let him get you into something you’ll regret.”
* * *
When the following Thursday arrived, I was excited to see the new episode of Dragnet and nearly as eager to watch Groucho. Although Justice had a few good shows, I found it kind of boring and wished that Dragnet was on right after You Bet Your Life.
As soon as I turned the corner toward Bailey’s Appliance, my heart dropped. The display window television was off. I wondered why and hoped that someone might turn it on, even though that was unlikely, since the store was closed.
“Hey, man, where’s the picture? How come it ain’t on?” asked Carlos, coming up behind me.
“I don’t know. Maybe they decided not to keep it on at nights.”
”Mierda! Why would they do that?”
“Maybe they’re trying to save electricity,” I offered. “Probably figure nobody watches it after 9. There’s never anybody here but us.”
“Man, I wanted to see Dragnet. This really pisses me off,” growled Carlos, waving his fist at the window.
“Nothing we can do. Maybe they’ll have it on next week. Could be it’s just off for tonight,” I reasoned, trying to quell my own irritation.
“Hijo de la chingada madre! Screw them!” bellowed Carlos, picking up a rock from the gutter.
“Hey, what are you doing? Don’t throw that!” I yelled, backing away from the window, but Carlos reared back and chucked it.
After the glass shattered, Carlos grabbed my arm and pulled me inside the storefront with him.
“C’mon. Let’s take the TV, man.”
“Let me go. Are you crazy? They’ll throw us both in jail, Carlos. Let’s get out of here.”
Ignoring me, Carlos wrapped his arms around the set and began stumbling away with it. Shocked, I followed. Fortunately, there was nobody around, and we got a couple blocks away before Carlos stopped to catch his breath.
“We can watch all the shows we want now, Pete. Got a little room in the basement of my house where we can put it. C’mon, help me with this thing. It’s heavy.”
“Carlos, you just committed a robbery. The cops are going to catch you.”
“Not if they’re like Joe Friday. I’m too smart for him,” replied Carlos, lugging the set away.
Michael C. Keith teaches college and writes fiction. www.michaelckeith.com
Category: Fiction, Short Story