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As a bored junior high age resident of the south side of Chicago, I was intrigued by news that Mr. Slager was looking for workers. He was the owner of Slager Shoes, we attended the same church, and he’d gained a favorable reputation among me and my friends for handing out peppermints to children after each Sunday morning service.
One of his marketing strategies for boosting sales was to hire kids my age to blanket neighborhoods around his store with advertising flyers, announcing the upcoming “Back to School Sale.” Our neighborhoods featured close set homes–you could touch your neighbor’s house by extending both arms–and front entry doors reached by climbing a half-dozen stairs or so. Block by block, street by street, the pattern was the same.
Mr. Slager had his marketing plan; I had my own. Inspired by the back pages of the Marvel comic books I read I was intrigued by the possibility of building my radically thin frame with the body-building tools they advertised. My haircut in those days was the classic buzz-cut on top with long Brylcreamed hair on the side. This, plus my slight body and larger than life nose, combined to perfectly resemble an old Pontiac hood ornament heading straight toward you.
The tools promised results. They were a combination of springs to be repeatedly pulled across my chest, others bolted to a wall and stretched as if in a boxing match, or hand-held squeezy things to build wrists and forearms. The promise? Transformation within six weeks. Results? Marginal to non-existent.
This promised virility came at a price. One I could afford if I was hired by Mr. Slager. So, with my Roman Catholic friend Mike in tow, we made a good enough impression on Mr. Slager, and the boxes of flyers were delivered to my home along with two gunny sacks, which would hold the flyers and be slung over our shoulders as we made our way through the neighborhood. The plan was to distribute 500 flyers each day for a week. Fold them, stuff them in the sacks and target a five-block area. Stuff them in mailboxes or squeeze them between front doors.
Mike and I were pumped, filled with visions of cash and developing muscles. They’d have to find a new nickname for me now. “Bones” was headed for the dustbin. I might not even be recognizable when school started.
Monday through Thursday went well. Up and down stairs, covering the planned area, all in balmy, breezy, late summer days.
With Friday the humidity rose along with the temperatures. Mike and I struggled. The porches seemed higher, the blocks longer, and the sacks heavier. Every inch of shade seemed to disappear in the scorching sun. Our t-shirts were soaked with sweat, our feet killing us in our Converse All-Stars.
I’ll admit it was my idea, not Mike’s. We each had a half-sack to go when I spotted it. One of the empty lots known in the neighborhood as a “prairie.” Covered with weeds and tall grasses, the lot offered several places to ditch the flyers, as I now suggested to Mike.
“Look, we’ve worked hard and we’re both whipped. Let’s bury the rest, go to Speelman’s Grocery Store and get a quart of Pepsi. Just sit on the stoop until it’s time to go home. What d’ya think?”
Mike needed little persuading. So, we found some damaged bricks, scraped a hole with them, and buried the remaining flyers, loose grasses covering the makeshift coffin. It was a swift burial with little ceremony. We made certain no one saw us, like Adam and Eve in the garden, looking over our shoulders. “He won’t miss them, will he? I mean Mr. Slager,” Mike said with a creeping sense of guilt.
“No, I doubt it. Look, we worked hard, right? It won’t hurt sales. What are the odds?” I had my misgivings, of course. But the quart of Pepsi was my siren song, and the oppressive heat an easy justification. It was a matter of our health after all.
It came on quickly as we sat on Speelman’s stoop. An intense late afternoon thunderstorm moved through the neighborhood, with sustained high winds. And with the storm came the rising of the flyers, blowing through the neighborhood, broadly scattering the evidence of our crime and deceit.
Mr. Slager was surprised by the number of phone calls he received from neighborhood residents, complaining about the flyers littering the street and before long he placed a call to our parents.
I thought it best to confess, sooner rather than later. So did Mike. And our parents moved from embarrassment at our behavior to what, on reflection, was wisdom in action. They set up a meeting with Mr. Slager at his store. Walking there with them was both tortuous and comforting. I was about to do what Christians need to do, they said. Own up to my actions and ask God and Mr. Slager for forgiveness. If I meant what I was going to say by apologizing and asking, Mr. Slager would do the right thing and offer grace. Same with God. And all would be well. I would be able to look Mr. Slager in the eye without shame or guilt. Same with God.
Mike heard a version of this from his parents, also apologized to Mr. Slager, and spent time in a phone-booth sized cabinet called a “confessional” with his priest listening to his account, likely with a grin or smile. This was the first time I learned of the practice and didn’t know what to make of it. As a non-Catholic adult I’ve now visited a few confessionals myself. There is a sense of cleansing in going public.
I hoped that every time Mike saw a priest he would be reminded of a fresh start. I know that every time I received a peppermint from Mr. Slager, I received a wink and smile as well. To my young mind the wink and smile felt sacramental.
Since that day long ago I’ve passed by many Chicago “prairies,’ most often in neighborhoods ravaged by poverty and poor housing options. I’m reminded of my parent’s love and wisdom, Mr. Slager’s wink and smile, and a vision of flyers flying mid-air in an unintended resurrection.