Five-Finger Discount


One day Ralph and I were talking, and he reminded me of the five-finger discounts we used to get at different retail establishments around the neighborhood back when we were kids. When I think of these stores, two in particular come to mind right away, and Iím sure at the time the proprietors probably wondered how it was that some of their stock had mysteriously seemed to shrink at times with certain items.

There was Benedettiís down on Haight Street, the main place to get comic books, and all sorts of magazines of various kinds. The discount was usually buying one or two and then getting more for free, and the trick was to not be observed when the discount was taken, and it wasnít at the cash register either. All anyone needed was a loose bulky jacket, a little patience, and the ability to act nonchalant.

It was a fairly simple process, and Iím sure one of the oldest methods in the world of procuring things wanted without paying for them. There was a certain thrill, and a kind of adrenaline rush, a challenge to not be caught while doing it that was the more pervasive feeling. In fact, one time I was busted by the clerk and subsequently banned from the place for a while. Luckily, they didnít call the cops!

The modus operandi was to casually act like you were reading a comic book, browsing the pages, and when the clerk was distracted with a sale, slip some others up into your armpit snugly and pin them securely with the upper arm against the body, hidden by the bulky jacket. Time after time it worked, and when you were ready to go, simply head over to the register, pay for the one comic book and split.

But the main store that the kids from the street made the majority of the five-finger discounts was at Walter Wongís, the Ashbury Market, on the corner of Frederick &

Ashbury. Still to this day I canít believe that Walter or any of the staff there werenít more aware of the goings on when they were not looking.  Still, there were a couple of times someone got caught, but that was a rare occurrence.

Some of the methods that we used to get the discounts there were pretty inventive and daring, and now that I think about it, somewhat hilarious. Frank recalled the Ďteamí efforts, when someone would create a diversion, and then the others would roll out either cantaloupes or even a watermelon, kicking it along down the aisle with their feet out the front door right past the cash register without them noticing at all!

Most of these types of questionable discretions really went unpunished, and even after Walter hired Mr. Jack to sit in the doorway; a lot of pilfering still went on. One if the most common things to do was to buy a bag of chips only and get the drink, meat and roll for free. I laugh about it now, because it seems so bizarre the way we were. Perhaps it was just our way of sticking it to the man!

Iím sure all of this makes us look bad, but to me it was more like some rascally high jinks that kids do, even though itís bad. Yet thatís no excuse either, because neither us nor any of the other kids from the street were lacking in any way of lifeís basic needs, and it was not a question of having no money, on the contrary, we just didnít want to spend it! We were far from being little angels.

As we got older, most of us outgrew the tendency and the propensity to partake in the five-finger discount, and some of us graduated to the big department stores downtown. Nowadays I look back at it as some innocent breach of social etiquette, when we knew right from wrong and yet still pushed the envelope with our devilish antics