With the utmost sincerity, the veteran stock boys told all new hires about a roach the size of a golf ball that once dropped from an air vent onto an unsuspecting stock boy’s head, and scuttled straight for his ear where it disappeared. Waylaid by the gruesome details of a rabid cockroach cutting, grinding, and eating its way through the brain from one ear to the other, the helpless newbie often battled the heebie-jeebies for days. To make matters worse, the boys took great pleasure bouncing beans off the new guy’s head and shoulders when he was not looking, which caused the poor fellow to jump and brush frantically at his head and shoulders to knock away what he believed to be a diseased ear-canal seeking insect. This went on until the new guy became immune to their shenanigans, or quit the job. Today, this sort of thing would be called hazing, but in 1970, right or wrong, it was regarded as innocent fun.
MacGregor’s Family Center on Bendale Drive was infested with cockroaches. The infestation was not epidemic, but the scavenging insects were quite common to say the least. Their favorite place to hide was under the meat counter and in the grocery section of the back stockroom. When working in stockroom section “R,” the area set aside for stacking boxes of breakfast cereals, cornmeal, flour, and sugar, the stock boys wrapped rubber bands around the bottom of their pants legs to prevent roaches from darting up their pants. Most of the time this was not a real problem unless business was slow and merchandise sat in the storeroom more than two or three days, then section “R” became a favorite nesting ground for the pests. What really freaked the stock boys out though was a flying cockroach. A roach running up your leg was one thing, but one landing in your hair and scurrying down across your ear was enough to cause nightmares or send grossed out bodies scurrying for the exits never to return. Maybe it was the story of the cockroach attack, or maybe it was an inborn primitive aversion for what one primitive tribe in New Guinea referred to as flying dung balls that caused such freakish reactions, who knew, but an airborne cockroach could make the bravest of the brave shudder and feel creepy all over. Fortunately, flying cockroaches were rare.
Although the armor plated scavengers could be a problem, the biggest scavenging problem for the MacGregor’s Family Center was Colletta Roach an odd little woman with an appropriate name who visited MacGregor’s every Thursday of the second and fourth weeks of the month. She was in her late fifties, extraordinarily overweight, wore the sleeves of a black cardigan tied loosely around her neck, and the sleeves of an old green jacket tied tightly around the middle of a sack dress made of blue cotton that hung from her hips to her ankles. She walked like she had a tin can stuck between her legs, and shoplifted a 15 to 20 pound frozen Butterball turkey every other week. Bowlegged, she sagged in the middle and always clomped straight to the Butterball turkey bin at the end of isle seven when she came for her bi-monthly visits. There she rolled and lifted each frozen turkey while singing softly, “My, my, you need a new home,” but not once in three years had she ever bought and taken a turkey home. However, it never failed that a turkey was missing after she left the store. Mr. Roberts, the store manager, started sending a stock boy to inventory the turkeys whenever Colletta came to visit, and sure enough, after each visit a turkey had vanished, which by association alone pointed to her guilt. However, no one could prove she was the great turkey thief since no one had a clue as to how she could be committing the thefts. In fact, at first the lady employees were not convinced she was the culprit, but all the stock boys knew beyond a shadow of a doubt she was the theif, yet none of them had managed to catch her with a turkey in the three years since the turkeys started disappearing. The stock boys said she was lucky – uncommon lucky. I on the other hand knew it was more than luck; she was sneaky – uncommon sneaky is what she was.
I became acquainted with Miss Colletta while working briefly as a stock and bag boy at MacGregor’s Family Center in 1970. There are not many things in this world more boring than stocking shelves in a store, especially in a large store like a MacGregor’s. We often spent our days trapped in the deep congested bowels of the store breathing air that smelled of Johnson’s baby powder, ten day old meat patties, and vinegar. Other than chasing and popping cockroaches under our sneakers, the work was tedious and mindless, so whenever Fred, the self-absorbed assistant manager, announced in his best John Wayne voice, “Attention, pilgrims. Assistance needed at register three,” I always made a mad dash for the front of the store. At least when bagging groceries, I had a chance to get outside to round up grocery buggies or assist customers with loading their merchandise in their cars, which sometimes resulted in a fifty cent or even a dollar tip.
My favorite benefit of being on the bagging line though was surveillance. Mr. Roberts kept a notebook with descriptions and names of any suspicious characters, i.e. shoplifters, and there were many, who frequented his store. When one of these suspect characters entered the store, he or Fred would immediately snatch the closest stock boy off the bagging line, and send him to follow and closely watch the suspect. The stock boys loved it when they got to “tail” someone; it added a sense of adventure to their otherwise mundane lives, and the person they loved to tail most was Miss Colletta. Since year two of the turkey heists, there had been a standing rule among the stock boys that whoever spotted Colletta first became her shadow from the time she entered the store until the time she exited the store. This was important since a $25.00 reward for the capture and/or information leading to the capture of the guilty party had been set up by the district office. That was big money in 1970, so every other Thursday the stock boys literally fought to be up front near the registers to improve their chances of being the one who tailed Miss Colletta and hopefully collect the $25.00 dollar reward.
However, catching Colletta Roach had proven to be impossible, but not from the lack of trying. We tried everything we knew to catch her, but catching any shoplifter was no easy task in 1970, especially one as cunning as she. To say she was good at crime would be the understatement of all time. The raspy breathing, old lady was simply masterful. Over time, her work became legendary, and in future years whole seminars would be devoted to studying her. Until Colletta Roach came along, it was unheard of for a fifteen to twenty pound turkey to be stolen. Most shoplifting occurred with small items that could easily be stuffed under a shirt or inside pants where unless store personnel stood at the exits with eyes glued on passing crotches, there was a high probability that stolen merchandise could be railroaded out of the store without detection. However, a twenty pound turkey stuffed under a shirt or inside pants would be near impossible not to detect leaving the store, so how was she doing it? She did not carry a purse or a bag large enough to carry a large Butterball turkey, so it was only natural for the stock boys to begin to suspect there was some powerful magic at play.
In 1970, security cameras that could record were not readily available, so surveillance was hands-on, which meant store personnel had to be creative and sneaky themselves. When management in stores like MacGregor’s Family Center became suspicious of a customer, the stock boys became the first line of defense, which meant they went into stealth mode. They lurked in the shadows, they stuffed themselves inside and under display cases, and they discarded their blue MacGregor’s vest and attempted to blend in with the shoppers. They also hid in the clothes racks outside the changing rooms where they would secretly count the number of items customers took into the changing room and then count them again when the customer exited the changing room. Mary, a cashier, was the first to suggest posting a sign on each changing room door stating no more than three items at a time were allowed inside. She also suggested that an employee be stationed outside the door to monitor the policy. However, Fred argued that such a policy would be rude and show a lack of trust for the store’s many honest shoppers; never mind that he and Mr. Roberts were often chastised severely by upset female shoppers for allowing big eyed teenage boys to hide in the clothes racks outside the women’s changing rooms. Eventually though, he allowed signs limiting the number of items to three to be posted; however, the changing rooms were never officially monitored or the rule enforced. No one wanted to be rude.
The biggest problem with the changing rooms though was not the number of clothes brought in and out, but rather the switching of old clothes for new clothes inside the changing room. The first time I heard of this, I was shocked – I could not believe people would do such a thing, but they did and do. For example, some unscrupulous people would enter the dressing room with a new shirt and matching pair of pants on hangers, and a few minutes later exit the dressing room wearing the new shirt and pants with their old musty clothes on the hangers. They would hang the old clothes on the rack and walk out of the store wearing the new clothes.
I remember distinctly when Fred came up with what he thought was an ingenious solution for this problem. He put a stock boy or one of the female cashiers on “sniffing duty” outside each changing room door. When a customer exited the changing room and hung clothes back on the rack, it was the job of the sniffer to fetch the items and sniff under the sleeves of the shirt or sniff inside the pair of pants or dress to be sure the clothes on the hangers had not been previously worn. More likely than not, the sordid worn condition of most clothes left behind left little doubt that the clothes were used, but with the growing popularity of new clothes designed to look faded and stressed, Fred insisted on the “sniff” test to be sure. This went on for quite a while until Mildred, a new cashier, got really sick after sniffing a pair of jeans that had been switched on the hanger. She actually had to be transported by ambulance to the emergency room of the local hospital. The poor girl never returned to work. Store lore said the smell was so foul that she went into convulsions while in the ambulance and never woke up. I am not so sure that is true, but Mr. Roberts nevertheless stepped in and ended the sniffing practice after she left sick.
The most useless surveillance ever devised at the store was Mr. Robert’s crow’s nest. He had a platform built just below the ceiling level in the stock room and a window cut into the wall, so he or Fred could sit up on the platform with a pair of binoculars and watch over the whole store. I am not aware of a single shoplifter ever being spotted from the crow’s nest. The truth be known, there was probably more girl ogling from that platform than any actual surveillance. The crow’s nest however was an excellent place for the stock boys to bounce beans off a new stock boy’s head as he walked by unsuspecting below.
However, due to luck and stupidity, we caught quite a few shoplifters. The easiest to catch were the middle school, high school, and college kids who came in and tried to walk out with 45 rpm records, LP albums and of course 8-track tapes. Their methods were not very well thought out or original. Without fail they, they would saddle up to the record racks or tape bins as close as they could possibly get, and looking nervously or in their minds coolly from side to side, slide a 45 record, an LP album, or an 8 track tape down the front of their pants. How they thought they could get away with it I don’t know since they were easy to spot walking out the door with the corners of an album pushing out the sides of their shirts. Getting out of the store with a 45 rpm or 8 track tape stuck in the front of their pants was not much easier. To keep a 45 rpm record or 8 track tape from slipping too far down between their legs, they would squeeze their butt cheeks so tightly together that they looked like a duck flat footing it to water as they tried to exit the store, which made noticing the crime and consequently the apprehension of the criminal quite simple. When it came to spotting shoplifters, we were experienced observers who knew what to look for, and that is why it was so frustrating not being able to catch Colletta Roach. Her turkey heists were perfect; there was simply no visible evidence of a crime other than a missing turkey from the frozen turkey bin after she left.
Now people with common sense might ask, why didn’t someone pat her down, or have a female employee search her if she was believed to be stealing turkeys? Believe me, that is what we wanted to do, but there are things called store policy and the law that prevent such common sense actions. Basically, as long as the suspected shoplifter was in the store, we could not do anything, and if we stopped a suspect once they were outside and it turned out they did not have anything on their person, we would be fired on the spot. Therefore, to catch a thief you had to have visual evidence of the crime, or it was to your best interest to let the suspect walk away.
For three years, Colletta Roach had been walking away, but that almost changed with turkey heist number 75. One of the other boys had beaten me to Miss Colletta that Thursday, so it was by pure chance that I happened to exit isle nine about ten feet down from where the frozen turkeys were kept. Miss Colleta was standing in front of the turkeys admiring a turkey she was holding in her hands. David, the stock boy who had her under surveillance that day, was directly behind her watching from behind a blue and red rack of Tom’s Peanuts and Snacks. It was obvious by the way she had positioned herself in front of the turkeys that she knew he was there, but she had not seen me. I could see her clearly holding a twenty pound turkey, and I remember thinking, I am actually going to see how she does it. I AM GOING TO CATCH COLLETTA ROACH RED HANDED! I could already feel that twenty-five dollar reward in my pocket. I sensed a promotion and a significant raise to my eighty-five cents per hour wage. Then fate stepped in and any chance I had for a promotion, a raise, or the reward evaporated on the wings of a flying cockroach.
The flying roach was huge! It buzzed my head leaving an image of a dragon flying in to destroy me, the hero, and my dreams, but it was not after me; it was after Miss Colletta! I don’t know where it came from, but the bug dive bombed straight into her do. Her face contorted, her eyes bugged, and her mouth gaped open with a sudden gasp followed by a deathly scream as the air rushed just as suddenly back out. I heard a crash and saw David sprawled across the top of the Tom’s snack rack. The back legs of the roach wiggled frantically just above the surface of Miss Colletta’s hair as it struggled to reach her head through her thick matted mane. Instinctively, she slapped at the roach drilling its way toward her scalp forgetting she was still holding the twenty pound turkey. The turkey met the cockroach and Miss Colletta’s head with a simultaneous pop. Her knees buckled, and she dropped to the floor unconscious, white bug goo running across her forehead and oozing down onto her ear.
I don’t know how much money Miss Colletta collected from MacGregor’s over that little incident, but it was sufficient enough to keep her away from the store for several months. During that time not a single frozen turkey went missing, which corroborated our suspicions that Miss Colletta was guilty as charged. You would have thought Mr. Roberts would have been a hero with the home office since Miss Colleta was finally gone from the store, but the MacGregor home office demoted him and transferred him to a store in Arkansas. They felt it would have been cheaper to let her continue to shoplift a couple of turkeys a month for the rest of her life than to pay what they considered to be an outrageous sum for the mental and physical injuries she sustained from the attack of the flying cockroach. They blamed Mr. Roberts for the unresolved turkey heists, the cockroach attack, and what they claimed were overly frozen turkeys that proved to be hazardous to the health of a customer. All the stock boys thought Mr. Roberts got a raw deal, but what upset them and everyone else the most was that Fred was promoted to store manager. The only good thing about Fred being promoted was that nothing really changed at the store. He ran the store exactly the same way Mr. Roberts had run it; he was not smart enough to do it any other way.
Since she was now practically rich, everybody thought that was the last that would be seen or heard from Colletta Roach, but frozen turkey number 76 disappeared exactly four months to the day of the great cockroach assault. Yes, Colletta Roach was in the store, and no, it could not be proven that she had taken the turkey. The mystery continued for four additional turkeys, but then came turkey number 81. This time I had Miss Colletta under surveillance. Like all the other times, I watched and followed her around the store until she finally stopped in front of the frozen turkeys. I stood behind the Tom’s Peanuts and Snacks rack exactly where David had stood the day Miss Colletta had been assaulted. I watched as I am sure he did with a sinking feeling as she positioned herself between my line of sight and the turkeys. It didn’t seem like she was there more than a minute when she turned, waved at me, and wobbled pass me up isle seven. She had started what we called her victory waggle. Before leaving the store with her suspicioned loot, she always walked up isle seven, down isle eight, and up isle nine where she exited the front door. I signaled for David who was hiding behind a display of Sunshine Chip-A-Roos chocolate chip cookies on isle six to quickly inventory the turkeys while I followed her.
I was trailing behind Miss Colletta on isle seven by about twenty feet when I saw David from the corner of my eye running toward isle nine. The next thing I heard was glass shattering against the floor and muffled profanity. Miss Colletta froze with the sound of breaking glass, but then continued to the end of the isle where she stopped briefly and looked back over her shoulder at me. She was playing with me, and there was not a thing I could do about it. After wobbling to the end of isle eight, she turned to her left and started up isle nine – for her the home stretch. At the far end of isle nine at the front of the store, David was sweeping and picking up broken glass from a thick oozing puddle in the middle of the isle. Apparently, in his haste to beat us to the front of the store, he had knocked a bottle of Karo Syrup off the shelf. When he saw me, he started waving his index finger high above his head and nodding his head up and down to signal a turkey was indeed missing.
I felt ecstatic; we had her! But, just as quickly I started to have doubts. Here I was following a fifty plus year old woman who I knew had a stolen turkey somewhere in her possession, but there was no visible evidence, no handbag, no nothing in which she could be carrying a twenty pound turkey. By store policy, I could not stop her in the store, and once she was outside the store, there would be no physical evidence to warrant enough suspicion to bring her back into the store. She was getting away with it again. About ten feet from the end of isle nine, she turned, looked straight at me, and blew me a goodbye kiss. It was over; she had won again. She turned back toward the front exit door and stepped squarely in the puddle of Karo Syrup. Her foot flew from under her and she became air borne her dress floating upwards over her head. She hit the floor with a sickening thud and lay there her arms and legs spread widely. The sleeves of the cardigan and the green jacket came unwrapped and spread out about her giving her the appearance of having eight appendages attached to her heaving body. She lay breathing heavily, her dress pulled up over her face. And then! And then! And then, there it was the FROZEN TURKEY! The turkey lay against the crotch of the biggest pair of leopard print panties I had ever seen in my life. It was hooked by a large shark hook which was tied to a rope harness that stretched around her enormous middle. She had commandeered eighty frozen turkeys by lifting her dress, hooking the turkey with the shark hook, and walking out the front door with the turkey dangling between her massive thighs.
Fred made a reluctant call for an ambulance, and then made the most joyous call of his career to the police. By the time the ambulance arrived, Miss Colletta was sitting up rubbing the back of her head proclaiming for all to hear that her back was broken and that she was going to sue Fred and MacGregor’s Family Center for everything they were worth. When the ambulance arrived, the EMTs checked her over very thoroughly, and then cut the turkey harness from around her waist. They could not find anything seriously wrong with her, but they decided it would be wise to transport her to the hospital for additional tests and treatment since she was now not only complaining of a broke back but moaning that both legs were broken and she felt a heart attack coming on as well. They gave her an aspirin, fit her with a neck stabilizer, strapped her to a spine board, and with the help of Fred and four stock boys, lifted her to the transport cot. Later at the hospital, it was determined by a team of doctors that other than bruised buttocks and chafing on the insides of her thighs caused by the frozen turkey sliding back and forth, Miss Colletta was physically okay.
Meanwhile back at the store, cleanup of isle nine had begun. Mopping and cleaning the syrup from the floor was easy, but no one would touch the turkey. Finally, we agreed to share in the extraction of the tainted turkey, and took turns rolling it soccer style down the aisle and out the back door where Fred was waiting with a camera. Fred, holding the infamous turkey, posed with the stock boys as Mr. Bobo the evening janitor snapped several rolls of pictures. For the first time ever, Fred seemed almost human; he handed out colas and moon pies to everyone. It was a joyous time in the history of the local MacGregor’s Family Center.
Of course, Colletta Roach sued MacGregor’s once again, and of course, once again she won, but she was not so lucky with the criminal charges. Her trial on eighty-one counts of shoplifting, and the media coverage it received turned out to be a fitting eulogy for her legendary crime spree. She never returned to MacGregor’s Family Center since the store was closed permanently by the home office while she was doing prison time in Camp 25 of the Mississippi State Penitentiary in Sunflower County. David and I both left MacGregor’s shortly after splitting the twenty-five dollars reward money for solving the case of the missing turkeys. David was never able to get the awful sight of Miss Colletta’s leopard print panties out of his mind. Today he lives in New York City where he owns an internet lingerie shop for oversized women, and attends therapy once a week. As for me, I was lucky, other than a deep seated loathing to any type of clothing with spots or dots, large fish hooks, and turkey, I have lived a fairly sane and uneventful life. And Fred? Fred was fired not too long after the capture of Miss Colletta – the highlight of his MacGregor’s career, but he went on to make millions as the founder of a line of cheap discount stores.
As for the moral of this story, there is not one other than beware of flying cockroaches, watch where you step in the grocery store, and if you buy a frozen turkey, wash it well when you get home; you never know where it may have been swinging.
©Jack Linton, June 2, 2014