Small, eager hands pump quarters into the video games in the back of Ted Wilson's narrow store on 43rd Avenue in Sunnyside, Queens. One of the machine growls as a boy in T-shirt and jeans knocks down a series of enemy targets with some skill.
The machines make most of the money in the store. Candy and cheap jewelry provide most of the rest.
"See you tomorrow, Ted," one of the regulars shouts, running out, as Ted prepares to close early to take a reporter home for an interview and a visit with his family.
"I'll be open tomorrow morning at 8, my son," he says, then pulls down a metal security screen and snaps on several big padlocks. He uses such protection because not long ago he was robbed.
"The thing I got out of that was I found out how it felt to be robbed," -- "angry," he says, as we drive along. A few minutes later we are climbing the stairs to his small two bedroom apartment.
Anger is probably the same feeling he has given so many people over the years. For Ted Wilson is -- or was -- a four-time loser, sentenced to prison four times for robbery. Prison, he says, was no deterrent. Nothing changed his ways -- until one day in 1974.
Ted had just been arrested for the fourth time when his wife, Linda, came to him to say she was pregnant with their first child. Ted told her to leave him for a better life. "I said I would never leave him," Linda recalls. "The first time he saw the baby, he cried," she says.
Ted recalls that his wife's pregnancy "was the first time I really considered going out and getting a job. Because I didn't want my son to be raised without a father. . . ." (Ted Leon Jr., 6, is the oldest of his three children.)
About that time, a judge gave him a break -- a relatively light sentence for a fourth offense. As a youth, Ted escaped from various juvenile prisons (often called industrial training schools), where he says he learned better ways to steal. He calls himself a "state baby" because of his many years in youth institutions. He has been locked up for more than half his life.
After his third sentence for which he served 15 years, part of it in Attica during the 1971 riot, he had begun robbing again -- 17 hours after his release. He recalls those 17 hours:
He arrived in New York in 1974 direct from prison, with the $50 issued to him along with a bus ticket. "I walked into the bus station at 42nd Street. I needed a wallet and I went in and bought a wallet and it was $15. [Then] I went to a lady I knew and I asked her for a furnished room. She said 'I got one on the top floor. It's $55 a week plus $55 security.' You know, when reality hits, desperation sets in."
"You either go to the parole officer, talk to him, and go into one of these homes that they got, which is just like another prison, 'cause all you're faced with is ex-convicts in there, too; or you can try to bust out and go legitimate, or you can go back to stealing. Well, I chose stealing again. . . .
"When you're in jail, you become very lazy. You don't like to work. You don't like to do anything. And when you get out, they want you to work eight hours a day, they want you to use your mind, and you know, it's a hard thing. And it's a lot easier to go out and steal a few dollars."
No longer. Now he works up to 14 hours a day in the store. Released on Christmas Eve, 1977, he worked as a rent collector and later as a truck driver. The man he drove for knew his record but gave him a lease on the small store Ted has operated since early this year.
Mark, his other son (18 months old), crawls into the tiny living room were we are talking. He grabs his father's foot, looks up at him and smiles. Ted pulls him up into his lap. It is not an easy life for the Wilsons. There are plenty of bills. But, he says leaning back in the chair, as twilight settles on Queens , "I think it's one of the best things in the world to have the bills over you -- you know, like a chess game, to pay one, to pay this guy and to try to keep up with them."
"We're making it," his wife says. "We don't have luxuries. To me, we live in a dump -- but it's our castle. All we care about is being a family." She smiles and shakes her head at her husband as she explains how he is always bringing someone home who needs help -- a drunk found lying in the street, a 15 -year-old who had been released from a mental institute after treatment for drugs who had been sleeping on roofs.
"To have someone in your corner," made the real difference for him, he says. His wife stayed right there. Together they planned a future they are now living.