After my mother caught her new husband taking liberties with my younger sister, it was over between them, but she was determined not to leave him until she could stash away enough money for us to live on. (Welfare was only for “lazy people,” she said.) We moved to Wisconsin to be near her parents, which she thought would help her save money.
The town of Florence wasn’t exactly a mecca for employment. There was one gas station, one grocery store, and nine or ten bars. So my mother came up with some unusual ways of making money. One of her more creative schemes was to dress me and my sister Lisa as an organ grinder and his monkey, then send us door-to-door for a dime a song. I was the organ grinder with the accordion, glued-on bushy eyebrows, and gold-buckled shoes. Lisa was the chimpanzee with the cup, her breasts bound with dish towels and safety pins to make her chest flat. She could hardly breathe, but she did look like a monkey. One summer, we made three hundred dollars this way.
Then we began selling arts and crafts we made from scraps. Among our most memorable creations were the maple-leaf wall hangings we sold to pay for our music lessons. My mother made my stepfather stencil maple leaves onto thin wood paneling and cut them out with a jigsaw. (My stepfather had to do anything my mother said, or else she would “tell all of Florence” what he’d done to her daughter.) The idea was to hang the cutouts on your living-room wall, each at a slightly different angle, to create the impression of falling leaves. My mother was convinced the hangings would “sell like hotcakes.” My brothers and sisters and I weren’t so sure.
As we drove to town with a large box of wooden leaves in the back of the station wagon, our mother briefed us on what we were supposed to say: “Hi, I’m selling wall hangings for five dollars each to help pay for my music lessons. They make great Christmas presents. How many sets would you like to buy?”
When we parked the car, I began to panic. At twelve, I was beginning to recognize how close this was to simply begging for money. I thought it would sound more dignified — noble, even — to say that I was selling the crafts for charity. I chose CARE, an organization that delivered food to starving children in Third World countries.
Lisa took one side of the street, and I took the other. My CARE story kept me from feeling too humiliated. Halfway down the block, a couple in their fifties invited me in for milk and cookies. The woman seemed genuinely interested in how I’d come to be raising money for CARE. While I was eating cookies in their warm kitchen, the man went into the next room to make a telephone call. When he came back, they bought a set of maple leaves and sent me on my way.
I didn’t even notice the patrol car parked on the street until I saw a short, heavy policeman running toward me. I turned around to see whom he was chasing, and that’s when he grabbed me.
The policeman held my shoulders in a tight grip, his red face inches from mine, and screamed, “What a rip-off!” Then he asked how many of us there were, as though there might be an entire gang. I pointed to the station wagon. He put me in the back of his car and made my mother drive in front of him down to the police station.
At the station, my mother was sobbing and overdramatizing the situation, as usual. It turned out that I had managed to lie to a conscientious social worker, who had phoned some of his neighbors and discovered that the same crafts were being sold for music-lesson money across the street.
After lengthy searches of the station wagon and my mother’s purse, the police finally let us go with a warning. We never again sold things door-to-door.
I’ve always been a shy and withdrawn person, the kind nobody notices. Somewhere along the line it occurred to me to put my invisibility to good use. In graduate school, I started stealing whatever textbooks I couldn’t afford. Eventually, I branched out to other small items, and even clothing or food. My most extravagant theft was a bottle of Dom Perignon. When I got home with the champagne, I was shaking so badly that I dropped it on my doorstep, shattering the bottle and leaving the concrete smelling like perfume. I returned to the liquor store and stole a second bottle.
I always stole from large chain stores, not struggling family businesses. One particularly lonely December, however, I was doing my Christmas shoplifting near the UC Berkeley campus, and, against my better judgment, I tried to steal a book from Cody’s Bookstore. A customer spotted me and shook his head disapprovingly. I put the book back and retired to the cheap Mexican restaurant across the street to calm my nerves.
I was sitting there, trembling and on the verge of tears, when I noticed a man in a wheelchair at the next table watching me with interest. He invited me to join him, and before I knew it, I’d blurted out my story.
He said that he knew Cody personally, that he was a great guy, and that I really shouldn’t steal from his bookstore. He asked me why I couldn’t just buy my Christmas presents. I struggled to explain what I only half understood myself: that anybody could buy Christmas presents, but I was giving my friends something only I could offer, something that required talent and risk.
I asked why he was eating alone, and he said that he’d been feeling pretty low lately. Since his accident, his children had refused to visit him. “I guess they can’t stand to see me this way,” he said.
We talked until finally I had to return to my Christmas shoplifting. Being spotted had left me shaking with fear, I said, and I knew that if I didn’t do it now, I might always be scared.
“I have a plan,” the man said.
He would go with me to another store and distract the security guard while I lifted the presents. No one would ever suspect a man in a wheelchair. But I had to promise never to steal from Cody’s again. I wholeheartedly agreed. It would be a first for both of us: he had never stolen anything in his life, and I had never had a partner in crime.
We headed for a big chain record store. Somehow, my accomplice managed to get the security guard out of the store altogether while I slipped several records under my loose hippie clothes. When I was done, I strolled outside and caught his eye, expecting him to cut short the conversation and get the hell out of there. But instead, my inexperienced partner turned to me and asked, in a meaningful tone, “Is it done?”
Oh, shit, I thought, he’s given us away for sure. The guard looked puzzled, as if about to figure things out.
“Yes,” I said, affecting a casual manner.
“Then let’s go,” he said.
I half expected the guard to collar us, but the shy-young-woman-and-pathetic-cripple routine worked. We waited until we were a safe distance away, then let our spirits soar.
I can’t say it was the last time I ever shoplifted, but it was the only time anyone ever really noticed me.
My hometown is dominated by a state university that owns all the open green spaces. The rest of town is crowded and noisy. There is no stillness here and, worst of all, no place in my immediate neighborhood to take a quiet walk. To step out of my house is to enter immediately into the thick of it all. My only recourse is to load my dogs into my car and drive across town to land held by the university.
My favorite spot is about ten acres between two heavily traveled commuter corridors. Aside from the constant hum of traffic, it’s an unspoiled tract of pristine cornfields, grassy pastures, and dense woods, with a lake sparkling through the trees. Early on a Sunday morning, its beauty rivals that of any place I have been. What’s more, in the thirty-some years I have been walking there, I have never encountered another human soul — until recently.
To my surprise, on one Sunday outing, I saw an officious-looking man standing next to his car beside the roadway. I gave him a jaunty wave and went on my way. When I returned to my own car, I found a note jammed underneath the windshield wiper. It said, “This is university property and you are trespassing. In the future, find another place to take your dogs for a walk.” The “you” was underlined about ten times. A chill ran through me. How stupid I’d been actually to wave and smile at the man. I got into my car and sped away.
It took me three weeks to work up the courage to go back. When I parked in my usual place, I saw a sign on a thick iron pole stuck into newly dug earth: NO TRESPASSING. UNIVERSITY PROPERTY. TRESPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED. I looked around and saw, as usual, no one but me, my happy hounds, some noisy crows, and a few stately Canada geese. I listened to the rustle of the cornstalks and the steady roar of the highway. Then, with strength I didn’t know I had, I tore the ugly sign from its bed, carried it a good half mile into the woods, and flung it into a deep ravine.
Margaret Rose Donato
Somerset, New Jersey
The school bathroom was a lonely place. I peed quickly and went to wash my hands. On the counter between the two sinks was Ginnie Eastman’s black patent-leather purse, which she’d gotten for her birthday and had brought to school for Show and Tell that morning. It had a pearl-button clasp that opened with a satisfying click, and inside were two dainty white lace gloves, a scalloped hankie with roses, a small, round mirror in a red plastic case, and a one-dollar bill her grandmother had sent her.
That purse sat there just daring me to pick it up and dangle the strap over my wrist and swing it back and forth — which I did. Then I carried it upstairs, because I thought I should take it back to class before somebody stole it. And just like that, the idea of stealing the purse flashed through my mind. I knew it was wrong, but, just as certainly, I knew I was going to do it. I went straight to the cloakroom and stuck the little purse way down inside the leg of my snow pants.
When it was time to go home, Mrs. Spicer sent us by rows to the cloakroom to get our things. I slipped my leg into my snow pants, sliding it past the purse, which seemed to have grown considerably since I’d put it there. Then I buttoned up my jacket and waddled back to my desk.
Mrs. Spicer clapped her hands and said, “Children, has anybody seen Ginnie’s purse? She can’t find it anywhere.”
Nope, nobody had seen it for hours. So we all got up and began to look for it. When the bell rang, Mrs. Spicer said, in her sweet, soft voice, “Boys and girls, please line up to go home. Since we have not found Ginnie’s purse, I am going to have to check each one of you before you leave the classroom.”
Knowing I was doomed, I got at the very end of the line. I could hear the clock ticking and the freed children greeting their mothers in the hallway. The line grew smaller until finally it was just me and Mrs. Spicer. Her hands ran down my legs and hit the hard corner of the purse, and I opened my mouth and let out a howl that astonished us both. It was a long time before I stole anything again.
In 1995, at the age of twenty-six, my only child, Mark, was arrested for parole violation and unarmed robbery. He was back on drugs after having been clean and sober for more than two years.
Though HIV-positive, Mark was healthy when he was placed in a federal holding facility here in California. While awaiting a trial date, however, he contracted an opportunistic infection called MAI and was sent to a federal medical facility in Missouri for treatment. I went along to be near him and spent the next eight months living alone in strange motels, trying to recall the life I’d once known.
I was allowed two one-hour visits with Mark a day. When he was too sick to come to the visiting room, I was granted a bedside visit, but only with staff present to monitor us. Though it tore my heart apart to see my son suffer, I struggled to remain positive for his sake. At the end of one visit, he said, “I wish you could be my nurse twenty-four hours a day, Mom.”
I was fighting for a compassionate release, but so far my requests had either been denied or ignored. On several occasions, I was even denied a bedside visit because no staff was available to keep an eye on us.
One Saturday morning, Mark told me he wished he were back in San Francisco taking a nap on my couch. As I hugged and kissed him goodbye, I whispered in his ear, “Have sweet dreams of San Francisco.”
My afternoon visit that day was canceled due to lack of staff. Mark died at 1:30 A.M. the following morning.
The day after Mark’s funeral in San Francisco, I was surprised to receive a letter from the inmates who were with him at the time of his passing. I was glad he hadn’t been alone. They described his last night and said that, at one point, Mark thought he was home in San Francisco. Before the end, Mark asked a friend to read to him from his copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. This was an indication to me that Mark had accepted his fate.
As I go through life with a hole in my heart, I sometimes wonder who committed the real crime.
San Francisco, California
In the People’s Republic of China, few things could be paid for by check, so it wasn’t unusual for me to bring large amounts of cash back from the States to pay for salaries, office supplies, and travel expenses. When I arrived at my hotel after a short trip to New York, I had sixty hundred-dollar bills in an envelope in the bottom of my carry-on bag, which I dropped in my room before heading down to the office on the fourth floor. When I returned six hours later, the money was gone.
My coworkers and I called hotel security, and they in turn called the police, who arrived the next morning to interrogate the hotel staff. The thief must have felt the heat, because a few days later the envelope reappeared, slightly battered, beneath my door, containing forty-six hundred dollars and a note of apology in bad English. I brought the envelope down to the office and suggested that we drop the charges. My fellow Westerners agreed, but our three Chinese colleagues were incredulous.
“You cannot drop charges in China,” they said. “A criminal is a criminal. He must be caught and treated like a criminal.”
“Haven’t you ever made a mistake?” I asked gently.
“You Westerners. First you want to catch the thief; then you want to free him.”
It was hard to argue with them, so I turned the envelope over to the police. By the end of the week, we had a shiny, new, fourteen-hundred-dollar computer, the only purchase the bellhop had made before getting cold feet.
According to custom, after the case was closed, we took the police officers out to celebrate. It was a loud and festive occasion, with endless rounds of toasts and much bowing and grinning. The officer in charge of the case proudly informed us that the criminal had received an eight-year sentence in a “reeducation through labor” camp in northern Liaoning province. If he isn’t dead from the work, the diet, or the cold, he’s still there.
The aged man stood on the corner of Fairfax and Sunset with his thumb extended, balancing himself with the help of a cane. I’m not one to give rides to anyone these days, but his snow white hair, dour eyes, and forlorn appearance brought out the good samaritan in me; I stopped the car and let him in. He moved with great dexterity and ease for one seemingly so old and infirm.
“I was a rabbi in Romania,” he told me right away. “I’ve been trying to get a job here, but no matter where I go or who I talk to, they all tell me the same thing: I’m too old.” He pointed to his hair. “And I’m unable to speak perfect English. I went to 6505 to see about getting some money,” he said, alluding to the Bureau of Jewish Welfare at 6505 Wilshire Boulevard, “and, after so much haggling, they gave me $150 a month. On that they expect me to live? No way! It can’t be done!”
I listened with great sympathy.
“I’ll be eighty-three this year! I’ve lived through the Holocaust,” he said, showing me his tattoo (which I couldn’t really examine as I had to keep my eyes on the road). “And now I’m alone in America: No job! No food! It’s terrible that a rabbi should be forgotten so soon.”
Inwardly, I agreed, but what could I — an unemployed, retired teacher — begin to do for him?
When we arrived at his destination, a synagogue at Fourth and Fairfax, he took my hand and recited the following blessing: “May God bless you and keep you! May God cause his countenance to shine upon you and be gracious unto you and bring you peace! Amen.”
“Amen,” I said. And a strange peace did envelop me. On impulse, I reached into my wallet, pulled out a twenty, and gave it to him.
“I came into your car a poor man. I leave a rich one!” he cried as he exited the car in the same nimble fashion in which he’d entered.
A few minutes later, still filled with a profound sense of inner peace, I met my friend Art. “You’ll never guess what just happened to me,” I said. “I picked up this wonderful rabbi and —”
“Was he from Romania?” Art inquired.
“Yes, he was!” I responded.
“He’s well-known around these parts,” Art said. “I guess he told you his sob story?”
I admitted that he had, and that I’d bought it to the tune of twenty dollars.“But you know what?” I said. “I still feel good! He may be a con artist, but the peace and calm he gave me was worth it.”
When I returned home, I found a bill in the mail for more than I thought I owed. I called the creditor, who promptly revised the bill downward by exactly twenty dollars. I considered it a thank-you from the rabbi from Romania.
Joseph N. Feinstein
Sherman Oaks, California
You know how some girls get it all: the canopy bed, the painted fingernails at the age of six, the complete set of Barbie clothes? In my neighborhood, that girl was Rhonda, the pretty redhead who lived around the corner.
When we were eight, Rhonda got a three-story doll house complete with a pull-string elevator, pink plastic Grecian columns, and a cardboard background depicting overstuffed couches and chandeliers. I watched with envy as Rhonda yanked her Barbie and Ken dolls up and down the elevator from pretend balls in the living room to the bedroom and back, all the while chattering happily about their “mansion” and saying, “Isn’t it fun being rich?”
The Christmas we were ten, Rhonda got a stack of Hello Kitty erasers, pens, notebooks, markers, and toiletries — all pink, my favorite color. I watched her pile them by category on her mirrored table. That same Christmas, I got a boring plastic doll that had a hole for pee, a box of chocolates, and some wool socks.
Predictably, soon after the holidays, I went to the local mall with my brother, and, while he was in a record store, I walked into a shop and swiped a bagful of Hello Kitty trinkets: bubble-gum-scented erasers, pens with caps shaped like pink ice-cream cones, plastic-coated address books with tiny red pencils chained to them, and fruit-scented markers.
For a few months, the bag sat unopened in my desk drawer. I stared at it from time to time, relishing the danger of possessing those pink things I was never supposed to own. Then one day, though I’m not sure why, I confessed to my mother, who dragged me back to the store and made me dump everything out on the counter and apologize to the manager. Somehow, I felt strangely relieved.
Rhonda never found out about what happened; she never even knew that I was jealous. These days, she paints her nails purple and complains about the maids. We still talk.
About twenty years ago, I got my master’s degree in social work. I wanted to work with the dying as part of the hospice movement, but hospice jobs were scarce and mostly volunteer, so I found a position as a nurse’s aide in a nursing home. The pay was lousy, and the work was very physical and not always pleasant, but at least I was “helping” and doing something important.
Starting at 7 A.M., my job was to get from six to eight residents up, washed or showered, dressed, fed, and toileted, and then remake their often soiled beds. Usually I could dress two or three before the breakfast trays were delivered. Sometimes I was slowed by one’s lethargy or another’s confusion. It was always a challenge to get the assignment finished on time.
One morning, I was helping a rather unpleasant old woman who was sitting on the toilet as I struggled to wash and dress her. I was trying to put her shoe on when she hauled off and hit me a good one, right on the head. Instinctively, though violence had never been part of my nature, I hit her back. I was instantly appalled at myself. The woman was senile, so I knew she wouldn’t tell. I apologized and finished dressing her, and that was the end of it.
I went on to become a social worker and a champion of residents’ rights. I knew, better than most, how much nursing-home residents are at the mercy of those who care for them.
One rainy Friday night, our two children, ages seven and ten, were each going out for the evening with friends. My husband and I had planned a stay-at-home “date” with cheap champagne and old records.
As soon as the kids’ rides picked them up, a giddiness came over us. We sipped champagne and listened to Blood, Sweat and Tears and the quiet sound of the rain. Before long, the pitter-patter turned into a storm that jolted us with bombs of thunder, and we hurried to the porch to witness the drama of nature. We could feel the electricity in our bodies as the storm passed overhead. The thunder eventually began to lag behind the lightning, losing its immediacy and force, but the rain continued to pour.
I don’t know who started it, but one of us double-dog dared the other to remove every stitch of clothing and run out into the street. Before we knew it (who turns down a double-dog dare?) we were taking turns dashing out into the rain naked, streaking down the sidewalk, dancing, doing acrobatics, stomping puddles, yelling, and singing. At first, one of us kept a lookout for neighbors, but by the end we were both dancing and laughing in the street together, slick body to slick body.
Back in the house, we fell all over each other in a hot shower, still high on the storm and the champagne and our own daring. We dressed and returned to the porch swing with only about five minutes to spare before headlights signaled the return of one of our children. Pleased with our impeccable timing, we glanced slyly at each other and tried to look composed. Two boys and a dad leapt out of the car and barreled for the porch: “Did you see the storm? Did you hear the thunder? There was so much rain and lightning.”
“Oh, yes,” we said, “we saw it.”
Sensing something, the other dad said, “You know, my wife and I don’t do nearly enough for ourselves anymore. You two look so happy.”
We just smiled.
I’m taking a sociology course called “Urban Poverty,” and I’ve grown tired of just reading about homelessness. I want to understand the experience firsthand. So one night, I walk out of my dorm with only a quarter in my pocket, and a notebook, a pen, and an apple in a plastic grocery bag. On my way, I stop at the lost-and-found bin and pull out a grungy winter coat with torn pockets.
I walk most of the night along the railroad tracks toward Philadelphia. My first offense is trespassing: I take a nap in the wide back yard of a three-story Colonial beside the tracks. At dawn, I commit my second crime: swinging myself onto the narrow ledge at the back of the last train car, I ride for free in the cold open air into the city.
The Twelfth Street Station, I’ve heard, is the unofficial home for Philadelphia’s homeless, so I get off there and walk down two flights of stairs, holding my breath against the acrid smell of burnt tar and urine. I come out into a massive subway chamber as wide as the street above. Commuters in suits stride down the center, staring straight ahead, while homeless people sit along the walls or sleep on cardboard. The commuters are largely white, like me. All of the homeless are black.
I sidle up to a group of homeless men and women sitting on boxes, laughing and talking. They make room for me, but no one addresses me right away. Finally, a tall, quiet man leans over and asks, “Where you from, homes?”
“Detroit,” I lie, not missing a beat. “Got here this morning. I’m Mitch.”
“Jamil,” says the quiet man. “And this here is Wicket.” He points to a woman with dreadlocks and a wild laugh. “We call her that because she got a ‘wicket’ sense of humor.”
“Damn straight,” says Wicket.
Jamil and Wicket quickly become my adoptive family. Jamil finds a box for me to sleep on, and Wicket takes me downtown to show me where to get a free meal. In the park, I make a half-hearted attempt at begging, then resort to picking pennies out of a fountain.
That evening, Jamil’s younger brother, Silk, shows up with a deck of cards, and we start a game of hearts. As we play, Silk delivers a lengthy narrative about his exploits as a pimp and drug dealer. When he gets to the time he killed another drug dealer who tried to cheat him, Jamil finally says, “Shut the fuck up, fool. You ain’t no big man.” Silk protests that he’s killed five guys. Jamil laughs and shakes his head, and Silk throws down his cards and storms off. While he’s gone, Jamil tells me Silk just spent two years in jail for stealing a Mercedes Benz — his third arrest for car theft.
Later, as I’m sitting on my cardboard bed writing in my notebook, Jamil brings over a tattered blanket. “You’ll use one of our blankets tonight,” he says. “We’ll find you one of your own tomorrow.” As he kneels beside me and tucks the blanket’s edges under my feet, I’m moved by his kindness.
“Why are you doing all this?” I ask.
Jamil looks up at me and raises his eyebrows, as if he doesn’t understand what I mean. “I don’t know about Detroit,” he says quietly, “but around here we help each other.”
Three days later, we’re sitting in the park, talking about what we would wish for if we could have just one thing. “I’d get me a big fat feather pillow,” Wicket says. “Just to rest my head on a pillow one night.”
Silk says, “Shit, I ain’t greedy. Just hook me up with a million dollars — and a bottle of rum.”
Jamil wishes first for a television, then adds that what he really wants is a chance to see his little daughter.
I pass on the question guiltily: I can’t think of a single thing I need that’s not waiting for me back in my dorm room.
Late that night, I wander upstairs to the street, looking for a place to piss, and find myself outside the Hilton. A young couple comes out the side door of the bar, buttoning their coats, and I slip in past them. Rolling my tattered coat under my arm and trying to look nonchalant, I walk into the lobby, nod to the desk clerk, and press the elevator button.
I take the elevator to the top, the thirty-fourth floor, where I find locked penthouse suites and a darkened lounge with a huge tray of fruit, bread, and sandwich meat laid out on a table. I gulp down some pineapple and slap together a turkey sandwich. Then, hearing voices, I wrap the sandwich in a napkin and walk out past two men in room-service uniforms. They look a little surprised, but don’t stop me.
I scramble downstairs to the thirty-third floor. The doors to a few of the rooms are open, and I pop into one and go to the bathroom. It feels good to use a toilet with a seat after squatting over a bucket for days. As I leave, I take a pillow from one of the beds — for Wicket.
At the end of the hallway, the maid’s closet is open. I duck inside and load an empty pillowcase with soap, shampoo, and toilet paper. Then I climb the stairs back to the empty lounge and raid the kitchenette, filling another pillowcase with single-serving cereal boxes and throwing in a bottle of orange juice for good measure. Footsteps echo in the hallway, so I flick off the lights and quietly slip into a corner by the windows. Looking straight down thirty-four stories at the bright orange and white lights of the street, I can see the lit stairwell leading to the subway station where my friends live, underground.
Once the footsteps have passed, I head back to the elevator, pulling on my coat and slinging the pillowcases over my shoulder. I hope they can pass as bags of laundry, but the corners of the cereal boxes bulge conspicuously.
I hold my breath as I exit the elevator and aim for the wide glass doors. Seeing me approach, a doorman steps into my path and opens his mouth to say something, but I just smile and sail past him. “See you tomorrow!” I call cheerily as I explode into the night. I hear him follow me into the street, shouting, but I’m almost to the subway stairs. Once underground, I run for three blocks.
“Where you been?” Jamil asks when I get back.
“Shopping,” I reply, and I drop the two pillowcases into his lap. The pillow I place on Wicket’s bed. Silk’s and Wicket’s faces brighten as they marvel at the treasures. They want to hear about my adventure, and I tell the story in rich detail, embellishing here and there, making the close calls sound closer.
“You’re hot, Detroit,” Silk tells me. “We should start a little business. You get us into the hotel, and I’ll get us into the rooms. We’ll walk out fat with purses and shit.”
Wicket shuts him up, tells him once was enough.
There’s never any question that the loot is for all of us. Everyone is free to take whatever they need. Around here, we help each other.
After the excitement has died down, Jamil and I share a box of Froot Loops and talk. “There’s one thing I can’t understand,” he says, tossing a Froot Loop in the air and catching it in his mouth. “How could you just walk out with them big bags in your hands?”
I look at him, and suddenly it registers in his face.
Because I’m white.
I have stolen chocolate-nut turtles from the bulk bins at Safeway and carton upon carton of cigarettes from my friends, in the guise of borrowing. I have considered stealing a computer modem from where I work, but I am unsure of the possible repercussions. I have eaten factory-farmed meat at Taco Bell three nights in a row. Worse yet, when I am with my wife, I sometimes fantasize about other women.
But the greatest crimes I have committed are not against my wife, nor society, nor cows. More times than I can count, I have sinned against myself. I have promised myself that I would write, that I would work out, that I wouldn’t eat chocolate cake for breakfast, that I would get more involved in service. But then I have flaked out. I have called in sick. I have completely blown myself off. Once again, I have made plans with myself, and, once again, I have not shown up.
Santa Clara, California
Behind Bob’s parents’ garage, he and I built a pressboard-and-scrap-carpet sanctuary complete with urinal, television, VCR, stereo, phone, and air conditioner. We called it the Little House. I even lived there for a while, surviving on a diet of potato chips, king-size Snickers, and cheap vodka.
The last day I spent in the Little House was like any other: we rented a movie and got stoned. Halfway through Lonesome Dove, Bob said he had to run to Chicago to pick up some acid, sell it to a friend, and then head to Waukegan to buy a pound of pot with the money from the sale. I offered to drive, because I didn’t want to be stoned by myself. It wasn’t a big deal. We would be back in a few hours, get high again, and finish watching the movie.
After returning from Chicago, we met up with Bob’s buyer in a McDonald’s parking lot, and I went in to use the bathroom. I was just about done when someone knocked on the stall door and said, “Police, open up.” I thought, Yeah, good joke, Bob. Then I noticed the shiny shoes underneath the door, and the yelling started: “Open the fucking door!” Though I had seen it in movies, I never really believed it happened this way: the cop literally threw me against the wall, and four guns were pointed at my head.
I was twenty years old, and my priors were fairly innocuous: six or seven arrests for underage drinking and minor possession of pot, and one DUI that had landed me in the county rehab for a month, where I’d learned to play a mean hand of spades. Now things were about to get serious.
After a swarthy-looking undercover cop described a fiendishly candid prison-rape scenario (what with my long hair and all, he said), I admitted that I had known what was going on — but I had no part in the deal or the profit. Then they ushered Tom into the room. I had known Tom when he was a guard at the county jail and moonlighting at the Shell station where I worked. We used to get high together. Since then, Tom had moved up in his career and become an undercover cop. Turns out he was one of the arresting officers on the bust.
Tom knew I wasn’t a bad kid, just dumb. My friendship with him didn’t do me much good that night, except he let me smoke on the ride over to the county jail.
Despite being part of the largest LSD bust in the county’s history, I got off on probation. I attribute this to my mom’s having a friend who worked at the courthouse, to her appearances at all my hearings, and to the fact that Tom talked to the judge. My friend Bob wasn’t so lucky.
That was nearly ten years ago. Now I have two college degrees, a good job, a wife, a car, and a home. I am successful, but I know that life isn’t fair. Fairness is just what we call it when we get what we want and what we complain about when we don’t.
In the spring of 1957, my Sunday-school classmates and I waited impatiently to make our first Holy Communion. We had memorized the ritual and studied our lines. We knew who had made us, and why.
Lucy was a small, thin, fragile girl who always had a hungry look about her. That day, we’d all come to class in our very best white clothes, and I noticed that mine were whiter than hers. I supposed the whiteness was meant to represent our purity in the face of God Almighty. But even at the age of seven, I knew it had more to do with privilege than purity.
Though we were instructed to sit quietly with our hands folded atop our desks, we were all giggly balls of energy that day. The nun raised her voice and said that the next child who dared speak would be spanked. I had heard that kind of tone from grown-ups before, and I knew she was just waiting for someone to cross her, so I sat perfectly still, hands folded, eyes down.
And then I heard Lucy say something. It wasn’t even very loud. But the nun loomed over us in her severe black-and-white habit and ordered Lucy to the front of the classroom. Lucy turned bright red, but didn’t move. The nun commanded her to come forward. Starting to cry, Lucy walked gingerly with her head bowed to the front of the class. The nun sat down on her hard-backed wooden chair and told Lucy to lie across her lap.
Surely, this couldn’t be happening, I thought. Life could not be this harsh — not in public, anyway. But small, fragile Lucy did as she was told, and the nun proceeded to spank her in front of all of us.
It was excruciating. I wanted to stand up and say, “No, you can’t do that to her! She never gets to dress up. She’s just excited. This is supposed to be a special day!” But I sat stiffly and struggled to hold back my own tears.
Now, when I think back to my first Communion, I don’t remember the religious significance of the event, but the lesson I received in silence and power.
Janet Marie Rose
Santa Fe, New Mexico
When I was young and new to my job as a district forester for the state of Indiana, I spoke at a large, suburban high school in Indianapolis. The audience was rowdy, and it was all I could do to raise my voice above the constant din of chattering students. The teachers met my desperate glances with blank stares, as if to say, “We can’t do anything with them, either. You’re on your own.”
I could feel my anger and frustration building as I proceeded through my carousel of slides. At last, I completed my talk and distributed the handouts, which soon floated to the floor. “Are there any questions?” I asked. No response. I barked louder, “Does anyone have any questions about the Indiana Division of Forestry?”
A meek looking boy who appeared too young for high school haltingly raised his hand. “What does a forest ranger do?” he asked.
Now, in my talk I had explained that the heads of state forest properties were called “property managers” — a forest ranger was a federal employee. With withering sarcasm, I responded, “I don’t know. You’d need a speaker from the National Park Service to answer that one.”
The boy turned beet red and sank down into his seat as if I had just punched him in the face. There were no more questions.
One of the teachers, realizing the presentation was over, asked the group to show their appreciation for my visit. There was a smattering of applause, and then the crowd slowly ambled out. I stood there a long time with my head down and my arms draped over the podium, feeling sick to my stomach. There was no way I could apologize for what I’d done.
Trudy E. Roe
West Lafayette, Indiana
To keep busy after my son Chris’s arrest for murder, I clean his house, scrubbing floors and sinks, washing his clothes, removing photos and memorabilia from the walls. If only I could properly interpret these pictures, I think, perhaps they would explain the enigma of my son. There are photos of his submarine, of his last, detested commanding officer, of his father, of his friends at parties. Then there are the military citations and awards, documentation of his eight and a half years in the navy. There is also an eight-by-ten glossy of John Wayne.
The walls finished, I turn my attention to the bedroom where he kept his weapons and grew marijuana. I remove the camouflage cloth from the window, letting in natural light for the first time in months. Mildew has grown on the glass, a result of the jungle atmosphere necessary to raise the plants. His setup has been dismantled now. I find an overlooked cookie tin full of premium marijuana and flush the contents down the toilet, pausing to wonder about the possible effect on the plumbing.
If not for the guns, the bedroom might be a pleasant place, warm and lit by pink fluorescents. There’s something calming about Gro-lux lights. I remember when we lived in married-student housing, and my husband grew dope in Chris’s closet. Chris remembers, too, telling about it with a mixture of pride and the outrage of an abused child.
The doorjamb is shattered because the cops had to open it with a crow bar. It takes me a couple of hours of sanding, gluing, and nailing to get it back into place. Then I go outside, ostensibly to clean cobwebs from the windows with a broom, but really to get away from the remnants of my son’s fractured life. Dried husks of moths and flies stud the cobwebs, which, instead of sticking to the bristles of my broom, spread and smear. I continue pushing at the webs, dragging them into lumpy strings. The wind comes up, and a couple of tiny raindrops fall on my cheeks. Suddenly, sadness fills my lungs like dark, oily water. I slump down on the porch steps and sob for a long time.
When I go back inside, I feel an in explicable compulsion to call the jail and check on visiting hours for tonight. The woman who answers the phone asks whom I’m planning to visit. When I give her Chris’s name, she says, “Hold on a minute.” Then she says, “He can’t have visitors tonight. He’s got a medical situation.”
“He tried to kill himself,” I say, so loud and angrily it surprises me. It’s not a question, because I know it’s true.
“No, no,” she tells me. “It’s just a medical problem. He’ll be fine.”
“I’m his mother,” I plead, but she’s unmoved.
The next morning, the phone rings. It’s my cousin asking if I’ve seen the paper. On the front page is a small article about an attempted suicide at the jail.
Months later, a friend whispers to me, “Do you sometimes think it might have been for the best if he’d done it — you know . . . killed himself?”
I have given this some thought. A short, overweight guard named Larry was the one who found Chris hanging unconscious from a bedsheet noose. Even though Chris’s heart had stopped, Larry cut him down, forced breath into him, and pummeled his chest until the paramedics arrived. For that, I will always be grateful.
Santa Barbara, California