Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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I’m an English and science instructor, but today I’ve been asked to teach Christian religious education. My ten-by-ten-foot tin-walled classroom is packed with Kenyan fourth-graders who are overexcited to have me, a white person, as their teacher. “Tea-CHA! Tea-CHA!” the kids call, raising their hands. They want to be called on even before there is a question for them to answer.
I open the tattered textbook — more of a booklet, really — to chapter six, “Stealing,” and we read a few Scriptures and a story about a man who steals a car and gets caught. Only about one in five students has a book, and the kids in each row scoot to the middle of the bench to peek at the pictures. I ask a few simple questions: What do people steal? Why do people steal? What is wrong about stealing?
Huxley says that people steal money. He is the class prefect (a student who helps the teacher keep the other kids in line), and I have been to his house: one room with five people living in it. His father is unemployed, like nearly everyone else around here. I tell Huxley he is right. Stealing money is common.
Basil raises his hand and says that people steal food. His father has just died, leaving Basil orphaned. He never has any lunch, and sometimes I bring him an avocado to eat. His toes stick out of his pink high-top shoes, and his eyes reveal quiet suffering. “Yes, Basil,” I say, “people do steal food.”
Betinah, the star pupil, tells me that God never wants you to steal, no matter what. The booklet heavily emphasizes this point. Yesterday I went to Betinah’s house and gave her a copy of Huckleberry Finn. Her father has a job, and her family is considered lucky.
I want to tell the class about moral relativity. I want to explain to them the impracticality of the eighth commandment. I want to tell them to steal lunch, pencils, textbooks — everything they need and deserve but don’t have.
“Yes, Betinah,” I say. “Stealing is wrong, no matter what.”
I took the bus to summer school every weekday, dragging along my nylon-string guitar for lessons. My goal was to get good enough to play at folk Mass with my dad on Saturday evenings. I was an eight-year-old left-hander learning to play right-handed, angry that my brother had gotten all the rhythm genes. Every night my father pressured me to practice “Go Tell Aunt Rhody,” with its upbeat that I just couldn’t get. I developed calluses and cried and wanted to quit, but I couldn’t disappoint my dad. If I could just learn to play a simple C chord progression, I’d be allowed to join him.
The best part of summer school was the snack bar. My mother always gave me a dime for a treat, and I’d discovered Red Vines: eight ropes of licorice in a cellophane package. Every day I bought Red Vines and sucked on all eight pieces at once.
One morning my lust for candy got the better of me. I helped myself to some change from my father’s dresser and bought five packs of Red Vines that day.
“Where’d you get all those?” my brother asked when he saw them, and I cursed myself for not being more careful.
Later that day my father said, “I’m missing some change. I understand you bought extra candy.”
I confessed and promised I wouldn’t do it again.
“Go to your room.”
I went, shaking with fear. My dad had been raised to believe that a little whipping was good for kids and kept them in line. I’d witnessed my brothers and sisters getting whipped with Dad’s belt, but I’d always been a good girl and avoided it — until today.
My dad entered my bedroom and shut the door behind him. “Take off your clothes,” he ordered. I did as I was told and waited. He dropped the belt and sat on my bed. “Lie down,” he said. He began to massage my chest. “These are going to grow larger soon,” he told me. He moved his hand to between my legs. “You’ll grow hair here.”
I was speechless and frightened. I felt like throwing up.
“Does it feel good?” he asked.
“No,” I whispered, wanting a whipping, the belt — anything but this.
“It will someday,” he said. “You’ll be asking for this someday.”
After a few minutes, he allowed me to get dressed. As he left the room, he told me to help myself to the change on his dresser whenever I wanted.
For the next decade, every time he came into my room at night, I thought it was my fault: if only I hadn’t stolen that change, I could have had a normal childhood.
Colorado Springs, Colorado
When I worked as a cook for a meditation center in North Carolina, I was responsible for buying the food. Without telling my employers, I convinced the local store to give me a nonprofit discount. Then I pocketed the savings. I knew it was wrong, but I found ways of justifying it to myself.
I tried to meditate for a couple of hours a day, but I was having trouble. At first I’d had many revelations; now it just felt like work. When I told the head monk that I had stopped meditating every day, he asked me why.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Well, why don’t you meditate on that,” he suggested.
So I did. I was sitting and thinking about the question when it dawned on me that I had stopped because, now that the revelations weren’t coming, meditation no longer seemed worth it. Then I thought about my stealing from the monastery, and when I put the two together, I had a revelation: I was greedy! The insight was so powerful that I started crying. I didn’t want to be greedy, but there it was.
Well, I thought, that was worth it! And I started to laugh.
It was 1970, and my friends and I had a communal apartment whose balcony overlooked the gravel parking lot of a small grocery store called Uncle Wiggily’s Garden Patch. We practically lived on beer, and since our flower-decaled VW van was kaput and our driver’s licenses were suspended or nonexistent, you might expect that we bought our alcohol from Uncle Wiggily. Contrary to the image on his sign, however, he was not a cute, furry bunny rabbit with a cane and top hat, but a Pakistani with a loud voice and a violent dislike for men with long hair. He sometimes ran us out of his store with a broom. So we bought beer by the keg from the tavern across the street.
One time around midnight, we had dropped some acid and were discussing the spiritual significance of Frank Zappa’s music when someone got the idea to pay Uncle Wiggily’s Garden Patch an after-hours visit. We jumped down from the balcony into the parking lot and stumbled, beers in hand, to the rear of the store, where a shed leaned against the building. Inside we found a mess of flattened cardboard boxes and empty gunnysacks, and behind them a gap in the siding that revealed the exposed studs of the store’s outside wall. I pushed against the thin wallboard between the studs and, with just a bit more force, muscled my way into the store.
We stole the food — all of it — filling the gunnysacks, lifting them up to the balcony on a rope, then returning with the empty bags. In two hours our apartment was packed five feet deep with everything from avocados to ziti. We didn’t leave a single jelly bean.
At sunrise we watched through the curtains with barely concealed mirth as Uncle Wiggily unlocked the store. A faint cry of anguish carried across the lot, and the store owner staggered forth, pulling his hair and shouting in his native tongue. He whirled about as if expecting to spot the thieves, then fell to his knees in the dust and sobbed.
We never saw him again, and the store never reopened.
I’ve spent more than thirty years of my life in prison, and people often ask me if there is anything I would do differently, were I given the chance. Yes, I would wish to be shooed that night from Uncle Wiggily’s Garden Patch with a broom and some harmless shouting.
In 1943, when I was nine years old, my friend Ronnie and I lived in Buckinghamshire, England. Our families were evacuees who’d fled London to escape the Blitz and were being housed in cottages on the Rothschild estate. One day Ronnie suggested that he and I run away from home. We weren’t particularly unhappy; it just seemed like an exciting thing to do, and Ronnie said we could follow the railway lines all the way to Scotland, where his granny lived. (We didn’t stop to think how long it would take us or how we’d find his granny when we got there.)
“I bet my mother will be happy I’ve run away,” I told Ronnie. “She has to pay half a crown for my dancing lesson at Miss Cook’s every Saturday, and I know she’ll be glad of the money.”
To prepare for our adventure, Ronnie and I hid our bikes in a nearby wood (we planned to cycle beside the railway lines) and secreted scraps of food in our bags. “We mustn’t forget our gas masks,” I said. Even in our moment of rebellion, we remembered the rule: Take your gas mask with you wherever you go.
We’d need money for our trip, so we came up with a plan: Wartime had reduced the estate’s once-large gardening staff to two elderly men. Ronnie and I easily evaded them and picked bunches of alpine flowers that peeked out between the dandelions, sow thistle, and hogweed. Then we went from house to house selling the flowers for sixpence a bunch, telling people we were raising money for the Red Cross.
That evening, when my mother returned from her job at a nearby munitions factory, our neighbor Mrs. Maynard commented to her about our “fundraising” efforts. I held my breath and stared at a knot in the floorboards. My mother said nothing. Later, in a rare display of warmth, she took me on her knee and gently explained that what Ronnie and I had done was wrong. I cried with shame and embarrassment, but I didn’t tell her about our plan to run away the next Saturday, which was still on.
Saturday arrived, sunny and warm, and Ronnie and I wheeled our bikes up the estate driveway and past the cricket field, where a team from the nearby airfield was playing a village team from Wing. Ronnie wanted to watch, so we sat down on the grass. An hour later we both felt hungry. “Shall we go home for lunch?” Ronnie suggested. “We’ll run away tomorrow instead.” I agreed.
The next day we said nothing to each other about running away, nor the day after that. The plan was forgotten. But I still have a weakness for picking flowers that don’t belong to me.
Clare Cooper Marcus
For me it started as a kind of sport, changing price tags or emptying a bottle of shampoo, filling it with water, and returning it to the drugstore. I was a rebel, taking from the Establishment to give to someone more deserving: myself.
By the time I got to college, I was amazed that people actually paid for pens, chocolate, or aspirin. I collected quotes from Karl Marx and Jean Jacques Rousseau, elevating my theft to an act of political rebellion. I had principles, though: I never shoplifted from mom-and-pop stores or small boutiques. In fact, stealing books from a big chain was my way of supporting the local independent bookshop.
My boyfriend found my habit endearing. “Been liberating things again?” he’d ask when I dumped my catch of the day on the kitchen table. I became more daring, taking loaves of artisan bread and quart bottles of olive oil, just because I could. I wanted the adrenaline rush more than I did the items, which I often gave away.
After many years it occurred to me that I might be hooked. I had broken my code long before and was stealing from small stores. Though I’d gone up in income and had a family and a graduate degree, I was still ducking into the shadows every chance I got.
One afternoon in a chain bookstore, a dreadlocked detective caught me stashing Maya Angelou’s autobiography in the pocket of my raincoat. She let me go with only a reprimand. Her disgust left me feeling small and petty, but my compulsion remained. I felt I had to take advantage of shoplifting opportunities, and there were dozens of them every day. Finally I saw that I was stealing from myself: my time, my energy, my sense of righteousness.
It took me a long time to break my little habit. There are still days when I have to talk myself into paying for a pack of gum.
I got my first lesson in race relations when I was five. I was waiting in line with my mother at the grocery store, and a white woman in front of us looked down at me and pulled her bag closer to her.
“Don’t stand so close,” my mother whispered. I looked up at her for an explanation, but she only stared into the distance.
Her unspoken lesson has stayed with me: even if I’m innocent, I can be presumed guilty merely because my skin is dark. I still don’t stand too close to strangers, for fear of being thought a thief.
Nicole Gardner Neblett
My uncle was a rural doctor in eastern India who saw patients from more than twenty villages. He had silver hair and a walrus mustache, and his eyes would mist over as women or children told him of their pain. He treated many of his poor patients for free.
When some farmers found a man named Ram dying of bullet wounds at the edge of their field, they carried him to my uncle’s clinic. Ram said he had been robbed and shot by hoodlums. He teetered on the verge of death for weeks before he recovered. Because he now walked with a limp and could not return to work as a day laborer, my uncle hired him as a domestic. The children liked him, and he became a part of the family.
One day Ram disappeared without a word. When people commented on Ram’s ingratitude, my uncle said, “We don’t know why he left so suddenly. We shouldn’t guess, and we shouldn’t judge till we know.”
The answer came in less than a month: It turned out Ram was no day laborer but the leader of a gang of outlaws, and he had been shot not by hoodlums, as he had claimed, but by police. Worse, when he’d left, he had stolen my uncle’s hunting rifle. Since rejoining his gang, Ram had shot and killed two policemen with the gun. Now my uncle was implicated, because the police presumed that he had allowed Ram to use his gun or had at least been negligent about keeping it locked up.
After grilling him for three days in the district court, the authorities let my uncle go but canceled his gun license. The public humiliation was the worst punishment.
Two years later a police car came and fetched my uncle to the bedside of a dying man who’d requested no doctor but him. When my uncle got there, he saw it was Ram. My uncle removed the two bullets the police had used to take Ram down, but there was nothing more he could do. Before he died, Ram thanked my uncle for having saved his life before, apologized for stealing from him, and begged his forgiveness.
One day my friend Joan gave me a handful of white capsules before English class. They came from an orange prescription bottle with her father’s name on the label. She said he’d been prescribed them for pain after he’d broken his back. I put two of the pills on my tongue. They tasted like chalk and made my mouth feel thick, but I swallowed them at the drinking fountain and went into class.
After that I became obsessed with prescription medicines. I began to look through people’s bathroom cabinets — casually at first, then compulsively. I collected pills, hiding them in boxes and drawers at home. I never took any, though. I just spread them out and looked at them: thin shells holding colorful powders and thick liquids. All of them together could have cured anything.
Salt Lake City, Utah
In 1952, when I was six years old, my Irish Catholic mother decided it was time to begin my religious instruction and enrolled me in a two-week summer catechism school. I was excited because I had seen the school’s playground, with its merry-go-round and jungle gym and swings, and my mother had told me I’d hear wonderful stories in class.
Recess flew by, however, and we spent most of our class time memorizing the answers to questions I didn’t understand, like “Who is God the Father?” and “What is the Holy Trinity?” Sister Mary Magdalene would stroll up and down the rows with a ruler in her hand, and if she caught anyone so much as whispering to a neighbor, she would rap the offender’s knuckles. I was afraid of her and did my best to behave.
The wonderful stories my mother had promised turned out to be terrible tales of saints who’d died for their faith: boiled in oil, shot with a hundred arrows, torn to pieces, hanged, drowned, beheaded. When Sister Mary Magdalene told these stories, I would escape in my head to the woods behind our house, where I spent my afternoons chasing water bugs and tadpoles in the creek.
In the second week Sister Mary Magdalene told the story of the Crucifixion. She started with the scourging, the crown of thorns, and the pulling of the heavy cross through the streets and up the steep hill. The bloody details gave me a stomachache.
During recess that day I had a strange urge to steal a beautiful pink rosary from my classmate Gina. So I did, and after school I went to the woods and buried it next to the creek.
The next day Sister Mary Magdalene said Gina had lost her rosary, and if any of us found it, we should bring it to her. Then she told us the rest of the Crucifixion story: the pounding of the nails through hands and feet, the spear in the side, the prolonged suffocation on the cross. That day I stole two more rosaries and took them home and buried them in the woods.
Sister Mary Magdalene was angry the next morning, because it was clear that one of us was a thief. She threatened us with divine wrath as she went from one child to the next, asking if he or she had stolen the rosaries. When she got to me, I shook my head no, and she passed by. She couldn’t tell! That day I stole my fourth and final rosary.
For a long time I didn’t understand why I had taken the rosaries; I never used them or told anyone I had them. Now, at the age of sixty, I think I know: that nun had taken something from me with those terrible stories, and I wanted it back.
When I was in the fifth grade, we watched a filmstrip on what to do if we saw someone stealing. A few days later at the Piggly Wiggly grocery store, I saw a man standing in front of the canned soups and looking around nervously. Though it was a warm day, he was wearing a trench coat, and he seemed to be putting cans in his pockets. I did what the filmstrip had told me to do: I informed my mother, who told the store clerk, and in a few minutes the police were there. As my mother was putting my favorite breakfast cereal on the checkout belt, I saw them handcuffing the man, who was listless and stoic. Noticing his faded clothing, I wasn’t sure I had done the right thing.
Every day after school I walked to the Episcopal church, where I took ballet lessons. Some kids from “Brown Town,” a poor, mostly black neighborhood behind the church, used to play with the other students and me in the old graveyard that was the buffer between our communities. Mrs. Ryan, our ballet teacher, would always shoo the kids away before class started, but sometimes they would sneak back and watch us through the old screen door. They were spunky, and I liked them, especially Bevie and her cousin.
The day after the grocery-store incident, Mrs. Ryan was late for my lesson, so I sat and talked with Bevie and her cousin on the steps. They told me they were sad because their uncle was in jail. He lived with them and took care of them. When I asked why he was in jail, they said he’d gotten caught stealing food for them from the Piggly Wiggly.
That night Mr. Lassiter, the grocery-store owner, called to tell me what a wonderful thing I’d done. I knew he was wrong. From that day on, I began to think for myself.
Jane Allen Wilson
Pittsboro, North Carolina
My brother was the perfect one. I was three years younger and not so perfect. Deep down I knew my imperfection had something to do with the fact that our mother had died giving birth to me.
My brother and I grew up in the 1940s and ’50s on a dairy farm in western New York, where our father sold fresh eggs and milk from a milk house attached to the barn: fifteen cents for a quart of rich Guernsey milk and twenty cents for a dozen white or brown eggs. There was a cash drawer in the milk house, but I didn’t know exactly where.
One Saturday morning when I was ten, our father stormed into the living room, where my brother and I were playing a board game. “Boys,” he said, his face flushed, “there’s money missing from the cash drawer, and when I get back from town, I’m going to find out which one of you stole it!” Then he pulled his cap low over his forehead and left. The silver Hudson raised a cloud of dust as it disappeared over the hill.
I sat there in horror for a moment, sure that I was the prime suspect. “You didn’t take the money, did you?” I asked my brother. It was more a statement than a question, and he didn’t even have to answer. How could my perfect brother steal? Though I knew I was innocent, I prepared to accept my punishment.
When my father returned from town, he called my brother into the knotty-pine-paneled office where Dad labored over the farm’s finances. I’d been summoned there many times to feel his swift, open-handed blows to the back of my head. While my brother was in there, though, the house was silent. I imagined my older sibling was establishing his innocence. Soon I would be called in and forced to confess. The minutes ticked by. Still there were no raised voices, no slamming doors, no summons for me.
When I saw my brother and father at dinner that night, my father’s anger had evaporated. I assumed my guilt had been established, and I wouldn’t even be given an opportunity to clear my name. But why I wasn’t punished remained a mystery.
Decades later, I visited my brother and his wife at their lakeside retirement home a few miles from the farm where we’d grown up. After dinner, I asked him if he remembered the milk-house theft.
“Yeah, I remember,” he said.
“I’ve always wondered who stole that seventy-five cents.”
“I thought you knew,” he said. “I took the money.”
No, I hadn’t known, I told him. I’d believed Dad thought I was the thief.
My brother looked at me in shock. “I don’t know how you could have thought that,” he said.
I knew. I’d believed my guilt was presumed because of my larger guilt for our mother’s death. But for the first time now I saw the truth: My father didn’t think I had stolen seventy-five cents from the cash drawer. Nor did he think I had stolen his beautiful young wife.
Barneveld, New York
When I was ten, Jesus came to live with us. My parents had discovered him and his close relative the Holy Spirit, and they opened our Sierra Madre home to anyone searching for answers in Christ. Five times a week the lost and disenfranchised paraded through our doors and asked God to explain why their daughter was deformed, or their father was gay, or their son had committed suicide.
My two older brothers, my younger sister, and I were relegated to the roles of busboys, maids, and caretakers. We became experts at setting up folding chairs, stacking styrofoam cups, filling coffee urns, laying out cookies, and spreading God’s good cheer. Sometimes, from my upstairs bedroom window, I would watch the procession of the meek and disturbed and wonder where our family had gone.
After three years my oldest brother left to do the Lord’s work in Bogotá, Colombia. My other brother joined the air force right out of high school and never looked back. I moved out following graduation, married the first girl I slept with, and started a family eleven months later — a baby raising a baby.
All these years later, I am still angry that Jesus stole my family from me.
Solana Beach, California
It’s a cold winter’s night, and I creep through backyards and over fences, hiding for a moment when a motion-sensor light comes on. My mind swims with adrenaline and cocaine. I’m out of cash, and the pipe is calling.
Once I reach Eric’s house, getting in is easy: the windows aren’t locked, and his dog loves me. I check to be sure the place is empty, then gather all the money I can find: coins saved for laundry, cash kept on hand for emergency. I also take a bag of weed and some cheap booze, which might help me come down and perhaps get some sleep. I leave through the front door, off to see my dealer.
The next day I recall my terrible offense against my friend. I have done what I told myself I never would do. (“At least I earn my drug money,” I’ve always said.) I know then that I have become a crackhead.
© Kerry St. Ours
I grew up terrified of my father, who was capable of explosive anger even in public. Anytime we went to a restaurant, he would make a scene, demeaning the waiter or waitress, calling over a manager, and broadcasting his complaints about the cold hamburger or the bad lighting. Either we left with a free or discounted meal, or he would threaten to call the cops. Once an owner actually beat his son after Dad complained. (This was too much, even for my dad, and he paid that bill.) Mom, my three younger siblings, and I all endured Dad’s tirades in silence.
One night we had dinner at a Friendly’s restaurant in New Jersey. I waited with my stomach in knots for the inevitable drama. My brother, too, was eyeing our brooding father and the bored-looking waitress. But the meal ended with no blow-up. The waitress came by and set the bill on the table. Dad looked at it and then lit a cigarette and stared into space.
I announced that I had to use the toilet, and Mom said they’d meet me in the car. When I came out, I saw Dad at the end of a long line at the register, his face red with anger.
I went outside and got in the van. Dad came out of the restaurant just a minute behind me.
“Mom,” I said as we watched him cross the parking lot, “he couldn’t have paid the bill already. There was a long line.”
“You shut your mouth,” my mother snapped.
Dad opened the driver’s door and took his seat.
A few years later I became a shoplifter, stealing anything that would fit in my bag. I finally got caught stealing a tie for Father’s Day. Because I was under eighteen, my father got the charges dropped. Not counting a year when I stole office supplies as a disgruntled employee, I have been an honest woman ever since.
My father is now retired and, from what I hear, still abuses wait staff. My mother is as loyal as ever and regularly eats out with him. My younger sister lives with our parents, and my other sister bought a house next door to them because it was a “great deal.” Sometimes they all dine out together.
My brother, on the other hand, moved across the country and started a family. Even though he got a degree in biology many years ago, he has chosen to stay in the profession he’s had since he was sixteen: he’s a waiter.
By the time I was twelve, I was an expert shoplifter. I could float into a store, blend in, and steal whatever I wanted. My brother had bought me a hunting jacket lined with pockets, and I was boosting up to twenty record albums a day. I began to steal for other people and even shoplifted shoes in the size someone requested. My bedroom at home had three aquariums, all stolen piece by piece, including the fish. The challenge and thrill of stealing allowed me to leave my body, and its pain, and just observe.
One day, after two hours of filling friends’ “orders,” I ducked into the grocery store for something to eat. The manager had his eye on me, but I felt cocky and decided I could outrun him. I was out the door before he could stop me. Dashing through the parking lot, I knocked down a woman, but I kept going. When I looked back, I saw that I had collided with my own mother.
Her suspicions that I was a bad boy were finally confirmed. I couldn’t keep running.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
On the last day of school, my teacher let me stay in the classroom all by myself during lunch. I was a well-behaved student, and she trusted me. Once I was alone, I opened a cabinet, pulled out a dictionary and a fifth-grade social-studies book titled American Nation, and put them in my backpack. I also took a couple of erasers, some pencils, and a ruler.
When the teacher returned with the rest of the class, she asked all of us to sit down so we could watch a movie. I wiggled in my seat and wiped the sweat from my hands. When the bell rang, I picked up my backpack and sped out of class.
I ran all the way home — past the liquor store, the furniture store with the creepy salesmen, and the nudie bar — and slammed the front door behind me. Then I opened my backpack and admired the thickness of the dictionary and the rustle of its pages; I touched the glossy cover of the social-studies book, with its pictures of smiling Americans. I smelled the new erasers and placed them in a drawer with the ruler and pencils.
At five o’clock, when my dad came home, I held up the dictionary and American Nation and said, “Dad, look what the teacher gave me!”
“What are they?” he asked in Spanish.
“This is a book to look up what words mean and how they’re spelled, and this one is about the U.S.”
He sat down with the social-studies book and asked me to look up could in the dictionary. I found it, and Dad marveled at the idiosyncrasies of English spelling. When he returned the books to me, he said, “Guardalos bien” — Take good care of them.
At least once a week my dad would ask me a question about something he’d encountered in the newspaper, at work, or in a conversation. “Denise, where’s the state of Utah?” he might ask, and I’d run to look up the answer. He and I read about U.S. geography, the Constitution, and the Declaration of Independence — all the facts one needed to know for the citizenship test. The two books became our family’s library.
Last March I finally threw those books out. The dictionary’s cover was missing, and the social-studies book had water damage. Before committing them to the trash, I took a long look and remembered how my desire for them had blinded me to the possible consequences. I also recalled all the information the books had given me. I decided they had been worth stealing.
I was six my first summer in Arizona. My family had just moved there from Michigan, and I’d never known it could be so hot. The public park, which was mostly desert, was one street away, and I spent the summer there playing baseball, chasing lizards, and exploring arroyos with the neighborhood kids.
The most exciting moment of each day was the arrival of the ice-cream man. We could hear his bells coming from a block away, and we all pulled out our coins to see what, if anything, we could afford.
The ice-cream man had gray hair and was friendly to all children, though he was partial to ones with good manners. I could tell he liked me from the time I bought my first 50/50 bar. He seemed to think me a character, with my white-blond hair, my blue eyes, and my bare feet blackened and calloused from walking on the hot asphalt. He called me “Blazer” or “Whitey” or “Old Blue Eyes,” and he was forgiving if I was a few pennies short, almost as if he knew how bad things were for me at home.
My parents’ abuse continued throughout my childhood, and by middle school I was a bully and a troublemaker. My two friends and I would spit on kids’ backs, knock books out of their hands, extort their lunch money, and steal their bikes. One day we were hanging out in the parking lot of the bowling alley when I saw the ice-cream man eating lunch in his truck. I ordered the other two to distract him while I snuck up on his blind side, opened the truck’s door, and grabbed a whole case of Drumsticks — the most expensive item he sold. I made a clean getaway, and we sat behind the Bowl-a-Rama, laughing and gorging ourselves on stolen ice cream.
The summer before my freshman year of high school, I started using drugs, and while tripping on angel dust I came to believe the ice-cream man knew what I had done and had gone bankrupt because of my theft, or had retired (or even died!) out of sadness and bitterness over my betrayal. For years I kept an eye out for him, hoping to pay him back with the money I was making selling pills and grass. I fantasized about driving up to the ice-cream man in my ’57 Chevy, laying a hundred-dollar bill on him, and apologizing for the theft. But in reality I was a cowardly addict and wouldn’t have been able to confess if I had seen him.
I am fifty-four now and have been clean and sober for many years. If I saw the ice-cream man today, I could apologize and beg his forgiveness, but it’s too late. It is now up to me to forgive myself for what I did.
Taos, New Mexico
When I was fifteen, I rummaged through my parents’ dresser drawers and found five hundred dollars in a white envelope. With access to that much cash, I could finally run away. I hated my father for his racist rampages and my mother for her hysterical fits. Both of them had whipped me with a belt on more than one occasion.
My best friend, Cassie, was ready to escape from her own screwed-up home. Together we planned to hitchhike out of town like hippies, destination unknown.
On a Sunday afternoon when no one was around, I went to the envelope and counted out two hundred dollars, thinking that if I left most of the money, Mom and Dad wouldn’t realize any was gone.
The next morning Cassie and I rendezvoused at the corner gas station, and I slipped her half of the stolen cash. She hid it inside her shoe and said, “Thanks, sister.” We were each other’s real family.
We hadn’t counted on one thing: as soon as we didn’t show up at school, the principal called our parents, and our parents called the police. An officer in a cruiser nabbed us right outside of town.
At the police station, Cassie and I were separated. (I learned later that her parents took her to the psychiatric ward.) When my parents demanded I give back the money I’d taken, I returned the hundred I still had but refused to reveal what I’d done with the rest. I couldn’t rat on my true sister. My mom and dad said I could stay in jail until I was ready to talk. A policewoman stripped me of my belt, shoes, and glasses, fingerprinted me, and locked me up.
At first I plotted to run away again. This time I’d stage my own death by making it look like I’d jumped in the river, then escape to a happy life on a commune. Cassie would be sure to follow.
After a couple of days in confinement, I started crying, pounding on the walls, and begging for something to read or write on. The jailer who passed my meager meals through the slot in the door gave no response. I cried myself numb and stared at the wall, feeling nothing.
At the end of five days, the door swung open, and the policewoman guided me down a long hallway.
“Cassie has the money,” I said.
“We know that,” the policewoman replied. “She told us. Your parents are downstairs waiting to take you home.”
I should have been afraid to go home with my mom and dad, who were likely to take the belt to me again, but I no longer cared. All I wanted was to get into my own bed. I was broken. My parents had gotten back what I had stolen from them, but I would never get back what they had taken from me.
Winter has come early, and we’re in the middle of a deep freeze. All I’ve got to eat is a wrinkled spud, a molding onion, and a can of beans. I’ve paid the rent, the power, and the heat, but there’s almost no money left. My energy-assistance check won’t arrive till mid-May — just in time to turn off the furnace.
I’ve become fixated on food. I envision a thick, rare steak; a baked potato oozing with butter and sour cream; green beans topped with sliced almonds; and a salad drenched in cucumber dressing. I leave the duplex in a trancelike state, determined to eat well today. I have two dollars in my jeans pocket.
I pause outside the grocery store. Does my hunger justify stealing? Will I be able to live with myself afterward? Why shouldn’t I? I’ve seen others do it.
Inside the store I feel a child’s delight at the bounty before me. I pause in front of the cans of beef stew, considering how big a bulge one would make in my overcoat pocket. Then I notice the flat cans of tuna. Several of them would fit. I reach out but stop myself and move to another aisle. So many items tempt me: granola bars, Roma tomatoes, . . . oh, my God — peaches! My hand seems to have a mind of its own, reaching out, pulling back.
I go the length of the store and pick up just one item: an apple, which I pay for at the checkout. Outside the doors I pause to bite into the McIntosh and pat the change in my pocket, thankful that I’ve kept my integrity intact.
Kettle Falls, Washington
My father, Eddie Moreno, was childhood friends with Jackie Robinson, the first African American to play Major League Baseball. My father and Jackie grew up in Pasadena, California, where they were next-door neighbors and members of the Pepper Street Gang, a group of Mexican, black, Japanese, Greek, Irish, and Armenian children. It was the 1920s and ’30s, and “colored” kids were allowed to swim at the neighborhood pool only on Tuesdays. Out of solidarity, Father, a blond, light-skinned Mexican with a freckled nose, swam on Tuesdays with Jackie. The rest of the time they kept cool by spraying each other with a garden hose.
Early most mornings Jackie and my father waited in the near darkness for my grandma’s tamales. Then, stomachs full, they played baseball using a discarded broomstick and rolled-up rags. Sometimes they got into mischief: drop-kicking a turtle; tying a firecracker to a car’s tailpipe and lighting it; eating too many stolen apricots and getting sick.
My father’s best story — the one told at his memorial service — was of how Jackie had learned to steal bases: When my grandpa returned from work, the boys would play a little game. Jackie would sneak into Grandpa’s large cornfield and help himself to some ears of corn. On cue, my father would yell, “Thief! Stop stealing our corn!” and Grandpa would rush out of the kitchen, waving his shotgun. (It was never loaded.) Jackie would sprint through the rows of corn, across the lawn, and into his yard, where he was safe.
“I see you are here, too, Mayor Boehm,” I heard my mother say. It was a late-summer night in Germany, 1945, and we were scavenging for food at the site of a derailed supply train belonging to the occupying U.S. forces. I do not recall the mayor’s face, but I remember his response: “When your children are starving, you do what you have to do.”
The train had derailed about a mile up the mountain from our house, and everyone we knew was there. My older brother could carry a fair amount of food, but I was only five at the time and couldn’t have been much help. I may have been brought along in case the MPs came, so they would have mercy on my mother.
We did not call it “stealing” but rather “organizing.” Stealing was taking food from people who did not have any more than we did. The American soldiers had plenty of food and also provisions, such as coffee and cigarettes, that could be traded for food on the black market.
Later in the summer, after the Americans had left and the Russians had become our occupiers, my siblings and I picked over the already-harvested wheat and barley fields. “Take only what is on the ground,” our mother told us. “Don’t pick the grain that is not yet cut, and don’t pull it from the sheaves left out to dry.” But I was a child and wanted my bag to be just as full as my older siblings’, so I cheated. In the fall we picked over the potato fields, and again we were supposed to take only the ones that had already been harvested, and again I cheated. I could already taste the potato soup and feel it filling me up. For a few nights after that, I would go to sleep without pulling my knees into the cavity of my stomach to alleviate the pain.
Fifty-five years later, my brother, his wife, his daughter, his granddaughter, and I have a picnic under a great oak tree adjacent to a potato field in Germany. It is a beautiful early-fall day, and my sister-in-law has thought of everything: tablecloth, sandwiches, wine, coffee, lemonade, and her famous plum cake. We are relaxed and happy. Suddenly my sister-in-law says: “I would just love to get some of those potatoes. Nothing tastes as good as stolen potatoes roasted in a fire.” She turns to my brother. “But, of course, being a clergyman, you wouldn’t approve.”
He just grins and answers, “If it will make you happy.”
That night my niece builds a fire in her backyard, and we all throw our potatoes onto the coals and watch them cook. Each of us has his or her own potato and is the only one who can decide when it’s ready. Those were the rules then, and we follow them now. And, as in childhood, we eat our stolen bounty with no butter or salt, just potatoes flavored by the fire.
I was delighted to see “Stealing” as the topic of your April 2008 Readers Write. I have been in recovery from addictive-compulsive shoplifting and workplace theft since 1990. The readers’ stories confirm for me that stealing is a common experience. I’ve read that 90 percent of Americans have shoplifted at least once and nearly 75 percent of employees steal from their workplaces.
I’ve been an addictions therapist since 1997, and some of my clients have problems with stealing, which is often a cry for help and a result of feeling “stolen from.” By talking openly about it, we are not condoning the behavior but putting the shame and secrecy behind us, which is the first step toward getting help.