I have stolen.
I take grateful advantage of this blog to bring this long-buried embarrassment to light. My behavior was shocking to me. I’m a Good Boy. Good Boy’s don’t steal. And yet, I did.
What a relief it is to finally unburden my troubled soul of these heinous transgressions. I feel a weight being lifted from my shoulders. I can finally breathe free. Almost. First, I must elaborate on the details. It’s a rule. It’s in the Unburdener’s Code.
Both thefts took place in London, England, a place I where lived for a year and a half during the 60’s. Remind me to tell you about that sometime.
Okay, so I’m waiting for a subway in the Baker Street Underground station. Nearby, there’s a kiosk, a small stand, selling newspapers and candy, but also paperback books. I see Catch-22. I’ve heard of Catch-22. I hear it’s a special book. I decide to buy it.
I’m in line to pay for it. The line advances excruciatingly slowly. Ten minutes, and I’ve barely moved up. I see my train pulling into the station. I abandon the line, and get onto the subway.
Holding an unpaid-for Catch-22.
Minutes later, I’m sitting in the subway, howling at a character wrapped entirely in bandages, whose nutrient and urine pouches are exchanged, when one of them is full and the other one is empty. I never enjoyed a book more.
And I wasn’t hit by lightning.
Flash Forward: Several months.
Still in London, at a famous bookstore called Foyles. Four floors of books, one floor – just plays. I was studying acting at the time. Plays were the thing.
I peruse the inventory, finally selecting five plays. Believing Foyles is over-charging for these items, I pay for three plays, slipping the other two into the large pocket of my beige overcoat.
I walk outside, a Foyles carrier bag holding my paid-for plays, my coat pocket hiding the counterband.
Riding home on the subway, I refuse to take out the “stolens”, in the fevered belief that I can only be arrested if I’m caught in the act of actually reading the pilfered material. What about Catch-22? Being a book-loving country, I imagined England’s allowing every reader a one-book stealing dispensation.
This second time, however, I sat in terror, fearing the mere act of removing the pilfered plays from my pocket would send lights flashing, sirens blaring, a squadron of “Bobbies” springing from their hiding-place, and me summarily carted off to gaol.
An old English prison, still inhabited by characters from Dickens.
If they stay in my pocket, I’m fine. So that’s where I leave them, till I’m safely home, behind closed doors. There, I can liberate the ill begotten plays, and integrate them with their innocent counterparts. Which is exactly what I did.
Five plays, together on my table. Three paid for, two not. You couldn’t tell them apart.
It’s weird not being punished when you do something wrong. I mean, not being rewarded when you do something good, that’s actually better. Doing a good deed without reward reflects a nobler level of generosity. But it doesn’t work the other way. Doing bad, and not being punished. It feels odd, like…“What?”
Bad deeds need to be punished or the world seems strangely out of balance. You’ve heard the theory that criminals want to be caught? I know what they mean. It’s not just the relief. It’s that, without retribution, the world, as we’ve imagined it, doesn’t make sense.
Could life really be that arbitrary? It feels a little scary.
At the very least, an unpunished crime feels like unfinished business.
Decades later, I decide that my business needs finishing. Visiting London, I make a pilgrimage to Foyles. I pass the first test. Nobody seems to recognize me.
I have come to make amends. But how? I could find the manager and confess. But that might be uncomfortable. For both of us. I imagine some avuncular Stuffy Guy stifling a chuckle, and saying,
“My Dear Boy, the Statute of Limitations on that infraction has long since been exceeded.”
I wouldn’t know what to reply. And the problem wouldn’t be fixed. The “out-of-balancedness” would remain in the universe.
I decide to perform my penance privately. I know this wasn’t the perfect answer, but it was the best thing I could think of at the time.
I scour the bookshelves, searching for exactly the right book, which in this case meant the least appealing book I could imagine. I figure that by paying full price for a book I didn’t want, I’d be compensating Foyles for my earlier vandalous behavior. Before, I had taken something I’d wanted and not paid for it; now, I was taking something I didn’t want and paying for it.
Hey, it was a gesture.
After an extended search, I found exactly the book I was looking for.
Famous Hangmen of England.
It was the perfect book. I really didn’t want it.
I retain Famous Hangmen of England on my bookshelves. I’ve never even glanced at it.
Personal experience suggests the proclivity towards stealing bears a genetic component. My mother stole too.
At least once.
When I returned from England, my mother met me in New York. She didn’t like how I was dressed, so she took me to Macy’s and bought me new clothes. She paid for everything.
Then, she saw this belt.
We’re in line to pay for it. The line’s advancing excruciatingly slowly. Ten minutes, and we’ve barely moved up.
Suddenly, my mother turns away and heads for the exit. I follow her, surprised and alarmed.
“Mom, did you pay for that belt?” A rhetorical question, since I knew she hadn’t.
My mother responds with a two-word reply:
She continues walking, and disappears into the street.