– by Michael!
I am not an especially “good” person.
I’m ok, I suppose, in the generic “I-have-never-committed-a-felony” sense. I try to be conscious of the way my actions affect others, with varying degrees of success, so I’m apparently not a sociopath. But I do continually struggle with what seems to be the same perennial set of bad habits or general stupidity with little sign of progress, which can be disheartening at times. (I’m sure, Dear Reader, that you have NO IDEA what I mean by this… yes?)
However, there is one particular brand of “badness” that has never plagued me, that has, in fact, never even been all that appealing to me, and that is the impulse toward theft.
For instance, I was once standing in a line in a cafeteria when somebody tapped my shoulder and pointed to a folded-up twenty dollar bill by my feet. “I think that’s yours?” they said inquisitively.
I did not have any cash on me. I knew, quite well that I did not have any cash on me. And so, without even really thinking about it, I picked up Mr. Jackson and asking those around me, “Hey, this was on the floor, is it yours? Did you lose a five? Hey, man, was this…”
“No, hey, wait, wait, man, wait,” said the person who had first alerted me to the presence of the cash that had so disturbed our peaceful queue. “It’s mine, see? Open it up, give it back,” and he took it from me and showed that it was fake. The inside was one of those cheesy witnessing texts – “Disappointed? Jesus Has A Treasure For You That Is Worth Far More!” with the obvious attitude that Superfluous Capital Letters Made For Better Evangelism – and this guy had been trying to get me to pick it up and take it home for later at the exhortation of his friends. These friends and the young man in question left the cafeteria very quickly, and I felt a weird mixture of happiness at my instincts and, dare I say, revulsion toward their entire attitude.
(Never mind that this was at a Christian youth camp, where one could freely suppose that all those in attendance at least knew the basics and didn’t need such a ham-handed and insulting introduction to the Faith – I thought then and think now that this was one of the rudest things I’ve ever encountered.)
I don’t tell you this to make you think I’m any kind of great person, whose Respect for Other People And Their Property is founded upon Great Moral Principle. Rather, this facet of my personality (like most of the good things about me) can be attributed directly to my parents. (Do not Pass Go, and do not collect the fake twenty dollars.)
In fact, the only two times I can remember actually stealing something were great object lessons in why not to steal.
The first time was when I was probably five years old. Old enough to know not to take things that weren’t mine, but young enough to be a little bit fuzzy on the why, and what’s more, on the what-is-worth-taking part of being a good thief.
We had just arrived home for the evening, and Mom asked me to take her purse up to her room while she helped Dad unload some boxes from the car. “Yes, ma’am,” I replied, and then promptly took the purse into my room and hid it. (Probably under the bed. I was very imaginative about some things, like narratives involving knights, cyborgs, dragons, and superheroes, but not so much with practical things such as “where is a clever place to stash stolen goods?”)
The rest of the story is predictable: “Michael, where is my purse?” – “What purse? I don’t remember any purse.” – “Michael, my purse is under your bed. I can see it.” – “Oh. That purse.” – “Why on earth did you take my purse?”
And here’s the thing – I HAD NO IDEA. I knew I wanted the money in the wallet, but… I was FIVE. What was I going to do with it? Where was I going to take it? I had no plan. I had no fence waiting in the wings to hawk whatever bits of shiny were caught up in the mysterious bowels of that bag that Mom carried around. There was no offshore bank account. I couldn’t even try to forge a check and attempt to purchase consumer electronics because I WAS FIVE.
This plan was not very well thought through.
There was a spanking, richly deserved, and I think Mom kept a straight face. I do not understand how on earth she did so, but she did. And that was the last time I consciously stole something, to my knowledge, ever.
“But Michael, you just said that there were two times that you remembered stealing something!”
Way to pay attention, Dear Reader! Fear not. All shall be explained.
Fast forward to early-teen. Maybe 13 or 14. It was a Monday afternoon, which meant that we as a family were preparing for a Birmingham Boys’ Choir rehearsal that night. These rehearsals were held at the school where Mr. Berg taught for like a billion years, back when it was actually common for people to have the same job for more than today’s average of six weeks before you get outsourced, replaced by a spunky intern, or leave for a greener pasture from whence you will be ejected come the next spunky outsourced intern.
Since we were typically pretty rushed in these efforts, and since Dad didn’t normally leave the school between the final bell and the rehearsal, we often had dinner in the cafeteria right before they closed. On one night fairly early into this particular tradition, I finished my food, went to take my dishes up to the counter, and on my way out casually grabbed a handful of malted chocolates.
You see, I was under the impression that this was an all-you-could-eat deal, or at least a meat-veggies-and-dessert approach to dining. Since my plate had been free of sweets (not a difficult temptation to turn down, given that the pudding looked sentient and cranky while the cake slices looked as though they had been mummified and preserved to nourish King Tut in the afterlife), I was simply finishing the meal that I had already started and for which my parents had already paid.
I was drastically mistaken.
Apparently, those little explosive bits of maltedy chocolate goodness (still one of my favorite candies today) were NOT included in my meal, and the cafeteria manager was NOT pleased that I, the son of a faculty member, had attempted to shoplift from her establishment. She informed Mr. Berg as to my nefarious doings, at which point I felt my father’s hand, like ice and iron, clamped around my bicep and drag me forcibly from the room, down the hall, and into his office.
To my recollection, this was the first and only time he has ever yelled at me.
I mean it. Dad was always of the “give-a-disappointed-stare” school of discipline. Very effective, honestly, as that look always made me feel like crawling under a rock where I presumably belonged.
This take on parenting also increased the effectiveness of this one moment of honest-to-God anger by a lot of exponents.
I may have soiled myself, I was so scared.
It was at least five minutes in that I managed to breathe enough to ask what on earth I had supposedly stolen. I can still remember the look on his face as he learned why I had “filched” those thrice-damned malted chocolate balls, and can also remember the immediate cooling of his anger and accompanying apology.
However unjust the accusation might have been, this incident has burned into my very soul a loathing of theft that makes me shake a little when I so much as borrow a pen from a co-worker’s desk when they’re not around. It’s a visceral reaction that probably rescued my relatively weak willpower from slipping into the shoplifting craze that swept up so many peers during adolescence, an imprint on my moral fabric that stands me in good stead to this day.
But if you see me coming, hide the malted milk balls. Just in case.