As a sixteen year old who lived in my own apartment and worked part-time as a dishwasher, I was utterly destitute. Had I not been able to eat at work I would have starved. My one meal a day came from work. On days off I would often pop into work just to get something to eat.
Once a week I would go into the storage room and take as many things as I thought would go unnoticed. There were cans of beans and boxes of spaghetti noodles, bottles of chocolate syrup and gallons of milk. If I took home one of these items each day, I reasoned, it would compensate me for my poor pay and enable me to live more comfortably. Besides, I had witnessed several of the older employees doing it.
So it was. Each day I took home one item that would make life a little more comfortable. It wasn’t long before I realized that work had amenities other than food. Before long I noticed the stock piles of soap, bathroom tissue, paper towels and other goods. Since I did not have the money to buy these things, and since I would not have budgeted for them had I had the money, they were the logical extension of my growing habit.
On one particular night I decided to take a few things at once. I picked up a bottle of chocolate syrup, a can of tomato sauce, a pack of hamburger, and four rolls of toilet paper. I looked around and crept toward the back door. I nudged it open and walked outside, right into the company of my boss on a smoke break.
He looked down at the bundle of items in my arms. With a flat, disappointed tone he said, “Now go put those back please.” My face flushed red with embarrassment. He was a cool guy and I didn’t want to get on his bad side. “Ok.” I said, humiliated. I walked back through the door and into the store room.
I returned the three food items – but I needed the toilet paper. I put all four rolls under my hoodie. If I put my hands in the pockets, I could hold them all while maintaining a casual posture. This would work, I thought, and headed back to the door. I kicked the door open and stepped out. “Thank you.” said my boss. “No problem, sorry.” I said. He nodded. I stepped past him to walk toward my car.
It was winter and patches of ice littered the parking lot. I stepped off the curb and immediately slipped on a patch of ice. Losing my balance, I yanked my hands free of my pockets to regain my equilibrium. Four rolls of toilet paper tumbled from beneath my jacket and rolled in all directions. My heart froze as I looked up at my boss. He stare at me quietly and took a puff from his cigarette. “Will you please go put those back.” he asked again. I scampered about collecting them from the parking lot. One had rolled under a car and another behind the dumpster. I ran them inside and slunk out the back door. I muttered sorry again as I left, and my boss stood motionless. He never mentioned it again.
This incident left me with a feeling of abject humiliation. I was utterly indigent; theft was the only recourse I felt I had. Being caught shined the light on my condition, and I desired that it remain in the dark. My boss was very gracious; he didn’t have to be. I was grateful for that. It was a silly crime that everyone commits, but it could have been trouble had he chosen to make it so.
The worst part was that getting caught was knowing that I had to continue to steal despite it. I couldn’t stop; I’d go hungry – or worse. But getting caught amplified the guilt. It made me aware of what I was, and knowing this was a constant source of discomfort.
Several years later this boss and his wife would develop meth addictions so serious that it almost killed them. She got caught up in shoplifting scams to feed their addiction, and was caught multiple times. Last I heard she faced serious jail time.
I ran into him many years later and the light was completely gone from his eyes. He had new scars on his face and had lost several teeth. He was happy to see me and we talked as long as we could before we had to go about our day. I could sense the discord that he was facing in his life and it broke my heart.
We all face shame in our own way and no one is totally free from it. I always remembered the compassion he showed me on this and other occasions, and always prayed that he would be shown the same by anyone who he trespassed.