There I was in the bulk food section of the supermarket I shop most frequently. I was in the market to buy some dried cranberries but thought that the $9.99 per pound price was a bit high. I’ve seen them on sale for half of that. But as I lingered near the small bins of dried fruit, I happened to notice that the store also carried dried blueberries. I seldom see them on the market, even at Whole Foods which has a far larger bulk section. I understood why when I checked the price. They were $17.99 per pound. (By contrast I had just seen fresh blueberries on sale for less than $2.00 per pound).
As I pondered, a young woman whom I took to be a part of the Millenial Generation based not only on her apparent age but the fact that her left arm was completely obscured by a swath of tattoos and she had several noticeable facial piercings including a large stud that protruded from inside her mouth into both her cheeks, walked over to the dried blueberry bin and began scooping its contents out and into the plastic bag she had opened to hold them.
I couldn’t help make the comment, “Well, you must be the winner of the latest Publisher’s Clearing House sweepstakes. Those berries are really pricey.”
Without hesitating she said, “Oh, well I have a system. See I just mark them with the code for the raisins which are $3.29 per pound and then I use the self-checkout so that none of the store employees even looks at them.”
I was stunned at this response. Not because she admitted to me that she was stealing, but in the fact that she showed neither conscience or regret at what she was about to do – and apparently had done in the past.
Momentarily, I thought about engaging her in a conversation about her theft. But as I thought about it, I doubted that no matter how brilliant a sermon I delivered in less than thirty seconds I would have an impact on a woman who was in her mid to late twenties and who already should know what I would say. But I did feel that I had to say something, so I told her, “Well, if I were you I don’t think I would put up any reference to your ‘system’ on your Facebook page. You know that’s out there forever and one day might come back to haunt you.”
She responded, “Oh, you’re soooo right. That’s really good advice. Thanks.”
And with that she went off to complete her theft.
I remember taking a five cent candy store from the corner store when I was a kid. I intended to pay for it – in fact I had the money – but Max who was one of the owners was in the back of the store, there were a lot of customers in the place and I was afraid to leave my nickel on the counter where anyone could have picked it up. So I left the store without paying. (I was in a hurry to get to my piano lesson).
Not only did I leave with the Baby Ruth – I left with a guilty conscience, feeling that I had stolen something even though I had the full intention of paying for it. I wasn’t concerned that I would be caught on video since that technology had not yet been invented. So I got to my lesson which went poorly because I couldn’t concentrate on either Chopin or Debussy. All I could think about was the candy bar which had made its way out of the wrapper and into my stomach on my walk to my lesson.
My lesson ran from six to seven and the corner store closed at seven. But I practically ran the half mile to see if they might have stayed open a little later than usual. But when I got there they were closed.
I remember having a terrible night. I was unable to concentrate on my homework and I barely remember what we had for dinner. My sleep was disturbed by my guilty conscience. I know I woke up several times in the course of the night which was very unusual for me as I could generally sleep through the loudest noises. But not that night.
The next morning, tired from what was a very poor night’s rest, I got ready for school extra early. Breakfast was at the usual time but I needed a few minutes extra because I had to stop at the corner store, pay for my candy bar and get the horrible monkey of theft off my back.
I remember bolting my breakfast down to my mother’s consternation. I told her I had to get to school a little early. And as soon as I had devoured the last crumb of toast I grabbed my school books, my poorly prepared homework and left the apartment.
When I got to the corner store, Max’s partner Fred was working. There were a couple of customers in the store waiting to check out with their items who were ahead of me and I didn’t have a lot of time or I would be late for school. Naturally, one of the customers had a question about a pen that he was considering purchasing and I remember feeling frustrated that this man was going to make me late for first period. For a moment I thought about leaving and coming back after school was over. But I knew that if I didn’t clear this up before school I wouldn’t be able to concentrate all day long – and we had a history test that day.
Finally, it was my turn. I explained that I had taken the candy bar the day before and that Max was in the back looking for something for a customer, that I was afraid to leave the nickel on the counter with other people in the store and that I was running late for my lesson. So I paid him the five cents and the thing I most remember was the smile he gave me. Fred thanked me for my honesty and said not to worry about it.
I always liked both Max and Fred and would never do anything to hurt them. And I think that they knew that. It was hard not to like Max because he was the spitting image of Kukla on “Kukla, Fran and Ollie”. And Fred was about six feet four and looked a lot like Fred Gwynne.
A few days later I went into the corner store to buy another candy bar. Max was manning the fort. As soon as I walked up to the counter with my purchase he said, “Well, here’s the little person who tried to bankrupt us.” I was mortified – until I realized that he was joking. And then he said, “Fred told me what happened. Just so you know, if I’m ever in the back and Fred’s not working, just take what you want and come back to pay for it later. We both trust you.” That statement has stayed with me over all these years – and may well be the finest compliment I have received in my entire life.
It’s hard to explain why people do the things they do. I can certainly attribute my sense that I need to be honest as something that my family drilled into me both in words and through their own example. I like to think that I’m fortunate that somehow it sunk in. My folks were both scrupulously honest and it was with a sense of trepidation that I mentioned this incident to them. It was a few days later at dinner and I was waiting for an appropriate lull in the conversation to bring it up.
They listened to my account and my father who stopped in the store almost every day said, “Yes, I heard about it from both Max and Fred last week. And I hope that you learned from this. You should always allow yourself some extra time in the event something comes up which might make you late for an appointment.”
Mom’s take was different. She said, “You know you shouldn’t be eating candy bars late in the afternoon. They will spoil your dinner.” Apparently my father had already told her about his conversation with the two store owners. And that was the end of that traumatic episode in my life. .
In the absence of good parental guidance, I guess it’s not surprising that far too many of our younger members of society don’t see things in quite the same way as many in my generation. Perhaps science, the new god that we believe will solve all our ills can come to our rescue and develop a pill that instills scruples in the person who swallows it.
I guess the only question is, would there be any demand for the product?