The day I decided to again steal food I instituted three simple rules: Steal only essentials, only from big chains, never brag. Although I’d not stolen for twenty years or so, it was immediately familiar, reviving an edgy competence that kept me street-smart in suburbia, seventy miles from the Brooklyn ghetto I’d grown up in.
I’d stolen food from the age of eight until roughly the age of fourteen, the $50.00 my mother earned weekly incapable of providing what we needed. My first theft, conducted with breathless impulsivity, was at the corner grocery. On the way to school one morning, my brother and I paused to stare lustfully at bins of bagels piled high in a large glass window. The yeasty smell leaked out the door as customers went in and out. I could taste the thick desirable heft of them, the pungent saltiness and doughy insides. Warning my brother to wait outside, I slipped inside the store, the bell that announced me lost in the laughter of the owner and some neighborhood women. The fear and pounding heart I’d experienced planning the heist vanished as I moved into action, a calculated cool taking over. I approached the bin, noted my brother’s anxious face on the other side of the glass and nodded confidently at him. The owner and patrons, still gossiping, didn’t glance at me as I fit four bagels into the pockets of my jacket, slid along the wall to the door, pulled it open and left. The bagels were freshly baked, their residual warmth against my body a promise of pleasure to come. We devoured them on the way to school, poking moist fingertips into my pocket to capture every crumb.
My success at filling our growling stomachs that morning led me to begin raiding the near-by chain supermarket, stuffing shiny tins of fish, small rolls and crisp vegetables into my pocket. That winter I passed a store window with a pair of warm leather boots nestled in drifts of ersatz fur and jewels. At the department store next day I prowled the racks for the proper-sized boots which I put on, replacing them on the racks with my old loafers. Contemporary shoe departments bustling with saleswomen, small mirrors, and backroom stock were at least ten years in the future, leaving my handiwork unobserved. I walked about the store checking to see if I was followed and then downstairs and into the street. That winter I stole a blue woolen dress, ripping off the tags while in the dressing room, then covering it with a heavy coat, tags also removed, and, on the way out, slipping two albums by the Weavers into a shopping bag. A week later I stole two shirts, a winter jacket and boots for my brother, all slipped into that same nefarious shopping bag. By fourteen I had a summer job, which led to a part time one after school earning enough money to end my career as thief.
It was easier than I’d imagined to resurrect the practice when hit with poverty after my divorce. My two sons and I lived in the middle-class, painfully stereotypic Long Island suburb that had been my husband’s choice. I never fit into this enclave of matching sheets and dishes, ritualized family dinners at seven o’clock, coffee klatches to discuss delicate marital details, an insistence that a certain social acceptance depended upon the ownership of redundant items or useless absurdities. My neighbors favored manicured nails, artfully disheveled hair lacquered with hairspray, over-priced clothing designed to suggest a wanton bohemian freedom: jeans artfully ripped at the knees and fine cotton shirts streaked with paint. I found it deceitful in the particularly American way that later encouraged affluent teenagers to affect the street style of the ghetto as though mere appearance altered the life they’d been born into, a sly way to present the credentials of the scarred without the pain and inconvenience. I still drank tea from glasses as my immigrant mother had, dressed in comfortable, unfashionable clothes, carried a backpack, my lack of concern with appearances provoking both distance and an odd envy from a few of my neighbors. I felt myself differentiated from those around me through a form of natural selection that insured survival, a reverse snobbery as an antidote to not belonging. My ex-husband, with his history of coolly tiled rooms and attentive servants before fleeing Cuba, liked to say, “You can take the girl out of the slum, but not the slum out of the girl.” His desire for a return to upper-middle-class existence was finally realized with a more acceptable wife, in another small house in another small suburb identical to this one. We were both thieves since, while married, we had stolen each other’s sense of certainty, a theft finally remedied by our divorce.
My vengeful ex-husband reluctantly paid rent and minimum child support. He could not be cajoled or pleaded with when I ran short of money at the end of the month; he was immune to guilt. I was in college full-time by then, certain an education could insure freedom from poverty. My income, besides what he contributed, came from a work-study job teaching problem kids, a pittance from baking for college bakeries, student loans, a scholarship; a lot of work that barely provided enough to buy gas and pay bills. The only government service available to us was the free lunch program for my sons. I had no access to the far more acceptable white-collar crime, the art of acquiring luxury through manipulation. The choice was easy. Hunger defined my childhood; it would not define my children’s. I would not quit school for a low-paying job, and we would not be hungry.
One morning, while my sons were in school, I drove to a nearby supermarket ignoring my usual purchases of bruised produce, day-old breads, items marked down a day before their expiration date. Childhood hunger fostered the concept of food as a precious commodity. I shopped for peaches, apples, pears, peppers, broccoli, asparagus, the way other women might shop for expensive jewelry, the green of a smooth, full pepper as exotic as an emerald.
The scent of this new store was intoxicating, prompting regression to a child starving despite having eaten lunch one-half-hour earlier. I breathed deeply as though smell could sate my hunger and stuffed free samples into my mouth. After that, I surrendered to sheer instinct, a shark targeting nutrition-rich items like tuna that would easily fit in my pockets, under-sized vegetables that would lie flat against my body, a can of dough that baked up into warm, tasteless rolls, waiting until the aisle was empty of customers. I avoided frozen foods, which would leave widening stains of moisture as the frost melted. Containers of milk were the most difficult but the taste of powdered milk was onerous; it was the taste of poverty. On my way out I slid a container into my pocket, hooking my arm in a particular way to conceal it.
I exited the store prideful as anyone completing a job successfully, pleased that my skills, dormant for so many years, were intact. I left the store warning myself not to feel too confident, to remain cautious. Each succeeding theft would increase my chance of being caught – the law of averages, something I was taught by my stepfather, a professional gambler long-vanished from my life.
Often, before driving home from my work-study job at a private school in an up-scale neighborhood, I would case their supermarkets, noting the better cuts of meat, fresher vegetables, exotic fruit, pocketing items not easily available. This supermarket was easier to pilfer than the one in my neighborhood, as if hands-on stealing was inconceivable in a community of gracious houses with gardeners and cleaning women.
That winter I stole each son a winter coat, putting them, one at a time, over my thin jacket and leaving the department store without incident. I also entered with an empty shopping bag and left with two sets of boots, prices ripped off; smeared with dirt to suggest I’d just retrieved them from the store’s shoe repair shop.
I stole food for approximately two years, branching out to include frozen vegetables by stuffing a plastic bag in each of my pockets. I found a job the week before I graduated with a degree in education. I stole my last day’s worth of meals before my first paycheck. When I was paid, we went out to a restaurant for dinner. We each had three desserts.
I moved to Maine two months after graduation, needing distance from my ex-husband’s hostility. I accepted a low-paying job at a rural school for disabled children simply because they were first to contact me. I’d never before had directions given in terms of trees, family farmhouses, clocks with cracked faces on old church steeples. The students’ parents worked outside jobs, hunted for deer or moose to provide meat, put up fruits and vegetables from their gardens. Often I was gifted with cuts of venison, which although a vegetarian myself I would cook up for my sons. The generosity of these parents echoed my experiences in Brooklyn; those with little are often likely to help each other.
The school, with little state funding, went broke a month before the end of the school year. New teachers were rarely hired in mainstream schools before the end of August. My ex-husband was clear that there’d be no loan to tide me over. I was alone, robbed of those closest to me through a systemic lack of services and conscience: my mother had died in a charity ward, lacking proper medical care after a flawed surgery. My brother had been killed in Vietnam, unable to flee to Canada nor escape service through attending college as those of means did. I was frightened by this replication of my mother’s situation; felt trapped in the cycle of poverty, the possibility of escape dangling just out of reach.
I quickly found a job as a saleswoman in an overpriced craft store in a plush resort town, bursting with tourists who skied in winter and swam in their second-home pools in summer. Each morning on the way to work I passed chic people carrying bags filled with newly purchased, non-essential items. I beat back my ghetto child’s resentment, reminding myself that my goal was to achieve a status that allowed me the choice of not purchasing such things. My salary was meager; the job designed for college students, their employment an easy introduction to the working world, their salary merely “pin money.” Affluent America displayed itself around me, a glittery landscape without scorched edges. The nation felt broken: the founding ideals, the myth of opportunity and equality, the promise that a college education granted food on the table, seemed a deliberate distraction from the nation’s essential truth; certain elements of the population would always be deprived, reaffirmed thirty years later with the wreckage of Katrina. I viewed the lies the government told us about Vietnam, and Watergate as smaller lies, both transient and inevitable, swapping out one scandal or war for the next that would surely come. They seemed to me a greater conspiracy of lies; I saw the government engaged in a delicate balancing act to mythologize possibility despite the rarity of actualization.
I hated my bitterness, my cynicism, my recurrent anger, but especially hated hunger, its continuing saga almost blinding me to the reality, that the fruits of my education were only temporarily on vacation and quietly waiting for the end of summer to get back to work. While I would never be wealthy, I would be able to pay bills. The country was not in a recession, a depression or any other financial crisis; I was simply out of a job. I needed to make it through four months after which I would likely be hired to teach.
I had too much to lose to risk stealing again – no school would hire a teacher with a criminal record. I thought about a second job. It was the casual conversation between a pair of customers as I wrapped their purchases that provided an answer: The Happy Hour. The description of the bounty they’d consumed for the price of cocktails was compelling. I’d never gone to bars, had no actual knowledge beyond advertisements I’d ignored, of this teasing come-on of rich, salty food designed to encourage the consumption of liquor.
Philosophically, is ordering three cokes so you can fill your paper plate four or five times stealing food? We ate far more than the cost of our cokes, yet the liquor others consumed was so expensive that our meals were already paid for. My stepfather would have said that “the house” has all the advantages, so do your best to win.
Our first visit was a revelation. We went to a bar attached to a well-reviewed Chinese restaurant. The heavy metal door opened onto a stratum of sounds piled atop each other like players at a football skirmish: loud conversations, waitresses’ shouting orders, a basketball game on television, all balanced on a foundation of jazz. The smell of food was tainted by cigarette smoke and all around us was that certain boozy indulgence of drinking freely manifested by lopsided smiles and loud laughs.
We passed the hot-table and gasped at the bounty: carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, cheese, spare ribs, fried chicken wings, grapes, watermelon, cantaloupe and strawberries out of season, tiny slices of chocolate cake. I was giddy with the offering, my perpetually starving inner-child nearly wild with excitement. To this day, that table remains vivid in my memory, exaggerated through time into a cornucopia of food overflowing the bins, the rising perfume of grease, garlic and soy sauce, a sacrament for the deserving. We found a table and I designed a balanced menu for us. The waitress brought our cokes and after our third refill at the hot table refilled them for us as well.
On the way home, in the warmth of my old Honda, we joked about being so full we had stomachaches, even critiquing the food we’d filled our plates with again and again, pointing out what was overdone, what was too salty, how dried-out the cheese was, fruit not quite ripe. I felt drunk, experienced an unexpected power, had a fraudulent belief that I’d “gamed the system,” as my stepfather would describe it; the slum child’s desire to win on her own terms.
We developed an itinerary. Mondays the Chinese restaurant, Tuesdays and Thursdays a bar my sons labeled “The designer cream cheese place,” with five cream cheese spreads, fresh vegetables, crackers and fruit, Wednesdays an Italian restaurant offering tiny meatballs, fried eggplant, and sautéed green and red peppers. Friday and Saturday were big nights, an overflow of rich salty food obscene in their plentitude. Sunday’s offered no happy hours, but we got by on what I’d stuffed into my purse at the previous ones.
I wanted my mother, dead two years, to experience this over-indulgence. I wanted to lift her from the debris of gaunt survival through the petty expense of overpriced coke. I mourned that she knew nothing of this possibility back then, though the shabby bars of my childhood most likely offered nothing more than scratchy jukebox recordings and chipped glass ashtrays. She labored as a file clerk for the American Kennel Club, an organization devoted to owners of show dogs that cost more than one year of her salary.
That summer, so long ago, was the last one of need. I slowly acquired the trappings of comfort; a second husband, a house, vacations, and a full refrigerator. I acquired excess: ten cashmere sweaters at three dollars each from Good Will but eight more than I needed, two dozen second-hand crystal wineglasses, though I had barely a dozen friends, two winter coats though one was enough.
Fifteen years ago an overweight woman in my writing group discussed her diet, taking personal responsibility for overeating since nobody starves in America. Everyone else nodded. I was shocked, as though plunged into ice water, to realize I had achieved a level of affluence that allowed me to join a group that espoused this distortion. I’d slipped into a world of truth different than my own; that hunger is an everyday affair and stealing can be another way to make a living.
An unexpected surge of anger knotted my throat, anger I hadn’t felt in years. I envied these women their parents and siblings, their paid college education after high school, their freedom to have refused jobs they didn’t want, but especially their certainty that the system worked on their behalf. I reminded myself their class was an accident of birth; what my stepfather would have described as a roll of the dice. I realized how stranded I was in the midst of a failed metamorphosis between sordid memories of rat-infested apartments and my present circumstance, one of middle-class comforts.
In that group the following week I wrote an essay about growing up hungry, about stealing food. Silence ensued as I used words like class, hunger, poverty. I understood in their silence that I had stolen their flimsy pretext that nobody is hungry in America. I was tarnished; my differences previously labeled eccentric, quaint, Bohemian recognized as deviant. While they’d known that I had grown up in a ghetto, they’d never contemplated what that actually meant. For them, the poor were either villainized or romanticized in film; propaganda to assuage the conscience of “the other America.” They felt attacked by the explosion of detail on the page; my smooth-running car, my excess of cashmere sweaters, my extra winter coat, all revealed as concealment of a vital fact; I was not one of them. They never voiced this, but it was evident in the way they turned away and within a few months I left group. Eventually I moved, met other women, developed friendships, learned to be easier with possessions, although I sometimes wander my house, touch things, wonder what I am doing owning all of this.
But I do own all of this; I am the fruition of the American dream. I am an American fairytale come true. I am the bastard child of poverty and perfect timing, a product of one of those periodic windows of opportunity, in this instance Lyndon Johnson’s vision of the Great Society that offered scholarships, free lunch for children, a college counselor to guide me through an alien world. It is my grandchildren who are the ultimate culmination of the American dream, offspring of a peculiar type of immigrant, one who has never left their native country, merely emigrated from one class to another. They are a first generation who has never known poverty and can comfortably speak the language of their native landscape; their parents safely crossed the border but they are the true citizens. I remain an immigrant, poverty my country of origin. I cannot comfortably navigate this new land of enough, often speaking out of turn, committing cultural faux-pas’, seeped in survivor guilt, I am a class act, a victim, perhaps volitional, of the final theft of belonging.