One evening last year, our family sat together in the living room of our little apartment near the malecon eating dinner. For some reason, we started talking about whether or not it would ever be okay to steal.
“If you were starving, would it ever be okay to steal even a grape from the grocery store?” I asked Lydian. She thought about it for a few moments.
“No, because you could always work for the grape.” She said rhetorically. John and I congratulated her on her high moral code. The conversation continued along an idealist thread for a while. I made sure to emphasize to Lydian that it was really never okay to steal and then we all washed the dishes and dispersed to our various areas to read and relax before bed.
The next evening, John and I took Lydian to her dance classes and went to the San Francisco Supermarket to buy some food for dinner. We dropped off our backpacks at the Paqueteria and went inside. It was Christmas Eve and so the store was overflowing with customers. We gathered what we needed as quickly as we could (some fruits and vegetables, paper towels, that sort of thing) and took our place in a long, long line.
I had to pee.
“I’ll be right back.” I told John and as I slid past him on my way to the bathrooms. I had been in the San Francisco Supermarket bathrooms before. They were dark, dank, and dirty. There were no locks on the doors, no toilet paper, and the sinks had these little levers inside of the faucet itself that made it impossible to actually get your hands clean. They were so nasty and awful that I often would emerge from them feeling profoundly depressed for several hours. But other bathrooms in Progreso weren’t much better. The walk across town took about thirty minutes and then we would have to wait for an hour for Lydian to finish her class. I figured I’d better take my opportunity and just go.
When I opened the door to the bathrooms, the cleaning lady was setting up shop in there. She had placed little buckets in each of the sinks and she was taking a broom and dipping it into the toilet in one of the stalls and then cleaning the walls with the water. I stopped somewhat in shock as I watched what she was doing. She stopped and looked back at me, one of her eyes whitened by a cataract. Frightened and confused, I slid into a stall and inched into the space with great care now that I realized that poopy, diseased toilet water had been used to clean the walls.
The stalls had no locks so I had to hold the door shut. I contemplated just leaving, but I really had to pee!
I hovered while holding the door shut. You can’t throw toilet paper into the toilets in Mexico. It goes in the trash. I maneuvered carefully in the small space, trying to avoid touching or even breathing too closely to the walls of the stall.
Washing my hands in the sink wasn’t an option. The cleaning lady had little buckets in each of them and the little levers inside the faucets made it pointless anyway. I felt completely contaminated and my hand sanitizer was in our bag outside at the Paqueteria. Opening the door to the bathroom with my pinky finger, I came up with a plan. I would hurry to the aisle with the hand sanitizer, squeeze some into my hand, and then make my way to the front of the store to take my place in line with John. If he was already through the line, I would simply lay the hand sanitizer down and leave.
John was just getting ready to check out when I exited the bathroom and I hurried to the hand sanitizer aisle. On the way, I passed a man standing in the perfume aisle as he sprayed a big *POOF* of perfume on himself.
I grabbed a small bottle of hand sanitizer off the shelf, squeezed it into my hand, and made my way to the front of the store.
As I reached the check-out, John waved to me with bags in hand and smiled. He was finished checking out. Each of the cash registers had long lines similar to what you would see on Christmas Eve in the United States. So I set the hand sanitizer down randomly on a shelf and walked over to meet John. We couldn’t wait thirty more minutes to buy hand sanitizer. We needed to walk across town to pick 12 year old Lydian up from dance class.
I took some of the bags from John and as we left the store, two security guards and one very small man in a white t-shirt stopped me forcefully just beyond the glass doors. The little man held up the bottle of hand sanitizer.
I was speechless.
I had no words in English OR in Spanish. The three men stood up on a curb. I stood down below on the tarmac of the parking lot. They looked down their noses, towering above me as I tried to explain my predicament. My Spanish efforts were in their infancy at that time. John stood beside me, confused, unable to help. I tried gesturing but quickly realized that it wasn’t easy or polite to portray my reasoning for stealing hand sanitizer using charades. I could not redeem myself.
I was a thief.
I was totally humiliated in a very existential kind of way. Hardly anyone at the store had noticed or cared about the hand sanitizer incident. I followed the grocery store police and went back inside paid the five pesos (roughly a cent) for the small bottle, but my theory of the universe had toppled. My theory of ME had toppled. In it, I was a moral, trustworthy, upstanding human being. This San Francisco Supermarket incident, however, made me question it all.
I was a thief.
How many times had I done something like that in a store in the United States without even momentarily considering the fact that it was technically stealing? A thief. A thief. A thief!
On the way back to the school to get Lydian, I cried. Good Lord, I thought, I’m a moral degenerate.
John tried to console me, but I couldn’t help but think of our conversation about the grapes and my ethical egotism when talking with Lydian. Who did I think I was? I hadn’t even realized that I considered myself to be superior…above those “simple” ethical dilemmas. I would never steal a grape. Yeah right. (Ha!) People steal grapes if they believe they have to steal grapes and sometimes it’s not a question of survival.
This year, someone stole grapes from me (i.e. my computer, passports, etc.), probably because they felt like they needed to. I doubt that hygiene and handwashing would be enough to justify my behavior to the grocery store police and I certainly have a hard time feeling pacified by the likely fact that our robbers stole from us in order to purchase drugs, but no matter what I’m sure that they felt compelled to steal because stealing is a solution to a problem that our robbers had. It’s not the best solution but the one that they could conceptualize and pull off without a lot of fanfare. I regret that the robbery happened but it helps to see evidence of the same type of corruption in myself because it makes me feel less angry about it. Losing the computers and the passports is definitely uncomfortable but being angry about it would make things infinitely worse.
Instead, I get to see that our time in Progreso this year and last has a very literary sort of irony to it and wonder what the value of these life lessons might be later on. When my life has a metaphorical symmetry to it, it’s like experiencing evidence of Divine Intelligence. Any evidence that the story of my life isn’t completely random is worth contemplating. Theses things are more valuable to me than biblical passages or mindless mantras. Although having my computer stolen is bad, seeing a glimmer of God is probably worth it, even if I have to squint a little and cock my head to one side to be able to bring it into focus. Perhaps I’m just suffering from Survival Denial, but ascribing meaning to that-which-seems-random can be soothing.