I stood in line at a convenience store watching two adorable boys of about seven run back and forth from the candy aisle to the woman in front of me pleading, to no avail, “What about this? Can we have this?” Apparently, one boy was the son and the other his friend. They wore Catholic School uniforms which, in my eyes, added to their charm. As I looked on, I noted them fervently -- and rather furtively -- discussing a pack of Bubble Gum. I couldn’t help but chuckle when I realized that one boy was serving as a look-out while the other shoved the gum into his backpack.
The look-out caught my eye and froze. I quickly averted my gaze, eager to let the poor kid know I wasn’t interested in what he’d done and, more importantly, I was not a snitch. Alas, another woman had seen. With People Magazine under arm and an overstuffed bag dangling with troll-doll key chains, she duly marched up to the mother to inform her. The mother nodded gratefully as the woman spoke; and the woman, attentive to that gratitude, puffed up and expounded, “Well, I’d sure want to know if it was my kid. Who knows what could happen if they grow up thinking it’s ok to steal! You can spare yourself a lot of heartache knowing now, before it gets worse.” And on she went.
I could see her imagining the boys to have grown up hardened criminals – serial killers even! – if it weren’t for her intervention. “If that mother keeps thanking her,” I thought, “This lady will soon see herself host of ‘America’s Most Wanted.’
Yet I couldn’t feel superior to it all very long, as I was jarred by the memory of another child, twenty five years ago, whom I’d also caught stealing and whom I’d also blithely let off the hook. I was a college student living in Spanish Harlem with friends. We’d so enjoyed the thrill of living in Manhattan that we simply couldn’t return to our dull suburban homes when the dorms closed for the summer. Instead, we sublet a cheap apartment in a largely Dominican building where we were the only white tenants. The juxtaposition of crucifixes on the doors with empty crack viles all over the halls amused us.
Our six year old neighbor, Iyicha, often visited. She enjoyed the idea of grown women residing in an apartment without children, husbands or extended family. To her, we were like big kids having a perennial slumber party; playing loud music, eating junk food and wearing funky outfits (in which we’d let her play dress-up). She was particularly intrigued by my roommate’s statue of a glow-in-the dark Virgin Mary. It stood on a tin shelf alongside a psychedelic bong and an ashtray filled with loose change.
Iyicha often swiped change from the ashtray. We noticed, but didn’t really care. It was, after all, just spare change. Besides, we got a kick out of little Iyicha. She was a firecracker, inclined to asking impertinent questions like, “Are you rich?” “How come you don’t have any babies?” And my favorite, “How come white ladies can’t cook?” She jumped on the sofa and danced the pogo whenever we played The Clash.
One day, I answered the door to find Iyicha and her mother arguing in Spanish. I’d never met the mother before, though I did occasionally see her at the door and sneak a peak into her apartment. Faux wood-finished end tables featured careful arrangements of school photos and Plexiglas chandelier lamps. Gold tassels and trim everywhere. Knowing our simple futons cost more than any of these prided items should’ve broken my heart. But I was too impressed by the singular effort. The red velvet sofa had plastic slipcovers. I figured Iyicha’d never dare jump on that. Meeting her mother, I knew I was right.
She frowned at my offer of a handshake, as if it were an uppity thing for a girl my age. Then she thrust her own hand forward to reveal a candy bar. “Did you give my daughter money to buy this?”
“No,” I said, truthfully.
The mother glared. “Her sister says she takes money from your apartment.”
“Oh,” I said, relieved. “Yes. Sometimes we leave spare change lying around. But Iyicha’s welcome to it. It’s no big deal. We don’t mind.” I smiled magnanimously.
“I mind,” she said. “My children don’t steal. Do mothers let children steal where you come from?”
“No,” I said, immediately chastised. I could feel Iyicha beseeching me to say something more in her defense. But how could I? I’d just been busted too. There I’d been fancying myself a hipster, when in fact, I’d been exposed as a spoiled teen who’d never know the challenge of teaching decency to a child – let alone a child growing up in a poor, crime ridden neighborhood. What was, for me, a summer lark, was for that woman a hard reality. The memory threw my condescension toward the woman at the convenience store in relief. Yes, she was silly. But she did do the right thing.
Author: Margaret (Maggi) Laureys