I’m a thief. Not what I’d call a serious thief, but I have taken things that didn’t belong to me and there’s little doubt that I’ll steal again. My claim to the moral high ground is forfeit.
I rationalize that nobody misses anything that I take from them, so no harm is done. Morning papers in driveways and loose change on kitchen counters are safe from me. I don’t steal compulsively or for sport, either. If anything, I steal as a collector.
When I was a little boy, my father and I traveled the backroads looking for abandoned farmhouses to pillage. “Rusticating,” we called it. Porcelain doorknobs, hinges and other hardware. A complete set of dishes that we suspected somebody else had stolen and ditched in a hurry.
Once, we liberated a large farm bell from its moorings inside the tower of a dilapidated wooden chapel. My job was to shimmy up the tower’s interior wall, pry the bell loose and let it crash to the floor. Our most dangerous caper.
A friend and I crawled around Cannery Row’s still-ungentrified remains as eighth graders in California. Armed with screwdrivers and pliers, we took whatever we could carry. Later, in high school, I worked alone, photography equipment stowed in the trunk of my Mercury Maverick as alibi, always prepared to defend my trespassing as abuse of artistic license.
You might argue, then, and I’d be forced to agree, that I was long overdue when the faux pumpkin outside my front door disappeared last week.
It wasn’t valuable, but it was extremely realistic. And rather cool. I’d bought it years ago to dress an autumn-themed photo shoot staged at a time of year when no real pumpkins were available and I was so impressed with its shading and detail that I couldn’t bring myself to throw it away.
The day after it disappeared, I posted a sign above its former resting place that said in large, friendly letters, “Please bring back my pumpkin,” then below in smaller letters “(No questions will be asked.)”
I knew the odds of ever seeing the pumpkin again were slim. Some late-night guest had taken it, I figured. Or college kids. Yes, college kids most likely. A casual prank. My lovely hall ornament now hanging from a dorm room ceiling somewhere, its hollow bottom stuffed with toilet paper or worse. (heavy sigh)
Then a most unexpected thing happened. The pumpkin returned.
A hand-written note at the bottom of the sign I’d posted read, “Your pumpkin was found near the trash chute all alone.”
I like that … “all alone.” As if it had wandered off and gotten lost trying to find its way back home unescourted by an adult. Bad parenting on my part.
Had the sign worked? I’d half expected it to be taken down, or defaced. “Get a life, old man!” But it had hung there, unmolested, for days and days until finally …
No telling what actually had happened, of course. Maybe guilt. Maybe the joke had gone stale or sour. Leaving the pumpkin near the trash chute might have been a compromise gesture, the kidnapper setting his victim free in a nearby town.
I’m sure that if I’d been the perp or the perp’s friend, I’d have felt terrible walking by my sign day after day. I’d have been surprised that anyone would bother to ask in such a public way that such an obviously inexpensive item be returned. I’d have returned it.
The difference between me and the person who stole my pumpkin, though, is that I wouldn’t have stolen the pumpkin to begin with. I steal only things that are missing already. Missing, neglected or forgotten.
I’m a nice thief, in other words, not a mean one. I’m a scavenger. Which is an important distinction, I believe. Or so it seems to me.