Recently, I was the victim of a crime, which I discovered only after giving the perp a few dollars, a hug and all the goodwill I had to spare that day. What he left me in exchange is this story.
I was sitting in my basement with my cats, watching a little afternoon TV, when I noticed an unfamiliar car in my driveway. When I went out to inquire, the driver — a young man holding a big red gas can — explained that someone had told him he could get gas at my house. This was confusing for obvious reasons, not the least of which is that my house is not a gas station, but the lean stranger, barely out of his teens, seemed distraught and a little confused.
Steve — his name, he said — explained that he was not from around here, that his car was packed with everything he and his girlfriend owned because they’d just been kicked out of their storage unit and also a hotel that very day. And, he had no friends here. And, to top it all off, he thought his girlfriend might at that moment be having a miscarriage in Pueblo — about 40 miles away — but she had both their cell phones, so he could not reach her and desperately needed the gas to go find her.
Now, this fabulous assortment of misfortunes, plus the improbable, nonsensical items stuffed into his car –some of which I later realized were mine — plus the fact that my walk-in garage door was ajar, might have tipped off a person who wasn’t actively trying to practice kindness and who, also, was not so touched by Steve’s callow, distraught face and moist, doe-like eyes. I was not that person. I was the person who clambered into the car’s passenger seat, heaving its former occupant, a heavy glass aquarium, onto my lap as I directed him to the Sinclair station about a quarter-mile away.
On the way, Steve cried a little, and thanked and thanked me, then protested when I tried to give him a few dollars, offering me one of the sundry items stuffed in his vehicle because, he said, he didn’t like to take anything from anyone for free. I told him I have more than I need — which is true — and gave him a big hug. Then I wished him well and walked home, thinking that maybe he was not only upset but high, but that didn’t matter, because he was another human being who needed help.
I didn’t grasp the truth until I walked into the garage and saw an assortment of my belongings stuffed in buckets and bags, ready to be made off with. My car’s back license plate was bent, as if he had started to remove it. The fuse-box lid was lying beneath the steering wheel; the hood latch had been released. The garage-door remote on the visor was gone, as was the car’s registration and proof of insurance.
I’m not sure what else Steve took. At least this: a couple of hand saws, their teeth worn by use, a pruning saw, a yellow-handled ax I use to split firewood, some old license plates I’d kept for sentimental value.
I was still basking in my Good Sam glow when I discovered this, so I wasn’t really mad at Steve. But I called the cops anyway, because Steve was — you know — a thief, and I wanted to protect my neighbors. (Also, I was angry when I thought he’d taken my aluminum ladder, but that passed when I realized I was standing on it to re-program my garage-door opener. ) The officer came, made the requisite report and left me alone with my thoughts, which were still unreasonably rosy.
Part of it, I admit, was the thought that I’d been burgled, which lacks gravitas. Not the act, mind you, but the word — say it out loud; I’ll wait — which makes it sound as if you’ve been tickled or pranked or something else entertaining. Plus, I kept thinking — gently, with a lot of self-love — what an idiot I’d been, but also that “kind” may be better than “smart,” and while I’ve been smart a lot in my life, I need to catch up in the kind department. And I was grateful that I had not also given Steve the box of Girl Scouts Thin Mints I’d bought the day before, which had crossed my mind, and not just because I really like Thin Mints, but because in Buddhist cosmology, stealing from someone who gives you Girl Scout cookies — especially Thin Mints — is seriously bad karma, requiring lifetimes of purification.
But also, I wondered if this might be a transformative moment in young Steve’s life, that he would feel so guilty about stealing from a person who had been nice to him that he would mend his ways. That he might even sneak back overnight and leave quietly outside my door the things he’d taken — not with a note or anything, but with a profound and regretful silence that let me know he was sorry and that he would now go forth and sin no more.
And you know what? That’s exactly what happened. When I went out the next morning to stock the bird feeders, my good yellow-handed ax was back, propped gently against the basement door. Neatly arranged nearby were the other missing tools, the license plates, the car documents and the garage-door opener.
Steve still has everything he took, including what I have not yet discovered missing. In fact, as I write, he is probably hoodwinking some other mildly retarded homeowner with his Story of Many Woes, his soft, distraught eyes and his tender man-child tears. Assuming of course, the homeowner happens upon him mid-burgle — I love that word — and hasn’t the sense she was born with.
Yep: Steve still has my stuff. And I still have this feeling that it’s OK, and not just because my new ax is black and sleekly muscular, whereas — if I’m honest — the yellow-handled ax always felt a little girlie. I understand that Steve gave me a story, that I get to write the moral, and that it goes like this:
Love is never wasted. Not the emotional commerce that often passes for love between people — you meet my needs and I’ll meet yours — which is rife with loss, but love liberated from expectation. Kindness matters, even when it seems to be misplaced, even when good is seemingly repaid with bad. Trying to help another human being always falls on the side of the angels, even if we don’t immediately see how. Our vision is so limited, our lives so constrained, so fleeting. But somewhere — I know it — love connects to love. And the ax eventually gets returned, though not always in ways we witness or apprehend.
I hope so, anyway. Because Steve gave me this story. And this is how I’m ending it.