“Hang on a second, pal.”
When I heard those words, I knew I was in trouble. I was waltzing past the checkout counter in Pat’s Food Center, probably with my body turned conspicuously away from Jack Reins, a checker I knew; the way I also knew Clem, the checker at the next counter, whom my mother would chat up when she passed through the line with a cart full of groceries. I grew up in a small town. My house was just across the two-lane road in front of this store. Behind my house, the Tittabawasee River was in low flow, lazy, brown, and smelly. My buddies and I were teaching ourselves to smoke that summer down on the river flats.
Minutes before I had been standing in front of the store’s cigar display, within eyeshot of the registers. On another day, a week or so before that, a pal had cobbed a five-pack of King Edward cigars, which we lit up down by the river and puffed on, exhaling the rich blue smoke into the air like riverboat gamblers. This time I lifted a pack of Swisher Sweets. I liked the sound of those words together.
I also liked the idea of a cigar tasting sweet, because, in truth, the King Edwards were nothing if not foul. This pack fit almost perfectly in the right front pocket of the shorts I was wearing. I hooked a thumb in my belt loop and lapped my hand over the angular edges of the box pressing against the fabric.
I turned my head in Jack’s direction. “What?”
He stepped out from behind the register, pointed and led me over to the magazine rack in front of the store. Looking back, I have to think he wasn’t much more than twenty years old himself. But to me he was an adult, an authority figure with doom at his disposal.
No, I thought. No no no no.
“You got something in your pocket there?”
“Huh?” No no no no no.
“Lemme see.” He flicked an index finger and pointed at my hand.
I pulled the cigars out of my pocket and handed them over. My hand shook, my face felt hot and red and wet. My eyes dropped to the floor, then lifted to his face. He was staring at me, boring into me with a look that was both accusing and regretful.
He held that look for five or ten seconds, letting my guilt and his judgment sink in. It was terrible.
“You were going to steal these,” he said.
I didn’t trust myself to say anything. I thought I might start crying. I shook my head, nodding first yes, then no, neither of which seemed like the right answer.
We stood there another short while, as he deliberated.
“Don’t you do this again,” he said finally. “If you do, I’m going to have to tell your parents.” He held me there a few more seconds. He was letting it all sink in–there was a lesson to learn, I was lucky that day, he was letting me go.
He was letting me go.
More than a few times in the past few weeks, I’ve thought of those cigars and my shoplifting escapade. I thought of it when I saw the black and white footage of Michael Brown in the Ferguson convenience store. I thought of it again when, a few days after Michael Brown’s death, I watched the Youtube video of a mentally unbalanced man being shot and killed in the street.
How grateful I am, not to have been killed back then.
My hunch is there are countless stories like mine, stories of transgression we would look back on now and characterize as “escapades,” stories we are not proud to tell, stories that do not end in violent death. As a young parent I taught my children that stealing is wrong, just as I was taught. Perhaps, like me, they too went through a phase. Perhaps they stole and I did not know. Every so often we heard stories of their friends and classmates, basically good kids whose sticky fingers got them in trouble. It was an aberration. They would learn their lesson.
They were not killed.
I knew nothing of deadly force when I was a kid. Today my students are experts. Many of them can tell stories of violent death, of classmates, friends, family members. It is an ordinary and haunting fact of life.
I do not know the truth about Michael Brown, the full extent of his transgression. There are so many conflicting truths to sort out in this situation. I know this: I will meet young men like him next week in my classes, and I will meet older female students with sons, women who fear for their children’s safety, who try to teach their sons that it is wrong to steal, and who must also teach their sons that, because they are black, they walk in mortal danger every day of their lives.
This is a fact of life my parents did not have to impress upon me: that if I messed up, I could be killed.