What it came down to was that I didn’t have money and my Dad did, so I took it.
First I cased the joint, padding into his bedroom wearing socks and moving slowly to prevent the floorboards from creaking. Then I took action. Fortunately, the old man was predictable, throwing a pair of khakis over the closet door every day, dumping his change into a coffee cup, placing his wallet next to it.
I started on the coins but this wasn’t enough for long. The Bible told me what I was doing was wrong but it felt pretty damned right to me.
Because I needed to play an arcade game called Ghosts N Goblins. You might say that I don’t know the difference between want and need, and I merely wanted to spend hours in front of that screen. But my mom had taken pains to explain this point to me. Most of the things you want you don’t need, she said. If you really need something, that means you’ll die without it.
The thing is, though, is that that’s how it felt. Like I might die, or at least get pretty messed up if I couldn’t play. And the game was nails hard, virtually unbeatable, so no matter how much time I got on that machine, it was never enough. It hurt to know it was sitting in Tom’s convenience store, less than a mile away, and I wasn’t on it. Yep, I needed it all right.
So it followed that I needed more money, and I just couldn’t see any other way to get it. I’d asked my parents for an allowance a couple of times before but they always blew me off. And I was too young to formally work for anyone because of age restrictions on taxable pay. The only solution I could see was to tap into my dad’s stash. He dropped maybe a dollar of change into the cup every day. And then there was his wallet, like I said, angling against the side of the mug like a lean-to pitched against a tree.
The first day I got the nerve up to open it, my fingers were trembling. I’d never before had the opportunity to search a real adult wallet. The edges of green and gray paper crept out of the folds of black leather. Jackpot.
In the early days, I would take care to remove the stack of money, and replace it in the exact same order, maybe missing a single or two. Then I’d painstakingly place the wallet back into the position I’d found it. I was always worried he’d come back into his room and realize that his wallet had moved, and this would tip him off to my activities. Later I grew bolder. I started to just stuff bills back in when I was done. Even left the wallet sitting on its side a couple of inches away from the mug, instead of in its initial position. I thought for sure he’d notice something but I couldn’t seem to stop the increasing sloppiness that crept into my day-to-day thieving activities.
I started to get nervous around my Dad, always searching his face to find signs of something wrong. But the trouble was that he was always pissed about something — his job, my mom, my brother’s grades. It was impossible to know what he was all worked up about at any given time. After a while, in my mind, I decided that he knew what I was up to. So I made up stories to explain why he didn’t beat the crap out of me. Maybe he felt guilty about not giving me an allowance like most of my friends had, and this was his way of setting things right. Or he stole from his parents when he was younger, too, so couldn’t confront me without exposing himself as a hypocrite.
But despite my anxieties, I kept it up for almost two years. And if he did know, well, he never said a word to me.
I finally stopped when I was about twelve. One night I overheard my parents arguing, shouting at one another about money and spending. It turns out that just like me, they felt like they didn’t have enough cash either. Not enough for a new washing machine, not enough to get pizza a couple of times a week, not enough to continue to pay for voice lessons for my sister or go to the bar with the guys.
I’d always known that they fought. But I didn’t know that they felt so strongly about money. I’d always just assumed that they made things work and that was the end of it. Now that I knew better, I realized it had to end.
The next morning I asked my mother what else I could do for cash. I’d been doing a few chores around the house every week for a couple of bucks, but I was older now, needing the types of things that older kids needed. I couldn’t just go cold turkey on the money thing.
She turned me on to delivering newspapers, and for the next two years I delivered the New Haven Register to sixty or so customers. It netted me about forty bucks a month — an absolute fortune, at the time.
I stopped taking money from my parents but it didn’t fix our family’s money problems, or the cracks in their relationship for that matter. They got divorced later that year. But at least I know that it didn’t have anything to do with me.
Because I’d moved on from learning to steal to learning to earn. And there was no going back.