There was a time when kleptomania was all the rage among the women in my family. That is, my mother, and my two aunts, Marie and Rosetta, were robbing department stores and toy stores with casual regularity. I’m not sure how long it lasted. Maybe three or four years. What I do remember is that we kids—there were six of us total, each family had a boy and a girl—received whatever gifts we desired for our birthdays and for Christmas. No item was too expensive. So long as it would fit inside a large handbag or the oversized coats that the women wore when stealing, it could be ours.
Marie was the ringleader, in that she had been robbing the longest and was by far the most brazen of the three. I remember the time we were in Macy’s and she stuffed a box containing a small stereo inside her coat and walked right out of the store, without batting an eyelash.
My mother and Rosetta grew slightly bolder as their careers progressed, but they never came close to matching Marie’s level of ballsiness.
The families, during Christmas, would exchange gifts and the underside of all our Christmas trees would be overflowing with presents. Suffice it to say, we kids became spoiled. We expected to receive whatever we put on our lists. We briefly experienced a Golden Age, a Gatsby era of stolen toy excess.
I’m not sure why my mother stopped stealing, but eventually she did. As did Rosetta. Marie kept at it. Which now meant all the best gifts came from her. This pissed my father off. If I were to open a gift and say, Wow, it’s a G.I. Joe Battle Van or the Millennium Falcon, my father would caustically remind me—Yea, don’t forget that it’s stolen. He denounced Marie as a thief and a lowlife, and wanted to make sure that my sister and I understood that the gifts we received from him and my mother were paid for.
I, personally, never cared how the gifts were obtained, I just enjoyed receiving them. Robbed, purchased, whatever, it was all the same to me. I suppose, to an extent, that attitude carried over into my adult life. Legal, illegal, fair, unfair, honest, dishonest, to me they were all mutable terms in a world made of fiction. Maybe because theft, lying, cheating, and hustling, weren’t just part of my family tradition, but also core principles, or lack thereof, in my neighborhood. You did what you could to get what you wanted.
It was an unspoken custom, a commonly accepted way of life. Work the angles, get over on people, don’t let people get over on you, do the wrong thing just don’t get caught.
My neighborhood very much operated according to the creed: It is easier to ask for forgiveness, then it is to ask for permission.