Every time I hear about a hopelessly inept felon — like the burglar who gets stuck going down the chimney or the bank robber who leaves his driver’s license behind — I think of myself. Yes, that would be me. The most incompetent would-be felon on the planet earth.
Years ago, an FBI operative told my husband about how he could always tell when he’d captured someone who was truly guilty. That’s because the prisoner always slept soundly in jail, feeling a profound relief. One suspect, who had broken down and wept and confessed under (non-torturing) interrogation and polygraph use, was enormously grateful to the FBI agent; for years, he sent the agent Christmas cards from prison, then from out in the world.
“Isn’t that weird?” my husband said at the time.
Well, no, I didn’t think it was weird at all. I identified completely. I spend my life feeling guilty about something, everything, nothing, whatever. I can’t imagine anything worse than committing a crime that remained secret; I don’t give a damn how much Bernie Madoff lived it up — his life on the lam sounds like hell to me. (But then, I doubt he was stuck with my over-supply of guilt, the little chiseler.) If I’d been successfully interrogated by the FBI, I’m sure I’d still be sending the agent lavish presents after I got out of the pen.
But, anyway. In spite of all this guilt and easily-stricken conscience, it’s odd to me that I try to get away with petty offenses. Actually, I do it all the time.
Day after day, I don’t blink at spending four bucks on a fancy coffee drink. I mean, we don’t have an espresso machine or a milk frother. How else am I going to get my latte?
But the very thought of shelling out the same amount for a Diet Coke at the movie theater fills me with outrage. Four dollars for a soft drink I could buy myself for pennies?
Which is why I often end up smuggling a Diet Coke in my purse — which is, let’s say, roughly the size of the QE2 — into the theater and feeling no guilt whatsoever about it. I refuse to be exploited by these capitalist pigs, I think, popping open my drink and reveling in the money I’ve saved. Jeez, one lousy, illicit diet drink — and I feel like I’m Norma Rae or Erin Brockovich screaming All Power to the People! and sticking it to The Man.
I faced the same moral dilemma when I walked into the Admirals Club on my trip home to Austin. I was tired and sweaty and cross and I had already bought a Diet Coke and trail mix for my so-called dinner. Then I noticed the intrusive little sign about not bringing outside food or drink into the confines of the club. What’s it to you? I mentally hissed, quickly stuffing my stash into my purse and assuming a beatific, law-abiding smile.
This is all reminding me of a woman I once knew at the most soul-shattering and boring place I ever worked. To pass the time, she once went around asking people how much money it would take for their spouse to allow them to sleep with somebody else. Would a million dollars be, like, OK?
After half the men at the company had picked themselves up off the floor after screaming the only way this woman could merit a million bucks in the sack would be with a blind man, they began talking numbers themselves. “Wait a minute,” one of the traditionalists countered. “We’ve just established that we’ve got ourselves a whore. The only thing we’re tinkering about is the price.” Heh, heh, we’d already heard that one, buddy.
I don’t buy the whole madonna-whore distinction in million-dollar sex or in everyday behavior. It’s a bit more complicated than that. Take me. I don’t have the soul or the stomach of a felon — but I do think there’s the ghost of a misdemeanant in me.
(Copyright 2009 by Ruth Pennebaker)