I’ve never had anything stolen from me. I mean, minor stuff maybe. Candy, pair of pants (actually, yes—Brandon, the quarterback of the high school football team, stole my blue jeans one day from the locker room), my heart.
It seems like most people have a theft story—bikes mostly, or Apple products. I’ve known folks who’ve had their cars broken into, the greatest casualty of those usually being whatever great heap of early-2000s emo CDs they still had laying around beneath the dash. People will claim to have had their wallets stolen—I think “lost” might be more accurate. A select few have the kinds of breaking-and-entering stories I had nightmares about—the kind they show on TV or security alarm commercials, Home Alone-type dudes in ski-masks, with guns or crowbars, grabbing televisions and searching for money. My grandmother got broken into twice when I was little—the predominate feature of the ransacked, post-theft house was, to me, the overturned couch cushions. These motherfuckers were scrounging for couch change.
Anyway, I’m not particularly sad that I don’t have a great theft story. That I don’t have some awful memory of something being taken from me, a harrowing childhood reminder that things are temporary, and that people might just be bad. I did lose things pretty often as a kid, so maybe that lesson was enough. I remember leaving a pillow in a hotel room in, like, Atlanta or something. We were a few miles down the interstate when I remembered—far enough for my parents to declare the pillow—just your basic, regular-ass pillow, but my basic, regular-ass pillow—a lost cause. That moment was awful. I guess when you’re little you can’t fathom life carrying on outside of your being there. I don’t know where I thought my dad went to work every day, just that he left in the morning and came back in the evening. Something about leaving that pillow, though, sort of like my blankie, my security, part of myself, being left so incredibly far away, opened to me the realization that life carried on without me in it, and coldly so. We called the hotel about the pillow, I must have begged my parents to. They said what they were supposed to say, that they’d look for it, of course. They’d send it back if they found it. But what they actually did was probably throw it directly into the trash compactor or, hell, probably they just washed it and put it into the pillow rotation. Thinking of it out there, though, existing without me, was scary.
So no, I never had anything stolen from me, but I like to think I know the lesson to be learned from theft, the temporality of things, the losing of what has become a piece of yourself. I learned this from losing things. But also from being a thief myself.
When I was a boy, probably seven or eight, my babysitter was Mel Mel. She was a friend of the family, probably ten years older than me. I guess it must have been the summer, and I was at Mel Mel’s, my mom having dropped me off on the way to work. Mel Mel was a cool gal—in the prime of her teens, was always spunky and fun, the life of the little babysitting party we had for ourselves there in the mid-90s. Mel Mel was also an avid listener of pop radio, which was really a wholly new experience for my ears.
Maybe there is a genre of music pre-coded into your DNA molecules, a particular band or radio station you are predestined to love, a God-created zeal for ZZ Top, a preordained predilection for Prince, a for-I-know-the-plans-I-have-for-you, Jeremiahan jonesing for jam bands—you get it. But I think it probably is actually just total luck. That or you glean it from your pater familiaris’ pattern of listening to P.O.D. What I’m trying to say is that my dad listened pretty exclusively to metal—Pantera, Sevendust, Godsmack; Living Sacrifice and P.O.D. as I got older. My only motherly musical exposure came when Gerry House (on the Big 98, WSIX) would play an Alan Jackson song (on which our neighbor, Danny, would have played guitar, to the growing of my own personal and irrelevant bragging rights), or from whatever Way FM (the Christian station) was playing.
I grew up in a Christian home, but wasn’t exactly sheltered. I don’t remember an exclusive ban on MTV or VH1, though it probably was frowned upon. Rap music was not prohibited as much as it was haughtily scoffed at. Some of the metal my dad was listening to was kind of rough-around-the-edges, which edged a little listening room for me and my brother.
Still, at 8, or whatever age I was, your eardrums—and future karaoke playlists—are malleable little guys. And Mel Mel had gotten into two CDs pretty exclusively in 1995: TLC’s Crazy, Sexy, Cool, and Mariah Carey’s Daydream.
This should explain to your eardrums that Mariah Carey vocal run you just heard me doing.
But for real—Mel Mel was really into those seminal 90s R&B femme fatales. And as the fates had it, I really was too. So much so, apparently, that I had to have those tapes.
I didn’t really consider it stealing at the time. I rationalized it in my head: I would borrow the tapes one night, record them to another cassette tape, which is just so fascinating and fucking old school and crazy that it blows my mind more than iPods or Spotify or whatever musical wizardry happens now. Then I would bring the tapes back.
But before I could bring the tapes back, I was caught.
I mean, I had them with me the next day, but of course Mel Mel already knew they were amiss. My girl was trying to jam “Fantasy” herself. Because eight year olds are so famously bad at stealing things, Mel Mel probably noticed the missing cassettes before I had pressed play and record. She confronted me, as I was the yearning and impressionable youth and she the seasoned, wiser, cassette-owning authority in the situation. She asked if I had taken them, and I like to think I told the truth. I probably cried and apologized, thinking I was in trouble. Perhaps I did get a little slap on the wrist or something, but I’m sure Mel Mel was cool about it. She was the kind of chill-ass, teenage Mariah Carey fan that a music virgin like me could get behind.
If my roommate’s milk fridge is any indication, I still haven’t found solid moral footing on the “stealing is bad” conundrum. You hear people who have risen from poverty talk about their great moral compass that ushered them to their now-ascendant seat of well-being: “But I told my kids: we will never steal. And that’s why I worked 95 hours a week at Jack in the Box.” And I admire those people. That is some hard-ass work.
But if it were me, and it was between stealing and working 95 hours a week at Jack in the Box, you better believe I would make like Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes and steal the blazes out of wherever the hail sold whatever the hail I needed. Sometimes life gives you a shitty hand. Sometimes all Mel Mel gives you is a slap on the wrist. And if life doesn’t give you a couple of life-changing nineties pop albums, well, sometimes you just have to steal that shit.