Black bagThis theft happened years ago. It was not the first time I stole something, but it was the first time I misappropriated something from a client (let’s call her BJ), a person with whom I had a long, pleasant and fruitful relationship.

Every season BJ’s PR agency conducted a New York show where all the latest fashion trends in footwear were presented to industry insiders. I was hired to draw all these hot fashion shoes. I drew them beforehand on a long roll of acetate, which was then placed backstage on a projector. There, unseen by the audience, someone would slap various colored magic markers in my hand as I speedily added finishing touches to the drawings while a projectionist rolled the acetate along accompanying BJ’s commentary. All the audience could see was BJ speaking in front of a large screen with shoe drawings taking form as if by magic. Backstage we had to rehearse the presentation repeatedly to get the overall timing correct.

There was a lot to remember — which colors went where, which shoes needed  additional details or sketches. And I was feeling none too sharp that day. In the shaky, early stage of tobacco withdrawal, I had just “stopped smoking” for maybe the tenth time. By mid morning I was feeling edgy and cranky and working hard to conceal it. By lunchtime I needed a cigarette. And needed it badly.

I couldn’t just desert my post to go out and buy a pack. The only person among us who smoked was BJ and I could have asked her for a cigarette except she was in the front of the house, busy with snuffing out all the little fires that always flared up before the big show. Plus her handbag containing the yearned-for cigarettes was not within easy reach for her. It was backstage. With us. Only a few feet away, I stared at it.  Everyone around me had suddenly disappeared. Should I do it? COULD I do it? WOULD I do it? Yes. I did it.  Feeling like a safe-cracker — the contents of a women’s handbag are as deeply private, as unseen by public eyes and untouchable by foreign hands as a personal diary locked in a safe — I snapped open her handbag, grabbed her cigarette pack, shook a cig out and flipped her purse shut. 

For years this theft has bothered me. It was penny ante stuff. Like the pack of gum I pilfered when I was a young kid, gum that I never enjoyed, a stolen object that made me feel bad, that told me at an early age I’d never make it as a competent thief.

After our recent housing bubble and financial meltdown I wondered about all those bankers who had stolen billions from their own clients without a shred of guilt, selling them products they themselves were frantically shorting. I thought too about the shyster mortgage lenders from big name banks who had coolly stripped innocent mortgage borrowers of their homes, life savings and hopes for a better future.

Like many, I wondered how it was that petty criminals in this country were arrested left and right and not one of those bankers who stole billions has been hauled off to prison or spent a single day behind bars.

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