Monday, February 4, 2013

The Tell-Tale Peanut Butter

“Villains!' I shrieked. 'Dissemble no more! I admit the deed! Tear up the planks! Here, here! It is the beating of his hideous heart peanut butter!”– with apologies to Edgar Allan Poe
It was one of those dreadfully bone-chilling days with the temperature just above freezing; rain-drops and ice-pellets took turns tormenting me. The forecast said an all-out ice storm was on its way. I dashed to my local Food Lion to pick up a few essentials and found a scene bordering on pandemonium. (Particularly in the bread and milk aisles!) Since I only needed a few items, I didn’t bother with a cart. My goal was to get in and out as quickly as possible. As I scurried down the aisles, I kept picking up just one more thing until my arms could hold no more. When I passed by the peanut butter, I remembered that I was running low at home, so I grabbed a jar. Having no way to carry it, I slipped it into my coat pocket until I would pull it out at the checkout counter and pay for it.

The lines were long and, of course, I picked the wrong one. The cashier was obviously new and overwhelmed by the situation so that the manager was repeatedly called upon for assistance. Should I switch lines or stay the course? Because I already had so much invested in the line I was in, I didn’t waver. Finally, I checked out and made my way for the exit. It was raining again, so as soon as the doors slid open I sprinted for the car, threw my bags of groceries inside and then myself. It was after I took a deep breath and went to fasten my seat belt that I felt it -- the jar of peanut butter, hanging out of my coat pocket. Damn.

I couldn’t believe how easy it was to walk off with it. The peanut butter wasn't hidden; you could clearly see it popping out of my coat. When I later told this story to a colleague who is African-American, she told me she would have been hauled to the police station when she slipped the item into her pocket, much less getting out the door with it as I did. I don’t know if that’s true, but it was certainly easy enough for me. Some of you may recall that a few years ago I blogged about how I had walked out of a grocery store with half a sheet cake without paying for it. So, is this a pattern with me? I’m afraid it has more to do with my failure to pay attention to what I’m doing than it does any inclination toward kleptomania. If I intentionally wanted to steal something, I wouldn’t be able to do it. My problem is unintentionally stealing things.

Now, here’s the part of the story where I crept to the edge of the proverbial slippery slope, my feet slid out from under me, and I landed face down at the bottom... After I discovered the peanut butter in my pocket, I considered doing the right thing, returning to the scene of the crime and paying for it. Yes, I considered it. For about a nanosecond. But it seemed like more trouble than it was worth and I just wanted to be back in my warm, dry house, cuddling under a quilt with my pets. So I drove home.

That jar of peanut butter remained on my pantry shelf for 11 days. Although it bothered me a lot during days 1 through 4, somewhere around day 5, I was learning to live with it. Then this morning, on day 11, all that changed. I spread some peanut butter onto an English muffin and finished the last of the jar I had been working on. And suddenly it occurred to me that the next time I wanted some peanut butter, it would mean breaking open my ill-gotten jar. As I tried to imagine how that would feel, I realized that I wouldn’t be able to eat it. I considered donating it to Loaves and Fishes, a local food pantry for people who would love to have a jar of peanut butter. But that really didn’t solve my problem.

Now, there’s a back story that provides some necessary context for this sordid tale... Last year, I rented a house from some people who were dishonest with me from beginning to end. They promised me things they had no intention of delivering. They deceived me by pretending to care and then stabbing me in the back. I could list at least a dozen things they did as landlords that were illegal. And they flat-out lied to me. I couldn’t stand it anymore and decided to get out when my lease was up.

I left the house in great condition: plugging up all the nail holes and repainting, having the leaves in the yard raked, hiring a service to clean the place after I moved out, etc. I did everything I was supposed to do, including pay my rent through the end of my lease, although I moved out a month early. Imagine my surprise when I drove by the house and found someone new had already moved in before my lease was up! And do you know how my double-dipping landlords informed me of this? They didn't. Not a word.

The last straw for me was when they neither reimbursed me for the rent they received from their new tenants, nor did they refund my security deposit. It all got quite ugly on the telephone and I was getting nowhere, so I filed a claim against them in small claims court. I’ve never done anything like this before in my life. I like to give folks the benefit of a doubt and I don’t believe in suing people who make honest mistakes. But this was not an honest mistake.

While waiting for the wheels of justice to turn, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about honesty. I have to wonder how liars live with themselves. Maybe they rationalize what they do, believing there’s a good reason for their deceit. Maybe they’ve lied so much that they don’t even notice they’re doing it any more. Or maybe they’re so good at lying that they can even lie to themselves by convincing themselves that they aren’t liars. I don’t know.

But then, there’s the matter of the peanut butter. I suspect that we’re all dishonest to one degree or another. I certainly don’t like to think of myself in the same category as my lying landlords. But clearly, I’m capable of lying. (And stealing!) If there is a difference between us, I like to believe it has something to do with the fact that they have already spent the money they swindled from me and, if I kept that peanut butter, I would never be able to eat it. We are not the same!

So, I put the peanut butter back in my coat pocket. And I drove to Food Lion to pick up a few items. While no one was looking, I slipped it out of my pocket and into the shopping cart with the rest of my groceries. Then I proceeded to the check-out line to pay for it.

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