Thursday, May 7, 2009

Stealing the Cheese

When I was still in high school, I worked as a busboy at a restaurant in Austin called The Barn. Though I still could not tell you why I did it, one night when I was working there, I stole a ten-pound block of swiss cheese.

I certainly didn't do it for the cheese. That cheese was terrible, sharp and grainy, a poor excuse for the 'appetizer' it was supposed to be, especially when paired with the steamed white rolls that we served with it. But because eating it was taboo, that cheese was transformed--not unlike transubstantiation, if you're are inclined to believe that sort of thing--into a precious food with actual flavor. That flavor was imparted in major part simply by the act of obtaining it; always surreptitious, ever sly, eaten on the move and with as little mouth motion as possible to avoid deadly detection.

Honestly, the risk was way overrated. Although I never saw anyone get fired for eating that crap--or any other crap, including the 'bus tub buffet'--it was the legend that kept us on the down low, so to speak. It certainly made the low life crap that we were eating (especially the b-t buffet) seem somehow--against all odds and our tastebuds themselves--flavorful. The taste of risk, even an imagined one, is, it turns out, a better condiment than salt, butter or cream. Though the combination of the last three ingredients no doubt makes anything taste better, it was but a dash of perceived danger that made that disgusting block of swiss cheese seem like something actually worth stealing.

What else could have been going through my mind?

I don't think I did it on a dare, since I don't remember telling anyone. I also don't remember planning it. Had I attempted to plan the act, I would have thought too much about it in advance and failed to go through with it, No, I would remember if had it been anything other than a typical spur-of-the-moment crime. Of the type that often do damage far out of proportion to their real-world severity, I was lucky to have escaped all consequences for it. This is, of course, an post-facto rationalization. I willingly accept the fact that it was nothing more than a petty crime. No matter the motivation or the absence of consequences; no matter that it was just a dumb kid thing to do, I did it.

I didn't get caught, though, and by only the very thinnest of margins. In the best tradition of improving the view through the soft lens of hindsight, I see my escape as a warning, a lesson learned and truly never forgotten. I think it safe to say that I am not a thief by nature. I cannot claim to have never stolen anything. Besides the cheese, over the years, there have been a few candy bars in pockets and mints too. And, I once ran out of Denny's without paying for a chocolate malt. Though the potential for irony be much increased with such statements, I believe that I am only being honest when I say that I haven't stolen anything else that I can recall.

It's laziness, really. I think it much easier to work and earn the money to buy something than to plan for, take the risk of and live with the consequences of theft. I suppose you could say that I am perhaps deterred by international banking laws which prohibit me from moving large sums of money to and from 'offshore' bank accounts, but still argue for my moral bankruptcy by observing that I have no money with which to do so. True. Beyond that, however, down through the long line of property crimes all the way to big, nearly rotten hunks of swiss cheese, I may claim innocence. At the last offense, I admit the stupidity if not the criminality of that act here today.

I stole the damn cheese. I saw it in the reach-in cooler as I was on my way out. The last one out,lights were being clicked out all round me by the manager, who was closing up behind me as I left. He was in the other room, locking something because they knew the staff would steal it if it wasn't locked up. So paranoid! Yet here was this erm, lovely block of cheese, and in a flash I had removed my coat and wrapped it around my prize. As casually as possible, I made my way to the exit, calling to the manager cheerily.

Unfortunately, my hasty exit was prevented by a locked front door, which required that I wait for the manager to come perilously close to my heavy secret. I don't recall how I held that awkward load, nor can I remember whether or not he actually saw what I was attempting to conceal in the near dark of the closing restaurant. Oddly, as if he'd had a sudden intuition, he asked me to stay for a minute while he locked up the kitchen. He directed me to sit a booth near the door and wait.

"Here," he said. "Set a spell while I go lock up the back. Say it's cold out there. Oughten you be wearin' that jacket to your car?" He said this as he turned away and disappeared in the dark, so luckily I didn't have to answer.

I sat with my bundled contraband next to me on the black leather naugahide of the booth seat, waiting with sweaty palms as he made noises in the dark, wishing my anchor was smaller, lighter. I was wishing that I hadn't done it, hoping that he hadn't noticed. If wishes were horses, I'd have ridden right out of there.

Suddenly he was back, looming in the light over the booth, holding a tumbler full of an amber liquid. Was it scotch, or bourbon? I don't know; didn't know there was a difference then. It could have been marsala wine for all I knew. Before I knew it he slid into the seat opposite me and began to talk about honesty. The words are lost to me in the haze of fear that possessed me--rightly--for the ten minutes or so it took him to down his nightcap. I do recall the sad look on his face as he talked, desperately trying to read his intent. I burned with fear, wondering if he was going to call me out or if he expected me to reveal my secret. Reveal my burden I did not, and he soon shooed me out into the cold night without scolding me for carrying my jacket instead of wearing it.

Looking back, it occurs to me that he may have been the one to reveal something that night, something that quietly became part of who I have been, and who I am today.

3 comments:

d2 said...

Excellent.

bc said...

How do you know that your boss didn't know you had the cheese under your coat?? bc

Greyghost said...

Don't you think he did?