Saturday, June 2, 2012
The (not so) great cocoa caper
I've done a lot of things that I'm not proud of. Some were meanspirited, others unkind, several idiotic, many blatantly unlawful and dangerous.
But how do you explain robbing from the church, in the dead of night, just to get a fix? Worse, being pinched in the act by a nun with good vision, a strong moral compass and a very bad case of insomnia.
What kind of word is there for a thing like that?
The addiction I struggle with is not to drugs or alcohol, but to cocoa. Leave a fine chocolate, particularly a very dark fine chocolate, unattended and don't come crying to me when it vanishes. Well, you could come crying to me, I suppose. Just don't expect me to give a good goddamn.
If it's chocolate, I don't care if you brought it, paid for it, or made it beneath your ancient Tuscan villa using the finest Criollo beans: If I'm anywhere in the vicinity then the chocolate is mine, not yours. So get over it.
Such was also my harsh position on that cold, dark night during my sixteenth year when I and several pals broke into a Catholic elementary school and cleaned it out of thousands of dollars' worth of World's Finest chocolate bars.
Yes, those World's Finest chocolate bars. The ones that schools and churches and community groups and daycare centers and other earnest institutions have long relied upon to raise much needed funds for many worthy causes.
I said I wasn't proud, remember?
It may be worth mentioning that we had not set out to steal anything from anybody, least of all the parish where we ourselves were reared. What's more, there wasn't an awfully bad seed among our group. We were teenagers hanging out in the schoolyard, that's all. But it was cold enough outside that when I accidentally discovered an unlocked door at the school's side entrance we all agreed that warming ourselves inside the furnace room was preferable to making a night of it and going home.
And that's all we had in mind, I swear.
Of course, it wasn't very long before things took another turn. Soon we were inside the storage area where the crates of chocolate were being stored, busy designing an efficient way to extricate them from the premises. Inside an hour my five associates and I had relocated all the chocolates to a new storage facility around a hundred yards away and in the basement of the apartment building of one of our crewmembers, confident that the night's score was very big and the coast, as they say, very clear. To celebrate we cracked open one of the cases, went out onto the sidewalk and started to devour our treasure and calculate the total street value of our haul.
But then, out from the blackness of the fenced-in schoolyard, appeared the all too familiar figure of a woman whose appearance could only mean one thing: We got caught.
Her name was Sister Miriam. She had been the second-grade teacher to many neighborhood people over the years, including me and others in our nighttime crew. A big woman, Miriam was not known to be at all unkind, and in that way she differed from at least a few of her fellow sisters. But 1 a.m. is not the time you want to see the imposing frame of even the most benevolent nun — attired in full habit no less — staring down at you. Certainly not when your mouth is filled with purloined chocolate from the very parish that she herself so devotedly serves.
"Louis," she called out, addressing one of the members of our crew. "Would you come over here, please?"
These were the only words the rest of us heard the nun utter about the evening's events. And I doubt she discussed it with Lou for more than a minute, because no sooner had he walked over to her that she disappeared back into the darkness and he was back telling us what was what.
Turns out that the sister, unable to sleep, had witnessed the entire caper from her convent window. She saw the white cardboard cases being carried out the side entrance, run across the schoolyard, tossed up onto a garage roof in order to exit the fenced-in yard, tossed back down from the roof and into a side alley, and then (this she could not see due to her field of vision, I am sure) shuttled across a couple of backyards and then down into the chosen basement for final storage.
"Why the hell didn't she come out sooner?" I snarled, polishing off what turned out to be my last World's Finest chocolate bar for some time. "She could've saved us all a lot of trouble."
Which, as it turned out, was the sister's point. The deal she struck with my friend Lou was this: We put the chocolate bars back where they belong and nobody ever hears about the matter again. The boxes had to be brought back immediately, though, which made for an awfully long night for us all.
Recently I received a note from my old friend Lou.
"I just visited the actual site this past Memorial Day, and pointed out to my mother and daughter the exact spot where Sr. Miriam stood," Lou wrote. There was no need to clarify which "site" he meant; I knew.
"This was a pivotal moment in my life because I quickly realized a life of crime was not for me," he went on. "And it was the first time I was able to tell my mom about it."
Then Lou reminded me of something that made me about as ashamed of my cocoa addiction as ever I have been.
"Remember, she paid for the chocolate bars that went 'missing.' And never told a soul about it. As far as I know."