I have turned into a petty thief in my old age, but not all circumstances bring it out in me. My fall into crime, and believe me, coming from my benighted family, it was not a long way to fall, but I have walked the straight and narrow ever since I was a kid in the early 50s living with my aunt Mimi and uncle Murray in Bayside, Queens and was tempted by a bowl of little red and blue plastic ponies. While my aunt was in the back of the shop--some sort of auto repair place,I seem to remember--I couldn't resist cheering my orphan self up with a handful of these ponies, stuffing them down my sweater--but I was undone by my early chivalrous lesbian leanings. As my aunt and I were about to leave the shop, I with many new bumps under my sweater, a lovely woman entered and dropped her bag. I immediately bent down to pick it up for her and all the ponies tumbled out of their hiding place onto the gray-squared linoleum. I don't remember anything around me at that instant, no shop, no woman, no aunt only my huge shame and panic; I bolted from the shop, much as the ponies would have if they could, and fled as far into the fledgling neighborhood of Bayside as I could. Many many hours later, I found my way back to my foster home. Ponies and women, an early fatal mix.
Scarred by that early betrayal of conflicting desires, I was never tempted again until in my 68th year, when I accompanied La Professora into a home furnishing emporium here in Melbourne so she could pick out book shelves and desks for our study back at 4 Fitzgibbon. She has all the money now, my American teacher's pension fastly losing spending power and doctors' bills taking the rest, so I am a mere bystander as La Professora so kindly upgrades our home. As she bent over blueprints with a nice young man, I wandered about the place, wanting to take a closer look at the paperback books it was using for display purposes only to show off its various wood particle shelving. I was enjoying seeing old friend detective writers when I came across a yellow and blue book with the words, Courage Classics, on its side--I raised my eyes to look closer and there it was, "Collected Poems of Emily Dickenson." For display purposes only. How could I leave that poet, so far from her New England home, so needing of human touch, so rich in her interrupted lines, as mere book shelf dressing. As La Professora negotiated a hefty fee, I simply took Emily, holding her in my arms, and left the store. She now sits next between May Swenson and Auden. It all made perfect sense to me.
And then the other night, La Professora decided she wanted to go to a home renovating workshop in St Kilda. We arrived early on a dark cold night and took our seats in the waiting area where tea and coffee were being served, which my darling scorned in favour of a glass of house red, and platefuls of cookies that were too delicious to resist. I asked the waitress if they could be purchased and she said no, so before we left the lounge, I did something I had learned from Ms Hampton, a dear friend who always made the most of what was available, I simply wrapped a handful of the contraband in a napkin and slipped it into my bag. Once inside the lecture hall, I dozed a little as the speaker talked about large sums of money and property, property. On the way out, I noticed a jarful of blue plastic ballpoint pens; one quick grab and a handful went into the bag. I was beginning to see a connection here--anytime large sums of money are being discussed, I immediately avail myself of what ever is free, or at least, under valued.
We ended the night with a chicken soup and stuffed cabbage dinner at the Scheherazade Cafe on Eckland Street, now for those among you who do not know the realm of the bay side of Melbourne, I will tell you that once Eckland street was the eating, talking place of many European Jews who had fled to Melbourne and this cafe so sadly soon to close was a favorite gathering spot, so think a mix of the Lower East Side and Coney Island. Alix was waiting for us and we caught up as we delighted in the specials and potato salad. Slices of dark pumpernickel caught my eye. Not easy to find in our part of town. As we payed the bill and prepared to leave, I used the old napkin trick again and departed with several slices of this so homey bread in my bag. For one instant I was back in the 60s in the old Ratner's on Second Avenue where I and my other student friends would pretend we were going to have a meal we could not really afford and sit just long enough to kidnap a few of the bagels that garnished every table. Bread in the bag, poetry in the bag, cookies in the bag and finally those blue pens. How can I explain this relapse into antisocial behaviour? Riding back across town, the palm trees of St Kilda growing more distant, La Professora who had seen it all, said "Joan, what have I turned you into?" I looked out at the still foreign landscape, a 68 year old petty thief, my contraband warm across my lap.