On the morning of August 29th, I (along with the help of fellow musician Katie Nelson) played music for the good people of Lakewood Baptist Church in Lakewood, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland. We set up outdoors on their east lawn as part of their final al fresco service of the summer. The weather was perfect (I was able to remain the shade the entire time) and we sang and played well, which from my perspective made the entire experience enjoyable.
During the portions of the service in which Katie and I were not playing, we sat off to the side of the makeshift stage area with our backs against the stone wall of the church. As we listened to various readings and other musicians playing, we noticed a young man walking by on the sidewalk, mere feet from the congregants in attendance that morning. As he passed, I noticed (amongst other things) a paperback conspicuously poking out of the back pocket of his jeans – a tell tale sign of belonging to a particular faction of the now burgeoning hipster scene. I leaned over to ask Katie if she had noticed this small detail. She replied with the even more insightful observation she had made; that as this young man had passed, he had swiftly, and without losing step, swiped a pen from a table sitting next to the sidewalk. Though he did this in full view of the entire congregation, no one seemed to notice.
“The audacity!” I exclaimed in my head. “How dare he? Stealing! …and from a church! …and in front of so many people! What gall!” Inside I could feel my well-developed sense of justice rising up. I contemplated hurrying after him to correct this problem, but decided the scene would cause too much distraction since I was sitting in front of everyone. Instead, I quietly sat there and worked through a logical progression of thoughts.
- Calm down. It’s just a pen. No big deal.
- But it’s the principle of it all! Stealing is wrong.
- Maybe he has nothing. I hope he stole because he needed it, not just because he wanted it.
- How ironic though that he would steal from a group that would have given it to him had he simply asked. If he really needed a pen, anyone of us would have handed him a large supply of pens without reservation.
- Why would he steal from a church? There must be more to the story. Maybe this was a small statement of his perspective. Maybe he thinks that the church steals from people (a common and sometimes justified belief) and that he was simply playing his part as Robin Hood in this sad story.
The plot thickened in my imagination. “Oh well. Let it go,” I thought as I attempted to refocus my mind on the morning’s service and it’s over-arching themes of orphanhood, abandonment and adoption. (Apropos topics in hind sight.) Still, as I tried to engage myself completely, my mind wandered back to the possibilities of the young man’s motives.
A quote came to mind that I had read just a few days prior. The late comedian George Carlin once said:
I would never want to be a member of a group whose symbol was a guy nailed to two pieces of wood.
I mulled over that quote, weighing its humorous pithiness, poignancy, and pride against its subtext of angst, antagonism, and atheism. Knowing that all comedy is rooted in tragedy, I wondered of the origins of this one-liner. How had it been given birth via the life of its author? What were the “causes” of this “effect?” What did Carlin experience to arrive at a belief like this? Was this young thief on the streets of Cleveland living out a similar experience?
Again, I thought, “Oh well” and pushed the subject from my mind. The service finished with three songs performed by Katie and me, followed by a pizza lunch on the lawn. With the almost-noon sun moving over head, the shade was disappearing quickly, so as most everyone ate pizza and chatted with each other, I hurried to wrap cables and box up equipment. While I worked, a friend was kind enough to reserve an entire pizza for me. After packing away all the gear, I sat down again in the shade of the stone church to eat a few slices, when suddenly I noticed the young thief coming down the sidewalk again. This time with his shirt off and skateboard under his arm.
I was surprised to see him return, but remembered that oft repeated maxim: “A criminal always returns to the scene of the crime.” For whatever reason, the young man had returned and immediately I thought I should offer him some pizza, but Katie jumped first. “Nice shoes!” she yelled to him. He stopped and looked to see who had complimented his bright blues and yellow kicks, then he approached us. “Thanks. They’re pretty fresh aren’t they? My mom gave them to me.” We talked about shoes for a little bit, then I offered him a slice of pizza. He declined when he found out it had pepperoni on it. “He might be a vegetarian,” I deduced. I wished that I had something that fit his diet, but all I had was a pizza that generously had been given to me. Katie offered him some gluten-free cheese ravioli she had brought along. He accepted with a manner of indirect thank you accompanied by earnest looks and head nods saying, “Yeah, it’s all about generosity.”
Unfortunately, after a few sentences I was pulled into another conversation with some other folks, but I kept my ear perked on the conversation that continued between Katie and the young thief. He expressed his belief that “everyone should share together,” but that “the world and everybody just wants money.” His take on the local farmer’s market (an incredible market, which has some of the most affordable produce I’ve ever seen) was that the marketers are “just trying to take people’s money” and that “people should share food or offer food at a modest prices.” He talked about music, books, people, and church all with the same skeptical-about-everything-but-we-got-to-share-and-one-love-is-it-man sort of view. The irony of his thievery just moments earlier was not lost on me. I could tell that he had some deeply rooted anger, a very suspect anti-capitalist worldview, and plenty of sophomoric pride in his reading list.
As he turned to leave, he jabbed at Katie, “Nose rings aren’t very churchy.” Katie responded with honest sentiments about her experience with churches, describing religious people, the Jesus she knew, and the difference between the two. When Katie said, “I really love Jesus,” the young man agreed that he really liked Jesus too and added, “He is in my top ten people of all time.” Katie asked who else made it onto his top ten people list. He reiterated Jesus and mentioned a few authors before tagging on George Carlin to finished the list. I nearly laughed out loud. I wanted to point out, “That’s like saying your favorite books are Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl and Mein Campf.” I could’ve drawn a Venn diagram to show him the concept of mutual exclusivity, but recognized that rationality was not the impetus at work. He was a wounded boy striking back at a world that had brought him pain.
A Mutually Exclusive Venn Diagram
I dug deeper, “Where are you from?” He launched into a story about being born in Virginia, moving to Ohio at a young age, being drug to Detroit by his ex-minister mother chasing after “love for her boyfriend or whatever that whole thing is.” He returned to Cleveland when his girlfriend parted ways with him. Now he’s sleeping on a couch at the boarding house where his mother is staying. Katie saw that he was carrying a portable CD player and asked him if he wanted some CDs. “Sure! I love music,” he said. “I’ll probably just burn the tracks and then sell the CDs ’cause I need the money, you know. I gotta survive.” Katie gave him two of her albums as well as two of mine. He expressed his gratitude to us again with another obscure type of thank you and then left.
We spent much of that afternoon walking around town with some good friends. As we popped in and out of little shops, cafes, and novelty stores, the odd events of that morning came up in our discussion. We verbally processed the theft and subsequent conversation that took place, touching on the possible roots of such problems before moving on to lighter topics like “Which shop should we go to next?,” “Do we need to feed the meter?,” and “What do you want for dinner?” Towards the end of the day we found ourselves walking along the path of a local park just in time to catch the reddish-orange sun slowly sinking into Lake Erie. We paused for a moment to enjoy the scene before deciding it’s best to head “home” before dark in an unfamiliar town.
The path out of the park took us directly past a skate park. I scanned the crowd of young guys skating there wondering if the young man we had met earlier was among the dozens enjoying this extremely nice skate park, one of the many perks paid for by the hard work of the local “capitalist pigs.” I didn’t spot him, so we continued on. Just as we reached the street, I was surprised to see our friend the thief making a last second dash through the busy intersection to beat traffic. Since he had not seen us yet and knowing that he probably gets hassled a lot for skating, I jokingly yelled to him, “No running!” He turned to see who was reprimanding him this time and smiled when he recognized us.
“Hey! I listened to your CDs and that’s some really good stuff,” he immediately offered. “I liked them a lot. I burned them and took them down to the exchange already ’cause I need the money. Gotta survive. They only gave me two bucks though for all four of them ’cause they said that you weren’t popular.” Though severely lacking tact, I had to admire his honesty. Most musicians might run away crying after such a frank assessment, but we grinned and said, “That’s fine man. We’re not really famous, so it’s not a surprise.”
He then offered his assessment of the music: “It just goes to show that God helps those who help themselves.” I’m sure I gave him a funny look when he said that, because I’m not really sure how he arrived at that conclusion. How could anyone boil down four albums of songs to such a singular and contrary thought? (But then again, how could Carlin boil down the entire discussion of Christianity to logo choice?) I concluded that either our young friend did not actually listen, or though he did listen, he was so wounded that he could not hear. Then again, maybe what happened was a phenomenon similar to what the Beastie Boys experienced with their song “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party!).” A tongue-in-cheek satire of frat boy meatheadiness became the anthem of meatheaded frat boys everywhere.
Make of it what you will.