My dad took me to one of those gourmet cheese stores when I was four. I think he was looking for a cheese platter gift for his parents; I'm not really sure why we were there, actually. I loved places like that; they always smelled good, but most importantly, they often had racks and cases full of chocolate and candy.
While he was being assisted by the shopkeep, I ran free about the store. I had a bloodhound nose for the candy section and in less than three blinks I was standing in front of a large, long rustic shelf with bins full of all kinds of candy and chocolate things: malt balls, caramels, peppermints, toffy, chocolate wrapped in amusing animal shapes. Just the smell of it sent me into a sort of sugar high. I'm sure a dribble of spit probably dripped down my chin, eyes dilated, face flushed, the whole nine yards. I was probably temporarily insane.
I was like a crack whore - I had to have a hit, right there, right now. I shoved my little hand into the malt ball bin, which actually had a little scoop attached by a piece of twine, but fuck that. My hands were tiny and I was only able to fish out about three of them, and right before I shoved them into my maw, I could hear my dad from the other side of the store yell out, as if psychically tethered to my dopamine riddled mind, "Kid, behave yourself. I'm almost done, don't touch anything!" I froze. Shit. He knows.
I slowly, painfully put the malt balls back into the bin. Dammit, I thought (well, I probably thought something more like "gosh", but it felt like a dammit). I knew he wasn't going to let me get anything, and I can't leave this place without a heavenly taste of ambrosia that sat in front of me, taunting me. I scanned the shelves. To the right of me, parked conveniently waist-high, was a bin full of chocolate coins in gold mesh bags, the kind Jewish families dole out on Hanukkah. I side stepped myself on over, and stared at this golden heap of Yum for a moment.
I noticed that there were coins that had escaped their mesh bags and loosely settled about the bin. I grabbed one and examined it, flipped it over in my hand, inhaled its milk chocolate fragrance. I looked left, then right. The coast was clear. With little claw nails I tore into the foil and shoved that thing in my mouth, and oh my god, it was delicious. The foil hadn't even hit the floor by the time I grabbed another orphaned coin, and another, and another. The bromine sent me on a trip and for a moment I was gone, transported into another universe, Stanely Kubrick styled.
I felt a firm hand on my shoulder, then another hand grab my sticky little fist. I hadn't noticed my dad and the shopkeep coming down the aisle, didn't even hear him say, "Jules, what the hell are you doing?" I think he said it twice, I'm not sure, but suddenly I had two adults leaning into me, grabbing my little arms, peeling the remaining coins from my hand. Caught with the proverbial pants down, I knew I needed to think fast to get out of this jam.
"Jules, you're stealing, you can't eat chocolate unless you pay for it," my dad said. He turned to the woman who worked at the store, a pleasant enough looking girl with long blond hair. "I'm really sorry, she normally doesn't do this kind of thing."
The girl nodded sympathetically and looked at me and sweetly said, "Do you know what stealing is?"
Look, I'm four, but I'm not stupid. Of course I know you gotta pay for it. But I'm was four, I had no job, no money, and no self control. I also had a big imagination, and was fully aware that if I didn't pull myself out of this, I could go to jail. Or worse, they'd put my dad in jail, which would get me off the hook but I'm half Jewish and half Irish Catholic, and the genetic guilt alone would crush me, let alone being the family pariah, forced to sit at family dinners with my crazy cousin Gary, the other family pariah, at a little card table in the corner of the room, trapped within the billowing haze of his booze vapors and conspiracy theories forever more.
Four year olds under pressure can be unbelievably brilliant. They are fully aware that most adults think they're idiotic, even innocent. I was no exception; I had a shot at playing the innocent card, albeit once, so I had to make it good, I had to make it stick. So I batted my big dark eyes at the shopkeep, pouted my chocolate stained lips, and said, in my tiny squeaky voice: "I thought that they were free because they weren't in the bags, and no one is going to buy coins not in the bags, so it was okay, right?"
Cue the "aaaawwwww" from the studio audience, folks.
"No honey, they're not free, but you didn't know. Now you know," she laughed and patted my head. My dad laughed too and his vice grip softened.
She turned to my dad. "It's okay, sir, don't worry about it, no harm done. I'll get a napkin to wipe her face."
My dad thanked her, then leaned into me. "Do you understand now, that was stealing? You can't take what's not yours, even if it looks free. Did you learn something here today?"
I nodded. Oh yes, yes I did.
Thus began my childhood life of crime.
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Julie Baroh is a US artist, entrepreneur, and chronic chatterbox.