Above: Vintage gift box on wooden background image from Shutterstock.com.
I used to think stealing was subversive. Now I know I had it backwards.
It’s just after nine on Saturday morning, a half-hour after my wife discovered the package. I’m at my desk, pawing nervously at my computer mouse, dragging the arrow across a monitor where the image of a mysterious stranger glows colorless in the washed-out light of dawn. I freeze the frame for a better look, not knowing what information I hope to gather. He’s middle-aged, nondescript. He wears light-colored pants and a fleece sweatshirt, and is carrying a small cardboard box, holding it gently, almost tenderly.
“Probably a dog turd.”
“Naw, feels more like a dead rat.”
I rewind two minutes to 6:02AM. A brown or maroon minivan pulls up and parks. The man gets out, opens the rear lift gate, rummages around. Now he has the box. He’s walking across the driveway. Has he practiced this? Staked out the place? Have we seen him before? Someone we know?
Fourteen strides bring him to our front door, and he bends down to carefully place the box on our doorstep. Like the man, the box is nondescript—small and tan and unmarked. I let the scene play out for the tenth or 20th time, switching between two camera angles. As he leaves, our security light startles him. He brings up his hand to shield his eyes, annoyed, or maybe just surprised, and I see him as some mad bomber, some fugitive from a TV news story, caught on tape as he makes his getaway.
The security light seems to jolt him a little. He quickens his pace, lengthens his stride. Ten paces bring him back to his van, where he jumps in the driver’s seat and glides off down the empty suburban street. I rewind to watch the scene again, glancing guiltily at the little tan box sitting on my desk. I’ve closed it back up to hide its contents, but it’s still there, inanimate yet insistent, pulsing with unanswered questions.
Ever wonder what might be the most subversive act you could undertake in modern America? I have. I used to think stealing was subversive, an idea I probably picked up from reading too much Yippie propaganda as a teenager. It was an idea that fit comfortably with my lower-middle class identity and the fact that, like most young people, I wanted a lot of stuff I couldn’t afford. So I stole—not from regular people but from chain stores, because I reasoned they were soft targets of corporate America and deserved to be bled a little bit. Plus it was a cheap thrill that made me feel dangerous and cool.
I finally gave up shoplifting in my 20s, having been caught a couple times and waking up to the fact that I was not actually bringing down Babylon by pilfering stuff I didn’t even need. I still wanted to play out my revolutionary fantasies though, so I set my sights on creating art that might serve as some catalyst to action—a rallying cry, a message from the underworld—anything to minutely deflect the fatal direction this country’s been headed in ever since the vampire lord Reagan locked us on our present course.
To do this, I made music, wrote manifestoes, passed out pamphlets, spray-painted walls. I was grandiose and ridiculous and painfully naïve, but I believed in what I was doing, even if I didn’t know exactly what it was. I was zealous and immature and probably terrible to be around. I fantasized about arson and assassination squads. I thought I was being subversive, but I didn’t understand the meaning of the word.
As I grew older, my life took that time-honored path from caricature to cliché, my ideals sprayed like seafoam against the rocks of everyday life—kids, marriage, college, career. Through it all, I tried my best to stay active and informed, but in the end I found myself like most everyone else, sitting passively and impotently at a computer, cursing the army of dolts and liars and greedheads that have made it their mission in life to ruin my country and diminish the prospects of my children’s happiness and prosperity. I swallowed my powerlessness and gave up on direct subversion, attempting instead to make changes from within.
To this end, I landed a job in education, and from there, I still do what I can to make change, albeit on an individual and painfully gradual basis. I live off the dwindling largesse of the taxpayer, helping foster and homeless youth get their high school diplomas, so that they at least have a chance at a better life. It’s important work and I enjoy it. It pays the bills and eases my conscience, makes me think that even if I’m not boldly reshaping society, at least I’m not adding to its misery. Yet I’ve always felt I was missing something.
We all want so much. So many shiny things catch our eyes and divert our attentions. We exist in perpetual envy, sizing each other up, counting and coveting and judging our worth and the worth of our fellow citizens based on whatever status markers are currently in vogue. My 13-year-old son struts around the house singing about stacking paper and making it rain, of guarded mansions and red Bugattis and gold-plated pistols.
On my friend’s Facebook page, I get in a pointless argument with a millionaire who tells me how sick she is of me and my kind stealing from her via the tax system, how she deserves every penny of her riches because she’s worked harder than everyone else and made better choices, completely ignoring the luck and privilege that enabled her to do so.
Walking downtown, I step over a homeless man sitting on the sidewalk, his back against a chain link fence, dirty belongings splayed around him. In a weak and quiet voice, he asks me for change and I instinctively say no, I don’t have any, and as I round the corner I feel in my pocket anyway, coming out with a rumpled five. Will I miss five bucks? Can I give up a cappuccino today so that this dazed human being can survive another few hours? I put it back in my pocket and unlock my car, but as I’m getting in I feel guilt pooling like blood in my stomach, so I decide to go back and give him the money, but as I take a step toward him, I see that a police car has pulled up to the curb.
We have a new law in town that makes it illegal to sit on a public sidewalk, because businesses complained that homeless people were driving away customers. I wrestle with my thoughts for a second. I’m late for a meeting. I don’t want to deal with any cops right now. I don’t even know this guy—what’s his story? What’s his problem? I have bills to pay and kids to raise and lunch to buy.
The door of the cop car swings open and a man in a blue uniform steps out, looking efficient, professional, authoritative. I shove the fiver back in my pocket and get in my car, ashamed. As I drive away, I see in a flash of stark detail all the systems and devices and conditioning that stops me from giving away even a tiny fraction of my hard-earned yet unimpressive bankroll, and I realize that the truest form of subversion in this tainted republic is not shock or violence or humor. It’s generosity.
But let’s go back in time a bit, to the beginning of this story.
As my wife is leaving for her morning run, she hollers that there’s an unmarked package on our doorstep. I ignore her, as I’m busy checking my status and reading the news. I’m doing the same thing when she comes back a half hour later, only now she’s holding the box, a worried and expectant look on her face. She places it in my hands, unopened. It’s light, but there is something inside. I turn it a bit, give a gentle shake. I’m mildly afraid.
A couple days before, some anonymous asshole, we assume the neighbor kid, threw an egg through the cracked back window of our family van, making a smelly and disgusting mess inside. We often awake to find trash strewn on our lawn, or our trees and shrubs covered in toilet paper. We’ve both had stuff stolen from our cars, and sometimes at night we get loud phantom knocks on our front door. It’s petty stuff, but it affects us.
We don’t feel welcome in our neighborhood, hence the security cameras. We feel harassed and beleaguered and out of step with the patriotic Americans who populate our street, with their giant trucks and NRA stickers, country music and Super Bowl parties.
“What do you think’s in it?” my wife asks.
“Probably a dog turd.”
“Naw, feels more like a dead rat.”
We laugh as if we’re joking. The box has complicated flaps that keep it tightly closed. I shake it once more and it doesn’t explode, but still, I hold it away from my body, just in case it is a bomb. That way I’ll only lose a few fingers, maybe a hand, but hopefully get to keep my vital organs. I suck in a breath and we brace ourselves for whatever psychological trauma is about to be inflicted on us. The flaps slide out and the box opens, revealing a large stack of white, restaurant-style napkins.
“That’s weird. I wonder…”
The words evaporate as I turn over the napkins, revealing a neat stack of greenish paper. The box falls to the floor. Nestled inside are ten crisp $100 bills and an anonymous note thanking my wife and I for some unidentified “service to our community”.
“What the fuck is that?” we say in unison.
I feel awful watching the footage of the delivery, like I’m the most unworthy wretch in the world, treating this beautiful gesture as if it’s some kind of crime. Here I’ve been given this amazing gift, with no strings attached, and yet I feel… what? Violated? Confused? Someone must have made a mistake. All the awful questions that came up when we discovered our car had been vandalized came flooding back. Why me? Who would do such a thing? What did I do to deserve this?
I tell myself to relax and rejoice, but I can’t. I’m too freaked out. My wife says maybe the money is stolen or counterfeit, some kind of diabolical trap. I try to think of anyone we know who could possibly give away a thousand bucks. There’s no one. Whoever did this is way out of our league.
As I stare at the box of cash, I realize that what’s bothering me is not the gift or the giver. It’s not the way it was delivered or the fact that I can’t properly thank the man who left it. What bothers me is my own reaction. I feel sad and fraudulent and incapable of understanding. It’s not that I don’t feel grateful—far from it. I’m intensely aware that this is a kind of secular miracle, a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence.
But how does one repay such a gift? What saintly act is required to make one feel deserving? I decide the proper thing to do is to take out my checkbook and pass the money on, to UNICEF or cancer research or any number of a million worthy causes. But as the day wears on, my weak altruism is pushed aside by the realities of my financial situation.
There’s the $5,0000 we owe the IRS. The county wants property taxes and our insurance payment is overdue. There’s the kids’ orthodontist bills and their nonexistent college funds, our student loans, the $800 I need to get my car fixed so it’ll pass smog check, the maxed-out credit cards, the mortgage, the broken fence and the old garage door that we have to prop open with a two-by-four.
UNICEF and the starving kids and the cancer victims will all have to wait. I really do need the money. The thing bumming me out the most, I realize, is how small a difference this enormous gift will actually make. It would take a hundred thousand of these miracles just to get me out of debt, let alone help all those who need money. But… wow.
I did end up giving some to charity. A pittance really, but it’s something I guess. As of this writing, I’ve yet to tell anyone (besides my mom) about the gift we got that Saturday. I guess I’m still embarrassed about it. I also don’t want anyone to be envious, to have people wonder why it came to me and not to them. I have lots of friends who deserve that money at least as much as I do, and many of them need it more.
I wish it weren’t like this. I wish I were the subversive money bomber, planting little, tan boxes on people’s doorsteps. I wish our society wasn’t so focused on money, so demanding of greed. I wish rappers and pop stars would stop bragging about all their stupid money and start giving it away, so my son could learn why it really is better to give than receive.
I wish I knew how to make enough to pay my bills so that the five dollars I withheld from that homeless guy wouldn’t spark a moral crisis and make me feel like a cowardly shit every time I step over someone who needs my help.
Now I realize that the true gift of my anonymous benefactor wasn’t really the money at all. It was the knowledge that came with it. The most subversive statement you can make is a simple act of generosity.