I've done a lot of things that I'm not proud of. Some were mean-spirited, 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, getting 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 man 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 when I’m around and don't come crying to me when it disappears. 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, the chocolate is mine, not yours. So get over it.
Such was my harsh position on that cold, dark night during my sixteenth year, when I and several of my 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 of myself, didn’t I?
My friends and I had not set out to steal that night, least of all from the parish where we had been reared. We were teenagers hanging out in the schoolyard, that's all. But it was cold enough outside that when I discovered an unlocked door at the school's side entrance we all agreed that warming ourselves in the furnace room was preferable to freezing our asses off or, worse, making a night of it and going home.
Of course, it wasn't very long before things took a different turn. In no time at all, we had busted into the storage room where the crates of chocolate were being stored. Inside an hour, we had relocated all the chocolates to a new storage facility around a hundred yards away, in the basement of the apartment building where one of our crew members lived, 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 onto the sidewalk and started devouring our treasure and calculating the 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 pinched.
Her name was Sister Miriam. She had been the second-grade teacher to many neighborhood kids over the years, including most of the members of our crew. A big woman, Miriam was not known to be at all unkind, and in this 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 staring down at you. Certainly not when your mouth is filled with purloined chocolate from the very parish that she herself so devotedly served.
"Louis," she called out. "Would you come over here, please?"
It wasn’t much more than a minute before Louie was back and explaining to the rest of us what was what. The sister, unable to sleep, had witnessed the entire caper from her convent window. She saw the white cardboard cases being carried out of the school, run across the schoolyard, tossed onto a garage roof then into a side alley and finally (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 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 hell of a lot of trouble."
Which, as it turned out, was the point. The deal Sister Miriam had struck with Lou was this: We put the chocolate bars back where they belong and nobody ever hears about the matter again. Not the pastor, not our parents, nobody. The boxes had to be brought back immediately, though, which made for an awfully long — and cold — night for us all.
Just recently, I received an email from my old friend Lou. "I just visited the 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 told me something that made me feel more shameful about the incident than I ever thought possible.
"I don’t know if you know this, Ralphie, but Miriam paid for all the chocolate bars that we ate that night out of her own pocket.
“And she never told a soul about it. As far as I know."