Sometimes I go to Starbucks. I won't defend it except to note that it's the closest coffee to my house and sometimes I run out of coffee to brew at home. Starbucks over here is always a wonderland of weirdos and hipsters, a perfect mish-mash of people sitting on Apple laptops working on scripts and people sitting on their own, yelling at God. We have a couple of regular crazy homeless who congregate there and I try to be nice to them. It doesn't seem out of the question that I'll one day be joining their ranks.
Today I was in line for my regular (venti black eye) when a homeless guy came in against the line and leaned into the cabinet that houses all the Naked Juices and Protein Boxes and Paninis. He bumped into me as he did, because he was just hurriedly getting in there. I moved forward, the guy grabbed his sandwich (a chicken panini) and he left, trailing behind him a not-so-faint smell and this caftan-like thing he always wears. The guy in line behind me said, "Did he just steal that sandwich?"
The guy behind him laughed and said, "It seems like it!" The end, I figured. We all were standing in a line at Starbucks, obedient consumers, and something unusual had happened that briefly brought us together into a quick laugh, from which we would now disengage and return to our wireless devices.
The guy behind me - middle aged, graying long straight hair, glasses made of a transparent plastic, iphone earbuds hanging out of the top of his American Apparel t-shirt, leaned over the counter and said to one of the baristas, 'Did you see this guy just take a sandwich?'
My first reaction was stunned silence. A clearly homeless man had strode into Starbucks and swiped a $6 sandwich and this guy's immediate analysis of the situation - of the situation of hungry guy vs. giant corporation - was "I better turn him in." And so he began describing the offending malnourished human being living in the United States of America, and the guy behind him - who had laughed along at the brazen heist - sort of stepped back. This wasn't what anybody thought should be happening.
The guy turned to me. "Did you see what sandwich he took?" I had seen, actually. But holy shit, was I being asked to get involved in an incident complaint about a heisted Starbucks panini?
"Are you a cop?" I asked. The guy was taken aback. Clearly not! He was just a citizen, doing his civic duty to protect the corporation from the hungry.
"Hey, I'm not narcing the guy, I'm just saying -"
"Maybe you should have tackled him and pepper sprayed him and held him until the authorities could arrest him for the heinous crime of feeding himself."
The other guy blustered and stammered. He hadn't expected that I'd think he was narcing. Even in our 40s, we know we don't narc (this is what makes me uncomfortable about Jesse working with Hank on Breaking Bad, to be honest).
"How would you like to be stolen from?" he asked me. "What if somebody stole what you made? What do you do for a living?"
I wasn't really interested in engaging this line of phony moralism, so I just said, "I steal sandwiches for a living. So this is very personal to me."
"I'm not a cop!" the guy said again, and then I said one of those things I say that take me out of the 'wise-ass good guy' part of any of these stories and put me right in the 'that jerk should have minded his own business' parts of these stories. "No, you're a piece of shit," I said.
Now the baristas got into it. We were standing a good two feet apart but we were loud, and getting louder. And obviously I had just upped the ante into pointless personal attacks. "I'm going to have to ask you to stop," the awkward 19 year old said.
"But haven't we all seen Les Miserables?" I cried, and then everybody just stared at me blankly. Fine, you coffee shop full of Javerts, I'll wait over here for my Reduced Fat Turkey Bacon Sandwich.
As I got my food I had to pass the narc one last time, and I saw him giving more details to the barista, like he expected her to mock up a wanted poster based on his expert eyewitnessing. "Don't worry," I said, "You're going to really crack this case."
He followed me outside, angry. He felt personally wounded; clearly he sees himself as a pretty progressive guy ("I feed homeless guys!" he would say later in the argument), so to be cast in the role of the System didn't sit well with him. But what else was there?
"You're taking the wrong side," I said. "Any time the fight is between a hungry, homeless guy and a big corporation it's our responsibility as humans to keep siding with the humans."
"How would you feel if it was your store? If someone stole from you and you couldn't keep your store going?"
"Tomorrow when that Starbucks is closed due to its massive losses through theft, I will get on my knees and cry and beg your forgiveness. In the meantime, I suspect that the massive, super-rich corporation can let a sandwich or two slip through now and again. Their profits don't take precedence over a homeless person's hunger."
"How do you know he's homeless," the guy countered, despite having used exactly that word when initially narcing the thief to the barista. "Maybe he has a place to stay."
"Look," I said, slipping into one of my patented terrible metaphors. "This is like 1775 and you're a Colonial knocking on doors demanding the locals bunk Red Coats." I don't know. But it did set this up:
"You're making me sound like I'm turning Jews in to Nazis."
"Were the Jews stealing sandwiches?"
But I wasn't about to win this one. Earlier I had said to the guy, in my lefty anger, "If you're so concerned that Starbucks be made whole, why didn't you just buy the sandwich for him?" His answer was, "Because stealing is wrong," which is one of those troubling answers in that it is right in general but very wrong in the moment. Anyway, as this conversation, which had continued down the street (with lots of him saying "Come on, maaaan!") ended, he said to me, "Did YOU buy the sandwich?"
And you know what? I hadn't. My moral view of this could have generally been boiled down to 'fuck Starbucks,' but that's a small-minded moral view. It's one thing to root for the small guy to take one from the big guy, but it's a much better thing to help him do so. I should have paid for that sandwich. I should have nonchalantly said, 'Let me get that chicken panini for my friend." But I didn't. I got too caught up in my punk rock attitude to see a better way. A way that my old pal Jesus Harold Christ probably would have appreciated, if we're being honest. That guy's great, it's everybody who speaks in his name that's an asshole.
So I went back into the Starbucks, and I found the barista who had dutifully taken the crime report and I handed her my credit card. "I want to buy that sandwich," I said.
"Do you know which one it was?" she asked, and I was happy that she wanted to charge me correctly. I pointed out the chicken panini, and she gave me back the card.
"It's ok," she said, "I'll just mark it down under loss."
I was taken aback. "But I don't want there to be a further issue. I want to make sure it's made right."
She smiled at me, the kind of smile that you give to a child who is amazed that the refrigerator light isn't ALWAYS on. "It's no big deal. I just have to mark it down."
For me those six dollars were a punch to the system. To the other guys those six dollars were an affront to the stability and order of the world. To Starbucks those six bucks were nothing. To the homeless guy those six bucks could be his only meal of the day. Everybody sees those six bucks different.
There's only one person there who is right, and it's the guy feeding himself. I should have immediately paid for that sandwich once I knew what was going on, instead of trying to score tough guy points. I failed that situation almost as badly as the narc did (but let's be honest, he failed it worse because he's a fucking snitching asshole). Just buy the guy a sandwich: you have six bucks.