I just sent a book to my beta readers, the third or fourth or maybe fifth revision of Shadow Family, the seventh Mae Martin Mystery. There are a couple of characters in it who feel good about themselves as thieves. They smile a lot, acting the role of good guys. The theme in the book is self- justification. How we dig in and commit more and more deeply to our mistakes and bad judgments to justify our behavior to ourselves, and how people who are doing something ethically wrong convince themselves it’s actually right.
After a yoga workshop in Albuquerque Sunday, I stopped by Whole Foods to pick up some organic groceries. While I was in the bulk foods section filling a bag with pecans, a fit, cheerful-looking bearded man of about thirty, carrying a plastic bag of produce, pulled the lever on the bulk bin of chocolate covered peanuts, dumping a large serving into his hand. He flashed me a bright smile and ate from his handful as I stared at him, giving him the “WTF?” look, too startled to speak. We made eye contact. He smiled again and swaggered on up the aisle toward frozen foods, munching away. I put my bag of pecans in my cart and proceeded to get walnuts. A skinny teenaged boy with stylishly eccentric glasses walked up and grabbed a yogurt-coated pretzel from a bin and began to eat. This time I found my voice.
“Does everyone do this? You’re the second person in five minutes to just take stuff and eat it.”
He smiled and walked away. I once saw a little girl furtively sneak one raisin from a bulk bin at the same store. She realized I saw her, and she ducked her head, apparently feeling guilty.
The guys’ smiles bothered me more than the petty theft. I told myself it must have been a study with actors playing the role of thieves, and someone was watching, observing how others reacted. I didn’t want this to be normal. They looked right at me and assumed my complicity and approval. It reminded me of the way colleagues at a job I had way back in the early eighties would look around, see that all the employees in the break room were white—you can tell the look—and then make a racist joke. I would get up and walk out, telling them it was not okay with me. Racism is a huge wrong. Stealing a pretzel, pretty small. Assuming everyone agrees with you is troubling in both cases, because you think you’re not violating moral norms.
While I was on my way home Sunday, I stopped for gas in Socorro at exactly the moment the sunset was at its most spectacular. Orange and purple in the west, pink in the east, and pink and orange in the north layered with thin, swirly, magenta wisps. Above was a ceiling of pink clouds. A woman in the parking lot of the gas station was taking pictures. I walked all over the lot and into the space next to the adjoining business, seeking the best view of the clouds and the mountains. When I finally went in to pay for gas, it was hard to let go of the beauty for even a few minutes. The picture-taker urged the young woman minding the store to come out and look at the miracle. She did, but she couldn’t linger. After all, sad to say, someone might go in and steal something.