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My Daughter's First Crime

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"Was he a bad man?" my four-year-old daughter Elly asked after witnessing her first heist.

We had been walking along 53rd Street when a wild-eyed man in rags sitting on the sidewalk outside the Hyde Park Bank asked us for change. I have a lot of reasons for not giving beggars money. The one that sprang to mind this time was that Elly was underdressed for the cold and we had to rush into the bank building to get warm. I know I pulled her arm a little harder when we passed the man.

I don't think Elly judged his appearance as sharply as I did. Her reference for people in rags comes from the first half of the Cinderella story. Last week, when a friend of ours was over, Elly asked me to tie a kerchief in her hair. She told our guest that she was playing Cinderella, then took a dish towel, got down on all fours, and began humming and wiping the floor. If I told her the beggar was waiting for his fairy godmother to change him into a prince, she'd be delighted. When she asked me why the man was so dirty, I said he probably didn't have a washing machine. Part of me is very protective of my daughter's fairy tales. I'd like her to hold on to the idea that rags can conceal a Cinderella (or Cinderfella) within.

Through the bank's lobby is a glass door to Katsaros Pharmacy, a small family-run shop. I had just used the bank's cash machine and was folding money into my wallet when Elly pulled on my sleeve. "Dad," she said, pointing through the door, "the man's in the store." The beggar was hunched behind the shelves, out of view of the pharmacists. With one arm, he scooped the contents of an entire section of a shelf into his coat. A theft. By the time I walked through the door, the man had already made his way to the street side of the store. "Sir," I yelled, sending him dashing with the goods into the street. By the time I called to the pharmacist, the man was well down the block. A clerk who took off after him said he had disappeared.

While the adults discussed the theft--the man had taken about 20 boxes of roll-on deodorant--Elly began pulling at my sleeve again, asking "What happened, what happened, what happened?" I bought her some bubble gum. I thought maybe the owner would thank me for my effort, but he was too disgusted with the event and seemed to blame me for yelling out. A more quiet approach, he suggested, would have nabbed the bum. I asked him why he hadn't called the police. A squad car had just pulled up at a restaurant across the street. "Ah," he said with some spite, "they're never there when you need 'em."

Elly held my hand tightly on the walk home. "Why did that man take stuff?" she asked.

"I don't know. Probably because he's not a nice guy," I said.

"Why isn't he nice?" Elly wondered, with some fear in her voice.

I figured I could either make this a lesson on the wrongs of stealing, or try the harder tack of explaining why thefts happen. Law and order, or mercy and understanding. Then there was the fact that we had walked by the man minutes before the theft and refused his request for help. If I took the merciful, understanding approach, Elly might want to know why I hadn't given him money. My own, after all, had just come out of a machine with the touch of a few buttons. "He's not nice," I said, "because he stole what did not belong to him." A mild gesture toward traditional values. A debunking of the Cinderella within.

"What does 'stole' mean?" she asked. This was either a very hard question or a simple one.

"It's another way of saying 'steal,'" I told her.

"Oh, stealing. I know what that is." Elly paused and made a confused, sickened face, as if she'd just been offered a whole plate of anchovies. "Is he a bad man?" she asked. "Will he come to our house?" Plenty of bad men and women fill the Brothers Grimm, and they usually get children where they live. Elly, I realized, had dealt with the evil in fairy tales, too.

"No, he won't come near us," I said. "He's already very far away."

"What's going to happen to him?" she wondered.

"The police will get him, and he'll be in jail tonight," I told her. Another fairy tale.

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