When I was small, I realized a very important facet of my station as a fully-dependent human child: I was not the master of my own fate. My eating, sleeping, bathing times and locations were entirely regulated, along with the clothes I wore, the foods I ate, and the people with whom I was allowed to visit. I was basically a tiny prisoner in some posh minimum-security facility, like a diminutive swanky corporate tax evader or miniature ponzi schemer.

Nobody told me this: I just figured it out. After all, the evidence was overwhelming. For instance, I had no desire to clad my lower half in rust-brown Toughskins pants with knees so reinforced they made me look like an elementary-school robot made of corduroy.

And turtlenecks. Fucking turtlenecks. Every kid wearing a turtleneck looks like they’re being Raleigh St. Clair for Halloween, and no kid is ever being Raleigh St. Clair for Halloween, and do you know why? Because no kid has ever heard of Raleigh St. Clair. Additionally, for the whole day, it feels like maybe you are coming down with a sore throat — a sort of gentle squeezing all day long (or, as the brilliant and departed comedian Mitch Hedberg said, “like you’re being choked by a really weak guy”). I did not choose and would not have chosen that ensemble. I wanted to wear flouncy dresses and sparkly cowboy boots. Sadly, my father had determined that dressing like a Barbie would make my brain stop growing, so really, the Toughskins were for my own protection.

Also, I simply could not comprehend the produce section of the grocery store. I was forbidden from helping myself to the fruit. Nary a nibble. It was all piled up and just lying there! I was confounded. Why were they there, if not to be eaten? And when — at last — I was allowed to consume fruit, cookies, sliced cheese, or ice cream, access was tightly controlled. In fact, I deduced that there was an inverse relationship between the delectability of a food and the number of those items I was allowed to consume. It made no sense.

Not only could I not choose the foods I’d eat, how much of them I could eat, or even the time at which I could eat them, I could not even choose the manner in which I ate them. I’ve long held a suspicion that every human, in privacy, eats like a dingo. This is no indictment of anyone’s character nor an admonition of human nature — to the contrary! I think it’s marvelous, and a truly natural response to what happens when you place, say, a handful of Doritos or a mouthful of chocolate chips against the 1,200,000 taste receptor cells bristling in sensorial anticipation all over the surface of your tongue. When you think about it, it’s really mystifying that more people don’t immediately orgasm or pass out with every first bite of lobster or creme brulee. What a wacky delight fine dining would be!

But I, elementary school droiduroy, was firmly commanded to eat slowly, chew carefully, and eschew the gulping of water between bites in favor of small sips, lest I “fill up on water.” Parents, I want you to know something, and I speak to you now as a former kid: no kid is ever filling up on water. You just made barbeque chicken legs again, and your kid doesn’t think it’s possible to choke another one down. Unless your kid is knocking back half-gallons of H2O during supper, the problem isn’t too much water. The problem is your terrible food.

The first several years of my life were spent in Juneau, Alaska. Food was very expensive there. A gallon of milk was four times as much money in Juneau as it was “down south” (the lower 48 contiguous United States). This drove a kind of angst-powered thriftiness in my parents and can likely be credited for their ensuing food choices. For example: powdered milk. It wasn’t just less expensive than a human heart, but also was shelf stable! A miracle! Cheap, and it never went bad, really, because it started out bad. If you haven’t yet consumed powdered milk, buy some and try it out: it’s so extraordinarily ghastly that it’s sincerely worth experiencing. It’s not often something so abjectly vile is survivable. (Oddly, it’s pretty tasty in baked goods. I don’t know how that works, either. Chemistry!) My favorite thing about it is throwing it away.

I was forced, by the absence of any other option, to consume powdered milk with my morning cereal. My morning cereal, when it existed, was usually Cheerios. I hated both things, and I hated them together even more than I hated them individually: a kind of perfect inversion of the “whole is greater than the sum of its parts” axiom. Cheerios and Carnation powdered milk together were the supernadir of foods. Because the breakfast options in my house were execrable, I did what any logical human child would do. I burglarized the neighbors.

I’m telling you this now because I’ve realized it’s come into fashion to cop to one’s youthful indiscretions in a candid and wry way. Also, it’s occurred to me that several neighborhood families might still be feuding over crimes that I, in fact, committed. I believe I have grown and matured as a person since my criminal endeavors from ages 5-8, and am ready to face the music. Also, I can afford the groceries, now, so the timing felt right to put this out there.

It really started with my bologna obsession. I know everyone is using the words “obsessed,” “amazing,” and “literally” to mean everything from “really good,” to “have a nice weekend, Carl,” but I mean obsession when I say obsession. Miriam-Webster defines “obsession” as: “a persistent disturbing preoccupation with an often unreasonable idea or feeling. Broadly: compelling motivation.” I definitely had a persistent disturbing preoccupation with bologna. It was a very compelling motivation. Whether or not you believe this is unreasonable I think is up for discussion, and terrifically dependent on whether or not you’ve had a bologna and American cheese sandwich on smooshy white bread. If you haven’t, go make one now, and come back to this essay when you’re qualified to truly participate. I don’t think it will make sense, otherwise.

I had only experienced bologna at church picnics, in one school hot-lunch menu item, and at other peoples’ houses. I was wild with desire to have it again, having determined it to be the best tasting food item I had ever experienced. I assumed, based on this fact, that bologna was another food to be meted out with the same pinched parsimony applied to grapes, cookies, and liquid milk. I began to hanker.

Every kid knows how to hanker: childhood is approximately 30 percent hankering, actually (coming in right behind sleeping and right above fart-related activities). We get so much practice doing it in our early years, starting with waking our caregivers in our hankering for milk (and it’s liquid then, fuckers, why would you mess with such a successful and established format?), leading to hankering for one additional graham cracker at snack time and one more orange slice at soccer practice. By the time I was 5, I was practically a professional hankerer.

I’ll have you know that I’m basically what most people would call a “good person,” which presently means I don’t pick fights with cops, I generally observe most laws, I care about other people in intangible (I feel for their feelings) and tangible ways (I chose to get vaccinated and don’t pee on toilet seats), as much as I’m able. I’m proud to say that I never steal anything.

Not anymore.

Just in case you’re waiting with anime’-style sparkly eyes for the ethical fable of my personal transformation, there was no come-to-a-deity moment. I just got older and started paying for things. Not entirely or consistently in that order. This story is about what happened before that.

My career in commercial theft was appallingly brief and unproductive: it was simply too risky in my tiny island town for me to pilfer from one of the two food stores. Not to mention Pammy Mitchell (not her real name because she could snap me like a twig), the cashier at Hammer & Wikan store, a woman with such prognostic ability when kids were about to steal something that I firmly believe she could smell bad intentions. Don’t come at me with science facts: If dogs can smell cancer, a middle-aged human cashier can smell fear-sweat combined with Snickers lust.

My career in property crime, however, was both more lasting and more profitable.

It started in Kindergarten, where I discovered everyone else’s lunch boxes held much better lunches than my own. In fairness to me, I made this discovery after standing alone in the corner of the class interminably, while the teacher and other kids played outside. l was being punished (not for the first time) for a false accusation made by my nemesis, Paige. Paige was the cutest girl ever made, with perfect curled ponytails adorned with curled ribbons matching her dress, just like Nelly from Little House on the Prairie. Paige told on me for such fantastic things: I wish, in hindsight, that I’d done more of them.

This particular day I was in the clink because I’d used my middle finger at Paige while playing “witch” during freetime. I had indeed pointed at Paige with my middle finger, but I had no idea what that meant, other than “this is my longest finger.” This was not interesting to my teacher, who had already heard such a long list of my sins that she didn’t even ask me for an explanation anymore. She just pointed into the corner, and off I went to test the endurance of my Hush Puppies.

After a while, I realized that recess was many minutes long, and no one could see if I got out of the corner. So, naturally, I started poking around Paige’s cubby. Her Holly Hobbie lunch box was just sitting there, like a teeny Gingerbread Cottage. I’d say I tried to resist the witchy appeal, but I didn’t. (And if I was Hansel or Gretel, I would have been a portly witch dinner faster than you can say “goody goody gumdrops.” I did not suffer from an excess of restraint.) Paige’s lunchbox always had at least one phenomenal treat, like an entire cupcake, or homemade brownies. On this particular day, it was — I shit you not— a tiny Tupperware container full of buttercream frosting and a neat stack of graham crackers. It was out of my sincere compassionate commitment to humanity — including the parts of humanity that indicted me for using my middle finger to cast spells in kindergarten — that I only ate half of Paige’s graham crackers and frosting treat. And maybe a small dash of time constraint. But mostly compassionate commitment to humanity. I stole bits of Paige’s treats for the entire Kindergarten year, as well as occasionally swapping her sandwich for mine, and inserting my carrot sticks into her lunch (which was really a wash, since the carrots ended up in the trash, either way).

In first grade, living in a new house, I befriended Skippy (not his real name, but seriously, his real name was even more like a lesser Gilligan’s Island cast member), a shaggy-headed neighbor boy who also held the distinction of owning the first non-familial set of genitals I saw. I agreed to the classic “you show me yours” entreaty, and then filched once I saw his weird little penis, politely muttering “no thank you,” and disembarking the closet, closing it behind me whilst he was (presumably) adjusting his trousers and his understanding of my trustworthiness. Skippy’s mom bought the absolute best food I had ever seen. Their house was like Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, only instead of disgusting chocolate, it was full of things like Lay’s Potato Chips, Wonder Bread, Miracle Whip, both Velveeta and Kraft American Cheese Slices, and — most importantly — bologna. In spite of the Skippy peen incident I spent as much time as possible at Skippy’s house, attempting to insinuate myself into any adjacent meal or snack time.

While I was often able to time my arrival serendipitously, I missed delicious gustatory opportunities often enough that I was inspired to undertake more virgous clandestine efforts. On one such occasion, I clambered out my bedroom window after dark because I knew Skippy’s family was having Manwich Sloppy Joes for dinner. From a can. With melted Velveeta on top. What ambrosia. Yes, I got in trouble for disappearing after dark, but I honestly don’t remember how much or what kind, because my memory is so dominated by how good those gooey, sweet, savory blobs of joy tasted (or maybe it’s trauma? Either way — Manwich under the bridge). Looking back at it, this was likely the gateway endeavor to my future life of crime.

At the end of the school year, Skippy went to a summer program while his parents continued to work. At first, I was devastated — an endless summer of stewed tomatoes and homemade wheat bread stretched doggedly and inexorably in front of me. Maybe there’d be church picnics, I reassured myself. Maybe there’d be a new kid in the neighborhood with parents as nutritionally reckless as Skippy’s. At some point in my desperate ruminations, it occurred to me that although Skippy and his family weren’t home anymore, their food was.

This was a revelation.

If Skippy’s family would give me the food when they were home, I reasoned, there was really nothing wrong with me having it when they were not home. I was simply enjoying a meal with them, but by myself. In my inchoate, blobby, largely amoral prefrontal cortex, I decided that this was probably okay with Skippy’s family. It was definitely not okay with mine, so I decided to keep my conclusions regarding the commutative property of bologna sharing to myself. And so it was that I began a daily campaign of letting myself into Skippy’s house via the sliding glass doors (preferably, since you couldn’t see them from the street), or the front door, if the sliding doors were locked, and raiding their refrigerator. It is likely telling that I made efforts to be covert.

I want you to know, upstanding reader who has probably never stolen bologna from a neighbor, that I never stole dessert items, snacks, or leftovers — even when it was lasagna. I feel like I deserve some modicum of credit for my restraint. But the ugly truth is that I did completely decimate their bologna and American cheese population. I would stand in their dark kitchen (it seemed wrong to turn their lights on), lit only by the gentle lambent glow of the refrigerator bulb, and methodically peel slices of bologna from the plastic tub, then peel the plastic from the American cheese, layer them, then roll them into a tube. I would then dip the roll into the Miracle Whip container, and consume the entire cylinder. I was careful not to eat all of the bologna or cheese, typically leaving around a third of whatever was in the package when I arrived.

I never snooped around the rest of their house: I wasn’t there for the rogue Penthouse under a bed or secret treasure map behind the ubiquitous painting of a cabin on a river. I didn’t try on Mrs. Skippy’s lipstick, nor bounce on Mr. Skippy’s twin bed. I came for the bologna.

Then, we moved from Juneau to Petersburg, and my career in coldcut larceny came to a close.

I had no idea what I’d done was unusual until I was much older and was spending the night with my friend Mali Christensen. Her mom, Neva, was basically a steel-spined saint: their pantry was filled with gustatory marvels such as Fruity Pebbles (I’d never even had one single Fruity Pebble, prior to sleeping over at Mali’s place, let alone a whole bowl full), Lucky Charms (this is a breakfast cereal with marshmallows in it, for the love of breakfast), and Cup Noodles, which I would soon discover was the best food in the entire world, next to beef jerky and bologna. Neva’s rule? Eat what you wanted, when you wanted, until you were full. Between mixing-bowl-sized portions of Lucky Charms (marshmallows!) I told Mali about the food rules at my house. She was flabbergasted. “My mom just says to clean up after myself,” she offered, matter-of-factly, as if that explained the vast divergence between both our pantries and our pantry rules. So I asked Mali if she’d ever gone into anyone else’s house and gotten a snack. Mali said sure she had — whenever she played at someone’s house they would usually have a snack, just her and the other kid. It became apparent, as we discussed it further, that Mali had definitely not burgled anyone else’s larder.

I felt bad. I never stole food from anyone again, although I was briefly a suspect in the theft of the sanctified communion wafers at St. Catherine’s Catholic Church because of my presence in the rectory as a volunteer. Father Gorgeous (yep, real name) questioned me about the missing wafers and wine — which unfortunately had already become flesh and blood — and decided I was innocent, possibly because of the look of utter perplexity on my face as I wondered why anyone on earth would want to eat more than one of those miserable, weird wafers. This was twenty years before everyone stopped eating gluten, so I had no idea what one might reimagine as “palatable” under the right circumstances. I did always wonder why the body of the son of God would taste like packing popcorn. In the end, I didn’t really need an alibi because the other suspects were JP Kirby and Ben Gross, and they were the ones who did everything naughty. Plus, they bragged it up at the movie theater. It was a scandal. Meanwhile I, multi-larcenous food-thief with significantly more flesh and blood — while from a comparably ignominious source — walked away scot-free. It should be noted that I was absolutely certain that Father Gorgeous knew that although I hadn’t stolen the communion wafers, I had stolen something.

It is my fondest hope that, once I moved to Petersburg and the bologna depletion stopped at Skippy’s house, the family sort of gently concluded I had been helping myself to their lunch supplies. But in case they didn’t, and you’re out there Skippy, living a life under the weight of a false accusation of excessive bologna consumption, I am truly sorry, and will happily reimburse you in Oscar Meyer case lots, should you desire it. You have only to ask.


David Syring

about 3 years ago

You are killing me, Anna!  This paragraph is pure gold:

"Every kid knows how to hanker: childhood is approximately 30 percent hankering, actually (coming in right behind sleeping and right above fart-related activities). We get so much practice doing it in our early years, starting with waking our caregivers in our hankering for milk (and it’s liquid then, fuckers, why would you mess with such a successful and established format?), leading to hankering for one additional graham cracker at snack time and one more orange slice at soccer practice. By the time I was 5, I was practically a professional hankerer."

Thanks for the laughter and story--I needed it today!

Shane Bauer

about 3 years ago

(May have spent as much time on this comment as you spent on this essay, and all I can come up with is fantastic). 
Thank you!

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