I was standing in a bustling newsstand gift shop at Charlotte Douglas International Airport, debating between a bullet of roasted salted cashews and some newfangled, all-natural power bar, when I saw it. Or, more accurately, I saw him. In fact, the disheveled fellow traveler and I locked eyes…at the very moment he was stuffing a candy bar into the pocket of his wrinkled khaki pants.
I guessed he was in his mid-thirties, with shaggy dirty blond hair, a ruddy complexion, and pale blue eyes. He stood at five foot nine, maybe, but he was hunched over slightly in the way that people who wear loafy running shoes with wrinkled khaki pants often are. His striped collared shirt was unbuttoned over a white T-shirt, both of which were un-tucked but cinched to his body beneath one strap of a saggy, neutral-toned backpack.
In that single moment—me, body frozen, staring in bewilderment; him, body frozen, lips open to draw a breath of unease—I inadvertently stabbed the adrenaline-filled balloon that had begun to lift him off the ground. His sneakers slumped softly onto the tile floor, the wan anticipation of a cheap thrill squashed, shame by stranger, in zero-point-five seconds. Game Over.
I turned swiftly and retreated behind a corner, out of sight. I pretended to look at a mosaic of gaudy refrigerator magnets; my heart was racing. I was excited in the way that many people are when they witness a failed sobriety test in action beneath a disco of blue and red lights. He almost got away with it! But he didn’t! I wondered if the man thought I’d rat him out to security; I wouldn’t, not for the sake of a buck fifty, at least. It wasn’t as if he was attempting to abscond with rare artwork or a jeweled necklace, items whose loss would likely affect the greater good or the bottom line. Besides, I’d narrowly avoided this sort of scenario myself once, as a surly teenager with something to prove. Now I had a plane to catch. My silence was inevitable.
However, the perp couldn’t bank on that. I heard the hurried crinkling of plastic being pushed back into a crowded display, and no sooner had he whisked awkwardly through the aisle than the throngs of humanity clogging the terminal swallowed him whole.
Cravings quashed, I paid for a bottle of water and reflected on a flurry of thoughts that swirled beneath a fluorescent glow. Had this middle-aged loser been successful elsewhere today? If not, would he try again soon? Or would he heed this incident as some sort of Karmic Get Out Of Jail Free card? I would bet my exit-row window seat that he had more than two dollars in that backpack. Winona Ryder probably had much more than that when she was busted for five-finger discounting at Saks Fifth Avenue, and, years later, at CVS. Petty theft is not usually spurred by a lack of money; everyone knows that.
I walked to my gate, where weary journeyers encroached upon the courtesy counter, boarding passes in hand. Exasperation guided every impatient wristwatch glance. And that’s when I saw him, propped against a concrete column nearby: the scamp I had shoved, accidentally and unceremoniously, from the Shoplifter’s Emotional Tightrope. He didn’t acknowledge me, and I didn’t expect him to. His eyes were turned solemnly toward the dusty carpet, yet I could tell: he was hungry still.