he asks me for a cup of ice and i oblige. it’s cold outside, finally, with the wind chill leaving the temperature in the teens. i wouldn’t kick anyone out anyway, but with the weather like this anyone who wants to spend a few minutes in the warm and calm ambience of a coffee shop has my blessing. he lingers nervously. i’m not sure when the exact moment was, but at some point during my end of the night cleaning process he took the whole tall, thick glass vase and all of its contents, probably around $20, out the door with him.
after the initial frustration, the letting loose of more than a few curse words, i calm myself. i try to remember my politics. i try to remember my relative class privilege and the (overheated) room where i’ll lay my head tonight. i try to remember the systems.
he probably needed it much more than i do.
for the poor and working classes, theft is a radical act of wealth redistribution. we are raised to believe that low-income and houseless folks have brought their state upon themselves by not working hard enough, by not being smart or savvy enough. we are raised to ignore the acts of theft, the acts of exploitation that produce a society in which some people have thousands of times more money than any one person could ever need in a lifetime while some are forced to sleep on the streets in the dead of winter. for a person in such a position to take something back, to do the work of surviving in a society that has left them for dead is an affirmative and powerful act.
and, this is par for the course in capitalist society. the same systems keep me employed, fed, clothed, housed and him without these things. we have to accept that the uneven distribution of wealth and private property means that sometimes we will have things stolen from us, sometimes we will be mugged. because for some people this is the only viable option. nobody is doing it for fun.
still, it troubles me, how embattled we are. or, rather, how embattled we are against one another and not the folks who are exploiting us. my co-worker jokes that the right thing to do would have been to come in and rob the business, not to steal tips from someone who does not belong to the petit bourgeois, the management class, the ranks of the wealthy. i cringe a little, but to some extent it makes sense.
i recall how giddily i watched as a man at the 7-11 across the street from me stuffed a pillowcase with dozens and dozens of pints of ben and jerry’s. i have no idea what he possibly could have been doing with that much ice cream. i just stood and stared, as did the employees at the opposite end of the store, as he dropped them in one by one. when he finished his work, he sprinted out of the shop and into the cold night. the employees shrugged, debated calling the police, and ultimately decided not to. why subject someone to that when it wouldn’t change their status as the exploited workers of a multi-million dollar corporation? why call in members of a classist, racist institution to take down another one of our black brothers? it was one of the most beautiful things i’ve witnessed in all of my time as a brooklyn resident. a radical shrug, a revolutionary act of indifference.
of course, the city is peppered with such acts of resistance, but on a larger scale the status quo remains. and, i suppose all of this is to say it frustrates me that we have so little choice but to take from one another. it frustrates me that if donald trump had a tip jar, it’d be guarded by a line of police who could shoot you with impunity if you stepped anywhere near it. it frustrates me that it is always the folks who have the least who give the most, while the upper classes clutch their wealth greedily. it frustrates me that our precarity and the quotidian exhaustion of attempting to survive neoliberal capitalism keeps us locked in cycles of taking from one another, cycles of recalling and forgetting the thieves at the top who’ve made this world such a ruthless place.