On my way to an interview for a volunteer knitting teacher position, I stopped at (you guessed it) a coffee shop to (you guessed it) write.
As I settled into a window seat, an older woman sat down at the table next to mine. She reminded me of my Russian grandmother, with her hair parted down the middle and collected loosely at the nape of her neck in a bobby-pinned bun. She had stature, but her too-big clothes made her look small. A peasant skirt with a diminutive flower print billowed below her knees, and an asymmetrically cut blue cotton vest covered her hips and hung sadly off her shoulders. Both hands cradled her white coffee cup, as if for warmth, although it was temperate outside and toasty inside. She looked around furtively.
I stood up to get my drink when the barista beckoned, and she happened to stand up at the same time, took one of three travel mugs off an adjacent shelf, and put it on her table. By the time I came back to my table with my iced green tea with extra ice, safely ensconced in its cardboard sleeve to prevent condensation from dripping onto my laptop, the travel mug on her table was gone.
I instinctively looked back at the shelf from whence it came, thinking, “she must have decided not to buy it.” But there were still only two mugs left. And the navy blue Longchamps tote that sat on her table had a big bulge in it.
“Oh my gosh!” I thought, “She just brazenly stuck that in her bag!” She saw me staring at her. She looked flustered and looked down, but quickly up again, and said “Excuse me, can you work outside? I mean, are there plugs for computers?” Well played, I thought. Diversion. Distraction.
“Um, I’m not sure. I don’t think so,” I said, looking out, as if for outlets, in the small courtyard. “But that’s a good question.” Really, Diane? Complimenting her?
I shut up and sat down and went back to work, wondering if I should tell the manager. Make a citizen’s arrest? Mind my own business? While I pondered these options, she got up and hauled her bulky Longchamps bag out to a large silver SUV and drove away.
This moral crisis broke my concentration. Should I have said something? Say something now? She was parked right in the small lot in front of the store; surely there was a security camera out there. But what if I was wrong, and there were only two mugs on the shelf originally (I knew there were three), and the bump in her bag was an umbrella (it was really sunny out)? I imagined them hunting her down. Humiliating her with arrest, prosecution, and conviction. What if she just really wanted the travel mug as a gift for someone and couldn’t afford it? Or suffered from some kind of mental illness? I was responsible neither for store security nor for policing the town.
But, I thought, stealing is not OK, period. If she had, in fact, taken it, she hurt the coffee shop, its employees, and its customers. Not outing her was condoning her behavior. Maybe she needed help, and getting caught would get her closer to it.
I looked around to see if anyone else had noticed what had happened, but only I seem conflicted.
This week the Jewish community observes the highest holy day of the year. We fast (well, some of us fast) and spend the day reflecting on our actions over the past year, particularly those that may have caused harm to others. We repent our sins and think about how we might do things differently in the year to come. It’s a good practice and one that I, at least, ought to do more than once a year.
So my question is, in this one small moment of the year, in this one small incident, between the two of us, who ought to repent? The accused, or the one who sat idly by and let the presumed crime occur?