Late last Friday night, a man named Larry stole my purse. I had carelessly left it on a stool in Caffrey’s as I danced happily among my friends a couple of feet away, glancing back every minute or two to check on it. Larry, whose name was unbeknownst to me at the time, approached our group and began dancing with us. Assuming he was a typical “bar creeper,” my friends and I politely steered clear but didn’t think anything more of his presence. Ten minutes later, Larry sprinted out, and my yellow handbag was naught to be seen again.
But Larry was. Indeed, no less than 20 minutes after I arrived at the DPS office (conveniently right next door), Larry decided it was a bright idea to walk back down 16th Street. He had with him my cell phone, cash, pepper spray and gum (I guess he wanted minty fresh breath as much as I do), but my keys, debit card, license, lip gloss and a variety of other items were gone.
A friend of mine once had all of her belongings stolen from her car and told me it was the best thing that ever happened to her. And even as I continue to deal with the hassles of ordering new debit cards, scheduling court dates to argue my parking tickets (issued since I couldn’t move my car) and receiving a temporary driver’s license from Missouri via fax, I can’t help but think that maybe there is something to that statement. Having all of your most important belongings taken in the blink of an eye and still being perfectly okay means I’ve got it pretty good, I’d say. And I can’t say the same for Larry.
I don’t want to make any presumptions about the guy, but I think it’s safe to say that I don’t envy his life right now. When he was apprehended, he wasn’t talking straight, fumbling over his words and refusing to admit he had stolen anything despite being covered in other people’s possessions. According to the DPS officers, Larry was caught a few weeks ago stealing bikes around campus, and he had tickets for theft and public drinking on him when MPD arrived and administered a full search.
By no means am I justifying his actions, but Larry and I grew up in different worlds. I have never looked at a purse and felt the slightest inkling of need. I have never been without friends and family supporting me and helping me form my moral compass, and since I was four years old, I have never not been receiving a quality education to help me succeed. When anyone finds her or himself in a position of having to steal to get by, I have to believe that she or he has lost – or perhaps has never known – that internal sense of self-dignity that I have grown up cultivating. And that’s a tragedy.
When the police asked me if I wanted to press charges, I didn’t really see much of a point. The officer, trying to be helpful, suggested that if anything, pressing charges would ensure that there were a few days he was off the streets not endangering other people. And that’s true. But a few days or months in prison isn’t going to help Larry. He is trapped in a cycle, and I have spent the past week wracking my brain trying to figure out how I could help him break that cycle if given the chance. Offer to go for a walk with him every morning? Get coffee together once in a while? Help him find employment? Anything to hand him back that sense of dignity.
We have a unique opportunity here at this Jesuit university to see these kinds of problems and ask these kinds of questions. And we are living in a unique time in our lives in which we can compile our creativity and seek solutions that have previously gone uncovered. How can we reform our educational system, our prison system, our justice system? How can we actually help criminals like Larry instead of merely disciplining them? These are noble and idealistic goals, but then again, all you have to do is look around and know that we can do better than what we’ve got.
Whether you are a freshman or a senior, it is never too early to think about these things, to understand justice as something that transcends punishment. I know for myself, I will begin my senior year keenly aware of my own blessings and newly awake to the possibilities that lie before us.