Wednesday, February 15, 2012

A decision to come...

An answer I haven’t found     “You can’t tell anyone I told you,” said S.,  one of the black barbers on his cell phone from his barber shop across the street. Although it was early in the morning before the other men took their stations, he had seen that I was the only one at my store. “You’ve been good to me and my family,” he said, “ so I felt I had to tell you.‘

More than a year ago, S. had been released from prison for a relatively minor offense. He’d been a fearsome bully, quick to intimidate, unlike any of his siblings; his mother and I had often talked about how to get him to change. Although she’d regretted that his going to prison was his last best hope, she told me that she’d prayed that it would save him from a life of crime.

It seemed to have worked. S. had become religious, wanted to study to become a counselor for other young men who put themselves in harm’s way. When he was released for good behavior, he asked me to trust him, to let him have a charge account. Admittedly, I was hesitant, but I did it. And he’s handled it responsively.

That’s why I wasn’t surprised by his call. One of the barbers had a cousin in a similar situation. Just out of prison, he, Jay, wanted to work, would do almost anything to earn a few bucks and stay out of prison. When I could, I gave him tasks that might have seemed menial to some, but were important to him. He, Jay, wanted to prove himself to me.

And he did. As a relative to one of S.’s cohorts, Jay was being monitored, as if her were a ward of the neighborhood. Others on the block also gave him odd jobs; he seemed a tireless worker with lots of personality.

That’s why I was saddened and surprised when S. told me that Jay had been stealing clothes from my store. In fact, I didn’t want to believe it; he and I were getting along so well. We seemed to have built a working relationship. Always, I regarded him with respect, was generous when I paid him for his labor.

Stealing from me had been the last thing I’d anticipated. Although I wanted to believe S. was wrong, I knew that S. had no reason to lie about Jay’s behavior. I decided to confront Jay the next time I saw him. Usually, that meant waiting a few hours; this time it was a few days because I left town shortly after S. delivered his message.

“Jay came in while you were gone,” my manager told me. “I thought I saw him take something, a very large sized leather jacket. So I followed him and saw him go into the beauty parlor next door. That’s when he pulled out the jacket.”

Rather than confront Jay, my manager waited two days until I returned to tell me so that I would deal with Jay.

And I did. I asked Jay if there was anything he wanted to tell me, if there was anything that he wanted to clear his mind about.

“No, there’s nothing,” he said.

“Are you sure?”

When he denied any wrongdoing with an expression more serious than any I had seen previously, I mentioned that he’d been seen with a jacket that wasn’t his.

“Who told you that?” He sounded indignant. “I’ll find out,” he said, in an ominous tone.

As much as I wanted to believe him, I was unconvinced.

Acting like a frontier sheriff, I delivered what seemed a verdict, one that was bolstered by evidence that was only heresay.

“Don’t come in my store again,” I told him. “I can’t trust you in there.”

As difficult as that was to say, I felt I had to do it. He seemed more angry than hurt. I walked away.

Gradually, after not seeing him for almost a week, I wondered whether I should change my mind about him, whether I should give him a second chance. If not, I knew I might have to do much of the work he ususally did.

Who could I talk to about it? How could I explain that it bothered me that I wasn’t 100% certain? I didn’t like being judge and jury? What if I was wrong?

While lost in those thoughts, a painter I often use had come to see me, had come to ask for any kind of work. Or so I thought. He was laid off and his situation was dire. Unfortunately, I hear that from many who are unemployed. In the case of my painter, I knew it was true. His parents, a very responsible older couple (the painter is in his late forties), had explained his hardships. Their son, the painter, had been living with them. He still had expenses they couldn’t (or wouldn’t) cover.

Now he was sitting in a chair across the counter from me. “Can we talk?” he said.

I fugred he wanted an advance for work he hadn’t done despite an agreement that he wouldn’t do that. Instead, he surprised me.

“I saw Jay yesterday,” he told me. “I asked him point blank if he’d stolen anything from you.”

I listened intently, amazed that he may have gotten an answer to a question so simialr to the one I had asked.

“He told me he had. But that he’d only taken one coat.”

Following that incredible confirmation, the painter left. He’d told me that he had asked Jay why Jay was so stupid.

There hadn’t been an answer.

I wanted to tell S. and my manager that I’d received corroroboration, that Jay was guilty. But they already knew that. Even if I were to find a way to involve them in a conversatiuon, I know that they’d ask me what I was going to do about it.

Alone, I’ll have to wrestle with that answer.

B.Koplen  2/15/12

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