safe and sound and torn in two

by bam

the bag is home now. is nestled at the top of the stairs, off where no one can see it through a window. it felt safer that way.
so did i.
that bag had quite a chase last night. three blocks through streets, a gravel parking lot, a long alley. for awhile there i was hot on its trail, just a half a block behind. then in the gravel lot beside a bank, it went one way; i, the other.
or maybe i was just too slow. when i came through, onto the sidewalk on a busy street, when i yelled, did anyone see a guy running with a flowered backpack, all i got was hunched shoulders, a collective shrug.
no one saw a thing.
that’s when the cops came screeching to the curb, yelled to me to get in, and we chased some more. darn red-flowered bag. made it kind of hard to hide, eyes everywhere were peeled, looking for the child’s backpack with the big red flowers.
guns drawn, flashlights combing shadowed nooks and crannies, that’s how policemen seem to look for things. they wouldn’t let me out, and all i could think, was, oh, my mom, and T, the little one, they must be scared to death, back at soup kitchen.
that’s where it all had started. back at the big church kitchen where we always cook. every third sunday of the month, there we are. been doing it going on five years. i always stash my bag atop the freezer, not too far, i realize now, from the locked back door.
what happened is i got there early. decided this time to do some cooking from whatever was sitting in the fridge. i was alone for quite a while. my mom came later, and near 6, my 6-year-old. he got hungry around 6:30, still half an hour before we fed the folks. i made him a little plate of things he might actually eat, the corn, the stewed apples, a roll with pbj. my mom was hungry too. she made a little bowl of the stew bubbling on the stove.
since i was ready, since there was nothing left to do, except wait for the big clock to slide to 7, when they’d let the hungry in, i decided to leave my post for just a minute. to be hospitable instead of busy, to sit with the two early diners, my mom and T.
soon as i sat, i heard my mom call into the kitchen, “hello.” someone just walked through, she said. so up i leapt to see if i could help.
not a soul was there. and then i saw, neither was my bag. i went straight for the door, saw someone running with what i thought looked like my bag. hard to miss those big red flowers. i ran and yelled. hey drop that, you’ve got my bag.
when i rounded the corner, i saw some folks, did you just see a guy with a bag? uh huh they said, and pointed toward the street that ran along the tracks.
i ran too. running, yelling. one guy in a white mercedes wagon even made a U turn to chase him in the gravel lot. someone along the way must have called police. someone saw him close enough to say, later on, that’s him.
all i knew was i was chasing navy pants, and a navy-grayish top. and a flowered bag that wasn’t his.
what happened next is we thought we’d lost him cold. they finally drove me back to the soup kitchen where it started, where my little one was sobbing, and my mama rather shaking.
then the cops came back, said we picked up someone who matches the description, you need to come for ID. so in we slid, into the back seat, me, my mom and T. he was shaking to my left, my mom and i squeezed hands on the right. this is not why we spend the week planning menus.
the police pulled up to a leafy corner. there against the fence was a guy in jeans and a navy-grayish shirt. my mom, who’d seen him in the kitchen, said right away, “that’s him.” so did another couple who they brought back, who’d seen him running right along their side.
right away, my heart sank. i thought i knew who it was from the years at soup kitchen. and i thought i knew him too from selling papers (a newspaper written and produced by the homeless) outside my grocery; i’m pretty sure he’s a guy i often talk to.
i said, to the plainclothes cops, just get my bag, and i won’t press charges. i just want my bag. i had realized how very many pieces of my life would be lost; nothing that really mattered, my work ID, a credit card, a driver’s license, that little bag i love.
once the other folk said it was him, 100 percent, they slapped on handcuffs, walked him in the paddy wagon. the plainclothes cop got a call. said it seemed, from inside the wagon, he was talking. next thing we knew, they were walking him, in cuffs, down the block to get my bag, they were fairly certain.
bless his soul, i say, he went and showed them where he dropped it. all the pieces of my life i wouldn’t have to retrace and chase.
but then the cops, oh, eight or nine, came to where i sat in the back seat of the unmarked squad car, they said he had 30 previous arrests, had twice been let off for similar thefts inside churches. they wanted me not to drop any charges. the commander, a big gruff guy, did all the talking.
hey lady, he said, we’ve had half the force out here for the last hour. you let him go, it gives him carte blanche to keep stealing.
i asked, they denied, had they made a promise, that if he gave me back my bag, i’d let him go? i don’t like to double cross. it’s not why i spend the week planning menus.
i was lucky, they told me. no one got hurt. next time, it might not be so lucky. someone might get hurt. the right thing, one or two or three said to no one in particular, was to not let him go again.
i sat there churning. i thought i knew this guy. i thought i like him. and for heaven’s sake, he gave me back my bag.
but in the end, with eight cops looking me in the eyes, i finally nodded. go ahead.
late last night i got a call. it was one of the arresting officers. he said i need to be in court on thursday. said the charge is felony theft, as his record leaves them little choice.
i asked where he was, the guy who took my bag. in jail, at the police department. then he’d be moved to the county jail. a place i wouldn’t wish on anyone.
i climbed into my bed a couple hours later. that comforter felt soft, too soft. i thought of him, the man i am now maybe sending off to prison.
i am feeling sick. and torn.
like i said, it’s not why i spend the week planning menus.

talk about real life ethics. not even the jesuits, got me clear enough for this one. i think of my brother, once carjacked at gunpoint. i remember he wrote letters for years to the guy in prison. i remember the hope for redemption. i have the same thoughts. think in some ways a night in jail beats a night on the street. in other ways though, it beats not a thing. i’m too close this morning, to think much besides the details of how it unfolded, and how i had no intention of going to court when i walked in that kitchen to feed the folks so very hungry. any wisdom out there?