Criminal: (n) a person guilty or convicted of a crime
If my recollection holds any accuracy of memory, I believe it happened right after my twenty-eighth birthday. I was in a room with a bunch of friends—and some strangers—and a question was posed.
“What was your first job?”
Well, I let three or four people go before me so that I could understand if I was on point, what the question really meant and the best way to answer it.
After the fourth teller finished his story about being a bag boy at a grocery store, I raised my hand and explained, “The summer between my junior and senior year, I joined some sort of national work program for teenagers sponsored by the government, which offered opportunities for local jobs at minimum wage. After volunteering, I discovered that the possibility afforded to me was working at the cemetery, cutting the grass and taking care of the gravestones.
“I was torn between being grossed out and wondering whether anything could be any more boring. But the only other thing available was with a farmer, bailing hay. I did not like hay. I didn’t like heat. I didn’t favor sweating and knew the farmer would be there the whole time, and I’d have to really work hard. I thought that the keeper of the graves might actually trust me to do the job without peeking over my shoulder.”
“I was right. Matter of fact, after about four or five days, I discovered he never showed up to confirm my work. So I started coming to the graveyard, signing in, and then leaving. I was able to continue this practice for about two weeks, collecting my check—until I finally got caught.”
At this point I stopped speaking, thinking I was going to get some laughter and maybe even a round of applause for my tale. But instead, a young woman sitting across the room gasped and said:
“Geez…that was criminal.”
Looking into all the faces around me, I waited for someone to speak up and offer at least some support for my ingenuity.
No one did.
I was angry.
Although I did not stomp out of the room, I made my exit from the party as quickly as possible without drawing attention to my frustration.
I fumed. How dare anyone accuse me of being a criminal? I knew what a criminal was. It’s someone who commits crimes, right? An individual who breaks the law and is tracked down by the police and thrown in jail, to stay there until they learn their lesson or complete their sentence.
Then a horrible thing happened.
My conscience showed up.
For some reason, my conscience was in a mood to talk, in a most accusing way.
Mr. Conscience reminded me that three years ago, I had skipped out on rent that was due.
He also brought up the fact that I copped some money from a drawer when I was at a friend’s house.
There were four or five examples that my goddamned nosy conscience decided to dredge up. Each one could be individually explained away—and had been, by my glib nature.
But collectively, they showcased an individual who felt he was superior to everybody else—certainly high and lifted above the rules—and therefore could do what he wanted.
The conclusion was simple. I was a criminal because I committed a crime by breaking the law, which was really a rule set by those who have the uncomfortable job of trying to make things run smoothly by seeking common ground among diverse people.
I was thoroughly ashamed.
Since that day I have not lived a faultless life, but I’ve never been a criminal again. Because even though I don’t always agree, I always know that agreeable is necessary.