Getting Away With It
I stole. It’s hard to believe those two little words follow a man around for 28 years like a shadow but they do. Do the right thing and you forget it in a day, do the wrong thing and you regret it for years. And you can try to justify what you did; rationalize it away but the harder you push it away, the more it sticks. I’ve found guilt seldom has anything to do with courtrooms and trials because in the end we are all our own judge and jury. As long as you know what you did there’s no getting away with it.
It was 1984, the fall of my junior year at SUNY Oswego. Like a lot of college kids I took loans, paid my own way and was broke all the time.
Money was as rare as free time and as anyone who has ever struggled can tell you there are weeks where you literally have to watch every penny if you want to eat. It was a week like that, that led me down the road to perdition. I had exactly ten dollars in my pocket which had to last me six days. Whenever I was this broke, I’d go to the store in the student center and buy a bagel for fifty cents. The bagels were huge and filling so they were a nice substitute for lunch. I went to the counter, handed the guy my ten dollar bill, took the bagel and change and turned to go. I counted the money before putting it in my pocket and realized the clerk made a mistake in my favor. He gave me change for twenty dollar bill not a ten.
When times are tight and money falls into your lap the voices of your better angels are easily drowned out by the sounds of a growling stomach. You start to talk yourself into doing the wrong thing. I told myself in that moment that this school had overcharged me for so many things. They had fees on top of fees for courses and services I’d never use. Heck even the laundry machines in my dorm must have stolen from me. Soon enough you convince yourself that you are entitled to that extra ten bucks the guy gave you. They won’t even miss it.
I knew it was wrong to keep it but I was young, broke and stupid, so I took it. For the next few days I found myself avoiding that store for fear the guy might realize what he’d done and ask me about it. Even when I did eventually go back I hung my head and found it difficult to meet his eyes when he rang me up at the register. To the casual observer I’d gotten away with it but the truth was I hadn’t. That ten dollars owned me now and wouldn’t let me go.
Long after I graduated from Oswego that ten dollars I took kept turning up in my mind, like a stone in your shoe. I couldn’t understand how such a small stone could cause such a large ripple in the pond that was my conscience. Then in 1994 I went to see the movie Quiz Show and had a moment of clarity. Toward the end of the movie there’s a scene where Rob Morrow tells a story about an uncle who cheated on his wife and never got caught. Many years later he came clean about what he’d done and everyone in the family asked him why in God’s name he confessed, after all he’d gotten away with it. He said, “It was the getting away with it that I couldn’t live with.”
So why am I telling you this story now; confessing to a petty larceny I committed 28 years ago? Same reason I guess. I haven’t been to confession at church in a long time but I do believe you can talk to God and ask for forgiveness whenever you want. So there I was sitting at a red light on Route 9 near Hoffman’s Playland in Latham when I had a short yet long overdue chat with the big guy. I said I know I can’t go back in time and give the money back but please know I’m sorry, I learned from it and I’ll never do something like that again.
The light turned green and then something very odd happened. I put my directional on and pulled into the Stewart’s shop to grab a cup of coffee. I handed the clerk a ten dollar bill, took the change and turned to go. Anyone in the store that day would have seen me stop and smile because for an instant it was 1984 again. In my hand wasn’t change for my ten dollar bill but a twenty. I looked up toward the ceiling and said under my breath, “Thank you for the second chance.”
The manager was pleasantly surprised when I told him of his error and handed back the ten dollars extra he’d given me. “Wow, thanks,” he said. He probably thinks I’m this rare good guy who did the right thing when in reality I’m just the dummy who did the wrong thing 28 years ago and has paid interest on the debt ever since.
I haven’t been back to Oswego since graduation but a part of me will be visiting soon. The store in the campus center will soon receive an envelope with a ten dollar bill attached to a newspaper column telling this tale of avarice and absolution. I’m sure that guy who gave me the wrong change is long gone but when it comes to one’s eternity and passage at the pearly gates, the sheep that got away needs all the help he can get. •
Reprinted with Permission of the Troy Record.
John Gray ’85 is the news anchor at News10 ABC in Albany, N.Y. He also is an award-winning columnist for the Troy Record newspaper and Capital Region Living Magazine. While he resides in the Albany area helping raise his three children and his dog Max and has traveled extensively, he still insists he has never seen a sunset prettier than those outside of Onondaga Hall on Lake Ontario.
Ed. note: SUNY Oswego gratefully accepted John’s donation last autumn.
OSWEGO alumni magazine welcomes submissions for consideration for “The Last Word.” They should be no more than 600 words and should reflect upon the writer’s Oswego experience. Send to email@example.com.