On the shelves at Goldie’s, the corner grocery store about a half-block from our house, the fresh, creamy, vanilla-topped cupcakes looked so good! Impulsively, I ran my right forefinger through the gushy topping on one, and licked it off before anyone could see. Yum. Then I sauntered casually up to the counter, bought a pack of baseball cards for 5 cents, said goodbye to Goldie, walked out the door, and tramped home on 15th Street.
I was probably 9 or 10 years old. And in this dense Catholic world of my Berwyn neighborhood in the early 1960s, it didn’t take long for the guilt to set in. Conflicted thoughts slid through my consciousness: It was just one lick, right? But wasn’t indulging in that one sugary slurp still stealing? Didn’t I ruin the cupcake for someone else? Maybe now Goldie wouldn’t be able to sell it. And if she had sold it, it carried my germs!
Stealing was forbidden by the 7th Commandment, a voice inside reminded me. Sister Mary Armella’s image hovered, glowering.
I’ve kept the incident mostly to myself. But almost 60 years later it’s still a live memory, especially when I get near fresh pastry sitting on a store shelf. That internalized moral world with its do’s, don’ts, sanctions and rewards, is still active inside me; counseling, warning, admonishing and sometimes, forgiving.
I’ve perused plenty of fresh pastry since, including savory items on the shelves of bakeries and cafes around the U.S., in Mexico, Puerto Rico, Europe, and Ethiopia. And all that time, since that day at Goldie’s, I’ve kept my fingers off icing that I haven’t already paid for.
So here I am at Whole Foods, paused by the cupcakes. It’s the calories now that keep me from picking them up. I’d certainly pay for them if I did. In their plastic and foil containers, they’re a little harder to get at, but I could still get away with a stealthy swipe and lick. I’m right back in Goldie’s, reliving those seconds in which I did, in fact, indulge.
I think the memory I share is unfinished: I never apologized to her. I never owned up to it. I never made it right. I never gave her a chance to forgive me.
That might sound like I’m attaching a lot of significance to such a small transgression. But something in me thinks it’s not just about a pilfered dollop of frosting. It’s a bigger deal because unlike the unseen manager here at Whole Foods, Goldie was an important person to me, my family and neighbors who shopped in her store.
I went to school and played in Little League with her son. My uncle knew her older son from their high school days. This was her family’s corner business. They lived at least part of the time in the attached apartment behind it. I’d see them back there from the aisles, sitting at the kitchen table. Her husband, who co-managed the shop, was a friendly, warm, fatherly guy. He called me, “Richie.”
I think my deeper self is reminding me that I violated a friend’s, even a community’s, trust by committing that small sin. Maybe I wouldn’t have felt the same had I scooped the icing off a donut at a larger grocer, like Jewel, Certified or Hillman’s.
That corner place meant something to me. In a neighborhood where pretty much everyone knew everybody, and accountability to each other mattered, a tiny transgression against her and her store felt like a bigger deal. Maybe I’m not too late.
Goldie, I’m sorry.