Except for the myriad of hearts I have stolen over the years (joking), I was once caught actually stealing. My belief is some good can be found in any situation, and for this one, I was always glad that I was young and my embarrassment was such that I would be inclined to play things above the board for the rest of my days.
Let me paint the picture for you. I had moved in with my dad years before and slept on a mattress on the floor of my childhood room. My brother came to be with us a while later, sleeping on the living room’s fold-out couch.
So when my stepbrother decided to live with us, my dad and stepmom moved a few towns over to a bigger house. This was the summer before I started my senior year. I had bounced around between four different schools during the previous three years. To graduate from the same school as all of my friends, I needed to be able to drive.
Which meant I had to get a car—and car insurance.
Which meant I needed a job.
I applied for the most appealing job I could think of. Growing up, I was a movie nut, so I went straight to the new movie theater that had opened. I was so pumped to get the job because it was FREE movies!
Not only that, but you could also get free popcorn!
Cups, hotdogs, nachos, and candy were all inventoried nightly, and under the watchful eye of our overlords upstairs, you could not get away with swiping such items. But hotdog buns were not inventoried, so I would make a “popcorn hotdog” since I was broke like a joke. It is just like it sounds. Hot dog bun filled with popcorn, maybe some popcorn salt, relish, and ketchup. Whatever I could do to mix things up when things got lean between paychecks.
I worked less than six months at that theater but would get nauseous for years at the smell of popcorn.
Luckily, my hard work and winning personality were paying off, and I was promoted from concessions to the box office. Being a ticket slinger was fantastic—such a cush gig after the grueling work of cleaning the concession stand. I traded standing the whole shift near the sweltering heat of the popcorn maker for the air-conditioned comfort and chair of the box office life.
Things were looking up.
But there was some downtime. You know the phrase “idle hands are the devil’s playthings”? Having a creative mind, after learning the structure of the ticketing system, I found a weak spot and soon took advantage of it.
Any employee could waltz right into the movie they desired to see. And bring a guest too. No questions asked. But you couldn’t just tell your friends to go in when you weren’t there.
But there was a free pass system. If you had to leave a movie early or the film burned halfway through the flick, they would issue you a white raffle-looking ticket, a raincheck so the patron could return later for another show.
I would notice the passes come through. We were required to log them into a sheet with their serial number.
But also firefighters and police got in for free. All they had to do was sign their name on a form after showing some identification proving their occupation. That was all.
First responders and raincheck recipients would receive a regular ticket with the movie name, theater number, and time. The difference between a regular ticket was it would show $0.00 for their price.
So eventually, I would have customers with the passes sign their names like they were police and give them a free ticket, pocketing the voucher for later.
The “later” came in when I pulled up to a Braums down the road. There was a kid I knew from school who had found his own devious way to jilt Braums from their hard-earned money, and I would trade him for movie passes in exchange for whatever I wanted on the Braums menu.
It started simple enough, he wanted to see Tomorrow Never Dies, and I told him I could get him in for a cheeseburger.
Eventually, my greed got the better of me, and I was caught in a sting operation. The manager had given out passes and had tracked the serial numbers so he could find the register that was taking them. After clocking out that night, I was asked into his office, and he told me that some passes had gone missing from my drawer and that he knew because of the serial numbers.
After apologizing profusely, I cried uncontrollably with all the shame I felt. I remember hearing about how samurai would commit hari-kari when they had dishonored their lord, and let me tell you, if he had slid a dagger across the table, I would have done it on the spot. But instead, he just stared at me. I continued to mutter out how sorry I was, and since he wasn’t saying anything, I formerly resigned and fled from his office.
As humiliating as that experience was, I am forever grateful that my manager didn’t say anything to me or call the cops or whatever he could have done. I had to swallow that bitter pill of shame all by myself. If he had fired me (probable) or had I been arrested (doubtful), I might have externalized my crimes.
“Hey, man… they were just some tickets,” as the cuffs clicked down on my wrists. Or if he had yelled at me, my teenage brain might have retaliated with, “Harsh man!”
When we go against our character, we have the most problems in life. So when I think of this story, I am reminded of who I am today, in contrast with the times when my actions were not aligned with the values I was meant to have, like honesty and trustworthiness.