Brooklyn, New York—In the fall of 1994, I received a call from writer Luis Francia with an unusual request. Would Dan and I be willing to host the artist Ben Cabrera for a couple of nights in our home? He was arriving in New York City for an exhibit at the Philippine Center on Fifth Avenue.
I had never met Ben but was keenly aware of his reputation as a painter. We had recently moved into our townhouse, had a 4-year-old toddler, Eli (now 28), and not a lot of furniture. In other words, we were not set up to host anybody.
“Sure!” I said.
I was nervous at first, but Ben turned out to be gracious, unassuming and charming. He spent most of his time preparing for the exhibit. Other than attending the opening, we hardly saw him. We did overlap for one meal, and that was shortly after I found out I was pregnant with my second child, Amalya (now 23).
After the exhibit and before he left, Ben surprised us, giving us three prints, each of them signed and inscribed to Dan and me.
We were absolutely floored by Ben’s generosity, given that all we did was provide him with a place to stay.
Like everything else from that period of my life, certain details have receded into the fog of distant memory.
Except for one.
Two months later, I was driving around Brooklyn doing errands, when I noticed the sound of something knocking around the trunk of my car. I ignored it at first, until I no longer could.
I pulled over to see what was going on, but found nothing but a flashlight, a tire meter, a bottle of Windex, a roll of paper towel and a plastic funnel for car oil. I was about to slam the trunk shut when I saw what looked like a roll of white cardboard.
I knew what I was looking at before I even unrolled the canvas. The painting must have fallen out of Ben’s bags after I dropped him off in the city. He probably didn’t even know he had left it behind.
A more tantalizing thought flashed before me: He probably didn’t even know it was missing.
It would have been so easy to head straight for the framers. I began to entertain fantasies of where the painting would hang. Perhaps above the piano, along with a black-and-white photo of Duke Ellington and me. Or better yet, the mantle above the fireplace, a place of its own with nothing else for company except itself.
Who would know? I wasn’t exactly stealing. Or so I thought.
“There is a thrill in ‘harmless’ stealing,” explains Sarah J. Person, licensed clinical social worker, of Brooklyn, New York, “which remains, in fact, stealing. Otherwise reputable, upstanding citizens secretly delight in taking home a bathrobe from a fine hotel, the silverware from an elegant restaurant, a lipstick from Sephora.”
I was on a class trip in the fifth grade when I shoplifted at a souvenir shop for tourists. I had seen two friends put something in their pockets, but instead of stopping them or calling them out, I did the same exact thing.
I took a small book marker—a hand-carved mouse with a very long leather tail—because it was in a shelf right next to me and easy to conceal.
“The excitement lies in doing something clandestine and getting away with it. A precious, giddy secret,” Person added.
In the spirit of transparency and full disclosure, whenever I use the powder room at the St. Regis Hotel in Manhattan, I take their paper towels by the fistful because not only are they thick, they also come embossed with the letter “R.”
The book marker wasn’t a secret for long. Somehow, the nuns found out, as they always do, about our childish caper and went after the culprits.
I can still see one of them running toward me, her purple habit flapping in the wind, grabbing me by my uniform and searching through my pockets. “Where is it? Where is it?” the nun shrieked, but it wasn’t on me. I had returned it earlier to the saleslady before we went back to school, apologizing for what I had done.
The other two girls were caught and suspended.
Ripe for the taking
But, arguably, the painting had been lying in my car trunk for weeks. It had not been claimed and, for all intents and purposes, it was forgotten. As far as I was concerned, it was ripe for the taking.
The thrill of stealing is taking something that’s valuable and not pay for it. People don’t steal what they can get for free.
Person said, “Other people who steal things like paintings or rob houses or banks are very different. They may be completely without morals, and in the extreme are sociopaths, without a conscience or ethical fiber.”
Terry Leto, a retired New York Police Department detective with Brooklyn’s South Homicide (among the toughest precincts in the city), was more blunt.
“A larceny is knowingly taking property from someone without their permission or their authority,” Leto said. “Therefore, taking any items from the St. Regis is considered a larceny. Depending on the value of the item, it can be considered petit larceny or grand larceny.”
Petit larceny, she explained, gets you jail time up to a year, while grand larceny can go up to seven years.
“The stolen property in question,” she added, “has to be valued at over $3,000.” The pillows at the St. Regis, for example, are a big theft issue and taken very seriously.
Given the value of an original BenCab, the painting I found in my car would have meant that I would never have seen my children grow up.
But who would know? I would.
When I got home, I called Ben. Together, we figured out a way to get it back to him in the Philippines.
It rightfully belonged to someone—it just so happened not to be me. —CONTRIBUTED