or, The border between “scrounge” and “steal.”
(Once again this got kind of long. It’s just a meditation on why I shouldn’t steal an absent neighbor’s stuff, no matter how much I need it.)
Ever since starting the planning process on the Secret Lair, I’ve honed my scrounging skills. Often with the help of friends, much of the Lair is built with non-virgin material. That’s great, and I highly recommend it for free-livers on a strict budget. But…
Scrounging is an activity often practiced without permission. There’s a slippery slope there, plain for all to see.
I make it a policy to avoid that slope. I am not a thief. But sometimes I am tempted to become a thief. Lately – as in for the past few months – great and recurring temptation has practically tormented me. This is brought to mind this morning by the discussion with Bear about my wood stove, in the post below this one.
My stove is scrounged – I got it free, with permission of its previous owner. It works, sort of, but it’s home-built and far from perfect. Last winter its inadequacies tried to burn my cabin down, and I haven’t forgotten it.
I know where there’s another stove. (I said I’m not a thief, but I never said I’m not nosy.) It’s in a tiny cabin on a parcel which has been unoccupied for years but which is clearly not unowned. I want that stove. It practically calls to me. But I’m not going to take it.
Oh, I could come up with all sorts of justifications. Oh, yeah, Hamlet’s got nothing on me. I’ve got a very active devil on my shoulder, and he tells me incessantly that the land is crap, the cabin is crap, the owner will never sell it no matter how many signs are planted in front of it. He hasn’t been seen in years and he clearly doesn’t care about it. It’s just going to waste. You hate waste, don’t you, Joel? Cleaned up, that stove would look awfully good in the lair and it would work ever so much better than what you’ve got now.
All this is true, or might be true. And if I hadn’t already told the story of that stove to my friends, nobody would ever know I’d taken it. I could spin a tale about a flea market or a labor swap, and they’d accept it. Or they would have if I hadn’t already told them the real story.
And I told that story in self-defense. I told it because I can’t get that goddam stove out of my head. I’m not a thief, and I have no desire to become a thief. But life on the economic edge promotes ethical compromise and ethical compromise is bad. When you find yourself making excuses for yourself, you’re moving into wrong territory.
Under other circumstances I wouldn’t even hesitate. I know where there’s an ancient cast-iron and porcelain bathtub that’d look awfully good on its own little deck in my yard, and someday, if I can ever get Superman or the Incredible Hulk to help me move it, it’ll be mine. But that tub is sitting on a junk pile next to a gutted trailer on a clearly abandoned plot of land. If I hauled off everything there it would be to the sound of applause from my neighbors. That’s the difference between “scrounge” and “steal.”
I have, right here in a drawer at this desk, the keys to two mostly-absent neighbors’ properties. I have those keys because sometimes they need somebody willing to go into their buildings, and they trust me to do that and leave their possessions alone. That trust has never been misplaced. I would never take a pin belonging to them without permission and they know it.
But the guy who owns that stove, in that crumbling little cabin, on that creepy plain of mud, I don’t know him from Adam. I don’t owe him anything except what one human being honorably owes another – which includes that I should leave his stuff alone. His property is unoccupied and for sale, but it hasn’t been abandoned. The sign and the fence make that clear. He’s got more chance of being elected Pope than of selling that parcel, and I’ll probably never see him again. But it’s still his.
And so I leave that expensive stove where it is. I’m not writing this in any effort to find new justification. I’m just saying, when you put yourself on the economic edge you will face low temptations. How you deal with those temptations is an indication of your character. I like my character too much to compromise it that much.
But oh, sometimes it calls to me.