I am a thief. I’ve been a thief since about the age of three, that’s as far back as I can remember. Since I was old enough to steal, I guess. The first thing I remember stealing is a mango, from right under my amah’s nose. She had bought a bag of mangoes for herself and when she wasn’t looking, I grabbed one. That’s the kind of thief I’ve been mostly, a snatch thief. Although I moved on to house breaking and car breaking when I was a teenager, my specialty is grabbing and running. There’s nothing like the feel of the rush in my belly when I’m running as fast as my legs can carry me with something new in my hand.
People don’t understand why I steal. They call me a criminal, a bad person, a crazy person. Truth is, it’s the only way I know how to live. My dad died when I was a baby, I’m not sure who he is really, and my mum … she … she’s not so well. Always sick and in bed or lying on the sofa. She drinks too much. Can’t remember the last time she cooked us a meal. Anyway, I lived with my amah, who loves me really but is too old to do much. In fact, I often think it’s me who looks after her. So I’ve pretty much always had to fend for myself. And before I was old enough to work, stealing was the only way to get by. Then when I was old enough to work, no one would give me a job anyway as I got no education. Or the kinds of jobs I could get were rotten, where they treat you like shit and don’t pay you unless they have to, and you end up working with other thieves anyway. There was never any point trying to go back to school. I never had the money for school fees, and so what if I got a piece of paper saying I did such-and-such a course. People take one look at me and decide what I am, a piece of paper doesn’t make any difference to them. And, those rich people, they’re the worse. They think I’m a mess because I’m stupid and lazy. They don’t have a clue what it’s like to go through life having to scramble for every little crumb you get, to know that no matter how hard you try, how hard you work, you never get anywhere because there is no place for you in this world.
At least with my brothers in crime I feel safe. We may all be thieves, but we have each other. And although it’s each person for himself, we know what each other’s going through and there’s respect. We’d never tell on another brother to the police and we know how to survive. Put us in the gutter and we know what to do because we’ve already been there. Put us in an alley, in jail, on the streets, we’ll carve out a life for ourselves. Sometimes I see a well dressed person walk by and they see me and I can see the fear in their eyes, fear of me, the kind of life I lead, the harsh reality I represent, and I feel sorry for them. Because they cling to their warm houses and big cars, credit cards, insurance policies and pension plans, because for them security is the most important thing in life and without it they are lost. As for me, I have never had security and so I know how to live without it. I am free.
But I am not free from the law. It gets tiring sometimes, always running. Running from the police, from angry people, from those you have stolen from. It there’s anything in the world that will make me give up being a thief, it’s this. The anger. The feeling that the whole world hates you. It makes you want to hate back, but I’m not there yet. There’s a little part of me that hasn’t been hardened, but if I’m not careful it’ll soon go that way just like the rest of me.
Sometimes I’d give anything to be a respectable citizen. Have a bank account, a line of credit, be able to take a loan. So if I needed a car I could buy one, not have to steal one. But I don’t see how that’s ever going to happen. Life’s dropped me at the bottom of the heap and there are too many people above me, squashing me. If you haven’t got it from the start, chances are you’ll never make it. I tried getting a certificate once—in a juvenile detention home, that is. I did quite well and everything, teacher said I had potential. I even got the certificate saying I finished such-and-such, thought, wow, maybe I could get a real job and all. What was I thinking. Once people know you’ve been in detention, they’re not going to give you a job. I tried for weeks and nobody even wanted to listen. Finally I gave up. Did a break in and walked off with a stereo—now nobody would have given me that.
So I live my life. I’m pretty much on my own most of the time. I don’t have boyfriends, they don’t interest me and anyway I never met a man who was much good. You thought I was a boy, didn’t you. Well, I’m not. I guess I’ve been talking to you a little while now so I can tell you my name. It’s Wendy. I have dark hair which I like to wear really long, and most days I’m just in jeans. I do like to dress up when I get the chance, I suppose all girls do. One time I grabbed three dresses from Escapade, grabbed them from right under the nose of security, alarms were going off and everything and I just took off down the street. A security guard was chasing me, but he was too fat and I got away easily. Those were beautiful dresses. I wore one to the disco that night and people almost didn’t recognize me! I still have those dresses.
Other than stealing, my life is pretty normal. I live at my amah’s, go to the pub on Friday nights and watch TV at home. I don’t drink too much because seeing what it’s done to my mum has made me swear never to do it, and I don’t do drugs, just smoke a little now and again. I don’t collect welfare because I need to keep a low profile and you can’t live off public assistance anyway these days. Maybe one day I’ll pack it in, leave home and go somewhere where no one knows me and start afresh. Then I can think about meeting someone nice, maybe even settling down and having kids! Gosh that seems like a long way away. If I had kids I’d give them a better life than I had.
Sometimes I write poetry. It helps keep my mind off things. Nothing great, just a few lines here and there that I scribble into a notebook that I keep. Often it’s just my thoughts or feelings, or something I’ve seen. I don’t show my poems to many people, but I show one to you as you’ve been listening to me so patiently.
She puts on her red shoes
And walks down the road
The edge of town beckons
The wild grass calls
Her away from her red brick home
She walks down the road
In her bright red shoes
Staring at the setting sun
Knowing that night is come
And the wild grass beckons
She reaches the edge of town
And stands on a street
Between her and the thick grass
Her heart beats and arms slacken
And she steps off the last pavement of town
Her red brick home is behind her
Melted into the town
Darkness swallows and tall grass surrounds
Stars emerge and hope abounds
And she keeps on walking in her bright red shoes
Not bad huh! Bet you thought a person like me wasn’t capable of writing. But I am. In fact, something of mine is getting published. Would you believe it! A friend of mine is going to poly and he’s going to place one of my poems in his school paper. Isn’t that cool! I’m even going to use my real name. I said to my friend, ‘are you sure?’ And he said ‘Sure, it’ll great to see your name in print.’ Imagine that.
I’m not getting paid or anything, but just seeing my name in a paper is reward enough. Maybe one day I’ll publish a book of my poetry, and hold readings where I read to children and act my poems out for them. That’ll be nice. Maybe one day.
It’s hard to hold on to dreams when your life is neither here nor there. All I think about every day is which hot spot I’m going to work. Markets and crowded shopping streets are always good, but I’ve done so many of them so often that the local police recognize me now so I have to keep my head down. Crowded trains and train stations are the best. Everyone is on the move so they don’t pay attention to what’s around them, they’re too busy focusing on where they’re trying to get to. I don’t even have to run away, people move off on their own. It’s easy for me. And if I have to move, I simply get on a train or get off a train. It’s almost impossible to track someone in a train station, especially the big ones with lots of passages that criss-cross like a labyrinth. One quick turn and I am out of sight.
I’ve hidden in all kinds of places to avoid getting caught. Alley ways, rubbish heaps, backs of trucks, under bridges, by the side of railway tracks even on rooftops. The most important thing about a hiding place is that there must be a way out in case you are discovered. That’s why toilet cubicles are such bad places to hide even though it’s the first place people think of. Once you’re in there you’re stuck. There’s no way out unless you’re in an end cubicle that has a small window. Even then it’s a push to get out. I know because that’s how I got caught the first time. I was only nine. I’d stolen a teacher’s gold bracelet. She chased me and chased me up and down the school and round the games field and in and out of the car park and finally I hurtled into the girls’ lavatory and flung myself into a cubicle shut the door (we had no locks on the door in school), thinking she’d think I was someone else peeing. But she saw right through my plan and burst into the cubicle so hard the door slammed against the partition and made it quiver. I was sitting on the bowl with my eyes wide open and my jaw to the ground, it was as if someone had walked in on me while I was peeing. Her gold bracelet was clutched in my fist, as if holding it tighter would make it disappear. I was frozen like a deer in headlights.
The teacher grabbed me by my hair and dragged me out of the cubicle. She stood me by a sink in front of a mirror. ‘You have been caught stealing Wendy Oon,’ she shouted. ‘You give me back that bracelet and for punishment you will come and see me after school everyday for two weeks. We shall think of something for you to do.’ I went to see her that day after school and she made me sit in classroom with her and write five hundred times ‘I will not steal’ while she marked homework. When I was done she did not say a word to me, just let me go silently and I could feel her eyes boring through me as I walked down the hall. I did not go to school the next day, or the day after that, or the day after.
That really is my story. I’m standing at a bus stop now, waiting for a bus. When one comes I get on and see where it takes me. When I see something worth stopping for, I’ll get off. And when I’m done, I’ll find my way home.
Written on 8 Febuary 2004