I steal pens.
I’m not entirely sure when I started doing it, but I’m pretty sure it happened at a hotel. Of course, the pens in hotels are kind of meant to be taken, so it’s not really “stealing,” they’re free advertising because they have the name of the hotel on them. Plus, they’re never very good pens to begin with, they are always your most basic ballpoint, plus they obviously come from some place that uses the cheapest plastic and smallest inkwells, because, again, they’re not so much meant to be writing implements as tiny, disposable billboards. So I have never really felt that bad about taking them home and using them as long as they last, which, considering how seldom I need to hand-write anything these days, can be quite a while. But this is why, if you ever meet me, and you ask to borrow a pen, there’s an excellent chance you’ll get one from a Hampton Inn.
But I will occasionally also take pens from other places. Like if I’m at work on a commercial, and they have a box of pens there for us to fill out our timecards, and I recently lost the one I keep in my bag, maybe I just won’t…give this one back. Why does this seem okay to me? Well, they have a whole box, I know they’re not going to need them all. I also know that the people out of whose pocket the pen money has come are not the people I’m working with on the day, nearly all of whom are freelancers of one sort or another — so basically, nobody I meet on job is going to be hurt if I take the pen. The only entity you could say is being “hurt” is the production company that hired us all for that job, but they can generally afford to lose a 50¢, or 30¢, or 8¢ pen, depending how large the bulk office supply box they bought is — and it’s always a bulk office supply box, which also shows the scale of spending on what we do, that they will just buy a whole box of pens for one two-day job. Money is not really an object for these companies the way it is for me, because even when they plead poverty and beg us to work for lower rates and nickel-and-dime us on rentals and understaff the camera department, they nearly always can somehow afford to buy rafts of Starbucks coffees and gourmet donuts for the clients. On top of that, I see the people who do own these companies on set sometimes, when they show up for half an hour to shake hands and then drive off in their Porsches or Lexi (yes, they’re always midlife-crisis-aged men), and there definitely seems to be something disproportionate there in terms of how much they make and how much my crew colleagues and I make, and who’s doing all the work. So in some small way, I feel like I’m redressing a huge imbalance between me and the 1%; I’m not taking pens from people, I’m taking them from The Man. And when I take pens from other places — I’m at a store and someone asks me to do a survey and I need a pen so I just don’t give it back, or I find one someone dropped on set and I don’t try to figure out who dropped it and return it, I just pocket the thing — I have a similar list of justifications for why it’s okay to just take them. And if those don’t work, I can always tell myself, It’s just a pen.
When I was younger, and I had less stuff, I took more stuff, to the point that some might say it crossed a line into actual theft. In my 20s, when I worked in an office part-time, I would take home office supplies, not just pens but Post-It notes, sometimes even entire legal pads. Again, I knew the people who owned these companies, and they had cars with drivers and private bathrooms with phones built in their offices (something in the pre-cell phone era that said you thought your time was so valuable you couldn’t even stop working to take a shit), so I was pretty sure they wouldn’t care about me taking this stuff, and if they were the kind of stingy assholes who would, they deserved to lose office supplies. Plus, everyone else who worked there did it, as has everyone else who’s ever worked in an office. And this last was also the reasoning behind why I felt it was okay to take glasses from bars as “souvenirs,” especially when my roommates and I needed glasses: it was just something that we all did back then, when we weren’t enough money to buy the things we needed. Our other “stemware” was cups that came free with drinks at sports or holiday events, and our furniture was stuff we found on the street and milk crates covered in fabric, as if that made them look less like milk crates. Once you’re taking things from somewhere that’s not your place of work, though, you can’t pretend they’re some sort of salary bonus as justification. Like, why did we consider it okay to steal from service establishments, but not okay to shoplift the same items from stores? Was it a calculation that lost or broken glasses are just a cost of doing business at a bar? Was it just because we thought we wouldn’t get caught, or because if we did, we thought they’d let us off the hook because we were young women drunk on their alcohol? And was it just the souvenir factor that made it more likely that I’d take something from a bar in another state or country than at home, or was it because I was less likely to identify with the owners of a place so far away that I knew I’d probably never visit again, even though they were still human beings for whom that business was their livelihood? Basically, did we just think it was okay to do these things because we thought we could get away with it and not feel guilty?
I guess what I’m wondering is, how do we decide what’s wrong, and who we think it’s okay to hurt when we do it? And I believe the answer, unfortunate as it is, is that so much of this stuff is social. I stole what I stole when I was younger because other people did the same thing, and I took their justifications as my own (possibly adding on a few for good measure because I think too much). Now, when I take pens, there’s some part of my brain that considers not just how taking the pens will affect the party from whom I’m taking them, but how other people would react to it. On some level, knowing that I can sit here and tell you that I sometimes take pens that don’t belong to me, and that you probably won’t condemn or even think less of me for it, makes it okay for me to keep doing it. Is my conscience that flexible? Apparently so, and in case you haven’t noticed, yours probably is too. Humans are rationalization machines. Even if someone’s religion or spirituality or ethical code makes them “adhere” to some inflexible collection of words they believe someone (like God or the founding fathers or a group of likeminded pirates) gave them, they still seem to find the means to be extremely interpretive of those words when it comes to their own actions — perhaps even more than the rest of us. Because once it becomes about obeying words rather than policing one’s own actions through truly considering for yourself what’s right and wrong, then it’s just a question of creatively manipulating the words, or overwriting them with other words from the same source, or just deciding that the fact your group has the words makes you better than everyone else, and therefore justified in doing whatever the hell you want. Which is called “exceptionalism,” and also, “hypocrisy.”
Often, what you think is good for you is going to hurt someone else, so at some point we all have to consider the line between our own personal priorities and theirs. In the United States, where we often prize individual liberty higher than anything — sometimes, indeed, in a very inflexible code type way (I’m looking at you conservative bloc of Supreme Court justices) — there are many instances where the “them” we think we’re more important than is our community, or country, or basically the rest of world, and that calculation that can lead to some pretty wackadoo results. Somehow, many Americans seem to think someone’s individual right to own an AR-15 outweighs the right of everyone else not to be murdered with one. Others seem to think it’s more important that individuals get to choose not to vaccinate their kids rather than ensuring dangerous diseases don’t spread to everyone else’s kids. And overall, it seems like we don’t see it as the responsibility of American society to reform people who commit crimes, or fix the problems that led to those crimes, for our collective betterment, instead choosing to place that responsibility on the shoulders of one person — as if they exist in a vacuum. Is America greater because of school shootings, measles outbreaks, and mass incarceration? Because I would say those are among the defining characteristics of our culture right now.
And if anything, it feels like the line is moving in the wrong direction. Having a president who can be counted upon to always put his needs and wants above everyone else’s is frightening, because his lack of giving a shit about anyone else and the lack of giving a shit of everyone in government who follows his lead has devastating consequences for policy. Add to that the social animal bit, so that their behavior and language sets the example for huge swaths of this country and the world about what is considered okay to do to other people, and the ramifications become even more horrifying. I see it so often in what their supporters say on Facebook and Twitter — matching each other so exactly it’s like one voice bouncing straight out of the Fox News echo chamber — that what Trump says isn’t nice but it’s honest; that what he’s doing is helping “America”; that we need to put “us” first and stop caring about “them.” But once you start to build the list of who the Right seem to consider a “them” that it’s okay to hurt for your own sake – immigrants, muslims, prisoners, addicts, poor people, people of color, LGBTQ folks, women who want control of their bodies, Jews, “libtards” — you might start to realize how many of “us” are included in their “them,” because basically everyone’s “them” is somebody else’s “us.” I guess the question is, at what point does “us” just basically mean “me”? And what kind of a sad, selfish fucking person do you have to be to think that’s the way you want to live?
Look, I’m not perfect. I steal pens. If there’s a free seat on the subway, I’m going to go for it as long as I don’t have to push an elderly person or a child out of the way — I mean come on, caring about the world doesn’t mean I stop being a New Yorker! But I try to help people who are lost, I always tip at least 20%, and I don’t cut into the exit lane line off the BQE. I actually used to do that, until I realized I was being an asshole, and so I stopped — because even if we are great at justifying the bad things we do, doesn’t mean we have to keep doing them. We can do better. In the past couple of years, I’ve donated more money and time to good causes, made videos and podcasts to promote change or get people to think, and I really try to help and listen whenever I can, because I know that it’s more necessary. If the world is getting more selfish, then those of us who want to make it better have to work harder to be less so. I’m not a saint, or a buddhist, or even a vegan, but I pay attention to where I draw my lines. And I find it hard not to wonder how many people in this country right now simply keep telling themselves, It’s just a pen.